Category Archives: Short Stories

There is such a thing as letting one’s æsthetic sense override one’s moral sense

Improper Stories, by Saki

Saki (real name HH Munro) was an Edwardian writer famed for his short stories – icy little satires that skewered hypocrisy and social convention. He’s an immediate precursor to Wodehouse, drawing on a similar cast of characters from the leisured classes, and I suspect a strong influence on Roald Dahl.

Improper Stories is a 2010 collection featuring 18 of Saki’s stories, taken from (I believe) three different collections published in his lifetime. Saki’s work is out of copyright now, and therefore largely free on kindle, which raises the question why anybody would pay for a new collection. Probably the second best answer to that is that this is a near-perfect introduction to his work and so perfect for readers like me who don’t know where to start. The best answer though is the cover, which is gorgeous:

Saki

Isn’t that just absolutely lovely? It also somehow captures some of the spirit of the book; a sense of decorous misrule.

Saki’s world is the world of Wodehouse, Waugh, more recently Downton Abbey. His protagonists tend to have better manners than morals. They sit at an ironic distance to the world, observing it with coldly comic detachment.

You can read the opening story here, it’s far from the best in the collection but it is a wonderful scene-setter. Characters in Saki meet fates that are fitting, but not ones that are necessarily entirely deserved. In one of my favourite tales a mother and daughter keenly wish to attend a garden party to which they were not invited. Considering it better to sneak in than to later explain their absence and risk it being generally known they were left off the guest list, they attempt to enter via the back garden.

Mrs Stossen and her daughter, suitably arrayed for a county garden party function with an infusion of Almanack de Gotha, sailed through the narrow grass paddock and the ensuing gooseberry garden with the air of state barges making an unofficial progress along a rural trout stream. There was a certain amount of furtive haste mingled with the stateliness of their advance as though hostile searchlights might be turned on them at any moment; and, as a matter of fact, they were not unobserved.

The observer is 13-year-old Matilda, exiled to the garden in punishment for her earlier misdeeds involving an excess of raspberry trifle. Unfortunately for the Stossens the gate between the paddock and the gooseberry garden is firmly locked, utterly foiling their plans. Even more unfortunately, Matilda doesn’t consider it quite right that they should try to sneak in, nor that her family’s great Yorkshire boar-pig is locked up in his sty and so not getting to enjoy any of the fun of the party.  Matilda, being of an economical turn of mind, resolves both problems with a single action: she lets out the pig.

The boar-pig had drawn nearer to the gate for a closer inspection of the human intruders, and stood champing his jaws and blinking his small red eyes in a manner that was doubtless intended to be disconcerting, and, as far as the Stossens were concerned, thoroughly achieved that result.

[Matilda reveals herself to the stranded ladies, whose only exit lies past the irate swine.]

‘Do you think you could go and get someone who would drive the pig away?’ asked Miss Stossen. ‘I promised my aunt I would stay here till five o’clock; it’s not four yet.’ ‘I am sure, under the circumstances, your aunt would permit—’ ‘My conscience would not permit,’ said Matilda with cold dignity.

What follows is a wonderful negotiation between the stranded Stossens and Matilda, who is always polite but rarely helpful. I’m not sure there is a moral, other perhaps than that it’s best not to find oneself in a story by Saki.

Here children wreak revenge on overly punitive aunts and guardians; boring guests are driven off in terror or made victim to elaborate practical jokes; the small-minded are made to pay dearly for their petty sins. In another of my many favourites, The Quest, a recurring character named Clovis is staying at a villa when a young woman realises her child is missing:

‘We’ve lost Baby,’ she screamed.

‘Do you mean that it’s dead, or stampeded, or that you staked it at cards and lost it that way?’ asked Clovis lazily.

‘He was toddling about quite happily on the lawn,’ said Mrs Momeby tearfully, ‘ and Arnold had just come in, and I was asking him what sort of sauce he would like with the asparagus-‘

‘I hope he said hollandaise,’ interrupted Clovis, with a show of quickened interest, ‘because if there’s anything I hate-‘

Soon Clovis, a young man possessed more of wit than moral character, is helpfully speculating that perhaps an eagle or hyena might have escaped from some private zoo and devoured the child. Mrs Momeby fails to take comfort from this, and what’s worse “With the selfish absorption of young motherhood she entirely disregarded Clovis’s obvious anxiety about the asparagus sauce.”

They quickly locate a crying baby, a seeming miraculous recovery made with the help of a Christian Scientist neighbour armed with great powers of faith if not of perception. Regrettably the child found isn’t the child lost, so that when their own baby reappears they find themselves with an excess infant. Clovis cheerfully notes that they need only keep the bonus baby until it hits the age of 13, at which time they may put it into the navy.

The stories featuring Clovis are a particular delight simply because Clovis himself is so much fun. He is mischief made flesh, then sent to a good school and tailored in Saville Row. In a sense he is an animal in human form, a fox perhaps or a particularly sly cat, with those around him mere dull dogs in comparison or worse yet geese or sheep.

One story which at first seems to stick out in the collection is The Music on the Hill, which unlike the others is much more a horror tale in the vein of Machen or MR James. A young woman marries and moves from town to country, where she finds that worship of the old gods remains very real as may the old gods themselves. I found it an effective little chiller, with the woman isolated on a gloomy farm with a distant husband and unfriendly animals. When she sees “a boy’s face … scowling at her, brown and beautiful, with unutterably evil eyes” after interfering with an offering she finds on a small altar in the woods, you know the tale won’t end happily for her.

On reflection though, the tale did fit, because it explores an encounter between urbane modernity and older, more primeval, forces. Where Pan amused himself in ancient Greece (and perhaps the more remote parts of Edwardian England) by terrifying travelers in his woods, Clovis instead spreads dismay and confusion in drawing rooms and country houses. Clovis is a child of Pan, a manifestation of him and of all the Puckish spirits who have afflicted the overly self-assured through the ages. We need order if we are to flourish, to build lives and homes and carve out a place for ourselves in the world; but we need chaos too or nothing would ever change, and we would drown in our own comfort.

Saki though makes no point so serious as that, or not so obviously anyway. Instead he laughs at the vanities of the world around him, the people in it. The world has changed since Saki’s day, but the people haven’t, and that’s why these tales remain as fresh and funny as when he wrote them.

Here‘s a wonderful piece by Chris Power in the Guardian about Saki, and here‘s a review by Guy Savage of another Saki collection which comes with the added bonus of Edward Gorey artwork.

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… the impotent air-raid siren of 400,000 human voices

The Quickening, by Michael Bishop

I’ve done a guest post for Joachim Boaz, who has a rather marvellous SF blog here.

It’s a review of Michael Bishop’s award winning novelette, The Quickening. Novelette’s a new term for me, it seems to mean a long short story published outside of a short story collection context. I’m not surprised the term didn’t catch on, but the story’s good.

