Walter Benjamin says that short stories are stronger than the real, lived moment, because they can go on releasing the real, lived moment long after the real, lived moment is dead. (Smith, says: I’m sure Benjamin didn’t put it quite like that.)
When I was planning this anthology, I had a Rose Tremain story in my head about Nancy Reagan caring for Ronald after Alzheimer’s got the better of him. I remembered it for its audacity and its astonishing empathy. But I searched and searched and when I finally tracked down ‘The Former First Lady and the Football Hero’, I found it is in fact another A.M. Homes story from Things You Should Know. Which I should have known.
What I did know, but had forgotten, was that ‘The Darkness of Wallis Simpson’ is an equally audacious trip inside the mind of the dying Duchess of Windsor. The story for which the Duchess is known is not her story; the woman for whom Edward VIII gave up an empire has forgotten he ever lived.
It’s a brilliant, queasy read. But, in my fantasy anthology there’s a story that lives on past the real, lived moment, a story by Rose Tremain about Ronald and Nancy Reagan…
In The Darkness of Wallis Simpson and other stories, Vintage, 2006
A perfectly plotted short story, which reaches far beyond its seven pages. The narrator is a boorish, elderly, extremely wealthy man, who has made his fortune from mining precious metals: ‘I’m a financier. I have financial assets world-wide. I’m in nickel and pig-iron and gold and diamonds. I like the sound of all these words…The glitter of saying them sometimes gives me an erection’. These little shocks are all the more powerful for being buried within the elegance of Tremain’s prose. The narrator’s gold-digging wife is a former prostitute of White Russian ancestry. The pair are entertaining one of the narrator’s employees and his wife in an expensive restaurant. We gradually realise the narrator has been severely disabled by a stroke and cannot talk or feed himself. The wife doesn’t help him to eat. The contrast between the younger couple, who are deeply in love, and the older couple, whose marriage has always been a coldly transactional arrangement, is stark. Even before the narrator’s stroke, he could not communicate with his wife and, now, he literally can’t speak to her. The story ends ambiguously with a stylish echo of the opening: ‘Why did she never love me? In my dreams, too, the answer comes from deep underground: it’s the hardness of my words’.
(First published in Granta Best of Young British Novelists, 1983, and collected in from The Penguin Book of Modern British Short Stories, ed. Malcolm Bradbury, 1988. Granta subscribers can read it online here)