‘Full Frontal’ by Maryse Condé, translated by Richard Philcox

Assuming it’s a mission in your life, how do you find your way to new writers? One thing I do is follow the Nobel Prize scene. Not necessarily those who win (another white European, yawn) but those whose names are frequently mentioned yet never land that big Swedish gong. One of whom is Maryse Condé from Guadeloupe. As a black woman from a small Francophone island, Condé hasn’t made much headway in our dreary Anglo-Saxon world with its weather eye always on America. Which is a shame because she’s the most terrific writer. Every story in this collection, Tales from the Heart:True Stories from My Childhood, is superb. (And when we read, in the account of her own birth, that “The colours and lights of the word around me were no consolation for the nine months in the dark where I had swum blind and happy with catfish fins,” we might feel inclined to treat one or two of these ‘true’ stories with a sprinkling of salt.)

Sometimes gently, sometimes violently, the veils of childhood innocence are removed. One of the most striking stories in the collection is ‘Full Frontal’. Born the youngest child of a large family, with a vigorous mother – “the success story of her generation”, Condé calls her – and a wealthy but ageing father, the young Maryse is the spoiled baby of the family. Having decided one day to pay a spontaneous visit to a cousin, Madame Condé packs Maryse into their Citroen (that’s how successful they are) and off they set across the island. When they arrive the house is a pigsty and a woman’s screaming. Right there and then the cousin’s wife, Charlotte, is giving birth – and no midwife to be found as it’s a Sunday. Shooing Maryse away, Madame Condé delivers the baby with the help of a servant dressed in a butcher’s apron, all the while speaking in forbidden Creole. Maryse, meanwhile, banished to the room next door, hasn’t (for once) sought companionship in a book. Through a hole in the wall she and host of other children compete to watch the birth from start to finish.

As bloated as a blimp, Charlotte was lying spread-eagled on the bed. Her centre, gaping open like a drainpipe, was spurting blood… I who lived with blinkers on my eyes with a mother who never told me anything, not a word about periods or menstruation… was intent on seeing everything. I saw the head of the baby appear. I saw its entire body sticky with mucus and faecal matter.

Afterwards she faints, then dashes off to tell her brother Sandrino: “For once his little sister had got the better of him. I had been enriched by an experience he would have trouble bettering.” From page 1 of this collection you know you’re in the hands of a master. Simple sentences with bite, vivid images, compressed events. Alas, Maryse Condé is now 84 years old and not in the best of health, but I hope to read, in the newspapers, that story about her collecting the big Swedish gong.

First published in French in Le coeur à rire et à pleurer: souvenirs de mon enfance, Editions Robert Laffont, 1998. Published in English in Tales from the Heart: True Stories from my Childhood, Soho Press, 2001

‘Thurkell the Tall’ by Jill Paton-Walsh

Personally, I would rather have been born a Guadeloupean – or Gallic, or Russian. But since my DNA comes from unvarying Anglo-Saxon stock I might as well read about them every once in a while. In this book, Wordhoard, stories by Jill Paton-Walsh alternate with others by Kevin Crossley-Holland (did one have to possess a double-barrelled name to make it into this collection?), all covering the years between the departure of the Romans and the arrival of William the Bastard. Some are duffers, some are very much not. 
But first the cover: a garish hybrid of Anglo-Saxon style ornamentation and early 1970s psychedelia. Who could resist such a potent brew? Besides, these old Puffins are so evocative of long-ago school libraries and the books teachers wanted you to read but which you never did. Turns out some of them are quite good! This wonderful story, ‘Thurkell the Tall’, starts in media res. Crowds of frightened people huddle inside Canterbury cathedral while besieging Vikings attempt to batter their way in. The year is 1012 AD. When the battering ram fails, the Vikings set fire to the building – iron spear-points await any who escape. A handful do survive, and one of them happens to be Alfig, the Archbishop himself. Kept as a high-value hostage by Danish warlord Thurkell The Tall, Alfig does a fair amount of preaching, converts a number of his captors to Christianity, antagonises the rest, until finally he’s slaughtered at a feast by Vikings shitfaced on mead. Upon hearing the news, Thurkell the Tall is filled with such disgust and heaviness of spirit that he himself converts and changes sides. (But don’t worry, Alfig, you did enough to be canonised – now you’re St. Alphege!)
All true and brought magically to life by Paton-Walsh. Which only leaves one pondering why one ‘Murder in the Cathedral’ should be so enshrined in history, while that of Alfig, a mere 158 years earlier, could be so utterly forgotten. The answer lies in the self-serving historiography of the Norman ruling class, of course. But there’s no time to get into that now.