Here’s the cover:

THQCKNNGVW1991

The review is at Joachim’s, as are a great many well-written reviews of classic SF novels and covers. It’s a fun site, and even if you don’t find SF interesting his book-cover discussions may well still grab you.

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Filed under Bishop, Michael, Novellas, Science Fiction, Short Stories

This is my real life. All the rest is fiction.

The Bathtub Spy, by Tom Rachman

I wanted to like this one. I enjoyed Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists (though with some reservations), and as soon as I saw he had a standalone short story out on kindle I snapped it up. Unfortunately, I’m left writing a review of a story that I didn’t hate but didn’t much like either.

Bathtub Spy

The narrator in this short story, Mr Tregwynt, is a reader. That’s true too of course of pretty much everyone who follows my blog. As we all know though, there are different species of readers. Tregwynt’s the sort who reads to escape. His days are frustrating, lonely and dull. In the evening he settles in a tub, opens a book and escapes into a better world:

Already, by the first sentence, I land on the galloping carriage of the story, and the drab locations I inhabit – this ramshackle house with Connie, the subway to the office, my bare cubicle there – dissolve, only black letters cantering across white pages now. This is my real life. All the rest is fiction.

The irony is what Tregwynt does in his office, his bare cubicle. He’s a translator in the intelligence community. He is, in a particularly unsexy way, a spy.

My work is mostly transcription. Wayne provides digital audio files and I render them into English. As such, I am privy to chatter that few others hear. And it is strikingly dull. Terror suspects, on wiretaps around the world, spend much of their time grumbling: their Internet connections are down again, their fellow cell member forgot to buy yogurt. If this is the enemy, he is cheeringly inept. Doubtless, they have their masterminds stuffed in a cave somewhere, just as we have ours in this concrete complex. Still, I’m starting to wonder if this War on Terror is waged partly between nitwits, theirs hostile to every book in the world but one, while ours – I glimpse Wayne typing a search into the classified military Internet for “awesome videos stuff blowing up” – are only slightly more formidable.

Wayne is the narrator’s team leader. Wayne is a petty workplace bully; a player of minor power games who sends the narrator on demeaning errands then keeps him waiting on his return while Wayne taps out an unimportant email or chooses to take a call. I’ve worked with people like that. I suspect most of us have. There is something peculiarly humiliating about hovering not sure whether to stay or go while someone shows their importance by carrying on as if you weren’t present.

Those days are behind me now since I’ve become more senior over time, and anyway I don’t work with people like that any more. Tregwynt’s not so lucky. He’s fifty-three years old, reporting to a man much younger than him and who he doesn’t respect at all. Wayne is vulgar and witless and so clueless he uses the name Iceman when ordering in pizza because he’s more in love with the idea of being a spy than actually doing a decent job as one.

Then, one day, Wayne notices Tregwynt reading a book, worse yet a book in French. Wayne is incredulous, dismissive, then he forces his own book by some Russian named Krapotnik onto Tregwynt and orders him to read it. Tregwynt is too mild-mannered not to comply , but how bad will a book read by Wayne be? He fears the worst, but what happens next is more terrible than anything he’d dreamt. Wayne’s choice of book is brilliant.

How could Wayne have read a book like this? How could someone have appreciated a work this fine, yet remained so foul? I don’t want to share anything with him. Not musical tastes. Not preferences in food. How could he like Krapotnik?

I won’t say more about what happens. The story follows Tregwynt and Wayne’s bizarre one-way book club and how it impacts their relationship. It’s well written, as the quotes above hopefully show, and much of it is funny.

So, why didn’t I like it then? The ingredients are all here. There’s that ironic contrast between the mundanity of Tregwynt’s existence and job and what we popularly imagine spies to be like (actually, this is exactly what I imagine a spy to be like, but that doesn’t diminish the irony any). There’s that question of how we reconcile discovering that people we despise like things we like (every time David Cameron names another band he likes a legion of left-wing music fans cry – how can he like The Smiths, The Jam, the Manics? Hell, how dare he?).

The problem for me was that it never really went anywhere. Rachman’s a natural at the short story form as he showed in The Imperfectionists, but for me this story was all setup and no payoff. I didn’t mind that I didn’t believe in Wayne, he’s meant to be a caricature after all. I did mind that I didn’t care about him or his relationship with Tregwynt. 

The Imperfectionists was funny (mostly), had great and well drawn characters and lovely little story arcs that intertwined with each other. I thought it had flaws, but I liked it and it’s held up well in memory. Here, well, it’s funny early on but the story has no real arc and the characters weren’t particularly interesting, or rather they were potentially interesting but they didn’t really do anything interesting.

Since Rachman is a writer of wit and character rather than of finely wrought artistic prose, not caring about the characters doesn’t leave much else to care about. I don’t necessarily want to put someone off reading this because Rachman has talent and there’s a risk of making it sound terrible when it’s merely not great. Still, if the quotes or the situation grab you then you could certainly do a lot worse, and as it’s a kindle single it’s both short and cheap. I just think he’s written better.

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Filed under Ebooks, Novellas, Rachman, Tom, Short Stories, Spy Fiction

The whole universe was idiotic.

Anticopernicus, by Adam Roberts

Of all the great philosophers and religious figures, it was Copernicus who was the greatest, for he alone had preached the truth to humankind: you are not special.

But what if Copernicus was wrong?

Adam Roberts is one of those writers I’ve long meant to read, but haven’t got round to. Enter Kindle Singles, which are a great way to try out new writers for less than half the price of a cup of coffee (not that cups of coffee are particularly cheap these days, I admit). 

There’s a grand tradition in SF of using short stories as a means to explore ideas which are interesting, but not substantial enough to support an entire book. Anticopernicus fits squarely in that tradition. Centuries ago we used to believe that the universe literally revolved around us. We were special. We were the most important thing in existence.

Over time that idea got discredited, slowly and at great personal cost to many of those who fought against it. Well, I say discredited, but of course while nobody really thinks the universe literally revolves around us anymore billions do still think it was created precisely for our benefit.

Among scientists though, among those who seek a material rather than theological explanation for our existence, everything we’ve learned suggests that we have no privileged position. We are not special. We are not central to the universe. We appear to live on an average planet in an average solar system in an average galaxy.

The only wrinkle in all that is that in one particular respect we seem very far from average, and that’s that we are here at all. Everywhere we look in the universe we see no signs of intelligent life beyond our own. We see no grand galactic building projects, we hear no radio signals, nobody comes to visit us. We listen to the universe and all we hear is a great and empty silence.

The working assumption right now is that there likely is other intelligent life, but that the universe is a bit more hostile to it than we initially thought so it’s rare and spread out. If that’s true then we’re still not special, just not that common, and the silence is just because our neighbours are very far away.

