I find posting on short story collections more challenging that posting on novels. Many people who do post on short story collections write a line or two on a couple of the stories then generalize about the collection. My procedure is to post at some length about enough of the stories to give a potential reader or buyer a feel for the collection and in the process I find my understanding of the collection is often increased and I am better able to recall it. Each of the stories in this collection is a perfectly crafted work of art, product of an exquisite sensibility and shows a deeply rooted drive to produce near perfect beauty.
"Tea at Midland"
"And the surfers skied like angels
enjoying the feel of the waters of the earth, they skimmed, at
times they lifted off and flew, they landed with a dash of spray.
She watched till the light began to fail and one by one the
strange black figures paddled ashore with their boards and
sails packed small and weighing next to nothing"
This story is set in the dining room of the Midlands Hotel on the coast of England. It is a place of opulence with its beauty enhanced by its view of the ocean and by a frieze done by the artist Eric Gill. (I admit I did not know who Eric Gill was or why he is a controversial figure until I Googled him.)
A man and a woman, having an affair, are having tea. The woman is fixated on the almost transcendent beauty of the vista of the ocean and the surfers. Suddenly this conversation occurs:
"So he said again, A pedophile is a
pedophile. That’s all there is to it.
She suffered a jolt, hearing him. And that itself, her
being startled, annoyed him more. She had been so intact and
I admit I am confused but that was part of the artistry of this story, to make one wait to understand what the couple isfighting about. I realize now much of the original audience for this BBC prize winning story story would have known they were talking about Eric Gill (1882 to 1940), the artist whose work famously decorated the Midlands Hotel as well as numerous other public buildings. He was given the highest possible awards for an artist. He became controversial after death when it was revealed he had sexually molested his own children and was the worst sort of serial pedophile. The man cannot respect Gill's work, he cannot see beauty for its own sake. There is so much in this five page work. It is a coda on the nature of beauty and art and deals the liberating and escapist aspects of the pursuit of artistic perfection. The quarrel between the man and woman is perfect. At first I am tempted to think the man is just some kind of philistine but I think that is underestimating this story. In a deeper way Eric Gill is almost like Poseidon or even John Bull reincarnated as a capricious cruel God destroying anything that gets in the way of imperial pleasure. Maybe the man sees this and the woman is seduced by beauty and the need to feel clever. It would be hard to find a richer five pages than these.
"Strong Enough to Help"
"So he sat at the polished black table in the dining room,
among furnishings he had not chosen but had merely gone
on living with, and loneliness, hopelessness, deep deep sadness
possessed him utterly, froze him, the pen still in his hand, and
he seemed to be seeing the opposite wall and his father’s
copied painting of a painting of Wastwater, not just through
tears but through ice.
Then the doorbell rang.
The bell frightened him, it made no sense. In his own
house he was elsewhere, facing something he did not feel
"Strong Enough to Help" is an amazingly profound story about a very lonely 55 year old man, living with the memories of his grandmother, mother and aunt. He has always lived in his parents'i house. He works as a file clerk in a hospital. Every Saturday morning he gets up at 600 AM to write poetry for two hours. His house is full of books of poems, he has been reading them all his life. If ever a man lived the reading life it is him. This Saturday morning he finds his mind is being inundated with the sayings of the women of the house, all deceased now. Their words of wisdom and their homilies are overwhelming him. He feels compelled to write them down. Then Gladys from the Department of Culture is at his door and she wants to ask him some questions about his sports and cultural activities. She has a lovely Caribbean accent. She begins to ask him her questions. Do you do any sports? Do you go to the opera, the movies, musical shows, concerts or watch sporting events. Everything is no. Then she asks him if he uses the public library and yes he does it is central to his life. (I felt more than a little sadness in this as I live in a city of ten million with no public libraries). He loves reading poetry. His reading is really his life. You can tell he has been lonely so long he no longer even knows it. In a way it is also a story about living among barbarians, among brutal fools who have never gotten up early on their day off to read, who look upon the reading of poetry as something for homosexuals, among morons. I felt his deep pain and we know by now there is a man-child like quality to him when he told Gladys that once he liked a woman at work. He gave her a book of poetry he had written and she told him to stop bothering her and he ended up being written up by the management.
I have just touched the surface of this amazing story. It is a classic reading life short story. This is the kind of story that keeps me blogging and reading on hoping to discover one more story that far transcends my ability to explain why it is so wonderful. The ending of the story opens up some hope for the man. I hope it happens for him. As I read what his neighbors did to him when he asked them to just close their door as the noise they were making was making it hard for them to read, I wanted to get a bulldozer and flatten their house for their attack on a man I do feel a deep kinship for. He is 55, he will always read and maybe as the story ends he will enter another phase of his life.
As the story opens Mr. Carlton is in his house in the company of his two adult daughters. They have just returned from the cremation of his wife, their mother. He tells them he is OK and they can go home. Shortly after that he packs up his car, he notices a neighbor woman has seen him and he thinks "only one witness". He send his daughters text messages, one at a time as he does not know how to send a group message saying he will be out of touch for a few days and not to worry. That he did not know how to send a group message is a wonderful detail of a man trying to cope with a new world. This is a strange and mysterious story. On his road trip, on a major highway, traffic is blocked in both directions and it looks like it is going to be a long time. He decides to go for a walk. Now this is for sure odd behavior for this very cautious man. He comes upon an old house, he meets a pregnant woman and a heavy man. He observes the garden like setting of the house and the old couple who live there. He tries to reassure the pregnant woman. Then it looks like traffic is moving again. I like this story and am a bit baffled by the close so I will resist any facile conclusions other than to say this is a wonderful story about a lonely old man trying to deal with his fate.
