When I read Jane Gardam's Old Filth several years back I knew right away that she was someone I would be adding to my--'must collect all her work and read it' list. I have slowly been doing the former and even more slowly doing the latter. As a matter of fact I really must get to work on the reading part (the collecting part comes far too easily to me). A few years before that I had come across one of her short stories, "A Spot of Gothic" for my Autumn ghost story reading. I'll be revisiting that story very soon.
When Europa Editions kindly offered a copy of The Stories of Jane Gardam for review I couldn't pass it up. Not only is she an author I have been wanting to spend time with, but I am always happy to add a collection of short stories to add to my weekly short story reading. The book is due to be released in just one week and if you are a fan of either short stories in general or Jane Gardam's work specifically, I think you'll want a copy for yourself. There are twenty-eight stories all of which have appeared between 1977-2007 in other collections. Gardam's UK publisher Little Brown had asked her for a "big chunky anthology of all [her] short stories". She replied she thought no one read them anymore, but her editor told her she was wrong--that "times were changing once again". I know I'm a short story convert and suspect there are many more like me out there (so, yes, please, more short stories). They are chronologically organized so it will be interesting to see how her writing shapes and changes and what seems to concern her topic-wise.
I'm always curious what writers have to say about the short story genre, one which I love but that I realize most other readers are not equally fond of (and hopefully you don't tire of me writing about them every week). Gardam has some interesting things to say about them.
"I have always preferred writing short stories to writing novels. Not that there is much similarity and not that a writer can get away with writing only one or the other (Katherine Mansfield almost did). Stories of all lengths and depths come from mysterious parts of the cave. The difference in writing them is that, for an novel, you must lay in mental, physical and spiritual provision as for a siege or for a time of hectic explosions, while a short story is, or can be, a steady, timed flame like the lighting of a blow lamp on a building site full of dry tinder. For me it was James Joyce's Dubliners, written in 1921, seven years before I was born, that showed me how (or at any rate that) short stories can have the power to burn up the chaff, harden the steel without comment or embellishment or explanation."
I've read the first three stories so far (I can't quite break myself of the desire to read in a neat and tidy--and linear--manner). "Hetty Sleeping" is a wonderful story (so far my favorite), quite nostalgic and a little melancholy (why do I like melancholy so much these days?). 'Hetty Sleeping' is the name of a drawing done by a former lover and teacher of Hetty's who she has by chance met while at the seaside with her children, her husband in the city working. Maybe because I can relate to that feeling of 'what if . . .' in my life, too. Hetty is confronted by that 'what if' question--she was a student at the Slade so many years ago but is now a wife and mother. Too easily she falls into a routine with Heneker and even her children are comfortable with him. Gardam captures well the ephemeral quality of wants and desires and the reality of everyday life.
In "Lunch with Ruth Sykes" a mother tries to help her grown daughter work through a crisis in her personal life with surprising results. "The Great, Grand, Soap-Water Kick" is quite an unusual story--the reader gets to inhabit the mind of Horsa, a homeless man, who after many years (surely most of his adult life?) of living in the rough desires a proper wash (and meal and maybe a new suit of clothes) and steals into a house to get one. I think this will be an interesting teaser for you today.
"HALLELUIA HORSA! In go. Up stairs. Right in bathroom. Big lump pink soap size breadloaf. Rosepink. Falseteeth pink. One, two, three, four towels big, thick, handing on fat hot coppery pipes. Oh boy!"
"Horsa works taps, drops in plug. Bath (pale rosepink baby-pink, Mugstownpink) fills up. Three jars salts green, yellow, lilac, Lilac favorite colour. Lielack."
"Pour whole jar lielack in very hot bath and steamrise smells gardens heaven."
"Offcome Hora-boots. Hard work but off come. In time."
"Off come black coat, trousers, jacket, waist-coats and let linings now unroll, telling tales of timegoneby. Plop. Dropping noises. Things falling off Horsa into deep hairy carpet. Some move fast. At a run. On various numbers of legs. They dash--not pausing to pass timeday."
Imagine coming home to find you had an unwanted visitor! I thought this quite a clever and unusual perspective. Onward now to "The Sidmouth Letters" and beyond. I probably won't write about all the stories, but I'll check back and let you know how they go.