Tag Archives: short stories

‘Cold Hand in Mine’ by Robert Aickman

Robert Aickman was a British writer of horror stories or ‘strange tales’ as he preferred to call them. I had only previously read his other collection of stories, Dark Entries (1964), which I had enjoyed, so I was looking forward to reading this collection from 1975. Aickman’s stories take place in the real, everyday world which is familiar to all of us. His tales usually take place in modern towns and cities, very often during the daytime as well and only rarely relies on the supernatural. Instead Aickman finds the horror or strangeness inherent in our lives and plays with it, distorting the world around us ever so slightly to reveal the weirdness within. In this way his stories remind me of Shirley Jackson’s stories with the only difference being that Aickman is very British and Jackson is very American. Aickman’s style may annoy some readers, I guess; his writing style is quite stuffy and old-fashioned, though for me this adds a certain unreality to the stories; the main characters do have a uniformity about them as if they’re all just versions of Aickman himself and they have a general awkwardness about them which can sometimes be annoying as they’ll do or say something, or not, that will exasperate the reader; the endings can be vague and sometimes the stories end quite abruptly, leaving the reader to decide what happened. None of this is meant to put you off reading his stories, but rather to prepare you for what to expect. It makes the experience even more unsettling and eerie and usually adds to the effect of the story, only occasionally did I feel that he got it wrong.

Cold Hand in Mine contains eight stories with each story typically between twenty to forty pages long. I’m not going to cover each one but will instead just give a flavour of one or two of them. The first story in the collection is called The Swords and is a great start to the book. It is told in the first person by what could be considered a typical Aickman character; a youngish man, rather naive, at least as far as women go, and a bit of a loner. Here he introduces himself:

I was a beginner all right; raw as a spring onion. What’s more, I was a real mother’s boy: scared stiff of life, and crass ignorant. Not that I want to sound disrespectful to my old mother. She’s as good as they come, and still hit it off better with her than most other females.

His father died when he was young and his uncle taught him how to be a grocery salesman which involves a lot of travelling around and staying in cheap hotels often populated with the seedier elements of society. One time whilst visiting Wolverhampton he finds himself in such a hotel where in the evenings there is little to do except wander around the city. He ends up in a rundown area where he comes across a rather forlorn looking fair which has only a few customers. He ends up going into a grimy tent with the sign ‘The Swords’ over the entrance; inside the show has started, with a man giving his spiel whilst an attractive woman lays sprawled across a chair in a bored manner. The audience consists solely of men and on the stage is a pile of forty or so dingy looking swords. Having missed the beginning of the performance the narrator doesn’t know what to expect but the man on the stage wants to know who is to ‘go first’. He has to cajole the audience but eventually someone steps up. The man is told to pick up a sword and urged to stick it into the girl.

   And then it happened, this extraordinary thing.
   The volunteer seemed to me to tremble for a moment, and then plunged the sword right into the girl on the chair. As he was standing between me and her, I could not see where the sword entered, but I could see that the man seemed to press it right in, because almost the whole length of it seemed to disappear.

When the sword is pulled out there is no blood and the woman is otherwise not affected. After kissing the woman, which was part of the price of the ticket, the next customer has a go. Scared, the narrator leaves before it is his turn. The next day he is drawn back to the fair and ends up meeting the circus man and the girl in a nearby café, they recognise the narrator and the circus man offers a ‘private show’, at a price, which the narrator accepts. When she turns up later that evening at his hotel events take a rather strange turn.

Other stories have more familiar horror topics such as a (possibly) haunted house in The Real Road to the Church; in The Hospice a traveller gets lost taking a short cut home and ends up at a very strange house/hotel where the customers seem to be permanent, but not necessarily voluntary, residents. It’s very creepy, especially when he has to spend the night there and he has to share a room with one of the residents. The story, Pages from a Young Girl’s Journal, is quite different than the others in that it’s told via diary entries, the main character is female, it’s set at the beginning of the nineteenth century and it involves vampires, albeit in a very understated way; it’s a great story and it won an award when it was first published in 1975.

Possibly my favourite story is Meeting Mr Millar in which the narrator, a young writer living in rather shabby third-floor flat in London, experiences the neighbours from, well, Hell. The second floor is taken over by what appears to be an accountancy firm, ‘Stallabrass, Hoskins and Cramp’, but seems to be run by the elusive Mr Millar. Very little work seems to get done by the firm and there is an endless parade of visitors and/or employees both during the day and night. Aickman lets the story snowball beautifully with events becoming increasingly strange. Aickman even gives us a clear, unambiguous, and even happy ending.

