If you've read Elizabeth Taylor already you are going to know exactly what I mean when I say--Elizabeth Taylor's writing is why I love reading so much. If you've not read her, find one of her novels or pick up a short story and give yourself a treat. She is an absolute master of the written word. She is so assured and eloquent. I knew from the first book I read by her that I would want to read everything she has written and I have certainly collected most of her work. Why I've not yet raced through the pile is beyond me, but she is someone you want to read slowly and thoughtfully and appreciate her gorgeous prose and styling.
I'm always ready for an excuse to pick up one of her works, so I was happily anticipating this weekend's short story, which is Taylor's "Flesh". It was originally published in The Devastating Boys in 1972. It is a story firmly planted in the domestic arena (though perhaps this one has a bit of a twist on the usual themes), which is what Taylor excelled in writing about. Also why she was largely forgotten and pushed to one side. She deserves to be read and Virago (and now NYRB Classics, too) has reissued most of her work.
There was a time in my life I would have been exceedingly critical of anyone who strayed outside the boundaries of their marriage or even a serious relationship. I still cringe at the idea, but in the hands of someone like Elizabeth Taylor, so capable of eliciting understanding and sympathy, I realize that life is rarely simply black and white. There is something almost tender and sweet in the amorous (and extracurricular) adventures that the pair in this story embark upon.
Of course if ever I found myself in a situation where the temptation of straying from a happy or comfortable relationship occurred, this is exactly what I imagine would happen to me (just my bad luck). This is a story of an adulterous relationship--for grownups. This is exactly what I can picture happening in the real world. Two people meet by chance while on vacation, find they have an attraction and decide to do something about it. It's the sort of thing that happens on vacations away from real life. It's an artificial situation where anything, really, is possible. Where two people can connect knowing that they will return home to their regular lives and will pick up and go on after a brief interlude of 'passion'.
But wait a moment. This is domestic fiction and Taylor is writing about real life. It's fiction but it's not fiction and let me explain. Not everything goes quite as planned for Phyl and Stanley. The two meet on a sunny foreign island. It's the end of the tourist season but there are other British tourists about forming a little community away from home. Phyl's husband has sent her off on her own to recuperate after an operation of a female nature. The two never had a proper away-from-home vacation, even for their honeymoon. She and her husband Charlie are pub owners and Phyl thinks to herself what a wonderful story her adventure would make for those back home, if only she could ever share it. Which, of course, she can't. Stanley is a widower, who's on his holidays as that's what's expected of him. It's his first time abroad and it's obvious he misses his wife, but he admires Phyl, too, and thinks what a lucky (and probably unappreciative) husband she must have.
Very discreetly the two, Phyl and Stanley, begin a brief holiday romance. I said this is fiction but it's not? It is fiction. But this is not a romanticized and unrealistic story, a fairy tale. Discretion means their little interlude must be furtive and on the sly so as not to set tongues wagging. They decide to spend a day away from the hotel where they can be together without fear of being caught in compromising circumstances. And this is where reality and sweetness come into play. I want to tell you all about it, fill in all the lovely details, but I don't want to spoil it either. I much prefer you try and find the story and read it for yourselves! let's just say things don't exactly turn out as the pair hoped and expected.
This is yet another brilliant story in the collection Infinite Riches. I've yet to come across a story I didn't like and this one is so far my very favorite. I love that Elizabeth Taylor captures all the little nuances of a holiday romance that goes subtly awry. It's not a "happily ever after" story, but a story that is happy in its way despite the little blunders and bad luck. And I liked it all the more for that reason.
Next week another favorite, Willa Cather.
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The story appearing in this week's (February 9 issue) New Yorker is by Toni Morrison, a writer I have not read in years. It explains a lot that "Sweetness" is not actually a short story but an excerpt from Morrison's forthcoming novel, God Help the Child. It felt both heavy (in terms of content) and slight while reading--if that makes any sense at all. It was more a narration of a life than a story about a daughter who is born with skin the color of a deep blue-black to parents who are fair enough to "pass" and so was therefore resented, and, if not mistreated, then not loved and cherished like every child needs to be. This was too much of a teaser since there are so many unanswered questions to be a short story I can feel comfortable inhabiting. it does make me curious about the whole story, so I might have to look for it when it comes out in April.
Have you read any good short stories recently? You didn't think I have forgotten to ask, did you? Nudge, nudge.