I can see that reading the work of Francis Wyndham is going to be both immensely satisfying and a little dissatisfying at the same time. Two stories in and I can say I love his storytelling, the themes he writes about and the way he writes. They are a glimpse inside a world I am curious about but is long since past. It's so easy to fall into his stories--they almost seem like little snippets of people's lives, character sketches if you will, or slices of life. Yet . . . The stories are not exactly short stories with a problem or issue that gets resolved by the end. I find myself looking into this world and reading about it and being absorbed by it, but then the story ends and there is no more as much as I want to keep going. Hence the remark about dissatisfaction. Only in that I am left wanting more. But maybe that is actually a good, or successful story?
"I still dream about the Manor, although I have not seen it for over thirty years and could not have entered it more than a dozen times in the days when I lived near by."
"More haunting than haunted, it was a placidly beautiful house . . . In "Obsessions", once again it is a schoolboy narrating this story of the Bignall family with whom he gets to know, almost by default, as a young man. I say default as it seems as though schoolboy friendships seem to be somewhat superficial. Holidays might be spent one place or another but due mostly from simply being thrown together than a mutual interest in the other's life. But no matter, as this narrator is a keen observer whatever the circumstances. It may be the through the youngest Bignall that he is introduced to the family, but over time his path continues crossing with theirs.
I think 'obsessions' has a double meaning here. The narrator's obsession with the Manor and the Bignall family but also Lady Fuller's obsessions, too. We all have little obsessions, right? First let me introduce you quickly to the Bignall family. The elder Bignall, Sir Jocelyn:
"Over seventy when I knew him, he was like a clumsy caricature of the old-fashioned country squire, with pendulous purple cheeks matching the purple checks on his expensively tailored knickerbocker suits."
He has a reputation of being a very bad landlord. Seldom at home as he often got on his wife's nerves. Curiously she was also called Jocelyn. She had a former husband but she "bolted" with Sir Jocelyn--her only mark on an otherwise unblemished reputation.
"A small, pretty old lady with bad-tempered features almost obliterated by powder . . ."
The pair are childless but she has a daughter, Madge, by her first husband and it is her grandson, "confusingly called Jocelyn, too" who introduced the narrator to his family. It's Lady Fuller, young Jocelyn's mother, whose obsessions the story is mostly concerned with.
"Madge Fuller had a tall, slim body ideally suited to the clothes in fashion during the early 1930s, which she continued to wear long after they had gone out of date."
It's her "obsession" that's at the heart (and humor) of the story. It's during the war. The younger Jocelyn is off fighting and the narrator is at Oxford waiting to be called up. He's invited by Lady Fuller to have lunch in a hotel restaurant with coffee to follow the meal, which she feels is much better suited to have at table rather than being thrust into the lounge (and what a vulgar word that is) to take it there. All forms of request, even bullying, are ignored, much to the chagrin of Lady Fuller.
"'You do think I'm right, don't you? I mean, it only encourages them if one give in. In no other country would one be prevented from drinking one's coffee at the dining table. It's typical of England, I'm afraid: no wonder if looks as if we're going to lose this ridiculous war! I do most abjectly apologise--it's too awful, you haven't had any coffee'!"
I think I am not doing the story justice, but it is wonderfully done--the characterizations make the story. I can see this family! And even the narrator's personality comes through. How often does a character in a story prompt a reader to go and look for a book from their own bookshelves? (Maybe more often than I think?). I'm off to go find a Mignon Eberhart novel. I've written about her before! The narrator "had developed a mania" for her work and "could read nothing else". I have never come across another reader who likes her work, and in most cases no one even seems to be familiar with her these days. So I feel the pain . . . After the disappointment of not having a coffee after dinner:
"All bookshops and libraries were closed: I felt the throbbing onset of the addict's withdrawal pains. How would I get through the night? I made myself a cup of Nescafé and went to bed wide awake."
Next week: "The Half Brother".
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This week's New Yorker story (May 25 issue) is by a Danish author, Dorthe Nors called "The Freezer" which has rather sinister overtones, doesn't it? It also begins on a ferry in the North Sea at night, which helps create a very dark atmosphere. It's a very short short story, nicely done and with precision and succinctness in a way that doesn't manage to lose anything either in the brevity or the translation. On this dark night and this journey to England a woman looks back at her school years when she is bullied by an older student. She is actually bullied twice over since her friends failed to support her even as it was happening. I'm always impressed by the originality of authors and how they manage to breathe new life into stories that seem all too common place at times. You can see the Q&A with the author here.