Sunday, May 22, 2022

The Penguin Books of British Short Stories (5) - ongoing review




Edited by Philip Hensher

My previous reviews of older or classic fictions:

My review of the Penguin Book of the Contemporary British Short Story:

When I read the stories in the above two books, my thoughts will appear in the comment stream below:


12 responses to “*

  1. In future I shall be alternating two stories from the more modern collection above with just one from the older collection, instead of one alternately from each collection as previously.

  2. RHYS DAVIES: A Human Condition

    “Yet those chimes were like knells bringing grief. Grief, grief. A sensation of burning grief,…”

    Knells and knellbows, this story is a masterful story of a man called Mr Arnold who was once big in the city of London, now pastured out in the sticks in everlasting retirement, and today striving to get various pubs to serve him endless doubles of whiskey on his biggest day of all, on the very day he later falls into not his own grave, but into his dear dear wife’s newly dug one, but perhaps that ignores his big day’s coda with a nurse where they nurse him back to health. Intensely felt, slightly black humour, and less than slightly black resonances with my own life in still gradual actuality. Full of the gluey Zenoism of time that has bedevilled my reviewing during the years of lockdown. Perhaps never too late to speed up and live again? Whatever, this story is absolutely beautifully written.
    “He had the feeling he was in a dream in which a ghostly, senseless frustration dogs one’s every move. The cat slept. The hands of a dusty old clock remained neatly and for ever together at twelve o’clock.”
    And of course, it has its own elbow triggers…
    “The two men took his elbows, and now he submitted to their aid. […] ‘We can only hope people will think it’s grief.’ […] George and Henry took Mr Arnold’s elbows to assist him for the last look.”

    ‘Me! Me!’

  3. FRANCIS KING: The Mouse

    A haunting story of a married couple, young, broke, he coercive, even threatening and presumptuously expectant of her parents’ wealth, she seemingly submissive, their small daughter Mavis given by them the mouse as a gift in a cage, a gift despite the family’s cost of living crisis, he an ambitious musician, she the wife helping with this when he is sick and also doing for the old man downstairs as char for money. Mavis, mouse, matchboxes, the old man’s lazily musing massive mastiff in the shared garden. Beauty and the beast, the mouse and the monster. Which the magnet to which? Which the music’s mute dying-fall from the platform or the rostrum?

  4. ISRAEL ZANGWILL: The Tug of Love

    From the near marriage-broking and almost identical tug of magnetic love of the previous story above and the expectation of a wife’s dowry money, with monster and mouse, to this sparkling apotheosis of Jewishness in resonance within a firm of machinists, here with stuffed monkeys, not matchboxes, and a finger filched for diamond engagement ring after she grasped a man’s hand of mis-seen cloud earlier in mischief. Left hand or right, this is a marvellous co-resonance by oblique music of words. Read these stories in this order of reading and you will see! (But only one has a happy ending, beware.)

  5. WILLIAM SANSOM: A Contest of Ladies

    “handbag swinging like a third buttock,…”

    This is a truly remarkable tour de force of a novelette with many stylish passages as well as scatological twinges, a work that genuinely staggered me with its cheek! Lengthy descriptions that outdo anything you can imagine in nip and tuck tactility and fell pungent sexuality with far too close-up images of ladies in a seaside beauty contest each with “her-little triangle and her two small moons, nothing else,…”
    The English seaside place is a genius loci supreme that I recognise from my experience of some seventy years.
    There is so much I could quote to demonstrate what I say that I am spoilt for choice. So I am quoting very little.
    ‘Button-Putton. Holey-Poley. Button-Put – no, damn, Holey-Poley …’
    Six of these European ‘beauty’ ladies (one with ‘black beards’ of armpit hair) are well-characterised as individuals with hilarious undertones, all in interface with a wealthy man, once a celebrity, who somehow accidentally puts them up in his large mock-hotel that he likes living in on his own, pretending it’s a real hotel. The male jokesters in the town and members of the Yacht club and something do with Barium Meal, induces this situation and later resulting in him becoming one of the contest judges and his consequent snubbing of one of the beauty ladies, as she sees it… who gets her revenge by…
    Well that would spoil it. But I am reminded of the brilliant deadpan ending of Wilkinson’s Wife above!

    “He had found Miss Clermond-Ferrand sitting with her head in her beautiful hands and each elbow cupped in the half of a lemon.”

