Saturday, 19 December 2015

Plum to Zadie

Change and decay in all around I see.

Well decay, certainly. The latter outweighs the former in Cameron's Britain, not least if one considers change should always be for the better. As the country sinks into a state in which vile oligarchs and sad paupers are united only in their enthralment to celebrity culture (which is the opposite of life), as our children are denied any purchase on the future economy (whatever form that takes), as freedoms are eroded and the public discourse around political issues becomes ever more rancorous and infantile, as the homeless and hopeless proliferate, as private companies wait to pounce on what remains of our public health service . . .

What prompts such glum reflections?

It is, as I'm sure you'll already have guessed, the recent publication in two volumes of The Penguin Book of the British Short Story, edited by Philip Hensher. They cost twenty five pounds each, and it's fifty quid well spent if you're in the market for two inconveniently heavy slabs of (mostly) light fiction.

I admire Hensher very much, and for many reasons, and I'm pleased to see that our tastes overlap (not least in his perfectly reasonable claim that V. S. Pritchett is the greatest of short story practitioners, although I'd quibble at his selection of The Camberwell Beauty). 

What prompts my gloom, and what may prompt a corresponding gloom in you, my valued reader, is the sub-title of the second volume: 'From P. G. Wodehouse to Zadie Smith'.

There's quite a distance between those two writers, and I can't persuade myself that there's much in the way of progress. I can see the point of Zadie Smith and am pleased that she seems to have overcome the early success of White Teeth, a fiction that (as they say) ticked all the boxes but (as I say) left me cold. This was partly for personal reasons, as her upbeat depiction of a Jehovah's Witness family managed to be as ignorant and condescending as anything I've ever read about this nasty cult (and I know what I'm talking about, believe me). It was also because I never bought into her portrayal of urban multiculturalism, which is a far more nuanced and tricky and unstable a subject than she allows. 

Now 40, she's so much part of the literary establishment (whatever that is) that I feel Hensher should be looking at other, more recent (and inevitably younger) writers for a sense of where the form is heading, what it is capable of doing. Recent virtuosic short story collections include volumes by May-Lan Tan (Things to Make and Break), Thomas Morris (We Don't Know What We're Doing), Claire-Louise Bennet (Pond) and many, many others. That Zadie Smith (and, come to that, Ali Smith) are included as (by implication) the culmination of a literary form dating back to Defoe is something I'm sure both of them would find  amusing and embarrassing. But mostly embarrassing.

And what about P. G. Wodehouse? For some (including me) he's simply unmatched as a comic writer, and is one of the great literary stylists, instantly recognisable yet virtually inimitable. Gabriel Josipovici makes a strong case for regarding Wodehouse as an important modernist, and I can't help but agree, because Wodehouse is as much a language virtuoso as, say James Joyce. "Some girls are the sand in civilisation's spinach'. How about that?

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