In Anticopernicus the aliens finally do come to visit us, but when they do it doesn’t turn out quite as we expected…

The extrasolar intelligence, or intelligences, or—who knew what they were, or what they wanted—they had approached as close as the Oort cloud, and there they waited, patiently as far as anybody could see, for the Leibniz to trawl slowly, slowly, slowly out to the rendezvous. Communication had been intermittent, although the aliens’ command of English was fluent and idiomatic. But most of the questions beamed out at them had been returned with non sequiturs. What do you look like? Where are you from? By what political system do you organise your society? Are you an ancient race of beings? How do you travel faster than light? Do you come in peace? How did you find out about us? Where are you from? What do you look like? Fingers are a mode of madness—and toes! Toes? Toes! What do you mean? Do you mean you don’t possess fingers and toes? That the sight of them distresses you? Do you have flippers, or tentacles, or do you manipulate your environment with forcefields directly manoeuvred by your minds? We can wear mittens, if you like. If it distresses you. We can wear shoes on our feet and boxing-gloves on our hands! Not that we wish to box with you … we have no belligerent feelings towards you at all! We love your fingers and toes! They are adorable! Adorable! But mad.

Ange is one of the astronauts sent out to the Oort cloud to greet our visitors, and to find out why they’ve come. She’s an introverted sort, someone who prefers her own company to that of others and is more afraid of the idea of an afterlife full of countless dead people chatting away than she is of simply ceasing to exist when she dies.

As Ange and the rest of the small crew of astronauts head out though something strange happens. The alien ship, massive, detectable even from Earth, vanishes. Why? What could bring them all that distance and then just make them leave?

Ange didn’t say anything, but it seemed to her more than likely that the departure was as random and inexplicable thing as the arrival. She believed (and this belief was as close to religion as she came) that the universe was not structured according to the logic of the human mind, despite the fact—ironically enough, perhaps—that the human mind is unavoidably part of the cosmos. The billions of buzzing homo sapiens brains craved pattern, structure and resolution; they saw the beauty of a story arc in every rainbow’s bend. The cosmos liked structure too, of course; but of a much less complicated, or perhaps it would be truer to say a much more monotonously replicated, kind. Hydrogen and helium everywhere in varying alternated clumps; the inverse-square-law everywhere in every direction. Everything existent, nothing mattering. And above all the cosmos had no sense of story whatsoever. If aliens arrive in a human story and set up a meeting, why, then there must be a pay-off of some kind! But neither set-up nor pay-off was not the logic of the cosmos; and most assuredly the latter was never intrinsically folded neatly inside the former, waiting to germinate. If the aliens had randomly vanished, as they seemed to have done, then that was (Ange thought) just one more unharmonious broken-off piece of the infinitely unharmonious piecemeal cosmos.

The answer, and there is one, is that Ange’s belief is utterly, utterly wrong. We do in fact matter to the universe. We matter a great deal.

I won’t say more since it would spoil the story, but I really enjoyed this. It’s not a meaty piece, it’s a fun little SF tale which takes an idea and runs with it. It’s not really credible, but then not all SF has to be. Back in the 1970s SF short story anthologies would routinely have a few tales in them that were just intended to be plain old entertaining, not to be taken too seriously, and this is firmly in that camp. In fact, if it weren’t for the fact that some of the scientific elements it (very lightly) references are modern concerns it could easily have been written in the 1970s.

All that said, I wouldn’t remotely recommend this to non-SF fans. If you do already like the genre though it’s definitely worth checking out (and if you don’t like it at least it’s short and cheap).

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Filed under Novellas, Roberts, Adam, Science Fiction, Short Stories

Some strange tales from Pu Songling

More strange tales from Pu Songling

By way of followup to my post discussing Pu Songling’s Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio here’s three examples of the tales, with the accompanying commentaries set out at the bottom of the post. If you like these I really do suggest buying the entire collection, which is excellent.

42

THE DEVOTED MOUSE

Yang Tianyi told this story.
Once he saw two mice come out into his room. One of them was swallowed by a snake. The other mouse glared angrily from a safe distance, its little eyes like two round peppercorns. The snake, its belly full of mouse, went slithering back to its hole and was more than halfway in when the second mouse dashed forward and bit it hard on the tail. Furiously the snake backed out of the hole, and the mouse darted once more to safety. The snake gave chase but was unable to catch the mouse, and returned to its hole. As it entered the hole a second time, the mouse seized it by the tail again, exactly as before. Each time the snake went crawling in, the mouse struck; and each time it emerged, the mouse ran for cover. And so it continued for quite some time, until finally the snake came right out and spat the dead mouse on to the ground. The second mouse approached, sniffed at the corpse and began crying over its friend. Then, squeaking dolefully, it picked it up in its mouth and left.
My friend Mr Zhang Duqing wrote a poem on this subject, entitled ‘The Ballad of the Devoted Mouse’.

 83

THE GIRL IN GREEN

In Yidu County, there lived a young man by the name of Yu Jing. He had taken his books with him to lodgings at the Temple of Sweet Springs, and one night he was sitting there chanting a text when he heard a woman’s voice at his window.

‘Oh Mr Yu, what a very serious student you are!’

He was still wondering what a woman could possibly be doing up there in the hills, when in she came, pushing the door open with a disarming smile.

‘So very serious!’

He jumped up in alarm, and found himself standing before a young lady of the most incomparable delicacy and the most exquisite beauty, clad in a green tunic and a long skirt. He knew at once that this was no ordinary mortal and asked her, perhaps a trifle emphatically, where she was from.

‘I’m hardly going to bite you!’ she replied. ‘Why the inquisition?’

He was instantly captivated, and they shared his bed that very night. When he came to loosen her silken tunic, it revealed a waist so slender that his hands could encircle it with ease.

The last watch sounded and she slipped away, returning to him the following, and every subsequent, night. On one such night, they were drinking together when she made a remark which betrayed an unusual understanding of music.

‘I love the sound of your voice,’ he said. ‘It is so fine and soft. Sing me a song. I am sure it will quite carry my soul away…’

‘I’d rather not,’ she replied, smiling as ever. ‘I wouldn’t want to carry you too far away…’

He pleaded with her all the more.

‘I am not trying to be unkind,’ she said. ‘It is just that I do not want others to hear. Oh, if you really insist, I’ll sing a song. But quietly, just for you.’

She tapped her ‘Golden Lotuses’, her tiny bound feet, lightly on the edge of the bed and began to sing:

Jackdaw singing in the tree
Tricks me away before the light;
I’ll gladly wet my pretty shoes,
If I can stay with you tonight.

Her voice was light as silk, and barely audible. Yu Jing listened intently, and his whole being vibrated to the haunting, lilting melody.

The song ended. She opened the door and peeped outside.

‘I must make sure there is no one at the window.’

She searched the whole length of the building.

‘You seem so frightened. What is the matter?’ asked Yu Jing, when she returned.

