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Modern English-Short Stories I. From Hardy to Maugham. Herausgegeben von Hans-Christian Oeser. Stuttgart: Reclam, 1985.
Anstelle eines Nachworts finden sich am Ende des Bandes "biobibliographische Angaben" zu den einzelnen Autoren, über deren Notwendigkeit sich streiten läßt. Ein paar Sätze zu den einzelnen Kurzgeschichten sowie ein Literaturverzeichnis über die wichtige Sekundärliteratur wären hier bestimmt hilfreicher gewesen. Auch wäre es dieser Ausgabe zugute gekommen, wenn der Herausgeber mehr seine Auswahl der einzelnen Kurzgeschichten begründet hätte, als ausführlich auf die bekannten Schwierigkeiten einer solchen eher subjektiven Selektion einzugehen. Oesers allgemeine Ausführungen zur Kurzgeschichte (S. 7-11) sind zwar interessant, wirken aber teilweise etwas zu apodiktisch, so z. B. seine These, daß in der Short Story eine psychologische Interpretation vorherrsche (S. 10) oder daß sie "recht eigentlich ein Kind der Moderne" (S. 9) sei. Eine ausführlichere Auseinandersetzung mit dem Begriff 'modern' sowie einige Literaturhinweise zur Theorie der Short Story hätten die Einleitung zu dem lesenswerten Bändchen in nützlicher Weise abgerundet.
(Christa Jansohn, Archiv für das Studium der neueren Sprachen und Literaturen,, 223 1/1986, S. 187)
This is the first part of Herr Oeser’s three-volume exploration of the English short story. It contains eight pieces, all of them by writers in no need of introduction, spanning 44 years (1891-1935) and arranged, not by the year of first publication, but by the author’s year of birth. The quality is, of course, uneven; but the variety of styles, moods and subjects more than compensates for that.
Mr Hardy writes a hard prose: wordy, stilted, ungraceful. Few writers from more recent times would dare to use words like “animadversions” and “execrations”, in one sentence at that, or phrases like “antecedent step”, “reposeful in the celibate’s sense” and “derelictions of duty”. I suppose this is the type of prose semi-derisively described as “Victorian”. The best that can be said about it is that you know what you’re in for from the very opening:
Whether the utilitarian or the intuitive theory of the moral sense be upheld, it is beyond question that there are a few subtle-souled persons with whom the absolute gratuitousness of an act of reparation is an inducement to perform it; while exhortation as to its necessity would breed excuses for leaving it undone. The case of Mr. Millborne and Mrs. Frankland particularly illustrated this, and perhaps something more.
In spite of the prose, certainly not because of it, “For Conscience’ Sake” is a fine story. It progresses from a slow start to something very much like tragic conclusion, all because of Mr Millborne’s monumental foolishness. He does an awfully stupid thing only to still the pangs of his pathologically sensitive conscience, never for one moment considering the potentially disastrous consequences of his action. Ironically, he ends up with a much greater burden on his conscience than before. He is a fool all right. But I defy you not to feel sorry for him in the end. You may even come to admire him, for in the end Mr Hardy reveals unexpected nobility and strength of character. It takes a great writer to achieve all this with a fool. Even the stiff formality of the prose, with a suitable frame of mind and an ounce of extra leisure, grows on you.
Mr Kipling’s “A Matter of Fact” could have been a great story if only he had written it complete. In a nutshell, three journalists, British, American and Dutch, survive an extraordinary nautical adventure, tidal waves, sea monsters and all, but fail to report it to the world. The story is extremely uneven: the first part is magnificent, the second is pathetic. The apocalyptic marine cataclysm is described with terrifying vividness: the suddenly cold waters, the dense fog, the slimy sediment on the surface that makes the ship as if it is “made gray with terror”. But when he comes to deal with the journalistic accounts, Mr Kipling ruins everything. The dramatic temperature of the story suddenly drops to the absolute zero. The American fellow is portrayed as the proverbial seeker of sensations, while his Dutch and English colleagues are preposterously willing to refrain from reporting. On the top of all that, there is the crude and snobbish harping on America’s two hundred years of age against Britain’s seven centuries greater wisdom. In the end (here is a “spoiler” for you), the British journalist decides to turn the real story into a lie, and he finishes with this ridiculous piece of rhetoric:
And a lie it has become; for Truth is a naked lady, and if by accident she is drawn up from the bottom of the sea, it behoves a gentleman either to give her a print petticoat or to turn his face to the wall and vow that he did not see.
The second part of “A Matter of Fact” could have been a wonderful satire of journalism. But Mr Kipling either wouldn’t or couldn’t write it. So the powerful first part is largely wasted.
Mr Galsworthy’s “Told by the Schoolmaster” is a passionate proclamation condemning war, “the stark and trampling carnage going on out there” in the words of “the schoolmaster”. He acts as a confidant and tells the story of “two of my former scholars”, two awfully young and innocent things who are eager to marry and consummate their marriage despite the impending danger. He is foolishly eager to join the army with predictably tragic consequences. There are one or two twists more, easy to spot but nevertheless effective, that make the plot almost unbearably painful. I found the story immensely affecting, much more so than “The Juryman”, another war-inspired tale by the same author. Mr Galsworthy writes a beautiful prose, a little florid maybe, but with occasional, deliberate and highly expressive disorder. For example:
The perfect weather, that glowing countryside, with corn harvest just beginning, and the apples already ripening, the quiet nights trembling with moonlight and shadow, and, in it all, this great horror launched and growing, the weazening of Europe deliberately undertaken, the death-warrant of millions of young men signed. Such summer loveliness walking hand in hand with murder thus magnified beyond conception was too piercingly ironical!
