Modern English Short Stories III. From Bates to Swift. Herausgegeben von Hans-Christian Oeser. Stuttgart: Reclam, 1986.
This collection of nine pieces, first published between 1953 and 1980, concludes Herr Oeser’s three-volume journey through the realms of the Modern English Short Story. He selected altogether 27 stories published in the course of 89 years (1891-1980). On the whole, the more modern they are, the more plotless and the more pretentious they become. This puts me at a grave disadvantage, for I dislike plotlessness and detest pretentiousness, but never mind. Let’s see what I could make out of these nine anyway.
(Perhaps I should explain what I mean by “plotlessness”. I do not mean that nothing happens and the whole “story” is a stream-of-consciousness portrait à la Virginia Woolf (cf. “The New Dress” in Herr Oeser’s second volume). I mean that whatever happens is not in any way directed or shaped. It’s more like a haphazard jumble of incidents that begins and ends nowhere in particular. For my part, the notion of plot implies a certain arrangement, however twisted or bizarre it may be.)
The first three stories and the ones by Messrs Amis and McEwan are those I liked the least. This is to be expected, as they are the most plotless and most pretentious ones. “Hôtel du Commerce” is the best of the bad bunch, a mildly amusing glimpse into the honeymoon of one of those couples about whom you wonder why they married at all. In a cheap and shabby French hotel, they have an eavesdropping experience that might well change their marital future. The story, such as it is, will hardly bear a re-reading, but it’s a charming trifle. Not so the other four. “Chaff in the Wind” shows some promise as a general portrait of the frustrated middle-aged woman, but it’s too insubstantial. “Higher Standards” is exquisitely tedious, and ill-advisedly humorous, depiction of a masochistic mother-daughter relationship, but really quite ephemeral. “First Love, Last Rights” is a beautifully written but completely pointless sketch of a sordid relationship between two seriously disturbed teenagers. “Court of Inquiry” tries to convince me that war and the army make men out of boys. I can accept only satirical treatment of this idea, but unfortunately Mr Amis seems in earnest.
The other four stories all offered, though not in equal degree, the special thrill, the evocative escapism, and the thought-provoking excitement that a fine piece of short fiction ought to provide. “Through the Tunnel” is a keen study of childish stubbornness and parental indifference, here illustrated by an eleven-year-old boy who tries to perform a dangerous underwater stunt. “On Sunday Afternoon” also tells of a little boy, but this time in the first person singular, who witnesses an attempted suicide. The slangy writing and the deadpan humour conceal disturbing depth that must not be overlooked. “While the Sun Shines” is a perceptive story about the clash between a tractor driver and his boss, a marvellous example why pride is one of the seven deadly sins. “Cliffedge” is my absolute favourite here. It’s a heartrending tale, a novel in a nutshell indeed, about two brothers who year after year go to the same place at the sea (Cliffedge) for their summer holiday. One of them is mentally retarded, the other narrates how the relationship affected his whole life. It packs quite a punch!
All in all, the last volume of Herr Oeser’s “Modern English Stories” is a nice conclusion, certainly an improvement over the impossibly dull second instalment. No more than three or four stories would bear a re-reading, but they all do say something significant about the human animal. I expect they would stay with me for quite some time
(Kayotica Waldstein, 31. Juli 2015)