The last story, The Clock Watcher, was an enjoyable tale about a newly married man and wife and her obsession with collecting clocks.

Most of Aickman’s books were published between the 1960s and 1980s. He was never a hugely popular author but his books have been kept in print in recent years largely by Tartarus Press and Faber & Faber. The recent edition by Faber & Faber of Cold Hand in Mine includes an introduction by Reece Sheersmith from the dark comedy team The League of Gentlemen and an interesting biographical afterword by Jean Richardson, a friend of Aickman’s.

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‘Seven by Five’ by H.E. Bates

This collection consists of stories from 1926, when Bates was only twenty-one, to 1961. There are thirty-five stories in total, hence the title, and I’m assuming that they appear in chronological order though little information is given about the publication date of the stories, which is annoying. I have only read short stories by Bates so far but he is quickly becoming a favourite author of mine and one who, in my opinion, ranks with the great short story writers from around the world. Bates is most famous for the The Darling Buds of May and Uncle Silas books (and TV adaptions), which I still haven’t read, but he wrote so much more, as I’m slowly finding out. His work seems to fit my reading requirements at the moment as I’m finding myself being increasingly drawn towards straightforwad realism; whether this is just a temporary situation or a more permanent one I’m not sure at the moment.

This collection has a good variety of stories; some are set in Larkin-land but others are set on the continent, at the seaside, or amongst the provincial middle-classes. What makes Bates so refreshing for me is that his stories concentrate on workers, farmers and the lower middle-classes, in an age when so much of the fiction from the U.K. was by, and about, the upper-classes or intellectuals. One of Bates’s earlier stories, and another one that was adapted for T.V. (in 1972), is The Mill and is amazingly frank for a story that was written in 1935 (for further info see the H.E. Bates Companion website). Alice is a rather vague emotionless girl, the daughter of a greengrocer/florist, and a girl who has low expectations in life. When her father announces that she is to start work at the Holland’s mill to help around the house she doesn’t question him and starts the following Monday.

It was about five miles to the mill, and she walked as though in obedience to the echo of her father’s command. She had a constant feeling of sharp expectancy, not quite apprehension, every time she looked up and saw the mill. But the feeling never resolved itself into thought. She felt also a slight relief. She had never been, by herself, so far from home.

Alice soon gets used to her chores which mostly consist of cooking Mr Holland’s meals and talking to Mrs Holland, who is mostly bedridden. Not much happens for a while as the three characters get to know each other. Used to obeying orders and with Mrs Holland’s request for her ‘to do all you can for Mr Holland’ she soon ends up submitting to Mr Holland’s sexual advances. Mr Holland is not violent or mean, rather he cajoles Alice into having sex with him. Of course, Alice becomes pregnant but seems oblivious to what’s happening to her and instead believes she’s caught Mrs Holland’s illness. When the Hollands’ son, Albert, returns she is initially ignored, she misses reading to Mrs Holland and the attention from Mr Holland, but Albert acts kindly towards her and takes her into town occasionally. It’s only when Albert realises that she’s pregnant and points it out to her that she understands what’s happening to her body. Albert then sends her home and it’s only when she returns that she begins to show some emotion and cry. This is a tale, simply told, but powerful in its portrayal of an emotionless and passive young girl.

Another story is The Evolution of Saxby, an amusing tale set during and after wartime. The narrator befriends Saxby at a railway station and after they get to know each other Saxby seems envious of the narrator living in the country with a garden. When he next meets Saxby the narrator discovers that Saxby now house a house with a garden and he is invited to visit. But when he does he notices that the garden is like a jungle and that Saxby’s wife, whom Saxby had described as an invalid close to death, is obsessed with renovating houses and selling them before moving on to the next one. Saxby just wants to settle down and to the narrator it looks like Saxby’s the one who looks more ill though he persists in the idea that his wife is ill.

One of my favourite stories in the collection was The Major of Hussars. The narrator is on holiday in the Swiss Alps, staying in the same hotel is the major:

The major was very interested in the mountains, and we in turn were very interested in the major, a spare spruce man of nearly sixty who wore light shantung summer suits and was very studious of his appearance generally, and very specially of his smooth grey hair. He also had three sets of false teeth, of which he was very proud: one for mornings, one for evenings, and one for afternoons.

