Are short stories the embryos of unwritten novels, or are they things in themselves? The great ones—and the greatest are surely Chekhov’s—seem to be saying all that need be said; one does not feel that a skeleton is going around in an overcoat, having forgotten to put on its suit of flesh beforehand; nor, on the other hand, that a lone knee is wandering through the world, foully separated from the parent body. When Chekhov cut off a slice of life, everybody knew where it came from. He wrote about a society, fatigued, disillusioned, and in decline, but still maintaining a deliquescent shape, which provided a widely understood reference system. More than the novel, the short story depended on that system, having so much less scope for creating a new one of its own.
Now that it’s gone, the short story (so handily small-scale and apparently effortless—too good a form to abandon) has cast about for other sources, and opted enthusiastically for the autonomous world of childhood. Reading at random in current short fiction, one comes to shudder at the idea of people being born at all lest they survive to write about their first fifteen years, that inexhaustible reservoir from which so many buckets of the elixir of meaning, pathos, poetry—why, life itself—have been drawn up. Along with narcissism goes another symptom of the form’s lack of motive or vitality: an obsession with brand-naming, itemizing, labeling (think of all the Band-Aids, Thermos jugs, Noblot Desk Pens, Jack Daniels Black Label, Natural Tangee—it puts one in mind of Pop Art), as if these pegs and threads could trap the Gulliver of life. Meantime, alienation itself has become a subject, a self-consuming one, and the more at odds with the center, the apter the writer. How many have been colonials, sexual aberrants, spokesmen of the defeated South, impoverished grandchildren of the affluent And women—the original outsiders.
Here, in any case, we have a trio of short story collections, each written by a woman born in the 1920’s at some distance from the civilized center. Doris Lessing grew up in Rhodesia, was a Communist until Hungary, has lived in London for some years, and has written several books. Janet Frame, a little younger, comes from New Zealand, now lives in London, has suffered long bouts of mental illness which she made the subject of an admired novel. Cecil Dawkins is an American Southerner (Alabama), has studied and taught short story writing, and this is her first published book. They are all females of a generation, all obliquely placed, all interesting writers, though their stories have little in common.
Doris Lessing’s talents are not best suited to the short story. She is an intelligent woman, with public as well as private sources, and nothing she writes is uninstructive. But at best these stories are sketches for novels, chapters from unwritten novels, fictionalized case histories, jottings that might be put to some larger use later. They are not sketchy for want of accumulated detail, streams of faithful dialogue, or adequate plotting, all of which are present, often together, at times to a dauntingly conscientious degree. But well-marshalled evidence is not proof: the trouble is not so much her sometimes stodgy naturalistic writing (which is more than made up for by the alertly observant intelligence), but a view of life that seems at times strident, unfair, and humorless.
She is, in fact, a feminist, and many of her stories read like reports from a specialist in the problems of gifted women who can’t find lasting or worthy men. How difficult it is, yes, for men and women to get along together, but she dwells on demonstrations of this haphazard failing as if it were an iron rule of life. Her observation of the fluctuating states of mind of insecure women is unnervingly shrewd and accurate, but she does no more than disconcert the reader because she manipulates her material to such a degree that one is never persuaded the inevitable is happening. The cards are all stacked from the start. The man must degrade himself by seducing the woman who despises him, and she must let him do it; the “happy” marriage must prove to be, under the serene amenities, a chaos of tears and torment; the spinster must reject her suitor; the poet must destroy his poems; the mistress and the wife, both abandoned, must get hopelessly drunk together; and so on. Not that exhaustion and self-defeat do not figure in most lives, but Miss Lessing’s own intelligence and palpable physical energy make one want to exclaim: No! These mistakes are not necessary; there are other possibilities in the situations she sets up. What she tells us had to happen was not, surely, inevitable. So compressed a form as the short story requires a sense of the necessity of events—things can’t be explained, they must speak for themselves. All the explaining in the world—and Doris Lessing often goes on so that one wants to shake her off—doesn’t take the place of the moment of intuition that wins one’s consent: Yes, how right.
Where she is least concerned with what she knows intellectually she is at her best. Two stories from her African childhood (I regret to say) are unmanaged and moving. “The Story of Two Dogs,” which is just that, is unsentimental (she is always matter-of-fact and dry-eyed, even when writing about broken hearts), but has an ironically qualified affection that is not common in her writing. “The New Man” gives a few glimpses of an ephemeral relationship between a middle-aged man and a nymphet, from Lolita’s viewpoint. It is an interesting, dense, even feeling story, but again one regrets the sketchiness. There is too much there to be tossed off so shortly. But that is an unusual complaint to lodge against a writer, and it is high praise of Miss Lessing, who ought to save up her short stories and put them to more organic use.
Janet Frame’s anomalous stories and fables, thirty-eight of them, come boxed and snowily bound in two volumes, urgently suggesting that should demurrers be raised as to just what they are, they are at any rate Art. Leaving aside labels, what are they on their own highly individual terms? Their author is a richly gifted writer in shaky control of her gifts; in fact, the gifts have the upper hand much of the time. But when these pieces work, some of life’s sad truths come smiling out of them. One gives one’s consent. When they don’t, the self-indulgent writing and suffocating self-absorption are too much for their diaphanous themes.
