Short stories can be really deceptive. In just a very few pages a whole world is constructed and conveyed to the reader and it is easy to be mislead, well, not mislead so much as it's easy to read only superficially. I've only read Rosamund Lehmann's first novel Dusty Answer and that was years ago now. I had this idea I would read all her books and in order that she wrote them (not sure what my fixation is with doing this other than I like the idea of being orderly and watching a natural growth of a writer). But finally with Infinite Riches I have gotten a chance to read more of her work in the form of her 1946 short story, "A Dream of Winter".
There is a wonderful introduction in this collection of stories and the editor briefly discusses each short story. Sometimes she is more forthcoming about a story's meaning than other times. I always read the story and then flip to the front and find the brief passage and see what she has to say about a story to help illuminate or explain what I've just read. Sometimes it is a mere reinforcement of what I've already read and sometimes I'm surprised by what I've missed.
The Lehmann story is not at all hard going. I thought it quite nicely done and for fear of being completely redundant (I think I must say this about every new story I read), this might be my new favorite. There are little clues along the way, though maybe nothing is meant to be hidden from the reader. So there are many descriptions of a time and a way of life, if I am simply a close enough reader I will catch them to make this a deeper and more fuller read than otherwise.
On the surface this is a story about a woman sick in bed with the flu. It's cold, there has been a great frost but nonetheless two workman are just outside her window prying the lead panes out and taking the shingles off the roof in order to remove a bee hive that has grown too large (and too noisy). It's not the best time of year to do this, bad for the bees, but the lady wishes it. There are hints that war is taking place in the background, no doubt her husband is off somewhere serving. She is at home with her two children, in a country manor house once lived in by a now departed squire. So there is the skeleton of the story.
Here's some of the flesh: the lady of the house notices the face of the workman, workmen--though the younger is far too shy to dare look into her bedroom. The older workman's face is one that could belong to almost anyone. "She had a lot of leisure in her life to look at faces. She had friends with revolutionary ideas, and belonged to the Left Book Club." The workman, friendly though he is, is a little critical of her desire to remove the bees just now with the cold. She wants to remind him she's been waiting since September to have the work done, but . . . And then there is the reminder that this way of life, her way of life, is even now vanishing. "Life doesn't arrange stories with happy endings any more, see? Never again." The time of plenty for those in country houses is coming to an end.
And then to fill things in just a bit more with the editor's help--about this story that unravels a sense of "class guilt"--"her young son chastizes his sister for picking up the local dialect." The editor notes, nodding my head in agreement, how children punctuate the story coming in and out (going up the ladder to look at the bees and down it and up again to bring a serving dish for the workman to scrape in the honey). "Their natural curiosity, so swiftly satisfied, their grasshopper minds, are caught to perfection. The children in Rosamund Lehmann's fiction are always alive on the page." And they are perceptive observers, too. At one point the lady's son sort of castigates his mother for complaining about the noise of the bees--if she can't stand the hum of the bees what ever will she do in an air-raid?
Oh, there is some wonderful imagery in this story, too. I'll just share one more passage and that is that for fear of giving all the best bits away when I think you would better appreciate the story by simply reading it yourself. But this is wonderful and I can't resist.
"She took her temperature and found it was lower: barely a hundred. He had done her good. Then she lay listening to the silence she had created. One performs acts of will, and in doing so one commits acts of negation and destruction. A balcony weighed upon her: torn out, exposed, violated, obscene as the photograph of a bombed house."
"What an extraordinary day, what an odd meeting and parting. It seemed to her that her passive, dreaming, leisured life was nothing, in the last analysis, but a fluid element for receiving and preserving faint paradoxical images and symbols. They were all she ultimately remembered."
(Are you surprised?).
I can't let myself start yet another new book (yet) but if I were to walk to my shelves and pull the next Lehmann book to read, it would be A Note in Music. It never hurts to just look, though, right?
Next week: a story by Djuna Barnes (my first taste of her work).
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My New Yorker came a day late, so I have only just picked it up and started reading this week's short story (double issue so I have time to read at my leisure, Feb. 23/Mar 2) by Haruki Murakami. I'm not very far in but it looks promising so far.