Tag Archives: faber finds

53. William Sansom’s city of night and ‘A Woman Seldom Found’

William Sansom

In these entries up to now I have been candid, have I not – maybe too much so? – in ‘fessing up to many and various sources of inspiration for images, lines, odds and ends in The Possessions of Doctor Forrest. One slight problem of this policy of truth, one I alluded to in the past entry on Robert Aickman, is that it could nonetheless start to look like a sly policy of concealment designed in respect of certain other writers whom I (honestly!) hadn’t read prior to completing the Forrest manuscript but whose fingerprints might appear, in a certain half-light, to be all over it…
To wit, another seeming candidate in this category: William Sansom, a selection of whose novels and stories I now watch over in my role as editor of the Faber Finds imprint. Sansom was a gloriously gifted writer who could turn his hand to many forms and subjects. He was a master of the short story, for sure, and his short-form work has generally garnered more praise than his novels. He is utterly brilliant on detail, has a miniaturist’s eye and the ability to prolong a moment on the page, twisting and turning it across the sentences. He is by no means exclusively or even mainly a writer of the supernatural or uncanny, but some of the tales tend that way – they are, as Time magazine once put it, ‘populated with gentle stranglers and murderous lovers, with beasts that think like men and men who dream themselves into beasts. Their environs are often menacing and unfailingly strange.’
I didn’t read Sansom until the start of this year, I promise – with Forrest already at the presses. But given all my hommages and tips of the hat, will anyone who reads Sansom’s story ‘A Woman Seldom Found’ and then considers ps. 257-264 of Doctor Forrest (Robert’s account of his first encounter with Dijana Vukovara) believe that I wasn’t making a heavily-underscored reference to Sansom? I would say so now were it true, Your Honour, but it ain’t. What I would like to admit to here, though, is envy and admiration of just how consummately Sansom carried off This Sort of Thing…

‘In [] a pavementless alley between old yellow houses, a street that in Rome might suddenly blossom into a secret piazza of fountain and baroque church, a grave secluded treasure-place – he noticed that he was alone but for the single figure of a woman walking down the hill toward him.
As she drew nearer, he saw that she was dressed with taste, that in her carriage was a soft Latin fire, that she walked for respect. He face was veiled, but it was impossible to imagine that she would not be beautiful. Isolated thus with her, passing so near to her, and she symbolizing the adventure of which the evening was so empty – a greater melancholy gripped him. He felt wretched as the gutter, small, sunk, pitiful. So that he rounded his shoulders and lowered his eyes – but not before casting one furtive glance into hers.
He was so shocked at what he saw that he paused, he stared, shocked, into her face. He had made no mistake. She was smiling. Also – she too had hesitated. He thought instantly: ‘Whore?’ But no – it was not that kind of smile, though as well it was not without affection. And then amazingly she spoke.
“I – I know I shouldn’t ask you… but it is such a beautiful evening – and perhaps you are alone, as alone as I am…”‘

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46. The legend of Mary Shelley

With my editor/publisher hat on my head I am returning Miranda Seymour’s greatly praised Mary Shelley to print through Faber Finds. On first publication in 2001 the book was hailed by the FT’s reviewer as “the most dazzling biography of a female writer to have come my way for an entire decade.” And 2011 has already proved to be a year of passionately renewed interest in The Woman Who Wrote Frankenstein – her life, her legend and enigma retain all their powers to enthrall. Danny Boyle’s new staging of Shelley’s most famous novel has been a huge success for the National Theatre (your correspondent wrote on the subject for the Guardian back in February) and the fascination of readers with the ‘tangled lives’ of the circle of Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley has been evinced yet again by the great reception afforded to Daisy Hay’s Young Romantics.
Merely to know that Mary Shelley completed Frankenstein when not quite 19 is to be aware this was no ordinary young woman. But Mary’s exceptionality began with her parentage: her father was the radical novelist/thinker William Godwin, her mother the intrepid proto-feminist Mary Wollstonecraft who died of septicaemia 12 days after giving birth to her – a grievous inheritance for any child.
Wollstonecraft’s life is rather better known than her writing – partly because the widower Godwin wrote an impassioned memoir of her, including details of her unmarried motherhood and various love affairs which aroused a deal of public disapproval. Mary certainly read her father’s memoir, and her mother’s books, including the famous Vindication of the Rights of Woman. In Mary’s case, how far had the apple fallen from the tree? Well, in describing Wollstonecraft as ‘feminist’ one intends to say above all that she was a model of self-reliance and that her passionate concern was with how the potential of her sex could be freed by education. And young Mary did indeed get the benefit of a good, advanced education, though her father was in other ways an unhelpfully remote figure. Still, it may be that no small part of the appeal to Mary of Godwin’s protégé Percy Bysshe Shelley was the aura Shelley exuded of a readiness to live out the ideals of Mary’s parents.
Of course, the romance of Mary and Shelley proved to be no giddy jaunt, much less a seamless union of minds. Clearly Percy Bysshe offered her good editorial advice in the writing of Frankenstein, the fame of which would enable her to eclipse his literary star for a while. But the fact remains that of Mary’s five pregnancies with Shelley only one child survived into adulthood. Consequently she suffered profound depressions, and came to build up resilient defences against the outside world where she had been so often wounded. In the end she would outlive all the luminaries of the ‘Pisa circle’: a lone mother, Shelley’s flame-keeper, author of many volumes though none to rival her ‘hideous progeny’ Frankenstein. In Mary Shelley we may say there was a sort of ungovernable daring but also, over time and perforce, a driving need for social ‘respectability’. And these dual forces are twinned to a degree in her work.
Speaking of dual forces: I just noticed this remarkable ‘trailer’ for the National Theatre’s Frankenstein, which makes simple but stunning use of the twinned casting of Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller.