Published in Wordhoard: Anglo-Saxon Stories for Young People, Puffin Books, 1972

‘The Death of Dolgushov’ by Isaac Babel, translated by David McDuff

Jump forward nine hundred years and here’s another war story. Men love them apparently – as much as war itself. Can’t get enough of them! Isaac Babel couldn’t, anyway, not in 1920. By then he’d met Maxim Gorky in Petrograd (as St Peterburg had been renamed) and shown him his early short stories. “Not bad,” Gorky says, “but you’re still pretty young, you need to go out and experience life a bit more. Then you’ll really have something to write about.” 

No sooner said than done: Babel’s conscripted into the Tsarist army and sent to the Romanian front during WW1 – his desertion and return home later to be described in his incredible seven-page story ‘The Journey’. Not content with that exploit he then volunteers to become a war correspondent with the Red Cavalry during the Soviet-Polish war of 1920.

The Red Cavalry stories are famous for their concision. But an equally important aspect is the tension throughout, the tension that’s manifest within the Babel-character himself. On one hand he’s the “milksop intellectual” with “glasses on his nose”, yearning after his Jewish heritage: “Oh, Talmuds of my childhood, turned to dust!” At the same time he’s desperate to shed these aspects of his personality and become a “noble savage”, an authentic manly warrior like the Cossacks he finds himself among. All the Red Cavalry stories treat this tension to some extent, but in ‘The Death of Dolgushov’ the movement between the two inner personalities ends in humiliating defeat for the heroic. 

Following an attack, Comrade Dolgushov lies on the side of the road: “His stomach had been torn out, his intestines had sagged down to his knees, and the beating of his heart was visible.” Dolgushov, however, can still speak: “If the Poles come they’ll make a right ninny of me… You’ll have to spend a cartridge on me,” he tells the narrator. (We know from his 1920 Diary that Babel found himself in these and other very similar situations). 

But Babel can’t do it. He runs away. And the response he receives from the Cossacks he wishes so badly to emulate has, here, the vicious ring of authenticity: “Go away,” says Afonka Bida (until that moment Babel’s best friend), “Or I’ll kill you. You four-eyed lot have as much pity for us as a cat has for a mouse.” Afonka Bida does not hesitate to place his revolver in Dolgushov’s mouth and pull the trigger. 

Whether or by how much this episode was self-dramatised we’ll never know. But a word on modern approaches to this writer. Many editors these days prefer to seek the wellsprings of Babel’s talent in his Jewishness – which is fertile ground indeed. Much has been revealed. Yet many of these same editors evince bafflement that Babel could have supported the Russian Revolution, or not availed himself of the opportunity to flee Russia when he had the chance to do so. In order to explain away Babel’s revolutionary activities during these years they insist on seeing in his lines heavy doses of irony. 

For myself, I detect little of this quality, and in sentences such as this: “The evening flew up towards the sky like a flock of birds, and the darkness laid its wet wreath upon me. I was exhausted and, bent under the sepulchral crown, moved forward, begging fate for the simplest of abilities – the ability to kill a man” (from ‘After the Battle’), I find none at all.

First published in Russian in 1926. First published in English in Red Cavalry and Other Stories, 1994, and in Penguin Classics in 2005

‘Weekend’ by Fay Weldon

If the irony isn’t quite so ever-present in Isaac Babel as some like to think, in Fay Weldon’s ‘Weekend’ it’s so developed it’s heading straight for a thunderhead of bitterness. Martha works in an advertising agency, she’s married to Martin, is mother to three young children. As the story begins the family are about to set off for an idyllic weekend in their country cottage. Away from London and, supposedly, their cares and worries. But Martha does everything while her husband has a nice line in lazing around and delivering barbed comments.

Weekend guests arriving in the morning. Seven for lunch and dinner on Saturday. Seven for Sunday breakfast, nine for Sunday lunch. (Martin: ‘Don’t fuss darling. You always make such a fuss’).

