Regular Ramblings readers will recall that I wrote in glowing terms last December about the first release from a new imprint, Recovered Books, from Boiler House Press. That book was the marvellous “Gentleman Overboard” by Herbert Clyde Lewis, and it seems to have been wonderfully recieved by readers. So I was excited to hear they were issuing more titles, and very happy indeed to receive a review copy of one of these: “Time: The Present – Selected Stories” by Tess Slesinger.

Slesinger is an author I’d never heard of before, and that fact in itself is shocking – because she’s incredibly good and I can’t believe her work isn’t better known (but then I guess that’s what Recovered Books are here for!) A Jewish New Yorker born in 1905, she was considered one of the most promising young writers of the 1930s, publishing widely in everything from Vanity Fair to the New Yorker. A left-winger, it’s clear from these stories that she supported those who struggled to make a living, and her politics were never hidden. Slesinger wrote one novel, “The Unpossessed“, and died tragically young at the age of 39. “Time: The Present” was originally published in 1935, and is reissued here with an introduction by Vivian Gornick and an afterword by Paula Rabonowitz.

The book opens with “White on Black” from 1930 and closes with “A Hollywood Gallery” which was published posthumously in 1979 (I think the original final story of the collection was probably the one before this, “A Life in the Day of a Writer” from 1935). It’s clear from the very start that Slesinger is a fine writer, with the opening story observing the changing attitudes of white schoolchildren towards their fellow pupils of colour as the group grows up; told in the first person plural, the narrator watches these changes with a detached eye, and it’s clear that the external pressures to stick to your own caste are being imposed upon, and learned by, the group.

Life began at fourteen. We became acquainted with the interiors of taxi-cabs, and in the whirling little rooms we learned to drink like acrobats – on the wing, straight out of the flask. We discovered tea-dancing to fill our afternoons – we went to more times than we were allowed (dressed in our jerseys and outlandish felts, our bright bright red mouths and flat-heeled shoes) to the Plaza, the Commodore, the Biltmore; we felt our power as we crashed place after place and captured it by making it unendurable to the older generation – and then when we had taken a place by storm, we coldly abandoned it and caused the rush to some place else. We began to crash the night-clubs too, and, pretty soon, there was no place in town where our parents were ashamed to be seen that we youngsters didn’t know.

As well as a relatively straightforward narrative in some stories, Slesinger also writes very modernist prose, exploring her characters’ thoughts in stream of consciousness prose; and this form is particularly effective in “Jobs in the Sky“, a story focusing on one day of work in a department story where at any moment the axe will fall and a staff member (or two) will be out of work. Slesinger’s prose is brilliant here, capturing the frantic pace of the day, the pressures of selling and the emotions in play from those who will or will not go home still employed. In fact, employment is a recurring theme, with Slesinger well aware of the difficulties of her times and the poverty abounding in the 1930s; “Ben Grader Makes a Call” is another sharply-observed story of unemployment and also the effect it will have on a marriage.

I mentioned earlier Slesinger’s sympathies with the underdog, and “The Friedmans’ Annie“, with its impressionistic prose, captures the sheer drudgery and exploitation of a serving girl employed by a wealthy family, who gaslight her with gifts of cast-offs so she won’t forge out on her own and make a new life with her boyfriend. It’s a moving story, and one which makes you furious for Annie and the employers who manipulate her.

Included also in this collection is a groundbreaking work first published in Story magazine in 1932; “Missis Flinders” deals explicitly with the subject of abortion, and its emotional effects. It’s a powerful and heartbreaking piece of writing, and apparently Slesinger expanded it and incorporated it into the first paragraph of “The Unpossessed”.

Those are just a few of the highlights of a collection which is brimming with brilliant writing and unforgettable stories. Slesinger moved to Los Angeles in 1935 with her second husband, the screen writer Frank Davis; here they had two children, and Slesinger turned her talents to writing screenplays herself, including “The Good Earth” and “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” (together with Frank, and for which they won an Oscar nomination). Her early death robbed the literary world not only of a talented scriptwriter but also of a remarkable prose author; and I’m just glad that Recovered Books have reissued this marvellous collection. I’ve seen Slesinger described as one of the finest short story writers of her generation and I heartily agree; a wonderful author, thankfully back in print! 😀

(Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks!)