The British Library’s ‘Spoken Word’ series, drawing heavily on the BBC archives, has already shown quite a range — from Tennyson’s famously crackly reading of ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’ to Scott Fitzgerald declaiming a speech from Othello. Now, it moves on to the short story and, despite the curious decision to include two tales apiece from Somerset Maugham and Algernon Blackwood (none of them especially overwhelming), once again nobody is likely to complain about a lack of variety.
The three discs are kicked off by Maugham’s chatty reading of ‘Salvatore’, a story in praise of a lithe young Italian fisherman. According to the final lines, this is a plucky attempt to hold our attention with a portrait of simple goodness. More sceptical readers might recall the aphorism quoted by P. J. O’Rourke about the Kennedys: ‘It’s always tempting to impute/ Unlikely virtues to the cute.’
Next comes Frank O’Connor’s wonderfully funny ‘The Idealist’, where an Irish boy tries to put into practice the lessons he’s learned from English public-school stories. Needless to say, his efforts end in failure, but both the Irish and English are beautifully skewered along the way. Third is Phyllis Bentley with ‘Beckermonds’, the first of several ghost stories on offer — but also the creakiest. While it’s always interesting to hear from largely forgotten writers (one of the main attractions, after all, of an anthology like this) the neglect of Bentley doesn’t feel like a terrible injustice.
From there, the mix of well-known and more obscure writers continues — and so, on the whole, does the sense that the well-known are better. Disc One ends on a high note, with V. S. Pritchett’s ‘The Fly in the Ointment’, a superbly awkward picture of a grown-up son and his still-domineering father.
The best of the ghost stories is Kingsley Amis’s ‘The Green Man Revisited’, in which what appears to be a pure piece of autobiography takes a spooky turn when the events of his novel The Green Man are replayed in real life. Angela Carter’s ‘The Snow Child’ suffers from a weird bowdlerisation (the rape of a dead woman is turned into a chaste embrace) — but still packs more of a punch than the other fairytale we’re given: A. E. Coppard’s ‘The Princess of Kingdom Gone’, recorded in 1948, whose admittedly strange atmosphere seems mainly due to the clumsiness of the writing.
I’d suggest, though, that there is one genuine find. Lord Dunsany was an Anglo-Irish baron (and therefore a friend of Yeats’s) who specialised in ‘gentlemen’s club’ stories. He’s represented here by ‘The Pearly Beach’, a fantastically worldly tale of skulduggery in Port Said, perfectly suited to His Lordship’s languid, patrician tones.
Not that he’s the only person to demonstrate such impeccable poshness in a collection featuring a regular serving of ‘gal’s and ‘orften’s. The disappointingly sketchy sleeve notes tell us that Phyllis Bentley was ‘very much a regional writer’. Yet she still sounds like a BBC announcer of the 1940s. And even Harold Pinter is at his most resoundingly actorly in a 1964 recording of the enigmatic ‘Tea Party’, where several mysterious things happen — none of them, as far as I can see, a tea party.
But like many grand tours, this winningly rich compilation does have the effect of confirming at least one national stereotype. For my money, the only rivals to Frank O’Connor for the best story here are all by his compatriots. Seán O’Faoláin’s ‘The Fur Coat’ quietly illuminates Irish attitudes to independence (without ever mentioning them) through a husband and wife discussing if they can afford the coat in question. In ‘The Small-Town Lovers’, Edna O’Brien’s pin-sharp observations and lyrical reading style invest the smallest of incidents with haunting significance.
The big finish is provided by ‘An Evening with John Joe Dempsey’ in which, not for the first or last time, William Trevor captures the narrowness of provincial Ireland in a way that manages to be both entirely unsparing and wholly sympathetic. This is not a brilliantly original insight I appreciate — but it really does look as if Irish writers are very good at the short-story form.