‘Cleanness’ by James Lasdun

UEA is situated in Norwich, which became a UNESCO City of Literature in 2012, and for the past several years the Creative Writing programme has appointed a Visiting Professor, named for the UNESCO accreditation. The incumbents have included well-known names such as Ali Smith, Margaret Atwood, Tim Parks and Ian Rankin. James Lasdun, a Visiting Professor in 2014, ought to be equally as well-known. A prize-winning poet, screenwriter, novelist, memoirist and short story writer, he is, as James Wood is quoted as saying on his book jackets, “one of the secret gardens of English writing”. He was a secret to me before he came to UEA, and now stands as a model for what might be achieved in any form, if only one were good enough. And really, any story in this collection might stand as my favourite, including the opener, ‘An Anxious Man’, which won the inaugural BBC National Short Story Award. In ‘Cleanness’, a man travelling to his father’s latest wedding is disturbed by incestuous thoughts of his dead mother, gets lost, seeks direction at an archetypally unwelcoming farmhouse, falls into a pool of rancid pig-shit, nonetheless carries on to the wedding, where his father’s new bride, dressed all in white and smelling of lilies-of-the-valley, willingly embraces him. It’s like a grown-up version of early McEwan.

First published in Ploughshares, Spring 2000 and collected in It’s Beginning to Hurt, Jonathan Cape, 2009

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