The narrator and his wife see the major everywhere and soon befriend him. The major mentions several times that his wife, Mrs Martineau, should be arriving on the next steamer only for her to not arrive and so they start to believe that his wife is a fiction. The major, meanwhile, is very charming and easily befriends people, especially young attractive women, which is noted by the couple. But one day the major’s wife does indeed arrive and surprisingly she is about twenty-five years old; it is soon apparent that she is an overbearing argumentative woman who bullies and argues with her husband. On a trip up a mountain she complains and moans non-stop and the narrator and his wife decide to avoid them in future. But they can’t avoid hearing a huge row they have one day with pot plants, books and shoes being thrown about by Mrs Martineau, but she also throws anything else that is to hand.

   Back in the room Mrs Martineau began throwing things. ‘You’re always fussing!’ I heard her shout, and then there was the enraged dull noise of things like books and shoes being thrown.
   ‘Please, darling, don’t do that,’ the major said. ‘Don’t do it please.’
   ‘Oh! shut up!’ she said. ‘And these damn things too!’
   I heard the most shattering crash as if a glass tumbler had been thrown.
   ‘Oh! not my teeth!’ the major said. ‘Please, darling. Not my teeth! For God’s sake, not both sets, please!’

The next day the couple are seen leaving; the major, with his wrong teeth in, can only give a strange sort of smile to the narrator.

I’m not sure what my next H.E. Bates book may be; it could well be more short stories as I’m really enjoying those I’ve read so far but at some point I will try a novel by him. I also have the Darling Buds books to read as well as some non-fiction books that I purchased recently—see below.

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Extraordinary Excerpts: ‘A Family’

I have started reading the second volume of Maupassant’s stories that I bought over a year ago, titled 88 More Stories, which was published by Cassell & Co. Ltd in 1950 with translations by Ernest Boyd and Storm Jameson. One story contained in this volume, called A Family, 88-Stories02-X-700pxis a short piece where the narrator visits a friend he hasn’t seen since the friend married, fifteen years before. He barely recognises the friend, who is now quite fat, and the description of the friend’s wife is brilliantly dismissive and also a bit nasty; I won’t include it here but she is called, amongst other things, ‘a procreating machine made of flesh’, due no doubt to her five children. The husband is also dismissed in a similar fashion as ‘a reproductive animal who spent his nights generating children between a sleep and a sleep, in his provincial house, like a rabbit in a hutch.’

After being introduced to all the children the narrator is also introduced to the wife’s eighty-seven year old grandfather who is hard of hearing. The narrator is told that the old man keeps the children amused especially at meal times as he is very greedy. And so, that leads me to this excerpt:

    Dinner was begun.
    “Look,” murmured Simon. Grandpapa did not like the soup, and refused to eat it. He was forced to do so, for the sake of his health; the servant forcibly thrust a spoonful into his mouth, while he blew violently to keep from swallowing the broth; it spurted out like a fountain, all over the table and over those sitting nearest him.
    The children shrieked with laughter, while their father, highly pleased, repeated: “Funny old man, isn’t he?”
    Throughout the meal he monopolised the attention of the whole family. His eyes devoured the dishes on the table, and his frantically trembling hands tried to snatch them and pull them to him. Sometimes they were placed almost in his reach, so that the company might see his desperate efforts, his palsied clutches, the heart-broken appeal manifested in his whole body, his eyes, his mouth, his nose, which sniffed them. His mouth watered so that he dribbled all over his napkin, uttering inarticulate whines. And the entire family was de­lighted by this odious and grotesque torture.
    Then a very small piece would be put on his plate, and he would eat it with feverish voracity, so that he might have some­thing else the sooner.
    When the sweet rice came, he almost had a fit. He moaned with longing.
    “You have eaten too much; you shan’t have any,” shouted Gontran, and they made as though he were not to be given any.
    Then he began to cry. And as he wept he trembled still more violently, while all the children roared with laughter.
    At last his portion, a very small one, was given him; and, as he ate the first mouthful of the sweet, he made a comically gluttonous noise in his throat, and a movement of the neck like that of a duck swallowing too large a morsel of food.
    When he had finished, he began to stamp his feet for more.
    Seized with pity at the heart-rending spectacle of the tortures inflicted on this ridiculous Tantalus, I implored my friend on his behalf:
    “Do give him a little more rice.”
    “Oh! no, my dear chap,” replied Simon; “if he ate too much at his age, it might be bad for him.”
    I was silent, musing on this speech. O Morality, O Logic, O Wisdom! At his age! So, they deprived him of the only pleasure he could still enjoy, out of care for his health! His health! What was that inert and palsied wreck to do with his health if he had it? Were they husbanding his days? His days? How many: ten, twenty, fifty, or a hundred? And why? For his own sake? Or was it in order to preserve to the family the spectacle of his impotent greed?
    He had nothing to do in this life, nothing. Only one desire, one pleasure, remained to him; why not give him full measure of that last pleasure, give it him until he died of it?
    At last, after a long game of cards, I went up to my room to bed; I was sad, very, very sad.

