It's funny how often the two stories I usually read on the weekend, usually completely independently of each other will cross paths theme-wise. I have decided to read The Complete Fiction of Francis Wyndham which is a lovely NYRB classic edition that I bought in a used bookstore in San Francisco. I have lots of really tempting short story collections so settling on just one is always a difficult decision.
I don't really know anything about Francis Wyndham--just a few things I have picked up reading the biographical material in the book--he wrote very little, only one novella and two short story collections, all of which are included in this volume. Stylistically he tends toward the tradition of social comedy in the vein of Henry James and Jane Austen. But this is what got me:
"Wyndham writes about the lives of privileged and even titled people, but he is drawn to outcasts and odd ducks, adolescents, lonely women, addicts, eccentrics, and idlers."
And then Esther Freud is quoted as saying Wyndham "gives us an odd sideways but utterly convincing glimpse into a lost world." Francis Wyndham was born in London in 1924 and went to Eton and Oxford. Due to TB he was dismissed from the army during WWII. He worked for a time for TLS and other literary magazines and newspapers working as a reviewer and critic and during that time worked on the stories that would make up the two collections he published. His novella won the 1987 Whitbread First Novel Award. Interestingly this collection, or rather collections, are presented out of the sequence that they were originally written/published. The first group of stories was published as Mrs. Henderson & Other Stories in 1985, the novella (second section of the book) came last and then at the end of the collection will be his earliest stories, which are about the war years. I'm really looking forward to this and think it is going to be an excellent collection to read.
The first story, "Mrs. Henderson" is quite interesting, not least since it has a similar theme to this week's New Yorker story. Both are coming-of-age tales of sorts and both deal with a child's first experiences with sex. Not directly exactly, but peripherally and from a distance. And my how times have changed (not so much in the fact as in the 'delivery').
"Mrs. Henderson" takes place at a boy's prep school and is narrated by an unnamed student. He and Henderson strike up a friendship of sorts and the narrator will be privy to something beyond his experience and likely his knowledge being a ten-year-old boy.
"Henderson's people lived in London. For that reason he was pitied, even despised, by most of the other boys, but to me it made him an object of envy. A snobbish assumption prevailed in this seedily conventional prep school that anything urban was somehow common; to 'live in the country' was the desired norm, while the grandest thing of all was to come from Scotland (the school itself was situated on the outskirts of Oxford.) Henderson and I knew better. I associated London only with rare, ecstatic treats and could hardly imagine such a glamorous place being somebody's home."
Being young schoolboys somehow the conversation turns to where babies come from, and Henderson, erroneously but very emphatically, declares they come out of their mothers' navels. One fact leads to another and Henderson assures his friend that mothers also have male equipment so to speak. So certain is he of this fact as he has seen his mother naked, which causes his friend to waver.
"In those days, at that age, it seemed that nothing to do with the subject was allowed to remain clear for very long."
It's an issue that remains unresolved even after an invitation to picnic with Henderson's parents. What surprises the narrator is that Mrs. Henderson is so beautiful and what is remarkable to him is her complete lack of disinterest. Normally parents chatter on to make the child feel comfortable but she had nothing to say for herself but happily answered all his questions. Save, of course, the burning one having to do with female anatomy.
The twist of the story, however, is just where the misinformation likely stems from. Not from what he saw but from what has been happening to him at school at the hands of the dormitory master who has taken an inappropriate interest in Henderson, and which the narrator learns about indirectly. Wyndham is noted for his subtlety which is very apparent in this story. It's a heavy subject to write about, but Wyndham does it with a deftness and lightness by which I was impressed.
And I learned a new word today, too. Quink. Have you heard of it? Henderson has hair the color of Quink. Now you perhaps learned a new word, too.
* * * * *
Which brings me to a more modern take on situations between adults and children (or in this case young adults) that are grossly inappropriate. In Justin Taylor's story "So, You're Just What, Gone?" in the May 18 issue of the New Yorker, Charity, a high school girl is flying to see her grandmother in Seattle and must sit in a seat twenty rows away from her mother. She sits sandwiched in between a woman in a Hawaii sweatshirt and a thirty-ish (way older than she is . . .) guy who strikes up a conversation with her. It's both exciting and a little gross--it's cool that she is on her own and away from her mother but he doesn't really strike her as someone all that attractive. He slips his business card into her book when they arrive. Maybe it is just boredom or the excitement of doing something she really shouldn't, but she texts him, and he texts her back . . . It's a perceptive story and one that captures the world as we know it now so very well! A creepy story, but good. You can read the Q&A with the author here.
Next week's Wyndham story: "Obsessions".