Monday, January 22, 2007

M. R. James – ‘Count Magnus and Other Ghost Stories’

A ghost story of which the scene is laid in the twelfth or thirteenth century may succeed in being romantic or poetical: it will never put the reader into the position of saying to himself, ‘If I’m not very careful, something of this kind may happen to me!’ (p. 255, from the preface to More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary)

For the modern reader, the distinction James makes here is a fine one. The early 1900s are a century behind us, and he writes – as he admits – in a Victorian style which takes him back a further 50 years. Though one is easily drawn into the stories here, and frequently gripped by them, they do not come across as ghostly intrusions into the modern world. Unless you’re a historian or an archaeologist, these cautionary tales do not work as such, and unless you’re an academic, and a bachelor, their milieu will not begin to match your own. I can’t help but think that this double strangeness works to their advantage, though, and that James is being disingenuous claiming the setting as normal. In the stories he is disingenuous all the time, most obviously in his descriptions of ghosts. For example:

Sir Matthew stopped and said:

‘What is that that runs up and down the stem of the ash? It is never a squirrel? They will all be in their nests by now.’

The Vicar looked and saw the moving creature, but he could make nothing of its colour in the moonlight. The sharp outline, however, seen for an instant, was imprinted on his brain, and he could have sworn, he said, though it sounded foolish, that, squirrel or not, it had more than four legs. (p. 40, from ‘The Ash-Tree’)

So much is withheld that only a blur remains in the mind: not a squirrel, moving, indistinct in colour, ‘more than four’ legs (not a precise number, despite the ‘sharp outline’). It is the slipperiness of such descriptions which lend them their power. They create a chasm of apparent uncertainty, suggesting impossible beings with inexplicable powers, pursuing all too rational all too inevitable revenge. ‘Apparent’ uncertainty because, of course, as soon as you come across a passage such as the above, you know very well that this is what the preceding patina of historical records and artefacts has been building towards: this, ladies and gentlemen (but mainly gentlemen), is the ghost.

This kind of moment is similar to what happens in Sherlock Holmes stories when the truth (or some of it) becomes apparent. When a beggar’s twisted lip is washed off with a wet sponge and he is revealed as an un-scarred ex-accountant. It’s what you’ve been looking for all along, and you judge the success of each such moment by how little you saw it coming. ‘Silver Blaze’ was always my favourite for that, ‘Thor Bridge’ not far behind. M. R. James sets up stories in a similar way, always attempting to have it appear as though the evidence in each case is speaking for itself, but palpably working behind the scenes to achieve his effects. In one story (I seem curiously unable to locate it – perhaps it moved) the relation of the supernatural happens on the golf course, but its author is so uninterested in the game that he invites the reader to insert golfing comments as appropriate. This highlights two things: that the author is not necessarily to be trusted, if he’s going to go about his realism in such a sloppy manner; and, more importantly, that however much he may affect to be dispassionate in describing his stories’ situations (and he is usually more careful than in the golfing story), absolutely everything in them is there in order that a ghost may walk in their midst, just as everything in Holmes is there to illustrate the canny solution of a crime.

Usually I’m fantastically snobbish about motives like this: who cares if someone’s head got bashed in, or if they got up and wailed for a hundred years afterwards? I prefer precisely the kind of story which makes me think: ‘If I’m not very careful, something of this kind may happen to me!’ – see last week’s awe of Richard Yates. Just occasionally though, a bit of hokum is just fine, and this was pretty fine hokum.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Richard Yates – ‘Collected Stories’

Yesterday on a long train journey with S., after a game of Scrabble which I found tedious and she won by a mile, I was listening to my Walkman and got up to retrieve the train times from my coat pocket, wanting to see exactly how delayed we were. I had my phone in my hand, having earlier sent a text to Dad (who was picking us up) saying we were going to be late, to which he’d just replied. Upon sitting down again, she said, ‘Do you want to use my phone? It’s pre-paid.’

‘No thanks,’ I said, a bit abruptly.
‘Is it because you want to use yours?’
I put the left earphone back in, wanting to get back to my music. But of course, it doesn’t work like that. I don’t know about her, but certainly for me, the scene continued: involuntarily, I imagined it escalating: ‘Actually, I wasn’t going to phone anyone. I wasn’t even going to text anyone – I just received a text, and you misread the situation. You thought I’d got my phone from my coat, because your phone’s in your coat, because you’re a girl and don’t have pockets. And OK, if I was going to phone someone it would be useful to do it for free, but I mean texts, what do they cost? 10p? The hassle involved in explaining to the person I may or may not be about to text that this isn’t my phone, not that I’ve run out of credit or anything, but S. has free texts to use up so don’t go replying to this number on a regular basis, just in the next few minutes, if you want, not that I’m telling you what to do, makes it not worth while. Why do you always have to complicate things?’

