photo by Nik Logiotatidis
Stories That Live On
by Alison MacLeod
‘I am under the spell of language,’ V.S. Pritchett once declared, ‘and it has ruled me since I was ten.’ Under that spell, Pritchett established his reputation as a writer in 1932 with The Spanish Virgin and Other Stories, and went on to author a lifetime’s worth of stories up to his death at the age of ninety-seven. In a remarkable interview in The Paris Review at the age of ninety, Pritchett described the short story form as a sort of literary evergreen: ‘If a story is really good it simply lives on, regardless of what other people think of it… A story is always a story.’
He had an innate understanding of the life of the form – its pulse and pressure-points – and the relation of those vital energies to short story craft. As a writer, I feel indebted to him for his thoughts on the art of story-writing, insights that have stayed with me over the years. ‘A story,’ he said, is ‘something glimpsed from the corner of the eye, in passing.’ A story, he also explains, needs a particular kind of internal pressure; it ‘should capture a character at bursting point’. I love that. Of – let’s call it – narrative tension, he tells us: ‘There is more magic in sin if it is not committed.’ Yes. Absolutely. And, on the dynamics of characterisation, he so rightly points out that ‘…one must never regard a [minor] character as totally disposable. He may somehow have to reappear at some moment. In fact, it makes the others truer to life if he suddenly crops up later on. But you’ve then got to make him feel that he’s got a right to do that—that he’s on some other business. He’s carrying on his life, as well as the larger characters carrying on theirs.’ He’s carrying on his life. I like the strange truth of that. Short stories and their characters are animate, almost uncannily so.
He knew, too, the deep well-spring of the form: ‘All writers – all people – have their stores of private and family legends which lie like a collection of half-forgotten, often violent, toys on the floor of memory.’ He was a realist, with an absolute dedication to the everyday. He, like Chekhov (that other master realist), understood how closely wedded reality is to the absurd and the surreal.
On Monday night, some of the short story form’s most dedicated fans turned out for the annual V.S. Pritchett Memorial Prize Ceremony, a gathering hosted by the Royal Society of Literature in the august setting of Somerset House on the Strand in London. Like many other writers and readers, I climbed the elegant, spiralling staircase to the top of Somerset House, stairs that seemed to ascend ever upward, storey after vertiginous storey.
It’s now clear to me why wine is served only after the event, after one descends.
The venue was blue-vaulted; the event, sold out. Rose Tremain and Adam Foulds were the evening’s special guests. V.S. Pritchett’s son and daughter were in attendance. In the audience, I chatted with story writers Adam Marek, Tania Hershman, Philip Langeskov, Chris Power and David Hayden, writer and also Publishing Director of the Folio Society, which has just published an eye-catching new edition of V.S. Pritchett stories, The Camberwell Beauty and Other Stories, with an introduction by William Trevor.
The discussion of the beauty and the difficulty of the form was chaired by Paula Jackson of The RSL. Adam Foulds described the short story as the equivalent, when compared to the novel, of ‘going for a walk on the spur of the moment’. One writes a story ‘for the joy of just walking out and coming home again’. It is ‘an unburdened way to write’.
Rose Tremain disagreed. For her, it is a ‘very demanding form’, one that requires a ‘poetic coherence’ in a short narrative space. It is demanding ‘in the voice you choose’ and in the sense of a ‘landing’ it needs to have at the end, like that of a good poem. While ‘there are so many kinds of endings’, she made the crucial point that ‘the ending has to be earned by what has gone before.’ You need, she noted, to know what ‘mood’ you’re aiming for. ‘You don’t always know it [the ending] but it can’t be imposed.’ American writers are ‘particularly brilliant – they’re snappy at it.’
Thinking back to the stories that first showed her the potential of the form, she recommended Sherwood Anderson’s ‘I Want to Know Why’ and Robert Penn Warren’s ‘Blackberry Winter’, both of which explore a crucial moment of childhood experience, the former in the voice of a child, and the latter, from the point of view of an adult narrator looking back upon his childhood. Both stories are, for Tremain, inspirational in their creation of voice.
Adam Foulds was interested in the ‘musicality’ and also in the ‘solitude’ he feels is innate to the form. The short story pivots around ‘a moment crystallised’ and its natural position is at an ‘edge of an individual’s life’. Among contemporary writers, he admires especially Alice Munro and Claire Keegan. ‘Yes,’ he replied to Tremain, ‘when a short story fails, it fails harder than the novel.’ A story ending must be both ‘imminent’ and ‘immanent’. It ‘shouts you out’. It lifts you up. Wrongly handled, it ‘can land you in an uncomfortable heap’.
‘What about beginnings?’ Paula Jackson enquired.
‘It’s rare for me,’ replied Tremain, ‘to start a short story without a voice. The voice is the story. The voice arrives with the conception. With a novel, you can have a ream of plot, and find tone and voice along the way. But the story needs to come quite concurrently with voice, atmosphere and ambience.’
Foulds cited Chekhov’s advice: ‘Start late.’ In other words, begin a story once it’s already established. A story, as one reads its first line, is already in motion. He went on to read his story ‘A Kindness’, which begins with a sense of a man’s restlessness in the heart of his own home and family life: ‘Christmas. That whole thing to do again.’ The sense of trouble deepens for Steve when he escapes his home only to walk in on an argument at his local corner shop: ‘a “scene” his mother would have said’. The audience was hooked.
For me, Rose Tremain’s reading of her story ‘Extra Geography’ was the great privilege of the evening. It’s summer for two fourteen-year-old girls. The dramas of the playing field and their lacrosse sticks are put away: ‘…in summer, we weren’t heroines any more, just ordinary girls and this felt, worryingly, as if we might die.’ They devise a plan for survival: ‘Let’s fall in love with the next person we see…’ The first person who happens to pass is their Geography teacher. ‘Her first name was Rosalind.’ Her eyes were ‘violet blue’ and her teeth were ‘white as cuttlefish’. The story that follows is sharply and tenderly evoked.
Tremain’s reading was masterly. One could hear the perfect resonance around each sentence; the ‘negative space’ of silence that surrounds its honed prose. It was entirely natural to the ear, without a false note. And in the exquisite understatement of its concluding lines, we could feel the force of V.S. Pritchett’s suggestion that a great story captures a character ‘at bursting point’. ‘Extra Geography’ is a model of the form.
In the evening’s final flourish, the winner of the 2011 V.S. Pritchett Memorial Prize was at last announced: Carys Davies for ‘The Redemption of Galen Pike’, a story described as ‘classic’ by the judges, with ‘a neat and startling end’. Davies, the author of two story collections and a former winner of the Society of Authors’ Olive Cook Prize for short fiction, was presented with the VSP Prize by sponsor Sir Christopher Bland. She went on to read a striking extract from her story of a condemned man, Galen Pike and the charitable visitor to his cell, Patience, ‘the only person in the world who did not recoil from him in disgust’. In Davies’s story we could hear the power of a writer who understands that short stories often spring from the force of oppositions or incongruities. The full story can be read at Prospect magazine’s online site.
Then all assembled spiralled down that long, long, elegant staircase; the lofty business of literature concluded, we reached for the wine.