I think the narrator’s thoughts on the family’s cruel treatment of the old man reflects our own feelings on the subject but the family seem oblivious of their cruelty. Haven’t we all found ourselves in a similar situation, maybe not so extreme, where we witness something like this but are unsure whether to intervene? This is a brilliant story by Maupassant; one of his stories that is just a short episode, a snapshot of contemporary life that he did so well.

This post is cross-posted on the Marvellous Maupassant blog.

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‘The Invisible Collection’ by Stefan Zweig

german-literature-month-viI am having trouble getting started with my reading for GLM VI, what with prior reading commitments, work and general weariness/laziness. But in order to get things going I thought I’d re-read a story by Stefan Zweig that I read earlier in the year and one which I enjoyed thoroughly. It was one of my favourites in the Pushkin Press collection, Collected Stories of Stefan Zweig. It was originally published in 1925 as Die unsichtbare Sammlung. Please be warned though that this review contains spoilers. I also reviewed another short story from the collection called Mendel the Bibliophile.

The main story involves an antique dealer who tells the narrator the troubles he’s been having recently—the story was written in 1925 and is presumably during the period of hyperinflation in the Weimar Republic. He mentions that in order to stimulate trade he’d fallen back on lists of old customers. He was just returning from one such customer, an octogenarian, whom his firm hadn’t heard Zweig-Collected-Storiesfrom since the outbreak of World War One even though he had been a regular customer for the previous fifty years or so. The antique dealer reckoned that it would be worth paying the gentleman a visit as either the old man or his heirs may be willing to sell some of his pieces. He discovers that the old man is still alive and as he has few visitors he is happy to talk to the antique dealer. Upon meeting the old man the dealer realises that he is now blind, which slightly unnerves him. The old man is not stupid and realises that the dealer is there to try to drum up business from his old customers but they nonetheless get on well together and the old man looks forward to showing the dealer his collection and talking to someone who knows the subject. But just when the old man calls for the key to his collection of artworks and engravings his wife attempts to put him off until after lunch when his daughter, Annemarie, can be present. The old man accepts grudgingly.

When the dealer has finished his lunch at the hotel he is visited by the daughter, Annemarie. She is flustered and explains that her father’s collection is not complete anymore as several items have been sold due to hard times. She tells the dealer how they attempted to get by without touching the collection but in the end they had to, without, of course, her father knowing. Every day he would ‘look’ through his collection not realising that most of it had been sold and replaced with cheap reprints. The daughter pleads with the dealer to play along and not to enlighten the old man.

“Maybe we have done him an injustice, but we couldn’t help it. One must live, and human lives, the lives of four orphaned children as well as my sister, are surely worth more than sheets of printed paper. To this day, what we did hasn’t taken any of his pleasure from him; he is happy to be able to leaf through his portfolios for three hours every afternoon, talking to every print as if it were a human being. And today…today would perhaps be the happiest day of his life; he’s been waiting years for a chance to show a connoisseur his darlings. Please…I beg and pray you, please don’t destroy his happiness!”

So of course the dealer agrees to keep the secret and returns with her to her parents’ apartment. The old man begins to lovingly show his Dürer prints and Rembrandt sketches to the dealer, gazing at them and touching them, caressing them as he describes them in detail and how he acquired them, not realising that they were cheap copies. Although at first disconcerted, the dealer begins to play his part of the enthusiastic art lover and exclaim when each piece was presented.