‘There is an old saying,’ replied the girl, with her ever-present smile. ‘A ghost that steals life must forever live in fear. Such is my fate.’

She lay down to sleep, but she seemed restless and ill at ease.

‘This idyll of ours is fated to end,’ she finally said to Yu Jing. He begged her to explain.

‘My heart beats strangely. I know my end is close at hand.’

‘Strange movements of the heart, flutterings of the eyes, such things happen to us all from time to time,’ he protested. ‘You must not be so gloomy!’

She seemed a little comforted by this, and they united once more in tender passion. As the last watch of the night came to an end, she threw on her dress, descended from the bed, and walked as far as the door. There, instead of undoing the bolt, she began pacing back and forth.

‘I do not know why, but something fills me with dread. Come outside with me, I beseech you.’

Yu rose and went out with her.

‘Stay there and watch me,’ she said. ‘Do not go in again until I am beyond that wall.’ ‘Very well,’ said Yu, and he watched her walk silently down the outer wall of the cloister and round the corner, until she was out of sight. He had already turned and was on his way back to bed, when he heard a desperate cry for help. It was her voice. He hurried out again, but though he gazed all around him he could see no trace of her. The voice was still audible and seemed to be coming from up above him, from the eaves over the door. Looking up he saw a huge spider, like a big black bolus, holding in its clutches a little creature that was making the most pitiful noise: it was a green hornet, in the throes of death. He carefully disentangled it and carried it back to his room, where he placed it on the table. Soon it recovered sufficient strength to move, crawled slowly up on to his inkstone and down into the ink. Presently it emerged again, clambered down from the inkstone and began dragging itself across the table, tracing the words

thank you

on the wooden surface. Then it shook its wings several times and flew out of the window. He never saw it again.

88
LUST PUNISHED BY FOXES
A certain man bought a new house, only to discover that it was haunted by fox-spirits, who constantly spoiled his clothes and other belongings and dropped dirt into his noodles.

One day, one of this gentleman’s friends dropped by to visit him. Unfortunately he was not at home, and that evening, since her husband had still not returned, his wife prepared dinner for the guest, before eating separately with her maid.

Now, her husband was a somewhat dissolute character who made a hobby of collecting aphrodisiacs of one sort or another. At some time or other that day the resident fox-spirits had secretly slipped one of the drugs from his collection into the congee. While the wife was eating her dinner she noticed a strange taste that resembled camphor and musk and asked her maid what it might be, but the maid said she knew of nothing. After dinner, the wife began to experience an overwhelming feeling of sexual arousal, and the more she tried to suppress it, the stronger and the more urgent it became. There was no available man in the house other than the guest, her husband’s friend, and so she made her way to the guest-room and knocked at the door.

The guest asked who it was, and the woman gave her name. He asked her what she wanted, and when she remained silent, he guessed her intentions.

‘Your husband and I are friends and treat one another decently. I could never behave in such a bestial manner with my friend’s wife.’

The wife remained there standing at the door and refused to leave. ‘Your husband,’ he protested angrily, ‘is a man with a reputation in the community! Are you determined to destroy it?’

With these words he spat at her through the window-lattice, and finally in great embarrassment she left. As she went she began asking herself how she could have done such a thing. Then she recalled the strange taste in her congee bowl at dinner. It entered her mind that it might have been caused by one of the aphrodisiacs from her husband’s collection, and when she went to look, she found that one of the packages had indeed been tampered with, and the contents scattered all over the cups and bowls on the kitchen table. She remembered having once heard that cold water acted as an antidote in such cases, so she drank some water immediately and soon came round. She awoke from her state of drugged confusion to a feeling of intense remorse and shame. All that night she lay there brooding restlessly, and as dawn was almost breaking, unable to face the world, she threw her sash over a beam and hanged herself. Her maid found her and untied her in the nick of time. Although by this time she was all but dead, she gradually recovered consciousness.

The guest meanwhile had left during the night. The following day at dawn, the master of the house returned to find his wife in bed and plainly unwell. No matter how many times he asked her what the matter was, she lay there in complete silence and would do nothing but weep. When the maid informed her master that her mistress had tried to hang herself in the early hours, he pressed his wife with more and more questions, and finally she sent her maid away and told him the whole story.

The husband heaved a sigh. ‘It is my lust that is being punished! This is no fault of yours. Fortunately, this friend of mine is a good man, or I would never be able to hold my head up in the world again.’

After this experience, he became a reformed character, and the foxes disappeared completely.

Commentaries (not all tales come with commentaries, but the majority do):

42 THE DEVOTED MOUSE Zhang Duqing: (1642–?1716), a poet-friend of Pu Songling’s, who like Pu was never appointed to an official position. His ballad, a poem in thirty-six lines, is extant. The contemporary poet and novelist Vikram Seth has retold this tale in verse in his collection Beastly Tales from Here and There (London, 1992).

83 THE GIRL IN GREEN light as silk: Some texts have ‘light as a fly’.

88 LUST PUNISHED BY FOXES The Chronicler of the Strange points out that whereas most people are aware of the danger involved in storing ordinary poisons (such as arsenic) in the house, few appreciate the havoc that can be caused by leaving aphrodisiacs lying around the place. Men have a healthy fear of the dangers of the military battlefield, but are blissfully unaware of the far greater dangers lurking in the bedchamber. For a glimpse of the type of thing our gentleman may have been collecting, the reader is directed to Robert van Gulik’s excellent study Sexual Life in Ancient China (Leiden, 1961), especially pp. 133–4, where the author describes various potions listed in the ancient sex handbook of Master Dong Xuan, such as ‘Bald Chicken Potion’ (‘if taken for sixty days one will be able to copulate with forty women’ – this drug was apparently so named after an unfortunate cock who ate it by mistake when it had been thrown out in the courtyard, and copulated with a single hen for several days without dismounting, pecking her head bald); ‘Deer Horn Potion’ (to cure impotence and involuntary emission); a potion for enlargement of the penis (a mixture of broomrape and seaweed); and a potion for shrinking the vagina (made up of four ingredients, including sulphur and birthwort root). The same text is translated by Douglas Wile in Art of the Bedchamber, pp. 112–13.

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Ox-ghosts and serpent spirits

Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, by Pu Songling and translated by John Minford

Over 600 pages of 17th/18th Century Chinese ghost stories and accompanying commentary. Does that sound tempting? Probably not, but it should because Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio is quite wonderful and quite unlike almost anything else I’ve read.

Pu Songling was a mediocre scholar, but a gifted author. He wrote  one of the most comprehensive collections of Chinese fantastic fiction to reach us today. He told tales of ghosts and fox spirits, of odd encounters and peculiar visions. His work was playful, allusive and frequently erotic. He wrote for men like himself, Chinese gentlemen who would read the stories by lamp or candle light in their scholar’s studios which looked out on carefully crafted views of sculpted gardens and artfully placed rocks which brought distant mountains within their walls.

