Good tales well told

Daniel Morden:
Secret Tales from Wales
Illustrated by Brett Breckon
Gomer Press 2017

Enough for one,
Too much for two,
Nothing for three.
What is it?
— epigraph to Secret Tales from Wales

I always smile to myself when I see journalistic headlines like The Top Ten Secret Beaches or The Secrets Only Locals Know, because once those details are screamed out at you and tens of thousands other readers, whether in hard copy or online, by definition it’s no longer a secret. They become the Top Ten Best Known Beaches or Famous Local Facts All the World Knows.

So the title of this book doesn’t refer to tales never ever revealed before but to stories about secrets. And the tales are from Wales because the writer is Welsh, not because they are unique to Welsh tradition.

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About children

1953 Coronation mug

Jan Mark: The One That Got Away.
Thirty Stories from Thirty Years
Roffo Court Press 2020

How have I not come across the fabulous Jan Mark before? I look over some of the titles of her children’s books, all written and published over some three decades from 1974, and find that not one rings a bell. Maybe they weren’t what I was avidly consuming then, or what our children brought back from the library, but I now find she represents a significant lacuna in my reading experience.

Collected here are some thirty short stories arranged by alphabetical order of titles; they represent a selection of varied narratives, from school stories to family vignettes via ghost tales and humorous anecdotes, speculative short fiction and flashbacks to life in the mid-20th-century, and everything else in between.

I can’t possibly comment on them all so I’ll point out the real highlights for me, the ones that lingered even more than others as I read through the collection over a month, though to be honest that could still be a lot more than the representative sample I was intending.

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Serene economy

carnegie-waukegan
Waukegan’s Carnegie library

Ray Bradbury:
Summer Morning, Summer Night
Edited by Donn Albright and Jon Eller
Harper Voyager 2015 (2008)

Its suburbs housed young and old, hermits and gossips, conservatives and eccentrics, the love-lorn and the unlovable; Green Town, Illinois, was — maybe still is — a town of mystery, secrets and heartaches underneath its bland exterior.

Bradbury’s chronicles of lives lived under his microscope extended from the observational vignettes in Dandelion Wine to the magic realism of Something Wicked This Way Comes. Based on the author’s childhood experience in Waukegan, Illinois, its aspiring middle-class neighbourhoods are portrayed as a hothouse harbouring secret passions and private obsessions, all seething beneath a thin veneer of respectability.

This selection of short stories (some only half a page long) similarly let the reader eavesdrop or spy on the everyday doings of townsfolk; but rather than it being an abusive relationship our fly-on-the-wall position allows us to extend our compassion to many of the denizens, just occasionally permitting us to be judgemental.

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Fierce wistfulness

Tove Jansson

Tove Jansson:
A Winter Book: selected stories
Sort of Books 2006

It seems that everybody who’s heard of Tove Jansson knows her as the author of a series of illustrated books about some Finnish trolls. Though I’ve yet to fall under their particular spell — and heaven knows enough people have urged me to — I’ve instead been captivated by her writing for adults.

My admiration began with the collection of short stories published in English as Art in Nature and continued with The Summer Book. Now, with the selection of pieces known as A Winter Book, I revisit some of the sense of wistfulness I’ve noted before, coupled with a fierce independence of spirit that permeates virtually every story.

Though there are references to ice and snow in some of the offerings, this alluring ragbag of writings (selected and introduced by writer Ali Smith) doesn’t deal exclusively with winter, but in a series of vignettes it does perfectly sum up that end of year feeling when one looks back to review what one’s life has accomplished and what it might all signify.

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Tales within tales

The Sleep of Reason (Wikipedia Commons)
The Sleep of Reason (Wikipedia Commons)

Ursula K Le Guin
A Fisherman of the Inland Sea: Stories
Harper Perennial 2005

Ursula Le Guin is best known for her fantasy and her science fiction writings, though she also writes other fiction as well as poetry, articles and reviews. The short stories in this 1994 collection, while firmly in the SF genre, also demonstrate her ability to compose in various tones, from light to dark, from gentle humour to philosophical musings. Originally published in various periodicals between 1983 and 1994, the narratives are clearly placed in context by an excellent introduction in which she not only discusses the tales but also mounts a spirited defence of SF as a genre, a defence which twenty years on may be less urgent though no less valid or effective.

She explains that she experiments with SF by using the form to explore character and human relationships, rather than exploring the ‘scientism’ and elitist technocracies that much traditional ‘hard’ SF was associated with and which put off the unconverted. She also denies that SF (and by extension, I suspect, fantasy) is necessarily escapist; instead, by exploring human characteristics, even or especially in alien humanoids, she throws light on our own humanity, humaneness, human-ness; she focuses on the potential strengths of SF, most particularly on a quality that is not always attached to this genre: beauty.