    My previous review of William Sansom:

  6. SAMUEL SELVON: Knock On Wood

    “…one night Jarvis and me combing the Bayswater Road late to see if we could pick up a little thing to pass the time away.”

    “Jupsingh have on a colin-wilson and he keep pulling the long sleeves down to cover his fingers, like gloves.”

    Well, Colin Wilson did write ‘The Outsider’, if not outerwear. And Jupsingh is one of the outsiders in Bayswater, with a wooden pole always in his coat, to knock on for superstition’s sake, much like the kissing of the cross…

    “and kissing a sign of the cross what he have pin on to the front of the colin-wilson. And he knocking wood. He knocking chair, table, floor – anything make out of wood in my room.”

    Coloured men who want to be cuddled — forties, fifties, sixties, Caribbean, Indian? — one of them bringing a girl here from Woking to try cuddle and bed in those un-woke times. A story told by one of them in the caricatured parlance of such men in those days, I guess. Mostly talking about bed arrangements — pairing or three? — for the night, just like in Mysterious Kôr, I guess.
    The girl was having none of it, not until perhaps she met one of their uncles.

  7. ARNOLD BENNETT: The Death of Simon Fuge

    “My belief is that I am to this day known and revered in Bursley, not as Loring the porcelain expert from the British Museum, but as the man who first, as it were, brought the good news of the Rossetti Limericks from Ghent to Aix.”

    This is quite a discovery for me, covering aesthetics in and out of its social history and art’s place of where it’s being shown and earthenware like Wedgwood, with coincidences of Knype and the artist Fuge whose recent death being by chance in the newspaper that I read on the train getting there, Fuge as part of the swarming fugue — Richard Strauss, Mozart and Brahms notwithstanding, and the Domestic Symphony of two families with mumps or not mumps in the Five Towns and its grit and ugliness — a swarm of people that bombard our narrator (me) at the Knype train station in the Five Towns of the Potteries, and the later swarming at the reading room, the wink of my host, me from the British Museum to help him with the Wedgwood of the parochial museum, and his final quasi-wink, his wife, and his friend’s wife who was the more stolid sister of the other sister (the latter now a barmaid as a sort of Goddess of the Private Bar), two sisters who had both been on the bosom of the lake with Fuge when they were younger. “And his dalliance, his tangential nocturnal deviations in gondolas with exquisite twin odalisques!” What I find out about them is apotheosised by the tension between them in the heavenly light of the Fuge painting as seen in a parochial museum, a painting of a girl that one will never forget reading about! Only ordinary human men can create such perfect art. 

    But what elbows!
    Mr Brindley is my host, and the text talks about bridling and unbridling. And how to roll cigarettes. And a love of the Manchester Guardian. And does he say women will be women at one stage? Or women are all alike? Well, this story transcends those questions of mysogyny with a sublime character study of women and art. This is a masterpiece, and I am rambling randomly around in my own fugue of a review to nail it down. I never shall, nor will you!
    Not forgetting Oliver Colclough and his work in sanitary wear.
    And the Tiger pub in interface with Hortulus Animae.
    And Anna Brett, the barmaid sister in the Private Bar, one of the sisters from the lake jaunt with Fuge, is also seen with the mole-meticulousness of a Sansom Beauty Queen above…
    The lake was a crucial lake for canals and railways, too.
    Fixed up finally by the book doctor, for alcoholic hangover if not for aesthetic overdose…

    “the clean-faced southerner, who is apt to forget that coal cannot walk up unaided out of the mine,…”

    “In truth, I felt myself to be a very brittle, delicate bit of intellectual machinery in the midst of all these physical manifestations. Yet I am a tallish man, and these potters appeared to me to be undersized, and somewhat thin too! But what elbows!”

    “My drawbridge goes up as if by magic, my postern is closed, and I peer cautiously through the narrow slits of my turret to estimate the chances of peril. Nor was Mr Brindley offensively affable.”

    “…through which the train wound its way. It was squalid ugliness, but it was squalid ugliness on a scale so vast and overpowering that it became sublime.”

    “This ‘Ha!’ was entirely different from his ‘Ah!’”

    “…and down the main road a vast, white rectangular cube of bright light came plunging – its head rising and dipping – at express speed, and with a formidable roar.”

    “They bore down the steps, hands deep in pockets, sweeping over me like Fate.”

    “If you undermine the moral character of your fellow-citizens by a long course of unbridled miscellaneous philanthropy, you can have a funeral procession as long as you like, at the rate of about forty shillings a foot.”

