Largely unheard since their original performances or BBC broadcasts between 1939 and 2011, these readings of 12 short stories by their authors are a treasure trove. *
E.M.Forster’s 1948 reading definitely conjures up a past era. His philosophical debate in ‘Mr Andrews’ concerning two souls in ‘interspace’ — of a righteous Englishman and a Turk who has slain his enemy ‘whilst fighting the infidel’ — is as academic as the 70-year-old author’s voice.
Similarly the irresistible opening to Osbert Sitwell’s ‘The Staggered Stay’ immediately takes us back to the Forties: ‘Miss Mumsford always put her aunt away upstairs, even in summer, before she came down to dinner…’ Sitwell’s delivery, crisp and aristocratic with his ‘lorst’ and ‘acrorss’, is delightfully animated — unlike Somerset Maugham’s. In the latter’s neat traveller’s tale, ‘The Wash Tub’, the first ever story read by its author, broadcast by the BBC in 1951, the speakers in the dialogue are difficult to distinguish because he fails to characterise even his American protagonist. However, authors don’t necessarily make the best readers — and Maugham was 77 at the time of the recordings.
Curiously, stories read in regional accents do not date in the same way: Alan Sillitoe’s vigorous 1959 Nottinghamshire delivery of his tough story of suicide, ‘On Saturday Afternoon’, could have been made yesterday. Similarly, Seán Ó’Faoláin’s ‘One True Friend’, recorded in 1939 and recalling Joyce’s Dubliners, is a splendid piece of Irish theatre both in its content and fresh narration.
It’s not until the 1990s, however, that the readings are clearly in our present era. Beryl Bainbridge (whose 101-volume archive is held by the British Library) was an actor before she became a writer, evident in the beautifully modulated voice, and her ear for idiolect, accent and pace in her dramatic tale of deception and counter deception, ‘Kiss Me Hardy’.
A successful short story both intrigues and satisfies. It has an afterlife. After Rose Tremain’s beautifully crafted ‘Extra Geography’, (2011) we’re disturbed. Just how badly damaged was the New Zealand geography teacher, Miss Delevine, after her departure forced by her pupils’ thoughtless manipulation? And imagine the loveless married life which awaited the pregnant bride in William Trevor’s ‘Teresa’s Wedding’ (1980) where there was ‘no magic to be destroyed’. In contrast, Harold Pinter fails the test. Thirteen minutes of Pinteresque pauses and self-indulgent obscurity present an unsettling, relationship between two largely silent people. Clever in 1962, wearisomely pretentious in 2013.
A final twist, a time-shift or sudden change of gear may provide a conclusion crucial to a story’s satisfying end. Through subtle understatement in ‘Interference’ (1994, and at 36 minutes the longest in this collection), Julian Barnes creates a monster of egotism: Leonard Verity, composer and aesthete, awaits death, tended by his once devoted ‘twinned spirit’, Adeline, who has sacrificed marriage and her own singing career to serve the artist who now finds her merely ‘vexing’. Barnes is the maestro of ambience in both the written and spoken word, and Adeline’s final act of defiance is a masterly sting. In Fay Weldon’s economical Nineties comedy of manners, ‘New Year’s Day’, we pick up hints that Claire is wasting her devotion — and money — on married Alan, but it isn’t until the final punch of the last sentence that we realise that she’s not as blind as she seemed.
William Trevor has encapsulated short- story writing succinctly as ‘the art of the glimpse’ with, crucially, as much left out as put in. In his own story, Loretta, at her sister’s wedding, remembers with distaste how after her own, her husband had ‘come at her like a farmyard animal’: all the vulgar crassness of the present occasion compressed in that one simile. With few words — the factory fumes, Dad back from the bookie’s — Alan Sillitoe creates his ten-year-old boy protagonist’s background. So spare and utilitarian is his prose that the simile describing the hanging man whom the boy witnesses kicking ‘like a dog that’s got colic bad’ is starkly effective.
A third volume from the BBC and British Library archives would be most welcome!
*The Spoken Word: Short Stories, Volume II: British and Irish authors read their own work. www.bl.uk/shop (British Library, £20, 3CDs, 3 hours 24 minutes)