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Unwelcome guests

Diana Wynne Jones:
Stopping for a Spell
Illustrated by Chris Mould
CollinsVoyager 2002 (1993)

I patted the uncomfortable chairs and the poor ugly tables and stroked the piano.

“Chairs,” I said, “stand up for yourselves! He insults you all the time. Tables,” I said, “he said you ought to be burnt! Piano, he told Mum to sell you. Do something, all of you! Furniture of the world, unite!” I made them a very stirring speech, all about the rights of oppressed furniture, and it made me feel much better. Not that it would do any good.

— Candida Robbins, in ‘Who Got Rid of Angus Flint?’

Three ‘magical fantasies’ make up this short story collection: ‘Chair Person’ (1989), ‘The Four Grannies’ (1980) and ‘Who Got Rid of Angus Flint?’ (1975). They all concern unwelcome guests who seemingly can only be persuaded to depart through magic inadvertently conjured up by young protagonists.

At one level these are merely slight tales of humorous mayhem familiar from much children’s literature and from Hollywood films like Honey, I Shrunk the Kids; and yet on another they are rather more what the awful Angus Flint might term ‘profound’.

I propose to mainly consider the profound aspects in this review.

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An archipelago of stories

Smoke drifting across a copse

Ursula Le Guin: Tales from Earthsea
Orion Children’s Books 2002 (2001)

A story may be pieced together from such scraps and fragments, and though it will be an airy quilt, half made of hearsay and half of guesswork, yet it may be true enough.
— From ‘The Finder’

In the middle of Earthsea, nestled within the vast island archipelago, is the Inmost Sea. In the centre of that sea is the island of Roke. And on that island is the Immanent Grove, by the eminence that is Roke Knoll. And above all, the sky. Earth, water, wood and air: elements that we meet time and again in Tales from Earthsea and, indeed, in the whole saga. And to those we should also add fire.

Ursula Le Guin’s five Earthsea novels, expanded from the original trilogy to a quartet and then, three decades on, to a pentad, have felt at times like the saga of Duny, later called Sparrowhawk but now known as Ged. True, it drew in other participants — Tenar, Lebannen and Tehanu, for example — but principally we have followed Ged from boyhood to Archmage and on to old age.

We will have always known however that there were — that there will have to have been — other stories to tell, and in this collection we are offered five of them, along with an essay giving us some of the who, what, when and where of this magical world. And I mean ‘magical’ in all the senses of this word.

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A shiver down the spine

Jen Campbell:
The Beginning of the World in the Middle of the Night
Two Roads 2018 (2017)

A dozen short stories do not a novel make — this last was what the author’s agent was originally expecting, but at least she didn’t shout when informed otherwise. Yet for all that these are diverse pieces – some, one suspects, semi-autobiographical, others sweet, yet more being fractured fairytales or freeform musings – they share themes and points of view which, in a weird way, could connect them into one long rambling narrative.

In fact the epigraph quotes Frankenstein’s Creature declaring, in the hopes of his creator furnishing him with a mate, that “It is true, we shall be monsters, cut off from all the world; but on that account we shall be more attached to one another.” This suggests that there are indeed connections between these tales, however curious and eccentric they may appear if we are expecting conventional narratives; but it also hints at a personal apologia. A self-declared queer writer with physical deformities, Jen Campbell brings a distinct perspective into her writing while managing to render her stories universal, a task that she somehow manages effortlessly. Or so it appears.

I shall avoid listing and discussing all twelve tales as being an arid exercise; instead I want to draw out from a select few the aspects that appealed to me most in the expectation that you may find my remarks useful.

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A score of stories

Rye, Landgate

Joan Aiken:
The Monkey’s Wedding, and Other Stories
Introduction by Lizza Aiken
Small Beer Press 2011

In the introduction to this posthumous collection of short stories Joan Aiken describes the three ingredients that have gone into the making of these tales: fantasy elements (“witches, dragons, castles…”), realistic elements culled from everyday life (“mending punctures, winning raffles…”) and, finally, dreams (“an old lady hunting for lost things…”). Unlike her longer novels, the tales aren’t planned but spring from a chance combination of two or more of these ingredients; in The Monkey’s Wedding you can marvel at how these elements appear and re-appear in limitless permutations, always surprising, always entertaining, and always haunting.