The Penguin Classics edition contains over a 100 of these stories. They’re short, never more than a few pages and many only a page or so long. They come with quite beautiful illustrations in classical Chinese style (and which I wish I could reproduce here for you). On their surface these are tales of the supernatural, of encounters with ghosts (who are often quite unlike our Western ghosts) and fox spirits (a sort of mischievous faery race, foxes who can change shape into human form and are capable of all sorts of mystical trickery). Underneath that there are all sorts of contemporary political and philosophical references that a lay reader like me can’t hope to catch, but doesn’t need to because the endnotes explain many of them and anyway the stories are a joy even at the shallow surface level I read them at.

In Chinese folklore there is no clear demarcation between ghost and fox spirit, both are liminal entities, ambiguous beings that interact with us mortals for their own ends. They are physical entities, save when they don’t wish to be, capable of being mistaken for human and even of becoming human in the right circumstances. They are transgressive, breaking the rules of the carefully codified society of civil service examinations and scholarly pursuits that the human characters here are part of, and which Pu Songling and his audience were of course part of.

In a typical tale (except that there is no such thing, which is why this review is so hard to write), a scholarly youth is visited by a beautiful maiden (or in one a beautiful boy). He falls in love, and is seduced by this vision. He grows weaker, his essential strength being drained by intimacy with the occult. Or perhaps not, perhaps the spirit wishes to protect the man but he insists on seducing it, spending his own life to possess that which wishes to protect him but which cannot resist his insistent charms.

Others are more redolent of Western folklore and experience. In one story “Tiles, pebbles and brick shards […] fly around the house like hailstones at any moment,” as classic a description of poltergeist phenomena as one could hope to find. In another a sleeping man is frozen in his bed as a bloated hag enters his room and squats upon his chest (google night terrors for that one, it’s actually a surprisingly widely reported form of hallucination).

In one absolutely charming tale a magistrate named Ding Chenghe (Crane Rider) befriends a failed scholar named Ye. Ding helps Ye with his examinations, but despite Ye’s talent Ye still fails and so his career in China’s intricate bureaucracy is stillborn. Ye sets off for home broken-hearted, but becomes ill on the way. Meanwhile Ding is dismissed when he causes offence to a superior, and so retires to the country where he sends for Ye to act as tutor to his son.

Ding’s son flourishes under Ye’s tutelage, and passes his own exams with ease. Ye is consoled that his worldly failure has at least been recompensed by being able to help the son of the man who sought to help him. Time passes and Ding is restored to a position of importance, and so uses it to reward Ye who finally returns home to his own wife and son to show them that he is now a person of rank. When he arrives though his wife is astonished to see him, for Ye has been dead for many years and is buried in a pauper’s grave.

Realising he is dead Ye vanishes, but on hearing what has happened Ding pays for his funeral and for Ye’s son to be properly tutored. When Ye’s son time comes for his own exams, he passes them and so the karmic debt owed by Ding to Ye is repaid.

It’s a beautiful story, and the summary above of course totally lacks the grace of Pu Songling’s language as translated by John Minford. It’s a useful illustration though of how permeable the divide between living and dead, natural and supernatural is. At the same time, the commentary on the tale brings out how it is a parable about a friendship so deep that one friend did not even realise he was dead so keen was he to repay the kindness done to him. “How deep it is, the friendship, the predestined affinity between men of letters who spin out their very hearts in intricate webs of words, how deep the friendship between artists and musicians who share inner visions of mountain peaks and rolling streams?”

Bloggers are of course in their own way our version of friends who spin out their hearts in intricate webs of words.

The immediately following tale is a sadder one, of a scholar who dreams he owes a debt of forty strings of cash and realises it is money owed from a previous life. His wife gives birth to a son. When the boy reaches nearly four years old the scholar’s own fortune of nearly forty strings of cash is almost exhausted. The boy dies, and the scholar uses the remaining funds to pay for the funeral. The commentary makes clear that virtue can be accumulated, as can debts. Virtuous children are the sign of past lives well spent. A childhood death may be the settling of a debt long overdue.

As Pu Songling says elsewhere”A good son is the repayment of a debt due to his parents, the result of good karma; a bad, wilful child is a creditor come for his money, a bad karmic debt. The birth of a child should not be cause for joy, nor should the death of a child be cause for sorrow.” Hard counsel, but perhaps a comfort in a society where death in childhood would have been all too common.

John Minford is a marvellous companion for these tales. He wears his evidently deep understanding lightly, showing how much is buried within them without discouraging the lay reader in the process. His introduction is well worth reading, ideally before reading the tales themselves as he sets the context which here is useful to know, and he includes in a small number of tales notes to show how they would have been read by contemporaries of Pu Songling. Italics in the following quote are mine, to make clear where the commentaries start and end.

Translator’s note: In this longer story, I have incorporated some of the commentaries into the text, to show how this was normally done in the old Chinese editions of Strange Tales. The commentators were constantly at one’s side.
When he asked her where she hailed from, she replied that her name was Lotus Fragrance, and that she was a sing-song girl from the Western District. Dan Minglun: Game Two – enter the fox, as a consequence of Game One. Sang was aware that there were quite a number of houses of pleasure in Saffron Bank, and he believed her tale. The lamp was soon extinguished, and the two of them climbed into bed, where they enjoyed to the full the sweet pleasures of love. From that day on, Lotus Fragrance returned to visit him every few nights. Dan Minglun: The ‘real’ sing-song girl has prepared us for Lotus Fragrance [the false sing-song girl]. What subtlety, what skill! Li’s subsequent appearance is linked to that of Lotus Fragrance. The whole story repeatedly links ghost and fox. They appear together, and the whole is in jest, it happens naturally, without the slightest trace of artifice. This scintillating text, with its strange transformations, grows entirely out of this word ‘jest’. The essence of the writer’s art lies in the playfulness of his conception.

‘Someone’s been saying that you’re a fox-spirit. I don’t believe it myself, but…’ ‘Who’s been saying so?’ snapped Lotus Fragrance, and pressed him for an answer. Sang laughed awkwardly. ‘Oh, I was only teasing…’ ‘And anyway, what makes fox-spirits so different from humans?’ she asked. ‘They cast spells on men, they make them fall ill, even die. That’s why we are so frightened of them.’ ‘No!’ protested Lotus Fragrance. ‘It’s not like that at all! A strong young man such as yourself can restore his vital energy three days after the act of love. Even a fox-spirit can do you no harm. But if you go indulging yourself day after day, then a human lover can do you more harm than a fox. Feng Zhenluan: Wise counsel! Young people, take heed of this!

