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Dipping into Sylvia Townsend Warner’s short stories

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“Dipping” is a word I’m trying to introduce into my reading vocabulary at the moment, as I seem to have got myself into a mindset of having to finish a book at a time, regardless of what it is. And when it comes to poetry and short stories, this isn’t necessarily the best way to read, so I’m going to attempt to be a little more flexible, picking up volumes of poems and shorter works when the mood takes me and not fretting about when I finish them. And I was gifted with some lovely volumes at Christmas, so this would be the ideal way to start exploring them.

A book I’ve been keen on getting for a long time is Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Selected Stories in a lovely Virago volume, and my Secret Santa Trish kindly came up trumps with this one. The stories are chosen by Susanna Pinney and William Maxwell, STW’s literary executors, and having only read one of her books before (“Mr. Fortune’s Maggot”) I was interested to see what her other work was like.

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So far, I’ve read a few stories and they really are good. In particular, “The Love Match”, the first story in the collection, is a real gem and a wonderful way to open the book. Telling the story of Celia and Justin Tizard, a brother and sister who come to live in the little town of Hallowby, it initially seems that Mr Pilkington, who brings them there, might be the focus of the story or heavily involved. In fact, he plays a minor part, and STW twists and subverts your expectations with a dark little tale about a very strange relationship between the wars and how it plays out. I was left with a *lot* of questions about Celia and Justin, about what really *had* been going on in the town, and also thinking about what happens behind closed doors and beneath the surface.

I shall carry on dipping into this book whenever the fancy takes me, as it seems that I’m going to be guaranteed something interesting. Now I just have to get myself into this mindset as regards poetry: should I read chronologically? Open the book at random? Search for titles that are recommended or highly thought of? Any suggestions gratefully received…

Virago Volumes: A Stricken Field by Martha Gellhorn

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What was I saying about being a trivial reader? That’s perhaps the wrong word – fickle might be a better word; for example, there are many, many books I’ve had on my shelves for 30 years and *never read*! I’m trying to rectify that at the moment (Proust being the main example); but Martha Gellhorn is another case in point. However, paradoxically, the book of hers I chose to pick up was this one, “A Stricken Field”, one of my more recent Virago acquisitions. I thought the subject matter (Prague in 1938) might fit better with my current mindset, and Gellhorn was on my mind from reading about her in Sybille Bedford’s “Pleasures and Landscapes”. So there you are – I’m following my random reading muse as usual!

stricken

Gellhorn, of course, is as fascinating a character as Bedford. A war correspondent from a young age, witnessing the Spanish Civil War amongst other things, she’s cursed with often being remembered only for having been married to Hemingway – although pleasingly Wikipedia put her other achievements first: Martha Ellis Gellhorn (November 8, 1908 – February 15, 1998) was an American novelist, travel writer, and journalist, considered by the London Daily Telegraph, among others, to be one of the greatest war correspondents of the 20th century. She reported on virtually every major world conflict that took place during her 60-year career. Gellhorn was also the third wife of American novelist Ernest Hemingway, from 1940 to 1945. At the age of 89, ill and almost completely blind, she committed suicide. The Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism is named after her.”

So Gellhorn was obviously no ordinary woman and had no ordinary life – in fact, I imagine that a biography would be a really good read! However, apart from her reporting she also wrote fiction, and this book is her first full-length novel, published in 1940 when war was beginning to tear Europe apart; and also after years of conflicts on that continent, in Spain, and also in Germany, where the Nazi regime had been gradually developing an iron grip. The novel opens with Mary Douglas, an American journalist, flying into Prague in 1938. Munich pact etc. Mary is young, but she’s not naive, having seen the Spanish Civil War, and she knows that the creeping menace of the Nazis threatens the countries and people she loves. She’s hoping to find her friend Rita, a left-wing German who’s fled to Prague in search of safety, and they do indeed meet up early in the story. Rita lost her brother to the enemy’s brutality, and works for the resistance in Prague, trying to help fellow refugees survive. She has also found a fragile kind of happiness with a fellow worker, Peter; but they are living on a knife-edge, like every other enemy of Fascism at large in a country now being dominated by the jackboot. All the refugees are being forcibly repatriated to places where they will be tortured, put in concentration camps, and most probably die horribly. Can Mary and her journalist friends do anything to help – or is the impending cataclysm too much for any humanitarian efforts?

ASF is a remarkably powerful and moving novel; to be frank, it’s gut-wrenching, both in the emotional sense (as we ache for the suffering of the refugees) and the literal sense (there are references to torture, and one particularly awful interrogation scene). If I’m honest, the book as a novel is not particularly accomplished – the regular shifts in perspective are clumsy at times and hard to follow; the character of Mary never really develops much; and the group of journalists are just that, a fairly amorphous band who don’t take on much of an individual form. However, the book’s strength is in its reportage. It’s recording a piece of history, a shocking and horrible time, but one that needs not to be forgotten. The story of Rita and her lover Peter stands for any number of stories, for the thousands of people who suffered under oppression (and indeed those who still do). Gellhorn captures haunting images: Rita staggering down dark streets in Prague, not knowing where she’s going or why; the bundled up humans at the railway station being forced into trains taking them to their doom; those who cannot cope with the thought of leaving and take another way out…

“She thought: there will have to be a terrible justice, blowing over the world, to avenge all the needless suffering. Thus far, she had seen the innocent punished and insulted, pursued and destroyed; and when they tried to protect themselves, their enemies were swift, unanimous and relentless. Simple men were ignorant enough still to fight against each other instead of fighting side by side. She had seen only the triumph of the lie and the victory of the liars. It will take a long time to change this, she thought, we learn very little, we learn very slowly. She was afraid she would be reporting disaster and defeat her whole life.”

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It’s a stark story of a stark time; Mary tries at one point to involve some politicians in her attempts to help the refugees, but even they are powerless to make any difference. There are many shocks in this book, not the least the contrast between the privileges Mary enjoys because she holds an American passport, and the lack of everything – food, money, security, a chance at life – that the expelled refugees have. But what shocked me most of all was when this book was written and published. Gellhorn wrote the book in 1939, based on her real visits to Prague, and published it in 1940. In the 1938 of this book, the concentration camps and the treatment of Jews and Socialists is common knowledge – the reporters have become almost indifferent to it. I somehow had the impression that the revelations about Nazi camps after the war came as a shock to the world, but it seems that the facts were already well-known. Which leaves me thinking about man’s inhumanity to man, and how this vicious cruelty was allowed to carry on by all the so-called civilised nations. And thus it ever was and thus it ever will be – the bigwigs make their strategies and move little models around on a plan (or nowadays a digital simulation) but these represent real people, and it’s the latter who always pay the price for conflict – a look at the news reports nowadays proves that nothing’s changed.

It was a painful experience, but I *am* glad I read this book. As Gellhorn says in her afterword “Novels don’t decide the course of history or change it but they can show what history is like for people who have no choice except to live through it or die from it. I remembered for them.” She certainly did that, and this book should continue to be read so that we never forget.

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