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Haunting tales

Anton Chekhov, photographed in 1889

Chekhov: the early stories 1883-88
Chosen and translated by Patrick Miles & Harvey Pitcher
Abacus 1982

This selection of thirty-five of Anton Chekhov’s short stories, covering a period of five years, is an object lesson in how one author can create variety in this small-scale genre. There are scarcely any false moves here: we’re presented with cheeky humour as well as deep emotion, and served up with well-observed portraits and dramatic episodes. Some pieces are really short — punchy, scarcely two pages long — others approach novelette length. All are quintessentially Russian, infused now by bureaucracy, now by irreverence, sometimes expansive as suits the country’s landscape or intimate as we focus in on a fireside scene. And, for the most part, these tales are about people in all their fragility and weakness — youngsters, old people, couples, bourgeoisie, soldiers, musicians, artisans.

It’s impossible to do more than suggest the range by reference to a few select examples, so I will endeavour to give a suggestion of Chekhov’s skill in the setting of mood. I can’t speak of whether the choices made by the translators are exemplary or not, but I can marvel how a young man in his twenties (born in 1860, he died at too early an age, in his mid-forties) was able to capture such a broad view of human nature.

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Irrepressible transformations

Titania and Oberon from Richard Dadd’s The Fairy Feller’s Master-Stroke

Long Ago and Far Away:
eight traditional fairy tales
Foreword by Marina Warner;
translated by Nigel Bryant, David Carter and Ann Lawson Lucas
Hesperus Press 2012

We’re so used to canonic versions of fairy tales that it’s easy to forget (if we ever knew) that fairy tales come in all shapes and sizes, and have always done so. Those canonic versions are different for each one of us — they may have first appeared in translation from the Brothers Grimm; we may have been introduced to the bowdlerised retellings published by Andrew Lang between 1889 and 1913; or Disney’s animated films may have been our first encounter with them — but whatever the source these usually serve as our personal ur-texts.

So it is nearly always disconcerting to come across variations of our ur-texts, versions which may be so unfamiliar as to make us doubt they belong to the same family. Marina Warner introduces nine selections for this slim volume, giving us such standard fare as ‘Sleeping Beauty’, ‘Cinderella’, ‘Snow White’ and ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ — but in early literary forms that may puzzle and confuse.

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Bitter aftertaste

Patricia Highsmith: Sour Tales for Sweethearts
Virago 2015 (1975)

Here are four domestic vignettes, all with a bitter ending, by the mistress of the twisted tale. ‘The Hand’ tells us that asking a father for his daughter’s hand may not bring the result the young man making the request expected; nor is the ending what we the readers may have expected. ‘The Invalid, or, The Bed-Ridden’ is a morality tale for those who would feign illness or disability, while in ‘The Fully-Licensed Whore, or, The Wife’ the titular character proves she can have her cake and eat it. Finally, ‘The Female Novelist’ features a writer with a heap of rejection slips and a wayward husband; where is she going to get her inspiration from?

Delicious little tales, these, with that unpleasant aftertaste that characterises Highsmith. Three of the pieces involve death, two the result of murder, the fourth might even hint at thoughts of violence. She uses a sparse narrative style, concentrating on description with few adjectives (except when necessary) and fewer adverbs. Occasionally a protagonist’s thoughts are revealed, but they are rarely profound.

The archaic titles of a couple of the tales only helps to distance the writer and the reader from the personnel. Highsmith is like a behavioural scientist, observing rats as they go about in their constrained environments and tweaking the controls to get them to do something out of the ordinary. It’s not a pretty sight, but for the reader it’s morbidly fascinating.

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No power upon the hour

My 1918 Pocket Library edition of Stevenson’s Jekyll & Hyde

Robert Louis Stevenson: Fables
in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, with other fables
Longmans, Green, and Co. 1918 (1896)

THE PENITENT
A man met a lad weeping. “what do you weep for?”
“I am weeping for my sins,” said the lad.
“You must have little to do,” said the man.
The next day they met again. Once more the lad was weeping. “Why do you weep now?” asked the man.
“I am weeping because I have nothing to eat,” said the lad.
“I thought it would come to that,” said the man.

First published bundled up with Jekyll and Hyde by Longmans, Green and Company two years after Stevenson’s death, and then together in a pocket edition in 1906, this collection of literary fables ought to be better known than they are. Some, like ‘The Penitent’, are short, barely a page or two long, while others run to almost a dozen sides. Some are enigmatic, others cynical, others yet are Aesopian in that they feature animals, as in ‘The Tadpole and the Frog’:

“Be ashamed of yourself,” said the frog. “When I was a tadpole, I had no tail.”
“Just what I thought!” said the tadpole. “You never were a tadpole.”