She’s left reeling and worn out by the never-ending list of chores and small emergencies that arise, and this weekend isn’t an exception – it’s the pattern of her life. What I find fascinating is Weldon’s attitude to her protagonist. On a first read you can’t help but feel outraged on Martha’s behalf. Everyone’s taking the fullest advantage of her. They’re draining her life-energy and they’re as ignorant as vampire bats. The screw’s then twisted further when Colin, Martin’s oldest friend, turns up at the cottage with his new, attractive younger partner, Katie. 

Katie is his new wife. Janet, Colin’s other, earlier wife, was Martha’s friend. Janet was rather like Martha, quieter and duller than her husband. A nag and a drag, Martin rather thought, and said, and of course she’d let herself go, everyone agreed. No one exactly excused Colin for walking out, but you could see the temptation… Katie was languid, beautiful and elegant.

This languid, beautiful and elegant creature then proceeds to patronise Martha in various ways and generally make things more unpleasant than they already were.

So we see the drift. It’s an overtly feminist commentary on getting older, on being compared unfavourably to those who happen to be more beautiful, on the extraction and exploitation of unpaid labour in the form of housework. Yet re-readings reveal another, psychological, side: Martha’s complicity in being exploited, her willingness to put up with it, and Weldon’s camouflaged contempt for her protagonist. It only breaks through once or twice, but it’s there undeniably, a current that’s powerful if almost invisible. And here we have to bring in Weldon herself, who (allegedly) was neglectful of her own children. I don’t believe for a minute that Fay Weldon would have allowed herself to be treated like Martha is in this story. So what’s going on? Herein, I believe, lies a touch of James Frazer’s ‘homeopathic magic’. In creating this masterpiece-in-miniature, in externalising it, was there a process at work of self-justification, even expiation? It’s speculation only – possibly half-baked. Neither should such an interpretation detract in any way from the larger, truthful, critique of patriarchy’s structural forms. 

First published in Cosmopolitan, 1978. Collected in Watching Me, Watching You, Hodder & Stoughton, 1981 and also in The Penguin Book of Modern Women’s Short Stories, ed. Susan Hill, 1990

‘Aghwee the Sky Monster’ by Kenzaburō Ōe, translated by John Nathan

At least the children in ‘Weekend’ are real. The same can’t be said for the giant baby, “about the size of a kangaroo”, who takes a starring role in Kenzaburo Oe’s tale of a college graduate’s first job. Oe grew up in a village in rural Japan and was ten years old when the Americans occupied his country in 1945. Gifted with intelligence, he escaped the village to study at a Tokyo university. All looked set for a prosperous bourgeois future. Then, at 29, his first child born with serious brain damage. Everything I’ve read by Oe (Oh-way) deals with this catastrophe in one way or another. The pattern on a foundation level is a retreat into the realm of pure imagination, somewhat reminiscent of William Blake, who gets a mention towards the end of this story. Into his foundation, Oe cuts silicon-chip complexities uniquely his own and which sometimes take a bit of figuring out.

A first-person narrator is employed by a wealthy banker to be a ‘companion’ to his son, a thirty-year old composer who’s undergoing some sort of nervous breakdown and, the implication goes, needs protecting from himself. After encountering the man’s ex-wife and his movie actress mistress, our narrator discovers that there’s no nervous breakdown, but instead a madness inside the composer which exhibits itself in the form of an invisible friend who lives in the sky, and who pops down for a chat every now and then. The consensus is that this invisible friend is the imaginary ghost of the man’s dead and deformed baby, and it’s called ‘Aghwee’ because that was the single word the baby spoke while it lived. “That’s a pretty mushy way to name the ghost that’s haunting you, don’t you think?” comments the ex-wife bitterly. But is this ghost-baby really a delusion? By the closing pages the narrator himself has come to believe that Aghwee and other giant amoeba-like beings really do inhabit the sky, each representing a personal loss of great magnitude. Like William Blake watching his golden angels streaming above the roofs of Soho, he even sees them for a moment.

In real-life, Oe’s son, Hikari, did not die. According to John Nathan, Oe’s friend and translator: “Suffice to say that over the years as [the child] grew up, a fierce, exclusive, isolating bond developed between father and son.’” Now that son is a grown man, and Oe himself elderly. His 1996 book, A Healing Family, celebrates the small triumphs of their life together.

From Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness by Kenzaburo Oe, Marion Boyars, 1978

‘The Moment of Eclipse’ by Brian Aldiss

Sometimes books walk into your life. One a day a friend knocked on the door with a cardboard box. “My teacher colleague’s leaving England, he’s going to Saudi Arabia to teach princes,” she tells me. “The princes aren’t bothered about English, all they care about is their falcons – each one has to have its own seat on the plane. Anyway, he can’t take these, so help yourself.” I open the box, not small, and it’s crammed with science fiction books. “Thanks, I will!” Plenty of space opera, which I’ve never had time to read, but other jewels were in there. My diamond – and again it was the cover which first drew my eye – was, still is, Best SF Stories of Brian Aldiss. Published by Faber from the days when they were still committed to putting out science fiction. (In Charles Monteith, Brian Aldiss had found his dream editor, to whom he gives fulsome praise at the beginning of this volume).
There are so many good stories here. ‘The Moment of Eclipse’ is a dazzler. Aldiss throws so many elements into the narrative that you don’t believe he’ll possibly be able to pull it off. How’s he going to develop and resolve them all? In a novel, maybe. In a short story, no chance. Yet he does, and with style. In his Introduction (dated July 1970) Aldiss speaks of writing from “an ill-defined place within which one is aware of a mystery”, or of those occasional stories which open “gates in the mind”. Into this narrow category which might crudely be labelled ‘total success’ he places only this story, ‘The Moment of Eclipse’, and ‘Old Hundredth’. The sly hint is that something effortless has happened, that those obstacles which ordinarily inhibit or stultify creativity came down and, so, the story rushed in fully formed, a tidal wave over a breached seawall. It’s a nice fairy tale – if I understand the hint, which I may not have – but I don’t buy it. I think he must have had to work his arse off to make ‘The Moment of Eclipse’ such a triumph. And perhaps it is very very slightly rushed towards the end. But that would be to pick the most unreasonable of holes. Better by far to immerse yourself and feel the heft. Taking apart a story as complex as this may not be a great idea, in case it doesn’t go back together again afterwards.

First published in The Moment of Eclipse, Faber, 1970, and collected in Best SF Stories of Brian W. Aldiss, Faber, 1971 and The Complete Short Stories: The 1960s (Part 4), Harper Voyager, 2015

‘The Bull Calf’ by Janet Frame

From a tale of corrupted adult natures to another of childhood innocence. Like many, I first came across Janet Frame after watching Jane Campion’s film, An Angel at My Table. Then read her autobiography published under the same name. If you haven’t read it, why not? My God! And when you discover that she received electroshock therapy in 1940s New Zealand after a diagnosis of schizophrenia, and was then scheduled to have a lobotomy – only to be reprieved at the last minute because her first story collection had won a literary award – well, then you think, at least in this one case fiction actually achieved something. At least this time it really mattered. My favourite novel of hers is The Edge of the Alphabet, which conjures a drab post-war London now long gone. My favourite short story is this one, ‘The Bull Calf’.
Frame not only had to contend with mental illness, but struggle with rural poverty too. It seeps across every page – the fraying clothes, the toe and heel plates fixed to her shoes, the home-made sanitary towels made from torn-up old sheets. Every morning she has to milk the cow before school, and the cow’s usually wandered off, miles away. Resentment seethes inside Olive Blakely, Frame’s stand-in for this story, but it’s never overdone. (That’s one of the best aspects of Janet Frame’s writing – there’s never a feeling that she has to strive for an effect. Nothing’s overcooked, it’s all so natural). One day, in the darkness, she comes across two men attacking the bull calf that lives in a nearby field. At least that’s what they seem to be doing. In fact they’re neutering it but she’s too young to understand. Her father and mother won’t tell her what’s going on and seem embarrassed when she starts crying and telling them that the bull calf’s bleeding to death. Now for the strange and memorable twist: a Chinese family is visiting (and where have they come from? How many Chinese people could there have been in 1930s South Island, NZ?) and the young man of the family hands her a bowl of water containing a narcissus: “You have it. It is for you.” Taking it upstairs, she “touched the petals gently, stroking them, marvelling again at the transparency of the whole flower and the clear water where every fibre of the bulb seemed visible and in motion as if brushed by secret currents and tides.”
Curiously, I was in New Zealand when Janet Frame died. Suddenly portrait shots of this reclusive writer were on the covers of big-circulation magazines, smiling and radiant, as if her story had had its happy ending after all. Yet the feeling I got was that still no-one really knew what to make of her; some part of her awkward personality continued to embarrass them to the end. (By ‘them’, I mean the general public, whoever they might be). Her work was badly stocked in the bookshops and nowhere to be found in the second-hand stores. Despite her success, the books themselves had hardly flooded the market. Well, who wants to read about poverty, about being strapped down for enforced electroshock therapy, and who, above all, wishes to be reminded that we New Zealanders came within a whisker of slicing off a part of a young woman’s brain, a young woman who happened to be our most gifted writer in a hundred years? Easier to just forget it – and her! So said the general public. But long live Janet Frame – says I.