And so that headlong, eloquent recital of his triumphs went on for another good two hours. I can’t say how eerie it was to join him in looking at a hundred, maybe two hundred blank sheets of paper of poor reproductions, but in the memory of this man, who was tragically unaware of their absence, the prints were so incredibly real that he could describe and praise every one of them unerringly, in precise detail, just as he remembered the order of them: the invisible collection that in reality must now be dispersed to all four corners of the earth was still genuinely present to the blind man, so touchingly deceived, and his passion for what he saw was so overwhelming that even I almost began to believe it.

The old man is so pleased with showing his treasures to someone who knows their true worth that he doesn’t want it to end. Reluctantly he accepts that the dealer must leave to catch his train. The women look towards the dealer with gratitude that he has made the old man happy with his complicity. The dealer feels a little ashamed that he was being thanked when his original intentions had been to try to obtain a few good items to sell.

And I felt—I can’t put it any other way—I felt a sense of reverence, although I was still ashamed of myself, without really knowing why.

This is a beautifully simple story. I’m sure that most of us have been praised for something that has turned out well but where our original intentions weren’t so benevolent. Zweig’s clear, simple style is a joy to read; it reminds me of writers like Chekhov but also of Ingmar Bergman’s style of telling a story, at least his earlier works anyway, where there is no clutter, no side stories or tricks, just keep the story simple and keep to the point. Everyone should try Stefan Zweig at some point—I’m glad I have.

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‘The Neon Wilderness’ (Part 2) by Nelson Algren

1947-club-pinkFollowing on from my earlier post on two of the stories from The Neon Wilderness I thought I’d comment on some of the others. The opening story, the captain has bad dreams, is an amusing piece; it’s not really a story as such, rather it consists of a parade of petty criminals coming before the police captain and verbally sparring with him. They have to stand under a bright light and make a sort of confessional before the cynical captain. The criminals’ explanations are generally amusing, and the captain’s replies just as funny.

    “She fell down. I went to help her up, so her pocketbook opened up. I was helpin’ her to pick up the t’ings.”
    “You’re always helpin’ women pick up their things, somehow. We got six warrants for you from New York for helpin’ out there.”

    “You ever been arrested before?”
    “No sir. This is my first time.”
    “The first time this week, you mean.”
    “Oh, I been arrested in Michigan. I thought you meant in Illinois. I never been arrested in Illinois. I never did no wrong in Illinois.”
    “What good does that do you?”
    “It don’t. It’s just that I love my state so much I go to Michigan to steal,” he explained with an expression almost beatific.

And they keep on coming, one after another…and they haunt the captain in his sleep as well as when he’s awake.

A similar story is a bottle of milk for mother, but in this story it’s just Bruno Lefty Bicek being interrogated by the police. He’s accused of ‘jackrollin’ a drunk and killing him. Bicek denies this and innocently says he was just getting a bottle of milk for his mother when the police arrested him. But the police put pressure on Bicek to confess; he maintains that he hadn’t intended to murder the drunk but just to shoot him in the foot to get him off of him as they tussled. Bicek has to accept that he’s going to prison for manslaughter at least and the story ends with him in a prison cell. Although algren_neon-wilderness_fcx-700pxthe dialogue is as snappy as the captain has bad dreams this story has little humour—it’s a more serious piece. In the story depend on aunt elly Algren shifts his attention to a female character. It concerns Wilma who gets arrested for prostitution and after paying a fine is re-arrested and faces three years in prison, or some sort of correctional facility—Algren is often unclear about details. She manages to get out before her time is up by agreeing to pay her ‘Aunt Elly’ (actually a corrupt prison guard) a fixed sum each month. On the outside she shacks up with, and marries, a ‘flat-faced clown’ called Baby Needles. Things look good for a while but Wilma doesn’t tell her husband about the payments to Elly and then things start to go wrong and Elly catches up with Wilma. Although the story is downbeat it’s not depressing, it’s just that there’s an inevitability about their lives, they only have momentary release from the oppression of poverty and the law; they have to break the law to survive—until they’re caught.

Another stand-out story includes the face on the barroom floor, which is basically a story of a barroom brawl between the ‘mild-mannered youth’ Fancy and Railroad Shorty who got his legs chopped off by a train. Goaded on by the other drinkers the fight ends with Shorty pounding Fancy’s face.

