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Category Archives: Short Stories

Paris, Painters, Poets by Jim Burns (Penniless Press Publications)

Paris, Painters, Poets by Jim Burns (Penniless Press Publications)

An abiding feature of Jim Burns’ informative series of critical books is their range of interests and his passion in recalling neglected and marginalised artists, poets and jazz musicians. This eighth collection of reviews and essays has a sequence of essays on Paris, sections on neglected British artists and American poets, the effects of the Hollywood blacklists, the early days of communism in Russia and America, as well as some of his own short fiction.

The Parisian section has essays on Chaim Soutine, Marc Chagall and other Montparnasse outsiders, Picasso and his milieu in 1900, existentialists, including Edmund Husserl, the way the work of photographer, Felix Nadar, shaped images of the city, and the role of the barricade in successive insurrections. As ever, Burns writes in a richly contextual and inviting manner and gives useful overviews and plenty of references for further reading.

The reviews of recent exhibitions and books on Sven Berlin, John Bratby and Stanley Spencer are illuminating. I did not know, for example, that Bratby was also a novelist. He also writes the Forties and Fifties Soho bohemia that produced
Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, John Minton and Michael Ayrton, through the lens of the lives of artists, Richard Chopping and Denis Wirth-Miller, who frequently feature as minor artists in accounts of the period. As Burns makes clear any sense of transgressive artistic practice was over by the Sixties and the scene had degenerated into the same old faces drinking away their lives.

Amongst the highlights of this book for me is the discovery of the poetry of Lola Ridge (1873-1941) in the essay, ‘Lola Ridge, Radical Poet’, and of Cambridge Opinion 41 (1965), an issue devoted to the impact of William Carlos Williams on English poets. The former essay sets her work firmly in the context of American modernist poetry and its social background. Irish born Ridge came to become a Greenwich Village bohemian via New Zealand, Australia, and San Francisco. Her feminist, street poetry, voicing class conflict, social protest, won the Shelley Memorial Award in 1934 and 1935. Her first poetry book, The Ghetto and Other Poems (1918) centred on the Jewish community of the Lower East Side, and created quite a stir, despite the fact that her portrayal was mostly second hand.
There is currently a revival of interest in her poetry and Light in Hand: Selected Early Poems introduced and edited by Daniel Tobin appeared in 2007. Terese Svoboda’s biography Anything That Burns You (2015) extends to 627 pages. Burns found a copy of Cambridge Opinion 41 in his archives, as he was a contributor. The magazine is not referenced in any of the histories and bibliographies of little poetry magazines produced by the British Library and elesewhere. This significant issue features the work of Basil Bunting, Andrew Crozier, Roy Fisher, Tim Longville, Tom Pickard, J.H. Prynne, John Temple, Gael Turnbull and others. Burns provides plenty of background information on the editors and the various approaches of contributors and various other related magazines and presses. It is the kind of recovery that aptly illustrates the great value that Burns offers to us all.

David Caddy 8th February 2017

Henry James’s ‘The Figure in the Carpet’

Henry James’s ‘The Figure in the Carpet’

One of the finest fictions about the role of the literary reviewer must surely be Henry James’s 1896 story ‘The Figure in the Carpet’. When the narrator of the short fiction is asked to write a review of the latest novel by Hugh Vereker it is, of course, for The Middle, a highbrow literary journal so-named ‘from the position in the week of its day of appearance’. The hint here is surely that not only can the critic expect to trot out some ‘middle’ perceptions but, after all, these will be all that his readership will expect to digest. When Vereker reads the little review his response, given at a social dinner, is in reaction to Miss Poyle’s comment asking for his reaction to the so-termed ‘panegyric’. The novelist’s response is given with great good humour:

‘Oh it’s all right—the usual twaddle!’

When Miss Poyle pursues her prey by asking ‘You mean he [the reviewer] doesn’t do you justice?’ Vereker laughs out loud and tosses out the comment ‘It’s a charming article’. When Miss Poyle accuses the novelist of being ‘deep’ he in turn suggests that the author often does not see what the reader might see:

‘Doesn’t see what?’
‘Doesn’t see anything.’
‘Dear me—how very stupid!’
‘Not a bit,’ Vereker laughed again. ‘Nobody does.’

