Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Short Story Season I

The New Yorker Fiction podcast, which I’ve now gobbled up in its entirety, has recently been a lifeline while I’ve been travelling from house to house, city to city. It’s been responsible for kick-starting my renewed interest in the short story – more to come – and for introducing me to writers I’ve long known by name but never read: like Elizabeth Taylor.

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.

2 comments:

Katrina Malone said...

There's a good biography of her by Nicola Beauman, published by Persephone. Interesting she was probably the only member of the Communist Party in High Wycombe.

Shelf of One's Own said...

Thanks, Katrina. I've been keen the Beauman biography for a while. I didn't know about her belonging to the CP - what a lady. Oddly, politics appears very rarely in the stories.