In the afterword Minton is also excellent at bringing out the plays on words and images which can be difficult to translate (a character says to a fox-spirit girl “It wasn’t your face… It was your tail”, it’s fair to say that tail is meant to make the reader think of certain other lower parts of the woman’s anatomy). He brings out too the Taoist and other philosophical underpinnings of the stories, the obsession with the concept that ejaculation could lead to a loss of spiritual and physical strength, the analogisation of detumescence with death which is quite alien to most Western symbolism.

In the foreword Minton quotes a 19th Century Chinese scholar of the tales, who wrote a guide on how to read them. Two of that scholar’s maxims in particular are worth quoting. “If one reads the Strange Tales just for the plot, and not for the style, one is a fool.” “Every time one thinks a situation weird, it is in fact very real and true to human nature. It contains both pure sense and pure sensibility.”

He’s right. So, when a tale starts “In the southern region of China known anciently as Chu, there lived a merchant who was often away from home on business, leaving his wife much on her own.” one knows the woman will be visited by some ghost or mischievous spirit intent on her virtue, but one knows too that in our own world in which neither ghosts nor fox-spirits appear it’s still not wise to neglect those you love.

These are wise and human stories, rich and strange and quite beautiful. I’ll follow up this post in a day or so by quoting a couple of the smaller ones to give a greater idea of Pu Songling’s style, but in the meantime all I can say is that this is absolutely worth buying and reading. Take the stories as I did, one here, one there, spread over weeks and months as a small comfort to return to that is a joy with every visit.

I’ll end this post with a couple of pictures of a scholar’s garden, the garden of the Master of Nets. I’ve seen this in real life, if anything the pictures struggle to do it justice.

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The Locusts

This didn’t fit into my recent review of Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. It’s probably the shortest story in that book, but it gives a good feel for Bradbury’s style. I repeat it here in its entirety (it’s short enough that I think I can do so and still remain within fair use):

February 2002: THE LOCUSTS

The rockets set the bony meadows afire, turned rock to lava, turned wood to charcoal, transmitted water to steam, made sand and silica into green glass which lay like shattered mirrors reflecting the invasion, all about. The rockets came like drums, beating in the night. The rockets came like locusts, swarming and settling in blooms of rosy smoke. And from the rockets ran men with hammers in their hands to beat the strange world into a shape that was familiar to the eye, to bludgeon away all the strangeness, their mouths fringed with nails so they resembled steel-toothed carnivores, spitting them into their swift hands as they hammered up frame cottages and scuttled over roofs with shingles to blot out the eerie stars, and fit green shades to pull against the night. And when the carpenters had hurried on, the women came in with flowerpots and chintz and pans and set up a kitchen clamor to cover the silence that Mars made waiting outside the door and the shaded window. In six months a dozen small towns had been laid down upon the naked planet, filled with sizzling neon tubes and yellow electric bulbs. In all, some ninety thousand people came to Mars, and more, on Earth, were packing their grips …

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Afternoons, when the fossil sea was warm and motionless, and the wine trees stood stiff in the yard

The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury

When I read Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles as a teenager I thought it was a novel about Mars. Reading it as an adult it was obvious that it’s really a novel about postwar America.

Bradbury is one of the greats of American science fiction. If you read him though you’ll quickly notice that there’s almost no science in any of his stories. That’s because what Bradbury wrote about was people. He wrote about them using science fiction, horror, fantasy, and sometimes using no genre trappings at all but his interest was always firmly in us rather than in imaginary places that we might one day discover.

The Martian Chronicles is a melancholy collection of linked short stories which collectively show the history of the human colonisation of Mars. It opens with our first ill-fated expeditions, each slain by the native Martians, and builds in a macabre retelling of the American West as we wipe them out by sheer force of demographics. As we populace Mars with hot dog stands back home on Earth nuclear tensions build.

For Bradbury our tragedy is our lack of imagination. A few of those who come to Mars do so with the desire to understand. They want to know how the natives lived before the humans came. They want to live free of assumptions about how life should be lived. Most though just want the same as they had at home but with more elbow room. First come the explorers. Then the builders. Then soon afterwards the bureaucrats tidying a new world into old routines. As one early explorer reflects:

“When I was a kid my folks took me to visit Mexico City. I’ll always remember the way my father acted—loud and big. And my mother didn’t like the people because they were dark and didn’t wash enough. And my sister wouldn’t talk to most of them. I was the only one really liked it. And I can see my mother and father coming to Mars and acting the same way here.

Soon after one of his fellow crew-members is doing “target practice in one of the dead cities, shooting out the crystal windows and blowing the tops off the fragile towers.”

The enemies here are fear and conformity. Bradbury’s sympathy is always with those seeking to escape. One of the later tales is set in the American South. The African-Americans are leaving. They’ve pooled their money to buy rocket ships. They’re giving each other lifts to the launchpads in their few cars.

As they make their great progression down the streets of dusty towns the bewildered whites they’re leaving behind look on puzzled and offended. The whites try to stop them, calling on debts and obligations, but where one African-American owes a white man money the rest chip in to pay it. They have cleaned the pans, bathed the children, swept the houses and now they’re going.

As they leave one white man tries to keep at least one from reaching the rockets. He fails, and as the boy he sought to stop departs that boy calls back asking what the man will do with his evenings now. The man is one of the KKK, his evenings will feature no more lynchings to break the tedium of his small existence.

He looked at the silent, empty road. “We’ll never catch them now, never, never.” As far as he could see there was nothing but bundles and stacks and more bundles neatly placed like little abandoned shrines in the late day, in the warm-blowing wind.

Bradbury has a marvellous turn of phrase. His tone here is elegaic. The stories are shot through with compassion but at the same time there’s a dark undercurrent. The early tales show that the Martians are really no better than we are. Not that different at all in fact. They fear us when we arrive, hate us for not being them.

Once they’re safely dead we make myths of them:

The captain shook his head. “There’s no hatred here.” He listened to the wind. “From the look of their cities they were a graceful, beautiful, and philosophical people. They accepted what came to them. They acceded to racial death, that much we know, and without a last-moment war of frustration to tumble down their cities. Every town we’ve seen so far has been flawlessly intact. They probably don’t mind us being here any more than they’d mind children playing on the lawn, knowing and understanding children for what they are. And, anyway, perhaps all this will change us for the better.

What I love about Bradbury is his poetry. Poetry of language and of concept. In one tale a man driving down a deserted desert road late at night meets a Martian driving a strange vehicle the other way. The Martians though are long dead, and this one seems to have no knowledge of what a human is.

They find they can talk, but where the man sees ruins in the distance the Martian sees vibrant cities. Time has come unstuck and for a moment these two travellers have overlapped. The man tells the Martian that it is from the past, that it’s people and cities are gone, but it doesn’t believe him. It knows that when it gets to its destination there will be life and laughter and passion and wine.

Perhaps the man is from the past the Martian argues. What sense does it make to say the Martians are dead when it has family waiting for it just down the road?

