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Archive for the ‘Short stories’ Category

I love the opening, and title story, of Penelope Lively‘s first collection of short stories in twenty years.  And I love the opening of the opening story:

I am the Purple Swamp Hen.  Porphyrio porphyria, if you are into taxonomy and Latin binomials.  And, let me get this clear, I am Porphyrio porphyrio porphyrio, the nominate sub-species, not to be confused with the Australian lot […] And others. No, indeed, we are talking species definition here, the enduring stuff, and thus I endure – founding father, the Mediterranean nominate.

Do eighty year-olds write like this?  Well this one does.

Wondering where all this is going? Have patience. You’ll get your story. You know me. You know me on the famous garden fresco from Pompeii – somewhat faded, a travesty of my remarkable plumage, but nevertheless a passable portrait. You all exclaim over those frescos: the blues and greens, the precise depiction of flora and fauna. Oh, look! You cry – there are roses and ferns, oleanders, poppies, violets. […] You eye me with vague interest, and pass on. It’s just like a garden today! you cry.

That’s right.  We are being addressed by a bird on a fresco painted before 79 AD.  And it is anxious to rob us of any illusions.  Much is made in the other stories in this collection of POV – ‘point of view’.  A timeless garden scene?

      No, it isn’t. Wasn’t. […] make no mistake, the garden of Quintus Pompeius, where I passed my time, was nothing like any garden you’ve ever known.
      It hosted fornication, incest, rape, child abuse, grievous bodily harm – and that’s just Quintus Pompeius, his household and associates. We simply got on with the business of copulation and reproduction; far more imaginative, Homo sapiens. […] Eat out, sleep out, wash the dishes, pluck a pigeon, gossip, quarrel, wallop an old slave, fuck that pretty new one, plot, scheme, bribe, threaten. Get drunk, utter obscenities, vomit in the acanthus.
I saw it all. I heard it all.
      Let me fill you in on the general situation that autumn …

Which is what happens over the next 6 pages.  Dispassionately, wryly – the specificity of the acanthus! – we get amorous intrigue, dark deeds and a slave’s escape as Vesuvius threatens, then does its worse.  A tour de force.  The swamp hens, in the garden for decoration, flee to an ecologically appropriate marshy place, a habitat somewhat but not catastrophically threatened these days, our frescoed narrator assures us.

The other fourteen stories in The purple swamp hen (2016) are set in a later age.  From 1947 (a mother doing a Mrs Bennet – the story’s title – for her three daughters, the social sands shifting as each ‘comes of age’) to pretty much now, a couple of them with a gothic tinge.  They may seem to concern mainly middle class problems, but there’s a universality to the causes and resolutions.

How changing social mores and times affect individuals, the simple random contingencies of how couples come together (and how they turn out), the aforementioned importance of recognising others’ points of view, the dilemmas and otherwise of getting old, all are exposed in neat, forensic, sometimes staccato prose, often the sweet being in the sour.

A young home-help discovering the woman she helps was a spy, the ‘truth’ of writing and publishing a biography of someone recently deceased, a scriptwriter finding her professional skills are failing her in her own life – these are just three of the stories.  Abroad – opening line “50 years ago there were peasants in Europe” – has ’50s artists living cheaply in Europe using peasants as subject matter … until they run out of money and have to pay their debts in kind.  Lorna and Tim , the history of a marriage, has rich-from-birth Lorna left still not understanding how it failed; last devastating line – “You were rich.”  I think I shall be reading more Penelope Lively.

On the right here is the bookmark I was using while reading The purple swamp hen.  Quite apt in itself in that the stories take place in the decades portrayed, and the revolutionary paperback imprint Penguin was launched just a couple of years after its author was born.  As it happens, there’s a character in the very next book I read who collects Penguins: “I got a couple of Graham Greenes,” said Clean Head with satisfaction. The three-and-six editions. With the full colour Paul Hogarth art.”” Clean Head is a shaven-headed African-caribbean taxi driver, whose name I suspect derives from the jazz and blues singer Eddie Cleanhead Vincent in whose band a young John Coltrane once played, but I digress.   Now while the specific editions mentioned are not actually represented on the bookmark – that would be too perfect – I have a weakness for these little synchronicities, and it’s close enough for me.  And it is precisely the charm of these specific details that has me hooked on The Vinyl Detective.

The invention of a ’60s rock group for novelistic purposes is quite a hard act for a writer to pull off, and Andrew Cartmel doesn’t do badly at all in the The Vinyl Detective: The run out groove (Titan, 2017), the second in a series featuring said VD, a man with no name, whose business is finding rare vinyl but whose innocent jokey business card usage of the word ‘detective’ gets taken literally by others and hence into various scrapes.  Unlike the globetrotting first book in the series, this one stays in the UK.