As the narrator goes to bed that night he encounters the famous novelist who has gone upstairs to change and Vereker wishes to explain a little more about what he meant concerning literary critics. With a charming sense of self-effacement he refers to his own work in terms of the critics missing ‘my little point with a perfection exactly as admirable when they patted me on the back as when they kicked me in the shins.’ When pushed a little further about what exactly this ‘little point’, the central aspect of his work, might be the artist replies:

‘By my little point I mean—what shall I call it?—the particular thing I’ve written my books most for. Isn’t there for every writer a particular thing of that sort, the thing that most makes him apply himself, the thing without the effort to achieve which he wouldn’t write at all, the very passion of his passion, the part of the business in which, for him, the flame of art burns most intensely? Well, it’s that!’

Perhaps to search for a figure in the carpet is to search for a ‘hidden meaning’ in a work of art almost as if reading with intensity was merely a matter of extending the children’s comic game of ‘Where’s Wally’. When reading a serious poem or piece of prose we are treading upon the whole carpet into which there may be a figure woven that merges with the entire pattern and, if so, then ‘Tread softly because you tread on my dreams’.

Ian Brinton March 28th 2015

Catherine McNamara’s Pelt And Other Stories

Catherine McNamara’s Pelt And Other Stories

Catherine McNamara’s Pelt And Other Stories: Tales of Lust & Dirt (Indigo Dreams Publishing, 2013) examines the post-colonial relationships ‘between the world of tin and the world of glass’, in a sequence of gripping stories from a world of places. McNamara is an Australian, currently living in Italy, having previously lived in West Africa. Her stories are compelling, rich in detail, exploring implied and overt tensions that linger in the mind.

 

McNamara is impressive at showing the diversity of African women, struggling to move into new relationships, replete with the impact of lust and dirt. Her fiction allows the reader to see the new disquiet, connections, exploitations and displacements, between Africa and Europe. There is a strong sense of characters taking provisional positions, travelling far from home, in the hope of a better future.

 

The title story, ‘Pelt’, follows a Ghanaian woman flaunting her pregnant body before her lover’s estranged wife. The reader sees her German lover, Rolfe, stumble with the return of his wife, Karina, from Namibia. He has not told her of his new love. The story is rich in attitudes, connections and commercial detail, allowing a wider vision of the characters to emerge. The Ghanaian is a confident woman, aware of her physical attributes, in relation to her lover’s wife, and is clearly determined to use her womanly guile to secure a higher status in a highly stratified society. Despite some insecurity, she triumphantly swims in the hotel’s pool towards the Europeans in an act of self-assertion and transcendence. Rolfe begs her to go home.

The story is highly successful at implying the African’s assault on European decorum and her struggle towards a wider social acceptance.

 

Here’s an example of the fluency and fullness of McNamara’s writing from the story, ‘Young British Man Drowns In Alpine Lake’:

 

He nears Corinne’s face one more time. He is gleaning it for ashen

traces. Of which there are, for one who knows her. He cannot see

how the colour of her lips has dropped a shade towards the blue

end of red, a drop in blood pressure as much as a realignment of

pluck, and that her huge white forehead, template for her sticky

righteousness, lies galvanized beneath its compelling shirr. They

say the hydraulics of the face are spellbinding. Corinne’s face is

giving him so much information I am appalled.

 

 

 

The steamy African backdrop impinges upon McNamara’s characters in ways that are perhaps subtler than, for example, Stefan Zweig’s African stories from colonial times. Africa is a place open to wider connections, subtler relationships, more diverse sensibilities, and the stories, some first published in Tears in the Fence, offer a range of examples.  Luca, a married Italian engages his West African lover, formerly a sex worker, to look after his elderly parents. Janet is seemingly happy to be used this way and finds his parents to be lost and disintegrating in the African mud. The story effectively shows her desire to please and to continue to rise socially as much as Luca’s abandonment of his parents. McNamara cleverly uses detail to reveal character. She is thus both succinct and thought provoking.

 

There is much more to savour in these stories that repay rereading as quality stories always do. I thoroughly recommend this engaging and enlivening collection.

 

David Caddy January 7th 2014

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