A good boy, Joe, freckled, reddish in the hair, and rather too small in the head; with blue eyes that looked at you very straight and a short nose; a well-grown boy, very big for his age, and impulsive in spite of the careful stodginess of all young rustics; a curious vein of the sensitive in him, but a great deal of obstinacy too, – altogether an interesting blend!
I am very pleased to see the name of Somerset Maugham in the contents. “The Lotus Eater” is not one of his most anthologized stories. I cannot imagine why. It is one the most perfect pieces of short fiction he ever penned. It is embarrassingly superior to everything else in the book. I have read it half a dozen times, at least, and it never fails to move me deeply. Set among the sun- and moon-bathed slopes of Capri, the story explores the unpredictable complexity of human nature (the main theme of Maugham’s complete works) and the danger of turning your life into a lotus-eating exercise in pure hedonism. It is an immensely poignant and perfectly constructed story. The writing is clear, direct, witty, thought-provoking; vintage Maugham in short. It contains one of his best opening paragraphs and some of his most evocative descriptions:
Most people, the vast majority in fact, lead the lives that circumstances have thrust upon them, and though some repine, looking upon themselves as round pegs in square holes, and think that if things had been different they might have made a much better showing, the greater part accept their lot, if not with serenity, at all events with resignation. They are like tram-cars travelling for ever on the selfsame rails. They go backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards, inevitably, till they can go no longer and then are sold as scrap-iron. It is not often that you find a man who has boldly taken the course of his life into his own hands. When you do, it is worth while having a good look at him.
There is a terrace that overlooks the Bay of Naples, and when the sun sinks slowly into the sea the island of Ischia is silhouetted against a blaze of splendour. It is one of the most lovely sights in the world.
The instant of overwhelming beauty had passed and the sun, like the top of an orange, was dipping into a wine-red sea. We turned round and leaning our backs against the parapet looked at the people who were sauntering to and fro. They were all talking their heads off and the cheerful noise was exhilarating. Then the church bell, rather cracked, but with a fine resonant note, began to ring. The Piazza at Capri, with its clock tower over the footpath that leads up from the harbour, with the church up a flight of steps, is a perfect setting for an opera by Donizetti, and you felt that the voluble crowd might at any moment break out into a rattling chorus. It was charming and unreal.
The rest of the stories I find less entertaining, in the widest sense of the word, though none of them is unreadable or tedious. “The Jilting of Jane” is an amusing trifle about a maid’s romance with a porter who climbs the social ladder until the exalted position of shop assistant and dumps her. Mr Wells writes well, tongue in cheek all the time, ingeniously weaving class prejudice into his narrative. “The Murder of the Mandarin” is a character study of feminine silliness, perhaps a little extreme and not quite believable, but very funny. Mr Bennett’s prose is affected and repetitive, but quite good enough for this type of story. Based on previous experience I expected some lighthearted drivel from Mr Munro, but he surprised me with a dark tale about a boy with fervid imagination who constructs his own cult and prays to “Sredni Vishtar” to “do one thing” for him. The unlikely creature that serves as “god” responds and makes for a chilling conclusion. Just like “An Ideal Craftsman”, the other story I read by him, Walter de la Mare’s little sketch is short on plot and verbose, but it has some penetrating insights into the callousness and the sensitivity of childhood. Nothing much happens “In the Forrest”, or out of it for that matter, but the underage first-person narrator is fascinating.
Reclam’s editorial work is typically exhaustive. The Introduction is the same, save for a few minor changes, as in the other two volumes of the series. Herr Oeser carefully explains his criteria for selection and offers a fascinating overview of the English short story in the hundred years or so which his “trilogy” attempts to encompass. “Sources” gives the exact editions, down to page numbers and copyright permissions, from which the stories were reprinted. “Editor’s Note” refers to the copious footnotes on each line-numbered page that translate tricky words and explain geographical and historical allusions. German students of English are lucky, indeed, to have these little Reclam paperbacks as their “textbooks”. I can’t imagine a more pleasant and more effective way to learn the written part of any language.
The “Bio-bibliographical Notes” are remarkably detailed. The eight authors are provided with short, informative biographies and impressive bibliographies of novels, short stories, poetry, non-fiction, even letters and the like where applicable. This is not something you often find in anthologies; as a general rule, the bibliographies are disgracefully superficial. This is not the case here; some of the most prolific writers, like Wells, Bennett and Kipling for example, have two full and densely printed pages dedicated to their works. There are minor mistakes and omissions, however. For example, Maugham’s Ashenden and Altogether are not novels, The Hour Before the Dawn is not non-fiction, he didn’t write 21 novels and 32 plays, and the important collections with his stories and articles published posthumously are not mentioned. In the end of each note there is a short paragraph dedicated to the story which is reprinted here: when and where it was first published; if in a magazine, when and where it was first reprinted in book form.