In a week when Radio 4 is broadcasting Roald Dahl’s adult short stories, I thought I would post about two volumes of short stories by well known and well loved (by me) authors of longer novels.
Philip Hensher has long been a favourite of mine, and I have certainly posted recommendations on this blog before. His new book, Tales of Persuasion, is somewhat different since is contains eleven short(ish) stories. As you might expect, if you are already familiar with his work, these are quite internal explorations of relationship. With job or person or situation.
In the second story, A Change in the Weather, we find George arriving at a new job. He is excited, nervous and slightly awed by his surroundings, not surprising as he is in Whitehall. His boss is not there when he arrives, and he is greeted by a woman who appears to be in charge, and insinuates that he will not be there long. An incident has stopped all traffic and delayed the arrival of his boss and also prevented the arrival of a visiting professor who is coming in to brief the department. George leaves his office and goes to look up and down Whitehall, empty of traffic, and realises that this is a unique moment, returns to his office and starts reading and moving files from the in-tray to the out-tray.
He understood almost nothing of what he read, and soon a feeling of mild satisfaction came over him at the image of dedication he must be presenting, if anyone walked past his office and happened to glance in. In time, he shut the document and placed it in the out-tray. It occurred to him to make a note of what he had read, and he did so, in the spiral-bound notebook. He picked up the second document in the pile, and soon he looked like someone who was making efficient work out of his inconveniently interrupted day. He passed papers from one pile to another, with the appearance of someone who was working hard, and beginning a new life. Anyone could see he had the capacity to be useful, and the thought gave George, head down, something rather like joy.
The economy of this piece, the mild humour and the internal dialogue that it represents must be familiar to anyone who started a new job when improperly briefed. The self delight at having something to do, however futile, and earning money for it is quite wonderfully explored.
In the second book by Mark Haddon, The Pier Falls, the stories are slightly longer, there are only nine, in one called The Gun we are taken on quite a journey. This story involves a boy called Daniel, he lives on an estate and goes to visit his friend Sean. That day, he will experience something so profound that it affects the rest of his life
…he will remember an August afternoon when he was ten years old and feel the vertigo you feel walking away unharmed from a car crash. Or not quite unharmed, for he will come to realise that a part of himself peeled away and now exists in a parallel universe to which he has no access.
This is a taut, disturbing tale. There remains the sense that this is a story that is going on inside a man’s head. Daniel is grown up now but revisits, in intense emotion, this childhood memory when driving away from his mother’s funeral, for he passes the exact location of this earlier event.
It is quite unusual for me to read short stories, a failing that I will readily admit to. When I do, I really enjoy them. These two volumes are exceptionally good, they do not disappoint on any page.