Modern English Short Stories II. From Coppard to Greene. Herausgegeben von Hans-Christian Oeser. Stuttgart: Reclam, 1984.
The second volume of Herr Oeser’s intrepid exploration of the Modern English Short Story includes ten pieces by (mostly) very well-known authors first published between 1919 and 1954. Everything I have said about the editorial work of the first volume applies to this one as well. The major difference concerns the quality of the stories. I have enjoyed these ten far less than the previous eight.
If Herr Oeser’s selection is anything to go by, the English Short Story must have been in decline between the wars. The greatest exception from this hasty generalisation is represented in the first volume (Somerset Maugham). One lesser exception is included here, but he is not represented to his best advantage (Aldous Huxley). For the most part, however, the selection here is baffling and boring rather than entertaining and stimulating.
A. E. Coppard is the least remembered of these ten authors, and rightly so. “The Tiger” is a puerile and badly written tale about amorous mischief in a circus menagerie show. The setting is colourful and the characters show promise, but the execution is – well, pubescent. “The Story of the Siren” benefits from being set among the turquoise waters and sunbathed cliffs of Capri, but otherwise it’s a tedious fable about a man who dived, saw the siren and went mad. I’m sure Mr Forster suffused it with mighty allegorical significance, but I cannot perceive it. “The New Dress” is an incredibly trivial “story” written in a ridiculously redundant prose (“…all this now seemed unutterably silly, paltry, and provincial. All this had been absolutely destroyed, shown up, exploded…”). Mabel’s new dress is not fashionable and she just can’t bear the torture. Oh, the tragedy of it! “Tickets, Please!”, notwithstanding Mr Lawrence’s verbosity, starts promisingly with the description of a tramway in the English countryside redolent of romance, but quickly turns into a cheap farce of the war-between-the-sexes type. “The Voice” is yet another of Mr Pritchett’s lame, melodramatic and indifferently written attempts for religious satire. The atmosphere after bombing in wartime England is wonderfully conveyed, but that’s all. “On Guard” narrates the adventures of Hector, a poodle whose purpose of existence is to secure spinstership for his mistress, the vacuous Millicent with whose nose two fifths of the British males regularly fall in love. Mr Waugh tries really hard to be amusing, predictably ending as a crashing bore. “Across the Bridge” is a potent mixture of forlorn border town, tense detective surveillance, human loneliness and despair, but it is ruined completely by Mr Greene’s pedestrian writing and complete lack of sense for drama. I didn’t believe a word of it.
Of course, I can see all those writers, or at least most of them, really did try to say something significant about the human condition. Good intentions are not enough, though. They don’t make a failure more acceptable. Even Miss Woolf, whose laborious stream-of-consciousness is most tiresome, draws a fine portrait of a pathologically sensitive and insecure woman. If only she could write a decent prose! Mr Lawrence, too, invests his naughty characters with dignity and, towards the end, with poignancy. If only he could choose a less preposterous ending! Mr Waugh and Mr Greene had all the materials for a satirical masterpiece and a moving tragedy, respectively, but they either couldn’t or wouldn’t write them. All those writers seems to have been hampered by some defect of character that prevented them from making of these stories the genuine human documents they might have been.
Several other pieces, though badly flawed, fared better. “Fard” (an obsolete word for face paint) is a touching study of the servant’s hard life and the master’s callous heart, but it’s too short and certainly not among Mr Huxley’s best attempts in the genre. “Treacle Tart” is an amusing tale of a boy with purple blood (aptly named “Bloodstock”), remarkably democratic principles and amazing for his age determination who enters into confrontation with the school authorities over – the eating of treacle tart. There is much charm in the character and it is a pity Mr Graves did not develop it further. “Night Fears” is a spooky story of a night-watchman who has a conversation with a mysterious stranger that turns his whole life upside down. Unfortunately, the lurid ending comes quite out of the blue and out of character. It very nearly ruins the whole story.
All in all, a rather disappointing volume. I can’t imagine myself re-reading more than three of the pieces, and even that doesn’t sound very likely. Except for Mr Coppard’s amateurish attempt and Miss Woolf’s pretentious imitation of prose, the stories are decently written. But there is no particular distinction in their authorial voices, no great ingenuity in their plots, and – except for the little lord from “Treacle Tart” – no real originality in their characters. When there is humour, it is either crude (Coppard) or heavy-handed (Waugh), Mr Graves again being the only exception. I’m not familiar with the short fiction of these ten authors, but I can’t help wondering if Herr Oeser didn’t have better stories to choose from – or better writers. I’m looking forward with some trepidation to the third volume of his anthology.