"Ev's Garden" is another very interesting story that focuses on an isolated person. Ev has been alone so long she does not even known she is lonely as she has never really experienced an alternative. There maybe something wrong with her learning capacity or maybe because of the way she was moved around from one foster home to another she never received any real education. When we first meet her she is working in a slaughter house. Then the slaughterhouse closes down but in time a vegetable and fruit coop sets up shop there and Ev goes to work for them. From there she moves on to running a garden with the help of people required to work for the government in projects because of petty crimes they have committed. So we go from slaughter house to vegetable coop to a garden, in a cemetery with law breakers helping Ev produce a beautiful garden. She is expelled from the garden. The symbolism of the story is very powerful. It is another case where a marginal figure in a story appears in a role that echoes the a central character of history, Eve. There are many wonderful details in this story, what we learn about the people who help Ev in the garden is truly masterful. This also is a great short story.
"Asylum" is another great story about isolates, people who somehow lack the capacity to live in what some like to call the real world. As the story opens Mr Kramer is visiting Madeleine in a confinement ward of a mental hospital. She has been judged a possible danger to herself and others and a nurse is always present when they visit. We never learn who Mr. Kramer is to her-if he is an attorney, a social worker or there for his own reasons. I have written quite a bit about the previous stories so I will just endorse this story as very high level work as are all the others. Madeleine is somehow supposed to write as part of her therapy. About half the story is taken up with a story she is writing about pirates that is a comment on her life and the nature of asylums. When is an asylum a haven and when is it a prison?
In "Alphonse" a man has been placed in an old people's home. We feel his anxiety and his hatred of the place, to lose his life time of autonomy is a terrible end game. He cannot act or talk as a rational adult, he is forced back into the role of child. Something fabulous and wonderful happens in this story. If you want to experience it, then read this story.
"Goat" is a simply amazing story, incredibly creative. The plot can be told in a few lines. A Canon (a vicar) is on his way to distribute free soup to a homeless man living in an abandoned, soon to be demolished school. The man is called "Goat" because he has two bumps on his head that look like they might be the start of horns. The canon meets a woman named Fay and takes her with him to meet Goat. When they arrive, he has taken up residence in the headmaster's old room, Goat screams out not to come in unless it is Fay. Goat is filthy dirty, his feet are black.
Constantine is his magnificent prose makes us feel we are entering the underworld.
"But so too was the river under its casing of ice, he felt
the sluggish flood still moving underneath over the ooze, the
mud and all the deposits of bikes and trolleys, bottles, knives,
angry women’s rings and bombs from the last war. All that
and more, but not just that, also the gnarled streams in the
frozen hills to the west, hardened, silenced, clamped into
inertia, set there waiting under the sheer ice of the milky way
and billions of sharp points of unimaginable cold".
There are at least six myths and religious overtures one can easily find here and I am sure others could find many more. The structure of the story is the creation of a master of the art. I really want you to read this incredibly powerful story. It will stay in my mind for a very long time, I hope forever.
Obviously I greatly admire this collection of short stories. These stories are finely crafted works of art of the highest quality, they are exquisite. I know nothing of the work or writing habits of the author but if these stories took twenty years to write, they are a very noble use of that time.
I urge anyone who loves the short story to read this collection. There are sixteen stories in all in the collection. I read all of them. If I must pick favorites I would say "Goat" for its perfect structure, its amazing recreation of old myths, its account of the forces that push people over the edge. I also very much loved, and I admit it is because but for the grace of God I could see myself in the central character in "Strong Enough to Help".
"I started reading these stories quietly, and then became obsessed, read them all fast, and started re-reading them again and again. They are gripping tales, but what is startling is the quality of the writing. Every sentence is both unpredictable and exactly what it should be."-A.S. Byatt, The Guardian
"Rich and allusive and unashamedly moving."-The Independent
"Spellbinding."-The Irish Times
"An uneasy blend of the exquisite and the everyday . . . the beatific, the ordinary, the rebarbative even, are almost indistinguishable . . . intelligent and well-turned."-The Times Literary Supplement
"Perhaps the finest of contemporary writers in this form."-The Reader
The first American publication by one of the greatest living fiction masters, In Another Country spans David Constantine's remarkable thirty-year career. Known for their pristine emotional clarity, their spare but intensely evocative dialogue, and their fearless exposures of the heart in moments of defiance, change, resistance, flight, isolation, and redemption, these stories demonstrate again and again Constantine's timeless and enduring appeal.
David Constantine is an award-winning short story writer, poet, and translator. His collections of poetry includeThe Pelt of Wasps, Something for the Ghosts (shortlisted for the Whitbread Poetry Prize), Nine Fathom Deep, and Elder. He is the author of one novel, Davies, and has published four collections of short stories in the United Kingdom, including the winner of the 2013 Frank O'Connor Award, Tea at the Midland and Other Stories. He lives in Oxford, where, until 2012, he edited Modern Poetry in Translation with his wife Helen.