I’ve returned to Minnesota to find it transformed into a Brueghel painting.
Our hunters are gone north or even south, wherever there are more deer. This has been a bad year for deer, threatened by the cold of last year’s polar vortex and the high population of coyotes, which now carry a bounty on their heads.
So, while it’s still autumn in England (I’ve been assured), winter has come. The nights are long, the wreaths are out. I’ve been reading restlessly – Robert Walser and GB Shaw. But some nights, Thomas Hardy feels just right for November melancholia. Here’s ‘A Darkling Thrush’:
I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-grey,
And Winter's dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.
The land's sharp features seemed to be
The Century's corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervourless as I.
At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.
So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.
I will leave Frost for December.
Monday, November 17, 2014
Tuesday, November 11, 2014
Paul Theroux read Taylor’s ‘The Letter Writers’ this past January for the podcast and the story remains one of her best, alongside (and forgive the list) stories such as ‘Taking Mother Out’, ‘Swan-Moving’, ‘A Sad Garden’, ‘The Ambush’, ‘The True Primitive’, ‘The Little Girl’, ‘Hare Park’, ‘The Prerogative of Love’, and ‘The Thames Spread Out’. Travelling with the hefty paperback on planes, trains, and automobiles, I feel I’ve dragged round my little plot of England to keep me company.
(A quick note on editions: an NYRB edition of her stories has just been published but it is a selection, rather than Virago’s Complete Stories. Forgo the glamorous selection and cart around the lunker.)
My tutor S. has compared Taylor to John Cheever, saying both are accomplished stylists. This is undoubtedly true, but Taylor submerges her style in composition, humour, and compassion. With Cheever, I always feel like I’m drinking a glass of wine and am drunk before I’ve come to the end. Taylor is sherry or port rather than champagne. Several of her stories do follow the masterful shape of the short story’s ideal, where you respond to the cleverness, the justness, of it. Others are portraits or studies of an era, of a certain kind of Englishness, of character. The way one might travel to a long-romanticized place; the way one might respond to unfamiliar children; how a West Indian immigrant might experience life in London: thought-experiments of feeling. To read her is to become aware of how people subtly disappoint each other. The stories reveal a writer intrigued – not repulsed – by human failings. I don’t think it’s necessary to like your characters – last year the novelist Claire Messud was involved in a national discussion about female writers and their characters’ likeability, and I’m personally quite put off by the whole question – but to read Taylor is to see what kind of revelations come from sympathy. David Baddiel’s likening of Taylor to Jane Austen is just. Both display moral curiosity, and are never sentimental so as to miss having a laugh at someone who deserves it.