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What the child’s eye saw

Edward Ardizzone illustration for The Little Bookroom (1955). More on Ardizzone at http://tweedlandthegentlemansclub.blogspot.co.uk/2011/05/edward-ardizzone.html

Eleanor Farjeon: The Little Bookroom
Eleanor Farjeon’s Short Stories for Children Chosen by Herself
Illustrated by Edward Ardizzone
Oxford University Press 2011 (1955)

Of all the rooms in the house, the Little Bookroom was yielded up to books as an untended garden is left to its flowers and weeds. There was no selection or sense of order here. In dining-room, study, and nursery there was choice and arrangement; but the Little Bookroom gathered to itself a motley crew of strays and vagabonds, outcasts from the ordered shelves below, the overflow of parcels bought wholesale by my father in the sales-rooms. Much trash, and more treasure. Riff-raff and gentlefolk and noblemen. A lottery, a lucky dip for a child who had never been forbidden to handle anything between covers.

From the very start of the Author’s Note we are drawn into the world of the bookroom. I could easily quote the whole of Farjeon’s introduction, so exquisitely does it conjure up a storeroom of reading matter, and so perfectly does it fulfil the maxim that a piece can be more than the sum of its parts. The whole — twenty-seven stories succeeding the author’s note — is delightfully complemented by Edward Ardizzone’s line illustrations, a fact the author acknowledged in a 1956 poem “To Ted” included as a introduction: ‘what the child’s eye saw, through you | The ageing eye remembers.’

Twenty-seven stories, some longer, some shorter, grace this collection. Some of the titles deliberately evoke the fairytale tradition, such as ‘The Giant and the Mite’, ‘The Seventh Princess’ or ‘The King’s Daughter Cries for the Moon’. Other tales can be viewed as parables (such as ‘The Lady’s Room’), fables (‘The Goldfish’), or simply enjoyed for their quiet humour (for instance ‘The Clumber Pup’ and ‘Pennyworth’). A couple or so hark back to traditional rhymes or literary pieces, riffing on phrases and names to seemingly ‘explain’ their obscurities (‘Leaving Paradise’ and ‘Pannychis’, for example).

Whatever their form many have a bittersweet melancholy that reminds me of Hans Christian Anderson’s offerings or a Wilde fairytale, though a little gentler perhaps. Several pieces stick in my mind. ‘The Connemara Donkey’ though set in an early 20th-century England speaks of the traditional belief that made-up stories can overcome any antagonism by becoming true, all seen through the eyes and ears of little Danny O’Toole. ‘The Girl Who Kissed the Peach-tree’ feels like a traditional Sicilian tale, one of a handful of tales in this collection that evince a genuine love for growing beautiful things despite a knowledge that life can be hard. Pre-echoes of this appear in the author’s own introduction to The Little Bookroom:

No servant ever came with duster and broom to polish the dim panes through which the sunlight danced, or sweep from the floor the dust of long-ago. The room would not have been the same without its dust: star-dust, gold-dust, fern-dust, the dust that returns to dust under the earth, and comes up from her lap in the shape of a hyacinth.

The best tales, in my opinion, come towards the end, and somehow evoke a deep-seated yearning for things that stretch back into time. ‘San Fairy Ann’ is a beautiful tale about the love poured into a doll and how it is paralleled in the connections that we make with other humans. ‘The Glass Peacock’ with its themes of compassion and generosity is a perfect Christmas tale, a beautiful little drama contained within a forgotten urban courtyard. And what can I say about ‘And I Dance Mine Own Child’ that does it justice? This treatment of the Patient Griselda tale-type is a worthy descendant all the way from Boccaccio via Chaucer and Thomas Dekker, muting any inherent cruelty but dwelling on a basic humanity that should never go out of fashion. I’m not ashamed to say that I shed a little tear at the end of this, and that it wasn’t because dust had got into my eyes.

When I crept out of the Little Bookroom with smarting eyes, no wonder that its mottled gold-dust still danced in my brain. its silver cobwebs still clung to the corners of my mind. No wonder that many years later, when I came to write books myself, they were a muddle of fiction and fact and fantasy and truth.

Fiction and fact and fantasy and truth, yes there is that aplenty in these tales. I challenge anybody not to feel better after reading this collection, or not to resolve to act better. These are stories to remember, and reread, and cherish, so that — as with Farjeon’s own little bookroom — we will all be able to truthfully declare that “Seven maids with seven brooms, sweeping for half-a-hundred years, have never managed to clear my mind of its dust …”

________

February 14th is also International Bookgiving Day, when individuals give or pass on a book or three to a child to encourage them to enjoy reading. Maybe a book such as this?

2018 Ultimate Reading Challenge: a book of short stories