    “It had the terrible trite ‘museum’ aspect, the aspect that brings woe and desolation to the heart of the stoutest visitor, and which seems to form part of the purgatorio of Bank-holidays, wide mouths, and stiff clothes.”

    “…and yet Simon Fuge had somehow caught in that face a glimpse of all the future of the woman that the girl was to be, he had displayed with exquisite insolence the essential naughtiness of his vision of things. […] It was Simon Fuge, at any rate all of Simon Fuge that was worth having, masterful, imperishable. And not merely was it his challenge, it was his scorn, his aristocratic disdain, his positive assurance that in the battle between them he had annihilated the Five Towns.”

    In that Tiger’s Private Bar as shrine or theatre of footlights … 

    “Three perpendicular planes. Back plane, bottles arranged exactly like books on book shelves; middle plane, the upper halves of two women dressed in tight black; front plane, a counter, dotted with glasses, and having strange areas of zinc. […] A private bar is as eternal as the hills, as changeless as the monomania of a madman, as mysterious as sorcery. Always the same order of bottles, the same tinkling, the same popping, the same time tables, and the same realistic pictures of frothing champagne on the walls, the same advertisements on the same ash-trays on the counter, the same odour that wipes your face like a towel the instant you enter; and the same smiles, the same gestures, the same black fabric stretched to tension over the same impressive mammiferous phenomena of the same inexplicable creatures who apparently never eat and never sleep, imprisoned for life in the hallowed and mystic hollow between the bottles and the zinc.”

    “The boxes of light were flashing up and down it, but otherwise it seemed to be quite deserted. Mr Brindley filled a pipe and lit it as he walked. The way in which that man kept the match alight in a fresh breeze made me envious. I could conceive myself rivalling his exploits in cigarette-making, the purchase of rare books, the interpretation of music, even (for a wager) the drinking of beer, but I knew that I should never be able to keep a match alight in a breeze. He threw the match into the mud, and in the mud it continued miraculously to burn with a large flame, as though still under his magic dominion. There are some things that baffle the reasoning faculty.”

    “I knew my deplorable tomorrows.”

    “No, there are no half-measures in the Five Towns.”

    “‘Well,’ I said, ‘we shall see – in fifty years.’
    ‘That’s just what we shan’t,’ said he. ‘We shall be where Simon Fuge is – dead! However, perhaps we are proud of him. But you don’t expect us to show it, do you? That’s not our style.’

    I have become a different person after reading this strange aberration of literature.

  8. MURIEL SPARK: Bang-Bang You’re Dead

    “Désirée would sit innocently cross-legged beside you at a party, watching the conjurer, then suddenly, for no apparent reason, jab at you viciously with her elbow.”

    …as this substantive story does to me, its conjurer being the author. But my bruised reading-ribs openly provide evidence that this is one of the relatively rare works of fiction chosen, as if preternaturally, for or by me to read that did not have a magical trick working for me. I sometimes have a hiatus or leap of meaning that takes me nowhere. My fault.
    Especially in this work’s Colonial post-Kôr Africa, but I did appreciate the alternations of Sybil’s projected reels from her past and her projected reals of present time. Her approximation to another girl and, later, woman called Desirée, and the confusion of shooting incidents. And their childhood with other Doubles called the Dobell boys all of whom conjure Richmal Crompton’s William and Evadne Price’s Jane. And the other characters that grow into Sybil’s future … and her past. 

    “Sybil vowed to herself each night, I will do the same to her. Next time – tomorrow if it isn’t raining – I will bang-bang her before she has a chance to hang her panama on the bough as a decoy.”

  9. I reviewed the next story in the past, as follows….



    BIND YOUR HAIR by Robert Aickman

    “‘Let there be wet,’ quoted Clarinda to herself in her clear gentle voice. ‘Oh let there be wet.’”

    And now, of course, we duly arrive at the most clinging and insidious ‘I’m not sure that time is the essence, Slow,’ of them all — indeed the most  gluey Zenoism (“it was now something after half past”) in the shape of the MIST against the wetness of which Clarinda, during a solitary  outing, needs to bind her hair, as she wades through near ankle-breaking  muddiness, and through very soft rubber and other resistances of passage, an outing that she foolhardily takes during this first stay with her future husband’s ‘lobster-pot’ of a family in an empty part of an English county whereto rich men of the shoe and the bootlace industry retire, one of them being  her fiancé’s father. She tries to escape, by means of this  outing, from the socially claustrophobic  house and its hindsight promise of an over-large  breakfast fated for  the next morning. An outing that turns out to be darkly time-mazed with gradients of early cinematography, including  sights of pigs and smells of unsavouriness and meeting two indeterminate children and a slouching mis-languaged man with a shepherd’s crook, and the unforgettable Mrs Pagani who had been part of the original social gathering at the family house. 