No sense at all. They each pass on their way. Both are right. The Martians are gone, but in their own time what mattered was not that one day they wouldn’t be but that while they were they lived. It’s the living that matters. Not the long absence that follows.

In the stone galleries the people were gathered in clusters and groups filtering up into shadows among the blue hills. A soft evening light shone over them from the stars and the luminous double moons of Mars. Beyond the marble amphitheater, in darkness and distances, lay little towns and villas; pools of silver water stood motionless and canals glittered from horizon to horizon. It was an evening in summer upon the placid and temperate planet Mars. Up and down green wine canals, boats as delicate as bronze flowers drifted. In the long and endless dwellings that curved like tranquil snakes across the hills, lovers lay idly whispering in cool night beds. The last children ran in torchlit alleys, gold spiders in their hands throwing out films of web. Here or there a late supper was prepared in tables where lava bubbled silvery and hushed. In the amphitheaters of a hundred towns on the night side of Mars the brown Martian people with gold coin eyes were leisurely met to fix their attention upon stages where musicians made a serene music flow up like blossom scent on the still air.

Later stories are less optimistic (if a story featuring a dead civilisation can be called optimistic). They include for example the originally separately published tale There Will Come Soft Rains which tells of the last day of an automated house continuing to operate long after its human owners have been left as nothing but a nuclear-burnt outline against one of its walls.

It’s a long time since I’ve read Ray Bradbury. As a teenager he was among my favourite authors (a fact I’d long forgotten). The story of his I’d best remembered doesn’t appear here. It was titled The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit and wasn’t science fiction at all. It featured six poor Mexican-Americans who see a beautiful suit that none of them can afford and who put all their savings together to buy it as a group.

Each day one of them wears the suit, and that night tells the others what he did in it. As the sixth day approaches though the first five worry, because the man who has it next is a notorious slob.

I won’t say where that story goes, but it’s full of affection and quotidian miracle. Bradbury could find wonder in dead Martian cities, but he could find it too in the joy a poor man finds wearing a good suit. Bradbury cared for those who found joy in life rather than those who sought to control it. I have a huge fondness for him and for his work. The Martian Chronicles is science fiction, but it’s not about the future. It’s about his present and about human frailty and failure. That’s why it’s still in print after 61 years.

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Oh God, I’m going to think, don’t let me think.

La Grosse Fifi, by Jean Rhys

A little while back I wrote a post about my personal canon as it stands today. It was a list of authors whose work particularly resonates with me. I wrote the post on a particular day and the result was a particular list. Another day might have produced a different one. Whichever day I’d written it though it was always a certainty that Jean Rhys’s name would be there.

As I write this the Man Booker International Prize has been in the news. Philip Roth won, which led to one judge quitting the panel in part on the rather odd basis that Roth writes the same novel time and again. I haven’t read Roth yet so I don’t know if he does, but if he does what of it? Many, many highly regarded authors mine the same territory for their entire careers. That fact alone says nothing of their work’s quality.

Jean Rhys has her territory. Hers is the landscape of women not quite doing ok. Her characters are outsiders looking in on a world that doesn’t particularly understand them and doesn’t particularly want to. Men are unreliable and other women offer little support. It’s a lonely world and one in which the existence of a woman on her own can be extremely precarious.

Penguin Modern Classics recently brought out a series of pocket editions in its modern classics range. Each one has a few short stories by an author, or a short novella. La Grosse Fifi features four stories excerpted from Rhys’s 1927 collection The Left Bank and Other Stories and it’s a nice little introduction to Rhys’s style. If you already like Rhys, you’ll like this. If you don’t know her this is a pretty good place to start.

The title story, La Grosse Fifi, is classic Rhys. The narrator, Roseau, is an Englishwoman staying on her own in a questionable hotel in France. She becomes interested in another guest, Fifi, and forms a sort of friendship with her.

Fifi […] was stout, well corseted – her stomach carefully arranged to form part of her chest. Her hat was large and worn with a rakish sideways slant, her rouge shrieked, and the lids of her protruding eyes were painted bright blue. She wore very long silver earrings; nevertheless her face looked huge – vast, and her voice was hoarse though there was nothing but Vichy water in her glass.
Her small, plump hands were covered with rings, her small, plump feet encased in very high-heeled, patent-leather shoes.

Fifi is not the sort of woman a well bred English girl should be seen with. She’s fat, vulgar, worse yet she is accompanied by a gigolo to whom she is devoted but who like Fifi is both a bit seedy and a bit absurd. Roseau herself though is not entirely the right sort of woman. She says the wrong sort of thing, stays in the wrong sort of place, she’s interesting but perhaps a little too interesting.

‘He’s running off to tell his wife how right she was about me,’ thought Roseau, watching him. ‘How rum some English people are! They ask to be shocked and long to be shocked and hope to be shocked, but if you really shock them … how shocked they are!’

(The ellipses there are in the original text.)

Things rarely go well for women in Rhys’s world. A choice must be made between freedom and respectability. Respectability though is money too. A woman might live as she chooses, but without a husband she will struggle to survive and dependable husbands do not marry undependable women. Fifi is tragic and her love affair with her gigolo slightly pathetic but as Roseau recognises Fifi is also a woman leading her own life on her own terms. Others laugh at her, but Roseau does not.

For God knows, if there’s one hypocrisy I loathe more than another, it’s the fiction of the ‘good’ woman and the ‘bad’ one.

If there’s any quote that summarises Rhys for me it’s that one.

La Grosse Fifi is a strong tale shot through with compassion. The last two, Tea with an Artist and Mixing Cocktails are much shorter mood pieces. Effective enough but limited in their scope. The other story in the collection though is Vienne and that’s worth the price of admission on its own.

In Vienne a young woman is in Vienna with her husband. He plays the currency exchanges and they spend their evenings among the well off and the women who accompany them. Her husband has money, but they came from poverty and she fears they could easily return to it. She loves him, but are his sure investments as sure as he thinks they are? As she reflects “Lovely food. Poverty gone, the dread of it – going.”

Vienne is a dazzling tale. It captures a between-the-wars Vienna caught in a fever dream of money and sex. Most women in the story are dancers who sleep with the rich men who attend their shows; not prostitutes, quite, but not romantics either. Those women are free but depend on men, and when their looks go the men and the money will too. Their best bet is to marry one before their looks fade and hope they’ve made the right choice.

The narrator isn’t a dancer, but her position isn’t that different. Her existence is precarious. Her happiness dependent on her husband’s success. She’s married while she still has her looks. She’s in love. She hopes she made the right choices.

Few authors capture the fear of poverty like Rhys does. I grew up poor myself, my mother and step-father unemployed in a council estate in a grim part of London. It’s impossible really to explain to those who haven’t left a place like that how strong the desire is never to go back to it. Impossible for me anyway. Rhys manages. This is a long quote, but the clarity of Rhys’s gaze makes it well worth setting out in full.