From The Reservoir, The Pegasus Press, 1966. Collected in You Are Now Entering The Human Heart, The Women’s Press, 1984

‘Scenes from the Life of a Faun’ by Arno Schmidt, translated by JE Woods

If you’re after raw, overlooked talent, how about Arno Schmidt? A very nice Irishman introduced me to him and I’m forever grateful. Your eyes pop out when you first look at a page of Schmidt. All those exclamations marks !! And <strange punctuation> and every new paragraph beginning in italics. Surely this isn’t going to work, you think to yourself. Too distracting, trying too hard. In answer to the unspoken accusation Schmidt himself declared, “We are not dealing with a mania for originality or love of the grand gesture, but with… the necessary refinement of the writer’s tool… Let us retain the lovely=essential freedom to reproduce a hesitation precisely : ‘well – hm –: Idunno – – : can we do that….’ (Instead of the rigidly prescribed: ‘Well, I don’t know…’)”
You get the idea. But does it work? <Yes> !! Before two or three pages have passed the semi-pictogram style drops away and, suddenly, you’re in direct communion with Arno Schmidt’s mind. Which is a very good place to be. Such energy. The writing’s discursive, touching on many subjects of interest to him and – another virtue – he never bothers with transitions. Or rarely. Those workmanlike chunks of prose that other writers feel obliged to create in order to produce a satisfying transition from one scene to the next hold no interest for Schmidt. The result is a giddy headlong style, yet he never loses sight of his story. ‘Scenes from the Life of a Faun’ starts in 1939 and tells the tale of Herr Düring, a middle-aged government administrator working under the Nazi regime. Having fought in WW1, he’s too old to be called up again so, head down, he goes quietly on while despising those around him. (Not coincidentally, the narrator of each of the three stories found in this volume, one of which is set in the future, is by far the most intelligent person encountered). Given an archiving job by his boss, Düring comes across the historical figure of Thierry, a deserter from the Napoleonic Wars (‘the faun’) who once hid out in a wooden shack in a nearby forest. Düring takes the cue and, by 1944, it saves his life.
A superlative quality of Arno Schmidt’s writing is his power of description. How about this: “Bushes in scaly sea-green capes appeared along all paths and waved me ever deeper down the road; stood as spectators at meadow’s edge; did trim gymnastics; whispered wantonly with chlorophyll tongues.” Or this description of a woman’s face: “She glided in nearer… soundlessly unbolted that hangar of a mouth: dental slabs the size of dictionaries occupied her jaw bow, beneath nasal pilasters; her eyelashes bristled like carpenter’s nails.”
‘Scenes from the Life of a Faun’ concludes with a five page description of a firebombing raid which is just one of the best things I’ve ever read. “Every maid wore red stockings; each with cinnabar in her pail… Hundreds of hands spurted up from the sod and distributed stony handbills, ‘Death’ inscribed on each.”
Hunt, hunt, hunt down Arno Schmidt, like Herr Düring hunted down his Napoleonic deserter.

First published in German in Aus dem Leben eines Fauns, 1953. Translated as Scenes From the Life of a Faun, Marion Boyars, 1983. Collected in Nobodaddy’s Children, Dalkey Archive, 1995