For the face on the floor was no longer a face. It was a paste of cartilage and blood through which a single sinister eye peered blindly. The broken mouth blew minute bubbles of froth and blood.

In design for departure we are introduced to a couple of drunks, Sharkey and his latest woman called ‘the Widow’. But the focus of the story turns to Sharkey’s daughter Mary whose aim in life is to find a quiet room of her own with no doors where she can escape from the world. Although her father and the Widow are not abusive they are uninterested in Mary and don’t notice when she stops going to school and probably don’t notice when she leaves home for a dingy roominghouse and a job wrapping bacon.

Thus she lived in a twilit land between sleep and waking. And in sleep saw the terrible maze of the city’s million streets. Saw a million friendless faces, all going one way down a single avenue, each alone. Saw herself among them, touching strangers’ faces curiously, touching many hands; yet always untouched by any man’s hand and befriended by no woman.

As with Wilma in depend on aunt elly Mary encounters a man (Christy) who is good to her but who runs a protection racket and introduces her to drugs. But it’s when Christy is arrested and goes to prison that Mary’s life descends into a dreamlike insanity where she believes that she’s the Virgin Mary and Christy is Jesus Christ. It sounds bleak but there is some excellent writing here; at times Algren reminds me of Zola, Dickens or Dostoyevsky, and at other times he’s more like Kerouac, Céline or Bukowski. Here’s a great example from design for departure which evokes the lives of the inhabitants of the roominghouse:

Along the pavement-colored hall doors stood half open on either side, all the way down; each one was numbered in bright bald tin, each one stood just so much ajar in the gas-lit corridor. Just enough to reveal half-dressed men and women waiting for the rain or about to make love or already through loving and about to get drunk; or already half drunk and beginning to argue about how soon it was going to rain or whose turn it was to run down for whisky or whether it was time to make love again or forget it for once and just wait for rain.

What I find significant about Algren’s characters is that there are very few that you would call ‘bad’, let alone ‘evil’; they quite often do ‘bad’ things, usually as a consequence of a life of poverty. Algren doesn’t offer that as an excuse but instead forces us to try to understand the lives of these inhabitants of the urban underworld.

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‘The Neon Wilderness’ (Part 1) by Nelson Algren

1947-club-pinkAs I was trying to decide what to read for the ‘1947 Club’ two books jumped out at me; both were books I’d read before and which I’d been meaning to re-read for quite a while. As I’ll probably only have time to read one for this group I’ll have to ditch the other one, which was going to be Jean Genet’s Querelle of Brest, and instead just concentrate on The Neon Wilderness which is a collection of stories by Nelson Algren (1909-1981). Nelson Algren is a favourite author of mine but he seems to be largely forgotten or ignored these days. He is most famous for the books The Man With the Golden Arm (1949) which is about the morphine addict Frankie Machine (played by Frank Sinatra in the film version) and A Walk on the Wild Side (1956) which, like most of his books, is about the urban lowlife such as prostitutes, drunks, addicts etc. n.b. despite the Lou Reed song it has nothing to do with transvestites or transexuals. I think of Nelson Algren as a ‘pre-Beat’, one of those writers whose work must have influenced the Beats to some extent, even though he doesn’t get mentioned much by them. This post is going to concentrate on just two of the stories as they’re two of my favourites (of any author) and I’ll hope to post on some of the others during the rest of the week. The two stories are how the devil came down division street and stickman’s laughter. BTW In my edition all the titles are lowercase; I’m not sure if that was the case in the original edition but it seems to suit Algren’s style, and I like it, so I’ll stick to that in my posts.

I’ll start with the opening paragraphs of how the devil came down division street:

Last Saturday evening there was a great argument in the Polonia Bar. All the biggest drunks on Division were there, trying to decide who the biggest drunk of them was. Symanski said he was, and Oljiec said he was, and Koncel said he was, and Czechowski said he was.
    Then Roman Orlov came in and the argument was decided. For Poor Roman has been drunk so long, night and day, that when we remember living men we almost forget Poor Roman, as though he were no longer really among the living at all.
    “The devil lives in a double-shot”, Roman explains himself obscurely. “I got a great worm inside. Gnaws and gnaws. Every day I drown him and every day he gnaws. Help me drown the worm, fellas.”
    So I bought Poor Roman a double-shot and asked him frankly how, before he was thirty, he had become the biggest drunk on Division.

