‘Living on the Box’ by Penelope Gilliatt

Penelope Gilliatt shows no reverence for the artist-as-isolated from society, and holds back no acerbity here in her portrait of a nature poet so out of touch with everyday life that he refuses to waste his breath speaking, not even to his wife. Keeping her in silence and isolated in the countryside, he gets on with The Work while she composes notes (as concise as possible) that are never perfect enough to give to him.

I read Penelope Gilliatt’s collection, What’s It Like Out?, at the same time that I read Edna O’Brien’s A Scandalous Woman and Françoise Sagan’s Silken Eyes; while I remember the atmosphere of the latter two collections viscerally, I have only fleeting details of the stories themselves: a hat, an airport, a tower, a car. In contrast, I remember nothing about the rest of Gilliatt’s collection apart from this story. For years, I thought the poet of the story was a real figure, and the documentary which frames the story, one which I’d actually seen:

“‘They’ll be here all day. They’re sure to want the poet’s wife,’ he said tartly. ‘You can tell them how much you love the work, can’t you?’ He always spoke about his poetry as ‘the work’; it was this sort of dispassion that so excited the BBC.”

First published in The New Yorker, December 1966 and available to read here. Collected in What’s It Like Out? Secker & Warburg, 1968; also available from Virago Modern Classics, 1990)

‘Living on the Box’ by Penelope Gilliatt

I sometimes wish I had half the icy-smooth scathing of a mid-century woman writer. Here, Gilliatt turns it on the pomposity of nature poets, and she’s absolutely lacerating. I love the way she scarcely bothers to finish the story, just whips the whole diorama away as if to say: come on now, don’t be daft.

First published in The New Yorker in 1964. Collected in What’s It Like Out? Virago Modern Classics, 1990