One of the best of the stories, “The Reservoir,” works with a childhood memory. Plotless, it flows and ripples as it will, but is always magnetized by a central ominous mystery: a place forbidden the children by the grownups. A sense of childhood’s spacious dimensions and its double-visioned consorting with the adult world rises like strong fumes from this recollection, seemingly unmediated by palpable art. Again, in “Prizes,” a theme is followed through a number of variations as in music. When she is firmly in command as she is in these and several other stories, she unlocks unsuspected doors.
But there is much else here that does not communicate more than an illegible suffering and surrender. She is numb to the social, historical world. Her subject is loss and death: over and over again she names all the parts of beautiful life only to conclude with the need to relinquish life itself. The monotony of the theme becomes unbearable in “Snowman Snowman,” a gigantic (103 pages) grabbag of blurry coyness, the faux nalf, rhetorical questions and exclamations straight out of a Victorian children’s tract, Beautiful Meanings that recollect Richard Le Gallienne and the worst of Oscar Wilde. It happens to contain a paragraph that gives the gist of most of her stories in a nutshell:
A man sent to a mail-order firm for a radio transmitting and receiving set. When he assembled the kit of tiny parts he found that he could send or receive only one message, S.O.S. He listened day and night, and he never found out who was sending the message or why he himself should be sending it, for he didn’t need to ask for help, he was not in despair, not bankrupt or crossed in love; his life was happy. He got up one morning, w a s h e d, dressed, looked out of his window at the world, and shot himself.
The paucity of this theme in many instances drives Janet Frame to mere automatic writing. She says Death, Time, but cannot enlarge our sense of their part in our lives, any more than one can be William Blake by talking about tigers and sheep.
One should not perhaps stress the failings of so natural-born a writer, except that they obtrude in such a large part of this over-blown collection. Of these three writers, she seems to me to have the greatest given talents, though not, alas, the greatest potential. Nevertheless, the best of these pieces, which are all mercurial intuition, funambulist linguistic cavortings, moues of witty metaphor, would have made a memorable little book.
Frame and Lessing have almost nothing in common except that they are writing women, but both, nevertheless, have strong personalities that impose through the fabric of the narrative, demanding our total acquiescence. Where the spacious novel manages to absorb the presence of such authors, the short story obliges us to keep crossing the threshold of their worlds over and over again. Before long, one is exhausted and overpowered, as if by a hostess rigged up in a new outfit every time, welcoming us in for a snack. Cecil Dawkins is a blander, shyer writer. She does not manipulate her situations, condescend to her characters—simple souls, most of them—nor make obstreperous use of her flair for pretty writing. Generally these stories record a crucial encounter between two people (not necessarily Southerners!), which alters both lives, but in which at the same time something is more likely to be given than taken away. Though one or two of the stories sound like New Yorker rejects, a little too comfily inconclusive, where she cuts loose on her own, writing with tactful compassion about semi-literate, inarticulate people who are half-consciously struggling to be more fully human, she develops a quiet moral charge. She never pretends to know better than they do; she does not patronize them nor show us how quaint they are. “Eminent Domain” happens largely inside the head of an old, deaf, superstitious Southern Negro woman into whose life comes a young man she takes for the Devil. The misunderstanding results in their bizarre deaths, but there is no sense of stage-management. What is remarkable is the sensitivity, integrity, and wisdom that is felt in the old woman, in spite of the fact that she never speaks and scarcely formulates a thought. In “A Simple Case” a blabbermouth hick, farcically named Harold Widkins, meets and kills a burglar in his kitchen. Out of this unpromising material the author develops most subtly an epiphany of hidden heroism. This is possible, because, jerk though this man appears to be, she allows him a baffled, struggling self-knowledge that gives him moral dignity. Nobody is too graceless, stupid, or unfavored to be honored for his humanity. The best story in the book, “The Quiet Enemy,” brings together two derelict souls resolutely living with the fewest possible connections between themselves and other people. The man, a junk dealer, and the woman, an ugly giantess who runs a truckers’ cafe, develop a grudging relationship that brings them to a point where they must face, and fail to, what each dreads most: she her true sex, he the need to love. The story is seen on the terms of these humble cripples, but the “inevitable” defeat is partly nullified by the awkward dignity with which they are invested by their attempts to be honest with themselves.
Cecil Dawkins is intelligent, she writes well, but what makes her interesting is her magnanimity. Why a writer with this quality should seem small compared with the self-assertive, self-preoccupied Lessing and Frame is puzzling. Perhaps just because she is a real short story writer, while they, are not. Her means have been nicely adjusted to her ends. The talent may be smaller, but the art is greater, for it absorbs her theme—which is not so much alienation itself as the quest to overcome it. A considerable, and refreshing, theme, even when worked on the head of a pin.
October 17, 1963