The narrator has to supply him with more drinks before he’ll unburden himself with his story. Roman’s story is a short story of a childhood of poverty which has a very Dickensian feel to it, especially when Roman relates how they found out how algren_neon-wilderness_fcx-700pxthe previous tenant of their flat, who they believe is haunting them, had beaten his wife to death and then committed suicide. But, if we think that Poor Roman was traumatised by this then we’d be wrong; in some ways it brought the family together as they prayed for the man’s soul and they gained the respect of the local neighbours and priest for being so compassionate. But as Roman’s father stops going out at night it means that Roman is left without anywhere to sleep in the crowded flat and so ends up sleeping during the day and going out at nights: ‘And at night, as everyone knows, there is no place to go but the taverns.’ And so he began to spend the whole nights in a tavern awaiting dawn, the bitterest hour. In a way it’s a silly story, but it’s the story of a drunkard trying to wheedle money out of the listener—and that opening is pure brilliance.

The story stickman’s laughter concerns the poor weak-willed Banty Longobardi who has a thing for gambling. The story begins:

Banty Longobardi trudged up his own back steps; his cap was in his hand and his pay on his hip. He’d take the old woman to the Little Pulaski—triple horror feature with blue enamel ovenware to the ladies and community singing.
    But the door was locked and the woman was out, so he went down the steps again. She ought to know better than to go visiting on a community-singing, free-ovenware night.

So what does Banty do now? He goes out to the gambling rooms; but he only bets a dollar, he’s just passing time until his woman gets home…and he’s lucky…he wins…and wins again…and leaves the establishment up by forty dollars. But when he returns home his wife is still not home, he can’t stay at home all alone so he goes out again, this time to the bar to waste some time.

Then he had three shots, to relieve the ache further, and began wondering how long he’d been gone. He didn’t want to drink up too much of the extra pay roll; but he’d give her plenty of time to get home and miss him a spell too.

Banty starts to get argumentative with the bartender, who tells Banty to go home and tells him he’s just seen his wife walk past on her way home. But instead of going home he finds himself back at the gambling room. He’s in a fuddled state, he wins money, he loses money, but he’s only betting with his previous winnings. Of course, his winnings disappear and facing the stickman’s laughter at his predicament he gambles all his pay as well—and loses everything.

And so Banty returns home, shamefaced; he hopes his woman is asleep so he won’t have to explain the stituation but she calls out to him from the bedroom. There’s no escape.

    “Are you coming to bed or are you going to stand there on one foot all night?”
    When she saw him shuffling toward her she switched off the light and lay back waiting for him in the dark. When he reached the bed he had only to wait for her to take his head on her breast.
    That’s the kind of old woman Banty had himself.
    “My fault,” she assured him softly, like a storyteller making up stories to put a child to sleep. “I knew it was payday but I went out just the same. No supper for poor Banty either. Poor Banty. Lost all his money and no supper either. Wanted to go to community singing and got hisself drunked up instead.”
    She felt his tenseness lessening. Felt his tears between the shadowed valley of her breasts. And knew that they were for her.

Yes, Poor Banty indeed. He’s just like a child, unable to stay at home when his wife isn’t there, unable to stay away from the gambling rooms. I have a bit of a soft spot for weak characters, that is, as long as the author doesn’t get too mawkish. But what is brilliant about the story is the compassion and forgiveness that his wife shows him, even though he’s lost all his pay. I mean it’s not really a very realistic ending as in reality it would most likely end up with a blazing row with most people—but they don’t and that’s what makes the story great.

I’m enjoying getting reacquainted with Algren’s work and I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the stories. I feel like re-reading some of his novels as well now.

