In the world of Jane Gardam’s stories the past is always present, solid and often unwanted and always too big, like a heavy antique sideboard crammed into a modern retirement flat. Her characters are easily imagined surrounded by such furniture, among them ex-pats returning after careers in Hong Kong or India, their houses full of the sad paraphernalia of former empire: elephant’s foot umbrella stands or old watercolours of Bengal.
Many are seeing out their days in some poverty and solitude, occasionally visited but seldom comforted by their resentful grown-up children. There is no saccharine here. Relations between offspring and parents are marked by mutual disdain and almost wilful misunderstanding, lit up from time to time by flares of bewildering love. It would be awful to live in Gardam-land, but it’s a fascinating place to visit.
She often writes about old people for the same reason, I think, that she often writes about children. It is because what interests her are moments of truth. The old can’t be bothered to dissemble — or they relish the shock value of refusing to — and the young have not yet learned to do so. Their candour is unsettling. Both old and young abbreviate, get straight to the heart of things. The convention, pride and status-seeking of young marrieds holds no appeal for Gardam, and they seldom gets a look in. A typical character might be sprightly, curious and amused, ‘a trim, spare little woman’ in faded tweed, with a cluster of heavy rings on claw-like old fingers and something shameful or tender in her past.
This is not to say that the secrets of these people are easily guessed at. A wife visiting her husband in Hong Kong does not go out and buy expensive shoes, as you might think, but instead finds herself led to a funeral feast outside a brothel, eating little sizzling things with the painted ladies. Some characters love the wrong people, or see ghosts. Otherworldly visitors (and there are several) are described with the same cool clear-sightedness as earthly beings. People’s little economies and meannesses are a constant source of humour and always brilliantly observed: heaven help anyone who goes out to lunch with this author and tries nipping to the loo just as the bill arrives. That Gardam has a genius at distinguishing the tiny markers of snobbery hardly needs to be stated.
The people in these pages may be a dying breed, but there is nothing old-fashioned about the storytelling. When it comes to description, less is more. A man at a gathering in Geneva ‘looks Slav. Tall. With eyelids.’ One old boy is remembered only as ‘the Major, a voice, a moustache, a lubricious gleam’. A placid suburban wife, untouched by feminism, understands that women elsewhere ‘were rushing upstairs weeping and packing suitcases’ while she was still collecting her husband from his commuter train. Of a next-door drinks party a neighbour notices that ‘the women could be heard screaming in gusts as the front door opened and shut’. The luggage carousel at a distant airport ‘went hypnotically, smoothly round, black and quiet like a roulette wheel’.
In several of the stories small children appear almost as psychic messengers, little envoys from the world of pure feeling, sent to remind older characters what they have lost. The very best tale in the book concerns such a child, a silent Chinese boy
with a nose so small it hardly made a bump, and leaf-shaped eyes with no eyelashes. No, not leaf-shaped, pod shaped and in each pod the blackest and most glossy berry.
Swaddled in a thick coat like tragic Kenny in South Park, this tiny, stubborn creature has a very moving encounter with the swans in St James’s Park, startling his teenaged companion and the reader alike.
In the finest of these stories the division between things, between generations or classes or old lovers, melts away for a little time, or is torn. It is Jane Gardam’s particular gift to be able to shine a light through these unexpected peepholes, straight into the human heart. Despite the definite article, these are not all the short stories she has ever produced, but a selection of her own choosing. Some are very much better than others, but the good ones are marvellous. More, please.
Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £16. Tel: 08430 600033
Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.