Valerian is both the band’s name – out of the ’60s Canterbury scene – and the name its charismatic vocalist (“an English Janis Joplin“) went by.  The band broke up with her unexplained suicide, and mystery has always surrounded what happened to her young child.  It has been surmised (myths ahoy!) that the run-off groove – you know, like on Sergeant Pepper – that the run-off groove of the band’s last single – only briefly released and quickly withdrawn after her death and hence extremely rare – might offer solutions to what happened.  A relative from the US and a journalist are looking for a copy of that single … and we’re off on a plot taking all sorts of twists and turns involving a variety of ’60s survivors, and including, not least, an acid trip in a burning house and some gravedigging.  Entertainingly absurd, of course, but all done racingly well, and coming to a satisfactory and heart-warming conclusion.   The writing is smart, the series characters – a good quirky team, including the two cats – full of charm.  It would make a great tv series, properly casted, à la Beiderbecke Tapes.

I’m a sucker for the incidentals, the details – a sort of obnoxious knowingness – which may be lost on many potential readers but ring bells for me.  Like: “They might have a copy of the Artwoods’ first album, the original Decca issue, with the Mod cover.” Tinkler’s voice had softened rhapsodically.”  Or: “It’s a Garrard 301,” said Tinkler. “It’s built like a Russian T-34 tank”” – vinyl rules, obviously.  There’s even a Clean Head disquisition on the re-badging of DAF cars with variomatic transmissions as Volvos – the factuality of which I do not doubt – which while to me gibberish, still entertains in context.  I just about remember Lita Roza, or at least That doggie in the window:

I went to put some music on, to lighten the mood. I chose a Decca ten inch of Lita Roza. It was one of her true jazz recordings. She was singing here with the Tony Kinsey Quartet, including the mighty Joe Harriott on sax. The Colonel turned and listened for a minute and said, “Didn’t this girl sing ‘(How much is that) Doggie in the window’?” “She did indeed,” I said, “but not on this record, thank god.”

Guitarist Eric Make Loud – Eric McCloud to his mum – is a great creation:

Erik Make Loud strode towards us, his voice heavy with sarcasm. “My involvement with her was that I had to use the toilet on the band bus after she did and breathe the stink of her shit. I breathed the stink of her shit for four years in that band. Four years in a career that has spanned fifty years.” he actually said ‘spanned’. “I’ve played with dozens of bands and hundreds of musicians. But all anybody wants to talk about is Valerian.  It was all over a lifetime ago, but all anyone wants to talk about is Valerian.”  We’d hit a sore spot all right.

They get around him by zooming in on his playing with Frank Zappa.  But it’s that “he actually said ‘spanned'” is the kitemark of quality.  I look forward to the next volume, which apparently moves into the world of classical music.

Last month‘s Book Group book was Patrick Ness‘s A monster calls, which for me was a re-read.  The Book Group copy was the plain text edition of 2012, as opposed to the stunning prize-winning 2011 illustrated one shown here, and for me it had lost none of its power, nevertheless.  Others in the group were less willing to overlook its origin as ‘teenage fiction’ and were less spellbound by its spellbinding blend of horror, fantasy, Jungian symbolism, compassion and a young teenager’s off-handedness.

Conor’s mum is dying, his dad elsewhere, his grandma is a nightmare ( “… the way she talked to him, like he was an employee under evaluation“) and he has withdrawn into himself at school when his situation became known.  A tree, a Green Man’s representative of a tree, walks up and starts telling him stories (You think I have come walking out of time and earth itself to teach you a lesson in niceness?“) and leaving berries on his bedroom floor.  The resolution of all this, his pain at home, at school, the moral of the tale – I’m not saying – is beautifully done; it had me lachrymose and beaming. 

What I picked up on this time was the tone of the prose, Conor’s surface refusal to descend into melodramatics:

      The monster looked at him quizzically. How strange, it said. The words you say tell me you are scared of the berries, but your actions seem to suggest otherwise.
“You’re as old as the land and you’ve never heard of sarcasm?” Conor asked.
Oh, I have heard of it, the monster said, putting its huge branch hands on its hips. But people usually know better than to speak it to me.

How effective the italicisation of the yew tree’s voice is!  As is the defense of story: Stories are wild creatures, the monster said. When you let them loose, who knows what havoc they might awake?”  And, finally, how about this as a summation of young boy’s misery?:

Some bread in the toaster, some cereal in a bowl, some juice in a glass, and he was ready to go, sitting down at the little table in the kitchen to eat. His mum had her own bread and cereal which she bought at a health food shop in town and which Conor thankfully didn’t have to share. It tasted as unhappy as it looked.


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