    A story that is another theme-and-variations by Aickman upon the Lordly Ones, I guess. There is even, within it, a vision of my own photo above that  I have used time and time and time again in my reviews, a photo originally taken uncounted years ago. Not forgetting the children’s diving-suits with hoods. And the long red mouths. And listening to four chapters of PERSUASION read aloud by the father in one sitting before supper. No need, surely, to provide  further inducement for those with sufficient sump to receive this story. And strong enough ankles to kick away its boars.

    “Can I change my shoes?”

    All my reviews of Robert Aickman

Saturday, May 21, 2022

The Fig Garden & Other Stories by Mark Valentine — ongoing review


9 thoughts on “The Fig Garden & Other Stories — Mark Valentine

  1. The first work I reviewed in May 2015, as follows…


    “But to be accounted an author, more, an artist, a philosopher even, I must draw out some motif, some profound essence.”

    And as Melchior does, so do I upon him, with this review. His ‘fictional’ notes whence I need to draw out a motif, a gestalt even, are thus, I sense, not fiction at all. Ostensibly, this is a disarmingly ornate traditional tale, with sedge and church carvings &c. &c., academic research, eccentricity, exegesis of Genesis, a tale located upon the cusp of England-Wales, upon the darkly ancient edge, too, of Romano-Britain, when King Arthur and Demons and the Devil’s helpers were later spoken of, by we later  imagegenerations, as living still. We learn of these men of the present day, men with surnames like Verrall, Melchior and Nightcap, in this John Cowper Powys world of puckishly pastoral and mystic ‘deep lanes’ that effectively exist today, if only in our minds. Machen, even, as well as Powys.
    Melchior (the narrator) visits his friend Verrall at this genius loci, and unlike in this book’s previous story, he is not waylaid into a different story, since he perseveres with the dangerously cosy-feeling journey towards his friend who is to be a major character, too, I guess, with dark resonances behind his hospitality. And a woman’s later recitation of Taliesin, perhaps unfitting for a Christian church, due to take place, with the Parson himself called Nightcap present…
    Now rushing back to the tale’s beginning, I need to recall that this whole thing ignites with Melchior’s ‘chance coincidence’ discovery of a magazine called Seven, and its retrocausal conjuring of this tale in his mind. A tale he has already lived. Moonlit croquet, too?
    The language is immaculate and Powys-poetic, without being difficult. As before, I shall try to eke it out, savour its olden timbres in my modern brain, before proceeding to its second half.


    “Would you be willing to ‘read’ one of his books?”

    As I usually try to do with what I have called these my ‘preternatural’ book reviews, I read this story as well as ‘read’ it in the sense meant by the story itself. “I no longer tried to lunge at the meaning of the words but let them rise from me with all their mystery.” A reader of a book often reads aloud to imaginary others from within himself.
    It is more Powys than Machen, I feel, but Machen nevertheless, and something else altogether, “a cone of utter otherness”, a cone zero, plus six with the reader making seven. Upon the various cusps of place, religion, historical time, of pottery with poetry.
    Valentine has managed to bring something to us between the precarious margins of tributary floridness and distinctively sublime texture, enhancing our appreciation of sumptuously imaginative literature in cusp with real or meaningful ecstasis.

    “Yet we live by myths and symbols. And who changes those, changes all.”


    “Have you ever gone beachcombing?”

    You can ask that again! I do nothing else, what with my time-seasoned souvenirs of the Serpent and the Wood/Stone/Metal Beam, et al (here) and now this momentous (at least for me) story that tells of tides of secret surge or urge that I recognise now for what they are. This story’s own echo of how I absorb and re-float books of fiction for others in instinctive equivalence to its “outer algebra” and “blind mirrors” and pent up black stones or pebbles dark-luminously summoning the hidden tides of the soul. I enjoyed the pungent seaweed tea that is evoked here for actual drinking and sharing with the fiction’s characters being told about by one of those very characters to others smoking pipes, the tide tables of CaNUTE and NepTUNE, the slap of “the dangling green ichors of wet seaweed” and ‘dry husks’ on the crooked drainpipes and outer walls of a matchless house by a place where tides differed between the two tide timetables, and the pipe smoke of those listening to this story within a story. A story within me, too.
    Not forgetting The Liar’s Dictionary syndrome of publishing a book with an odd mistake to reveal plagiarism…

  3. Pingback: The Outer Algebra | The Des Lewis Gestalt Real-Time Reviews Edit


    “They are just the alphabet of the profession, as it were. What you are missing is the story itself.”