‘Wireless’ by Rudyard Kipling

Probably, the first thing you should do these days when talking about Kipling is confront his politics. He wasn’t a racist, so far as I can make out. He was an imperialist and a jingo. He supported the Boer War which, when you get down to it, was the British Empire’s violent campaign to get its hands on the South African gold reefs. He hated Suffragettes, opposed Irish Home Rule and lost few opportunities to brand socialists as ‘soap-dodgers’. Etcetera. Yet here also was the boy who’d gone psychosomatically blind as a result of the abuse suffered at the hands of the Holloway family in Southsea; the boy who spoke Hindi as a first language; and the man who wrote some of the most ‘magical stories in the English language’. (Which must be right, since the blurb on the paperback in front of me says so. But I agree). You have to know, or learn, how to separate the man or the woman from the work. (Shakespeare, anyone, who hoarded grain during a food shortage? Caravaggio, who castrated and killed a man?)
But back to Kipling – and his influence. The young James Joyce said, “If I knew Ireland as well as R.K. seems to know India, I fancy I could write something good.’” Isaac Babel studied him. Jan Montefiore, in the Introduction to her edition of his selected stories, detects a descriptive similarity between sections of The Waste Land and this story ‘Wireless’. (TS Eliot anthologised Kipling’s verse). She also suggests Hemingway pinched a line or two of it for his own story ‘In Another Country’. Everybody read him, even if they disagreed with his politics. In ‘Wireless’ Kipling sets up his main plot – the young Mr Cashell experimenting with early wireless technology – and through it stitches the red thread of chemist Mr Shaynor’s romantic attachment. ‘Red’ is appropriate because the story’s drenched in the colour, not least the spots of blood that show in Mr Shaynor’s handkerchief after his coughing fits. To pointlessly cut short a beautiful thing, there are more than Hertzian waves in the air. The spirit of John Keats is somehow, but plausibly somehow, channelled through the dozing Mr Shaynor, who then commences to scribble: ‘Remember,’ (says the narrator) ‘that in all the millions permitted there are no more than five – five little lines of which one can say: ‘These are the pure Magic. These are the clear Vision. The rest is only poetry.’ And Mr Shaynor was playing hot and cold with two of them!’ – John Keats also being an apothecary and also, of course, dying from TB. 
Incredible story. Incredible. Ever so slightly, my hands shook when I re-read it for A Personal Anthology.

First published in Scribner’s Magazine, August, 1902. Collected in Traffics and Discoveries, 1904 and most recently in The Man Who Would Be King, Penguin Classics, 2011

‘The Decline and Fall of Frankie Buller’ by Alan Sillitoe

The constellations were aligned on the day Rudyard Kipling was born. Not so on the birthday of Alan Sillitoe. “I suppose it could be said that I had risen from the ranks. I had become a writer of sorts, having for some indescribable reason, after the evacuation and during the later bombs, taken to reading books,” he explains. Sillitoe came out of the Nottinghamshire slums and factories, made his name with Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958) and followed it up with The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner (1959). By that time he’d long escaped Nottingham and was living on an army pension in Deia, Majorca, where he came to know Robert Graves. It’s hard to imagine two more dissimilar writers – the erudite, patrician Graves, steeped in the classics, with an aristocratic heritage, and the upstart Alan Sillitoe with his stories of working class rebellion and alienation. Yet the two were friends. At the start of The Decline and Fall of Frankie Buller, a writer named Alan tells us: ‘Yesterday we visited the house of a friend who lives farther along the valley… sitting on the terrace with my eyes half closed and my head leaning back in a deckchair… I heard the sound of a cuckoo coming from the pine woods on the mountain slopes.’ Was the house Robert Graves’s? In my imagination, it is. 

The cuckoo accomplished what a surgeon’s knife could not. I was plunged back deep through the years into my natural state, without books and the knowledge that I am supposed to have gained from them… I was set down once more within the kingdom of Frankie Buller.Whereupon follows a story that begins with kids playing war games and ends, in adulthood, with the sort of forced electroshock therapy that Janet Frame must have undergone. Unlike Frame, Frankie Buller hasn’t survived the treatment well. The light in his eyes has died; silently the narrator rages against ‘the conscientious-scientific-methodical probers’ who did the never-to-be-reversed damage.

I, meanwhile, wonder what happened to Alan Sillitoe. To his writing, I mean – to his talent. It’s easy to forget what a big name he was back then, in the 1960s. (Before my time, but I know). “Over 275,000 copies sold in Pan Books alone” announces my copy of The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, printed in 1972 and now as brown as a used teabag. That’s a lot. But Sillitoe had gone off the boil by then – I haven’t read anything of his that’s much good after the first run of success. My understanding is that is he moved to London and, for a time at least, lived the life of a successful author. Coming from where he came from, who can blame him? And no doubt I’m ignorant of his later life. Yet I can’t help speculating about what later works of excellence he might have been produced if he’d stayed quietly on Deia.