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36. Robert Aickman’s ordinary ghosts

Is Robert Aickman the twentieth century’s ‘most profound writer of what we call horror stories and he, with greater accuracy, preferred to call strange stories’? Such is the opinion of Peter Straub, author of Ghost Story, voiced in a discerning introduction to Aickman’s collection The Wine Dark Sea. If you accept Aickman’s self-classification within the ‘strange’ then you might say he’s in a league of his own, and I’d be partial to that argument. (It would make him rather akin to Poe, who seems to me the only true contender in the field of ‘tales of mystery and imagination.’) But Horror is obviously the most compelling genre label that exists on the dark/unnatural side of literary endeavour, and it might be simplest and most useful to the cause of Aickman’s renown if we just said that, yes, Robert Aickman was the best horror writer of the last hundred years.
I only read Aickman for the first time in 2010 on the happy occasion of becoming the publisher of some of his work through my function at the Faber Finds imprint. But what a blessed discovery! Doctor Forrest was already at the presses by the time I read The Wine Dark Sea and The Unsettled Dust, so I don’t have to own up to any express hommages; but the fact is that so elegantly and comprehensively did Aickman encompass all the strengths and complexities of the horror story that it’s hard to see how any subsequent practitioner in the form could stand anywhere but in his shadow. His construction of tales is immaculate. True, there is probably a typical Aickman protagonist, usually if not always a man, who does not fit so well with others, somewhat alone and neurotic to a degree – but that neurosis is carefully made and subtly conveyed to the reader. Aickman’s management of terror is masterly, because he seems always to proceed from a realism where detail accumulates without fuss, the recognisable material world seems wholly foursquare – until you realise that the narrative has been built as a cage, a kind of personal hell, and the protagonist is proceeding toward death as if in a dream. For all Aickman’s seeming austerity many of his stories also have a strong erotic current: there is, again, something dreamlike to how quickly in Aickman an attraction can proceed to a physical expression, and yet he also creates a sense of dread whenever skin touches skin – as if desire (and the female) are forms of trap, varieties of doom. If that is the sort of theme that rightly causes us to think of horror as a little reactionary and neurotic in itself, then all one can say is that Aickman executes it always with great panache.
‘The Stains’, from The Unsettled Dust, is only one story to which I would bend the knee in respect of Doctor Forrest. This account of a widower’s falling in love with (and plunging to his doom through) an appealing young woman (who is in fact some kind of dryad) effortlessly achieves the sort of effect I have strived for in the chapter of Forrest entitled ‘A Mermaid’s Tale.’ And ‘The Fetch’ from The Wine Dark Sea seems to me a significant contribution to the great tradition of Scottish Gothic, with its confessional protagonist who rightly judges himself ‘a haunted man’ and its grim faceless wraith, ‘the old carlin’ who emerges from the sea to augur a death in the family. When said haunted man finally finds himself caged in his family home, watching the carlin watching him from a perch outdoors up high on a broken wall, he reflects that ‘such levitations are said to be not uncommon in the remoter parts of Scotland’; while the reader nods and thinks ‘Aye, not uncommon indeed…’

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