    A new outer algebra that needs alphabetical letters for its ‘story’ character.
    A story of ancient inn-craft (“Good beer, good food, good company, and a good bed at night for the guests”) but with a ‘character’ needed to make it into a fine ghost story to which readers would come back time and time again with relished frissons on its rumour-advertised pumproom menu. That character was a Scandinavian with a Tree Companion and beliefs in pagan sorcery — a man called Ivar supposedly an old college friend of the would-be dependable innkeeper, Ivar having gone into the precarious walking-stick-as-prop business after college, a story’s character thus creating a diversion from the would-be innkeeper’s own over-coloured backstory’s plot of a suspect youthful behaviour in his college past! — and thus, in turn, creating a new backstory prop as the story proper about which for us to relish frissons, beyond a mock secret-room in the inn with a mere contraptive ghost as gimmick.
    With our own legacy or career ever “pried” or “plied”, we still need pray our own character be assured.

  5. Pingback: Character by Mark Valentine | Bowen KÔRner (The Circumflexing Elbow) Edit

  6. I read the next story in 2019 and reviewed it then as follows…



    “Though he was Leys by name, there was no ‘laze’ in his nature.”

    A luxuriantly elegant story so richly deserving of this particular author’s efforts to hone it. The still solid house, but rundown, is rented in the story by the narrator from a R.K. Leys who dies during it. The bequeathed pot-pourri holder and the garden of the house, and the essence of the flowers’ secret scent as loaned by the husks of their petals, and the eventually unfolded findings — beyond any strident eschatologies — of connections between that scent and the god Set, all make me further play around with the words myself and distil new meaning from them, to lay or set down, relay the Redolent Kinaesthetics of Flowers. A medley of cattleyas, and more. Set as Scent. The floral ley-lines veining the ark of history itself.

  7. For She Will Have Her Harvest

    “…the students idly scratched at the mud with their walking sticks…”

    The perhaps fictional tale of a modern man, amid the towning of our once spiritual countryside, who poetically and academically stalks the real Henry Kirke White, one of the ‘graveyard poets’ of the 18th century, a White lesser known than Gray, and this relatively short work is a vintage deployment of Valentine’s skill, stemming from a whole series of his works over the years, evoking the mysticism of poetry and legend, here of the Ceres that haunted White.

    “A radiance, as of some invisible candle, was upon the pale stone of the church tower, seen only in half-profile.”


    “the Candle Land, from Candlemas to Candlemas”

    “I might be a bit mystical at this point and say that I knew”

    Not Imbolc so much as Graal, this is possibly, for me, Mark Valentine’s greatest work ever, and that is saying a great deal. It is the artist as conduit, the candle land as a piece of rough ground that is somehow otherwise valuable, plus an honestly crafted, grafted but magical genius loci that truly exists, trees as potential candelabra or ‘outer algebra’, and a land bordering on others vaguely seen through the veil of words. A narrator who shares this narration with a woman, alternately, not a collaboration. It is perfect, as we experience a humble ritual or ceremony with a candlestick, where tenants of the poor squire (the first narrator) bid for the Candleland when the candle in the candlestick snuffs itself out after watching it burn. The woman narrator wins. The implications and the soul of this story will be bespoke to you as individual reader, I am sure, separately sharing this exquisite story as we do, but perhaps not this time triangulating and collaborating our reactions to it … along with all its shifting angles and shadows and reflections.

    “I watched the candle as it wore down and the pale wax tears dripped down the column (it had been my job as a boy afterwards to prise out the stub with a pen-knife and carefully scrape off the drips, and it still was now) and finally it began to sputter.”


    My own separate contribution to its coordinates (that you do not need click on so as to maintain the purity of your own vision of the story’s visionariness) is here, an ancient prose poem of mine, so different from the Valentine, but perhaps your perusal of it may blight or even complement it with a different narration. A ‘shadowy third’ as it were to the story’s two. The risk is yours.
    Null Immortalis.

  9. Pingback: Candle Land — Mark Valentine | The Des Lewis Gestalt Real-Time Reviews Edit