We dined in a little corner of the restaurant.
At the same table a few days before we came, a Russian girl twenty-four years of age had shot herself.
With her last money she had a decent meal and then bang! Out -
And I made up my mind if it ever came to it I should do it too.
Not to be poor again. No and No and No.
So darned easy to plan that – and always at the last moment – one is afraid. Or cheats oneself with hope.
I can still do this and this. I can still clutch at that or that.
So-and-So will help me.
How you fight, cleverly and well at first, then more wildly, then hysterically.
I can’t go down, I won’t go down. Help me, help me!
Steady – I must be clever – So-and-So will help.
But So-and-So smiles a worldly smile.
You get nervous. He doesn’t understand. I’ll make him -
But So-and-So’s eyes grow cold. You plead.
Can’t you help me, won’t you, please? It’s like this and this -
So-and-So becomes uncomfortable, obstinate.
No good.
I mustn’t cry. I won’t cry.
And that time you don’t. You manage to keep your head up, a smile on your face.
So-and-So is vastly relieved. So relieved that he offers at once the little help that is a mockery, and the consoling compliment.
In the taxi still you don’t cry.
You’ve thought of someone else.
But at the fifth or sixth disappointment you cry more easily.
After the tenth you give it up. You are broken – no nerves left.
And every second-rate fool can have their cheap little triumph over you – judge you with their little middle-class judgement.
Can’t do anything for them. No good.
C’est rien – c’est une femme quie se noie!
But two years, three years afterwards. Salut to you, little Russian girl, who had pluck enough and knowledge of the world enough, to finish when your good time was over.

There is a problem with this collection. Rhys wrote assuming a certain kind of audience with a certain kind of education. Characters often break into French, and it’s not translated. If you don’t have at least a memory of school French then there are bits here you’ll just plain struggle with. You need at least a passing familiarity with the language.

My French is weak but managed just well enough that I could follow what was happening and being said. If you’ve none at all that will be an issue. In Vienne it’s worse because Rhys also expects a very basic understanding of German. I really do mean very basic, a handful of words would be fine, but I don’t have any German at all and that meant I had to guess meanings a couple of times and at one key point had to ask my wife to translate a particularly key word.

Perhaps ironically given Rhys assumes a certain level of fluency in the reader Rhys herself gets it badly wrong with the names of some of the characters in Vienne. That story features a number of Japanese investors present in the city, and their names are pretty obviously made up to sound Japanese-ish or are Japanese words that sound about right (one is called Shogun of all things). I appreciate that Rhys couldn’t (as a contemporary writer could) just google some actual Japanese names but it is jarring.

In the end though it’s not the problems I had with languages that stick with me, or Rhys’s problems with Japanese names. It’s these women hoping for the best and knowing they’re not going to get it. Rhys is an extraordinary stylist. She captures an inner world which doesn’t change much story to story, novel to novel. It’s probably her inner world (Vienne seems very close to some real events in Rhys’s life). She’s writing the same thing over and over. But she writes it beautifully. Novelty and literary merit have very little to do with each other.

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Silence save for his spoon.

A Good Man, by Edward Docx

Picador Shots is a range of tiny pocket-sized books containing two or three short stories by a writer. A taster of their work. That’s the idea anyway. In the case of Edward Docx’s A Good Man it contains one short story (titled A Good Man) and the first chapter of Self-Help. It’s perhaps petty of me, but I was annoyed to discover that half of what I’d paid for wasn’t actually completed work but an advert for another book.

Anyway, that leaves me with Edward Docx’s short story. I’ll quote the opening, and then discuss some of the reservations I had about it.

Hook-fingered and with clumsy mitten grip, he gropes his way. Veins of ice luminous in the fissures of the rock. The wind is at full roar. Deafens him. Blinds the white light of his head torch in furious flurries. He has no axe. He will be blown to his death if he does not slide to it. Ten years since last he passed this way. Seldom in darkness. Never in a storm.
He can no longer be sure if he is following the wall of the ravine or perhaps a smaller cleft that leads off. He kicks his boots into the snow, triyng to find footholds on the ice beneath. Twice, three times, he has almost fallen. A rock comes loose, hits hard against his knee. He cannot hear his own curses. This is too steep. Wrong. Shards sheer as he struggles for hold. He edges sideways. Another rock wall to his left. He reaches for it. Slips. Hangs on. Conscious of his human weight on the slope. Surely he is climbing the mountain itself, not the low saddle of the ridge. The wind is whipping the spindrift, so that the snow seems to rise more than fall. His hands are stiffening, cold. His mittens saturated. He must up.

He must up? Really? His human weight? Was Docx afraid I would otherwise think he was an android or an alien? Also, “furious flurries”, “shards sheer”, soon after we get “scrambles and struggles” and a page or so later “flitches of frozen fern”. There are other examples. It’s an amazing amount of alliteration.

Docx is being intentionally opaque in this story (though the back cover gives away most of the secrets, regrettably). Who is the man? Where is he? When is all this happening? Why is he climbing this ridge, or if he is unlucky this mountain? It’s all revealed in time but Docx asks the reader for a little faith along the way.

The answers, which I won’t reveal, aren’t bad ones. The story at the heart of this short story is reasonably interesting. The problem is that it’s so self-consciously literary. It’s overwritten. That opening aims for punch, but I noticed the technique so much it prevented it working. This isn’t the sort of story where the reader’s being asked to engage with the text as text, but that’s what I was forced to do anyway.

Docx has a talent for description and for implied content. Here the reader does not know who the “her” mentioned is, but she carries emotional weight all the same.

By the door, chairs are piled on one another. Rows of boots. A camp-bed. A table. An old lamp. A box marked ‘gloves’, another one ‘socks’. A third: ‘baby clothes’. It is not her hand. He does not remember having even looked in here before. Perhaps it had not been fixed up back then. Before the children there was no requirement.

There’s some nice dialogue. All very sparse in proper Carveresque fashion. The problem remains though that it’s literary fiction with a capital L and F. It knows it’s literary fiction. It smacks of workshop (though I don’t believe it came from one). It’s what people who don’t like literary fiction don’t like. Well crafted disappointment with a faint whiff of boredom.

Kevin of kevinfromcanada recently wrote about Docx’s latest novel here. It sounds like it’s not wholly successful but has its moments. Notably Kevin praised Docx’s first two titles and made them sound very appealing. Self-Help was of course long-listed for the Booker. Docx can clearly produce good work.

The point of the Picador Shots is to provide an introduction to an author. I didn’t think this story great and I’m not sure it did Docx any particular favours by way of introduction. Docx here has fallen into the trap of writing what essentially amounts to highbrow genre fiction. His long works look better.

In the interests of full disclosure I should mention that five reviewers spread across goodreads, Amazon UK and Amazon US were basically unanimous in giving this five stars. I disagree, but I thought it worth mentioning by way of counterbalance.

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