From The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, W.H. Allen & Co., 1959

‘The World is Alive’ by J.M.G. Le Clézio, translated by Daphne Woodward

Once I had to attend a family hospital appointment. Waiting on green vinyl chairs in the hospital’s basement, I looked around at the nameplates on the doors of the consulting doctors. One had a long French first name, I don’t remember what. But the surname jumped out at me – Le Clézio! I wanted to rush into that room and shake the doctor’s hand: ‘You must be the son / daughter / nephew / other of the great JMG,’ I saw myself saying. ‘Tell him he’s got a reader on the south coast of England! Because I can’t imagine there are many of us!’ Of course I didn’t go running in like that. (The room was empty anyway). Instead I took down his volume of short stories, Fever, as soon as I got home. Another scan through. Jean-Marie Gustave has plenty of readers, in Europe, having brilliantly sustained his career since his 1963 debut, The Interrogation. Not to mention the small matter of winning that big Swedish gong in 2008.
Two aspects of Le Clézio’s writing that I find myself drawn to: first his rejection, at least in his fiction, of theorising. He isn’t a philosopher and doesn’t want to be one. Doesn’t feel the need to justify himself. That makes for a refreshing change from an intellectual class who often feel the need to speak in tautologies (the sense of a sentence is in the sentence of sense, etcetera). I can’t claim to be well read in modern French fiction, but this tedious little virus does seem to infect more lines than perhaps it ought to. And then, second, Le Clézio’s a camera, an X-ray machine. Microscopic-macroscopic. Straight out of left-field.
I’m not certain that ‘The World is Alive’ even is a story. There’s no protagonist. There’s no plot, and not one single story event. But oh boy, is there setting. Here he describes the method: “One has to go out into the country, like a Sunday painter… choose a deserted spot and look about for a long time. And then, when one has had a good look, one must take a sheet of paper and draw, in words, what one has seen.” (“All you have to do is look and describe,” said the great Cretan writer Nikos Kazantzakis once). And so we embark upon a description of a valley, a range of mountains, the fauna and flora within its folds, unlike anything you’ve ever read before. It’s as if a madman’s decided to catalogue every square millimetre he can see. Except the madman happens also to be an ant, or sometimes a bird, and happens also to be blessed with high-octane literary talents that he knows how to use. Now, who could say no to that? 
(Claude Lévi-Strauss tried the same thing once, an exhaustive description of a sunset. I wonder if it’s a French thing?)

First published in French in Fièvre, Gallimard, 1965. First published in English in Fever, 1966; now available as a Penguin Modern Classic, 2008

‘The Muggletonian Archive’ By E.P. Thompson

After a lifetime of scholarship, a diligent academic tracks down the archive of an obscure religious sect – the Muggletonians, a heretical splinter group that came into existence during the ferment of the English Revolution. The archive has been kept intact throughout the centuries, held secure in the back rooms of Bishopgate pubs, surviving industrialisation, the Victorians, the firebombing of the Luftwaffe. Even better, the academic discovers that the archive, now relocated to Kent, is in the possession of the last living Muggletonian, one Philip Noakes.

Immediately we know where we are, and we sigh a contented sigh. It’s Jose Luis Borges, or a disciple. It’s a comfort read, an intellectual hall of mirrors that’ll tease us and be over in a few pages. And E.P. Thompson is a skilled emulator:It was a strange situation. Mr Noakes himself was the last repository of a 300-year-old tradition. He conversed with me freely about Muggletonian practices and doctrine. He frequently said: ‘We believe’ – and yet one could not point to another believer.

‘Almost salivating, the professor is taken to a store room wherein lie 82 apple boxes. Here at last is the archive. “Eighteenth century bindings appeared, and manuscripts, as well as holograph songbooks. I confess that the light was so bad that, when we came to the last box, with trembling fingers I lit a match.” After some persuasion, and hastened by the onset of old age and ill health, Mr Noakes agrees to let the collection be lodged in the British Library. It’s the triumph of the professor’s career. The story even ends pleasantly: ‘All is sweetened by the recollection of the kindness shown to me by Mr Noakes. It was indeed a privilege to have been taken into the confidence of ‘the Last Muggletonian’.

There’s only one, small, detail. E.P. Thompson was a distinguished historian and never, to my knowledge, wrote a short story in his life. The Muggletonians were every bit as real as the Ranters and the Quakers. William Blake’s mother was one of them. So out the window goes Borges – because every word of The Muggletonian Archive is true.

From Witness Against the Beast: William Blake and the Moral Law, The New Press, 1993