I’m ashamed to admit that this is how my mind works on occasion. In dramatising this little scene to myself, I also played out S.’s probable reaction, in less detail. Something along the lines of, ‘Are you serious? I’m complicating things? I was trying to be helpful! That’s it, I never want to see you again.’ Then it struck me how similar all this was to the final story in the Richard Yates book, ‘A Convalescent Ego’. In it, a husband takes offense when his overworked wife says in response to a lame offer of help: ‘Oh, no, I don’t think so, Bill. You just – rest, or whatever it is you’re doing.’ This leads to:
Bill settled back on the couch and picked up the magazine again, but the rankling memory of her words made it impossible to read. ‘Rest, or whatever it is you’re doing.’ And what did she expect him to be doing, two weeks out of the hospital? He was on doctor’s orders to rest, wasn’t he? Angrily he shut the magazine and flipped it toward the coffee table. (p. 461)
Then he breaks one of the new cups his wife bought that they couldn’t really afford with him not earning, and he works himself up more and more in defence of his supposedly slighted masculinity. Was that at the back of my own irritation with S.? I’m the man. I may not earn very much but at least would you allow me to pay for my own text messages?

In his introduction to this volume, Richard Russo writes:
Dream big and we’re expected to fail. [...] Dream small, Yates seems to suggest, and we’re expected to succeed. As a result, failure ensures not just disappointment, but humiliation, anguish, and, most dangerous of all, the impulse to dream smaller next time, thereby risking even greater failure. The characters we meet in Yates’s stories are often already the victims of diminished expectation. (pp. xi-xii)
It is true that Yates’ characters frequently suffer bad luck, or find themselves in humiliating circumstances, but I found Russo’s comment tough to square with the vivid stories themselves. They seem so true to life that, almost by definition, they offer hope, if only via an understanding of failure. It is also true on a few occasions that the author appears to revel in the misfortunes he describes. In ‘The Canal’, for instance, one of several WWII stories, the protagonist (Lew Miller) would seem to have enough on his plate running in the dark with his company, under fire, carrying a spool of wire which digs into his hand. Whenever they are fired upon, the whole company throw themselves on the sodden ground, carrying on when the coast is clear. Miller can only find his way by following the man directly in front of him, Shane. This is as far as he can see. When the height of this man changes and Miller realises it’s no longer Shane that he’s following, he realises that he’s lost the wire squad and is suddenly out of place, useless. Yates is interested not so much in the hard conditions of warfare as in the fact that it’s possible to make a fool of yourself even in life threatening circumstances. The screw is turned even tighter by the framing of the story: Miller has been reminded of the incident by a hale and hearty fellow former combatant at a party years later, who wants to compare heroic deeds. In front of their wives. It’s as excruciating as any episode of Extras.

Another war story, ‘Jody Rolled the Bones’, is peculiar in that it is told in first person narration, without the narrator appearing at all. It deals with the training of a platoon (not sure I’ve got the army terminology right here, but – a group of ten, fifteen men) firstly by a proud disciplinarian, Sergeant Reece, then by Ruby, a ‘Good Joe’ who lets them run riot. It is extremely good on group dynamics, and I suppose this is the reason for the narrator’s absence. Groups of this size have leaders, losers, and people in between – the narrator falling, one presumes, into the latter category. He is one of the crowd, he bulks it out, but he doesn’t upset it or alter its course in any way. In other stories about groups, Yates nails the primary classroom (‘Doctor Jack-o’-Lantern’), and the TB ward (‘No Pain Whatsoever’, ‘Out with the Old’, ‘A Clinical Romance’). There are also stories about childhood (‘Oh, Joseph, I’m So Tired’, ‘A Glutton for Punishment’), his writing career (‘Builders’) and often sour romances (‘Liars in Love’, ‘Saying Goodbye to Sally’). Autobiographical elements give themselves away by appearing in multiple stories (the sculptor mother, the TB, getting the sack through an inability to write stock exchange prose), but if they didn’t, you wouldn’t be able to detect the join, so good is the behavioural detail. If Gertrude Stein likes to slop words every which way, covering all angles at once and forcing the reader to average out just what it is she’s getting at, Yates brings off detailed miniatures, which are a world weary pleasure to unpack.

A few more prize quotations:
Girls. Would they always drive you crazy? Would their smiles of rejection always drop you into despair and their smiles of welcome lead only into new, worse, more terrible ways of breaking your heart? Were you expected to listen forever to one of them bragging about how paper-thin her womb was, or to another saying, 'We can only stay a little while?' Oh, dear Christ, how in the whole of a lifetime can anybody understand girls? (From 'A Natural Girl')
Finally Blaine turned back. 'All I'm saying,' he began, with the elaborate patience of a man who has pulled himself together, 'is the very simple fact that some persons are endowed with an ability to handle themselves well, and that we call this ability talent, and that it need have nothing whatever to do with accumulated knowledge, and that a vast majority of persons lack this ability. Now, is that clear? (From 'Thieves')
From the same story:
It seemed almost that he couldn't stop, that the talking was a kind of convulsion, a bloodless haemorrhage.

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