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‘Sleep It Off Lady’ by Jean Rhys

jeanrhysreadingweek-bannerI hadn’t read anything by Jean Rhys before reading this book, not even her most famous work Wide Sargasso Sea, so it may seem strange starting with this one; but I like short stories and it can sometimes be interesting taking a different route through an author’s work than others. So, Sleep It Off Lady is a collection of short stories, published in 1976, and I believe was Rhys’s last work to be published in her lifetime…but please correct me if I’m wrong about this. Months before her death she had started on her autobiography, Smile Please, which I assume was her project following this collection of stories and is one which would seem very natural as this collection of stories almost reads like a collection of autobiographical stories presented chronologically from her childhood in Dominica, her move to London and Paris, attempts at making a living as an actress and on to her life as an ageing outsider in the provinces. My knowledge of Rhys’s life consists mainly of the Wikipedia entry and whatever I’ve gleaned from other posts I’ve read in the Rhys Reading Week but I think it’s justifiable to say that the stories in this collection, although fictional, draw heavily upon her own life. Marina @ findingtimetowrite has also mentioned the similarities of subject and style with the two books.

rhys-sleep-it-off-lady_fcx-700pxThe first few stories are set in the Caribbean at the turn of the 20th century. The first story, Pioneers, Oh, Pioneers, was a good one to start the collection; it begins with two young girls discussing the other inhabitants of the town and the narrative soon turns to the ‘nasty beastly horrible Ramage’, a handsome man, who had appeared a few years before and got married to a coloured girl, who couldn’t even be described as a ‘nice coloured girl’. Rumours about the goings-on at the Ramages’ house attracts the locals’ interest and ends rather badly. This story prepares us for the others in the collection as they concentrate on the outsider status of individuals in society, whether it’s Ramage in this story or the other Rhys-like characters in England.

The last of the ‘Caribbean stories’ is Fishy Waters, which begins as an epistolary story which introduces the case of Jimmy Longa, another outsider, who was on trial for trying to saw a young girl in half. Longa had claimed that it was just a drunken joke but the girl had been traumatised by the event. The story also concentrates on how these events affect Matthew Penrice, who discovered Longa in the act and who had to give evidence at court. In the end it’s not Longa’s story, the little girl’s story or Penrice’s story that claims centre-ground, instead it’s the whole society and the sense of alienation that they all feel.

But the alienation really kicks in with the subsequent stories as we encounter young girls at school and at work in England, recently arrived from the Caribbean. Not only do they have to encounter the cold weather but also a strange and bewildering social etiquette. Although Rhys’s style is quite sparse, she occasionally treats us to some great descriptive prose; here we have a description of a maid at a school from the story, Overtures and Beginners Please:

The maid came in to light up and soon it would be time to go upstairs and change for dinner. I thought this woman one of the most fascinating I had ever seen. She had a long thin face, dead white, or powdered dead white. Her hair was black and lively under her cap, her eyes so small that the first time I saw her I thought she was blind. But wide open, they were the most astonishing blue, cornflower blue, no, more like sparks of blue fire. Then she would drop her eyelids and her face would go dead and lifeless again. I never tired of watching this transformation.

And here is an excellent quote from one of the shorter stories that I feel sums up the feeling of most of the characters in these stories:

I had started out in life trusting everyone and now I trusted no one. So I had a few acquaintances and no close friends. It was perhaps in reaction against the inevitable loneliness of my life that I’d find myself doing bold, risky, even outrageous things without hesitation or surprise. I was usually disappointed in these adventures and they didn’t have much effect on me, good or bad, but I never quite lost the hope of something better or different.

Some of the othere stories are set in France, such as The Chevalier of the Place Blanche where the Chevalier is in need of money to pay off a debt but when he is offered the money from a young girl on the condition that he accompanies her to Madrid he cannot accept. Neither he nor the girl are particularly surprised and each goes their separate way.

Particlar favourites of mine are in the last third of the collection, such as Rapunzel, Rapunzel and the title story. Rapunzel, Rapunzel is a story about a stay in hospital followed by a period at a convalescent home. The narrator has to endure boredom, other patients and melancholy but another patient’s encounter with a visiting barber is possibly even worse.

Sleep It Off Lady begins with the elderly Miss Verney talking about death, which has been on her mind recently. She has a mission to get rid of a shed on her property, only it’s difficult to get anyone interested in the project.

Left alone, Miss Verney felt so old, lonely and helpless that she began to cry. No builder would tackle that shed, not for any price she could afford. But crying relieved her and she soon felt quite cheerful again. It was ridiculous to brood, she told herself.

Being elderly and living alone is problematic as there are rats on her property, though no-one believes her, and there is always the problem of putting the rubbish out. This is a rather sombre tale but it’s probably my favourite in the collection and is a fitting conclusion to those that preceeded it as it’s about ageing, loneliness, alienation, helplessness and decay…with a bit of indifference thrown in for good measure.

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