Saturday, January 4, 2014


James Doyle of London's Turnpike Books was kind enough to send me an attractive paperback edition of selected short stories by the great A.A. Coppard entitled Weep Not My Wanton. The collection contains only seven stories, but they are fine examples of Coppard's subject and style.  In addition to the title story, the book includes "Dusky Ruth," "Adam and Eve and Pinch Me," "The Higgler," "The Wife of Ted Wickham," "The Watercress Girl," and "The Field of Mustard."  In America, Amazon has it listed at $7.99; in the UK, Amazon prices it at £6.93.

I have read Coppard before, of course, but was happy to read these stories once again. I especially enjoyed the controlled and scrupulous rhythm of his sentences, even when his lyricism borders on the self-conscious. Take this opening of the title story: "Air and light on Sack Down at summer sunset were soft as ointment and sweet as milk…watching the silken barley moving in its lower fields with the slow movement of summer sea, reaching no harbour, having no end."

I especially enjoyed the poetic control of Coppard's language after having just finished reading Andre Dubus III's new collection of four novellas entitled Dirty Love, the style of which which I found loose and lazy 

Similes may be just a matter of taste, or they may be a matter of appropriate tone, but I prefer the Coppard images cited below to those of Dubus. The danger of the simile beast is that if you push them too far, the comparison overwhelms the original. I wonder what you think:


"Thoughts and images went flowing through him as easily and amiably as fish swim in their pools, and as idly too."
"The clock ticked almost as if it had been caught in some indecent act."
"She looked at him as uncomprehendingly as a mouse might look at a gravestone."
"Beautiful she was: red hair, a complexion like the inside of a nut."

"his heart kicking like a hanged man's feet"
"two cans of coke lie on their side like forgotten children"
"the vodka going into Mark like a mildly dangerous thought he ignores"
"Her tongue darts in and out of his mouth like a nurse tending to many patients at once."

Any suggestions as to which of the following is the most effective and why?

"A small scarlet notice to stone-throwers was prominent as a wound." (Coppard)
"The spartan light on the screen was like the parting of a wound." (Dubus)

The most common critical comment made about the stories of Coppard, one of the few British writers of his generation to  remain dedicated to the short story, was that his stories combine two conflicting aspects: realism and simple earthiness on the one hand, and fairy tale fantasy and formal  sophistication on the other.  H. E. Bates, who said that  in Coppard,  there existed a “strange battle between tale-telling at its simplest and tale-telling at its most sophisticated,” complained that the second type overwhelmed the first in Coppard’s stories, resulting in stories that were too carefully elaborated. 

“The Field of Mustard,” often said to be Coppard's finest story, is a good example of the kind of combination of realism and lyricism that placed him within the tradition of Guy de Maupassant. It is also the best example of what Frank O’Connor called Coppard's “inner compulsion” to write one kind of story over and over again, the story in which the motivation is given by some woman’s secretiveness.” Centering on the seemingly simple conversation between two peasant women, Coppard uses repetitive imagery of the natural world and the inevitability of death to make this a meditation on lost possibilities, fatalistic foreboding, and unspeakable desires. 

Bates goes on to say that behind Coppard’s insistence that he writes not stories but tales lies the “theory that the art of telling stories, since it originates by the primitive camp-fires of unread peoples far back in time, is an oral and not a written one.” He argues that  such a method of tale-telling, "having much in common with folk-lore, local legend, and the spoken parable would depend for its effect largely on pictorial simplicity, the use of homely metaphor, and the entire absence of literary language.”

Bates claims that “unfortunately for Coppard’s theory his work shows the strongest signs—increasing rather than decreasing as time goes on—that he is in reality a very literary writer, influenced in turn by other very literary writers, notable Henry James.”
Thus, Coppard’s work is corrupted by sophistication. Bates complains that Coppard’s stories have the effect of being the product of an “arts-and-crafts shop, in which apparent spontaneity is in reality studied. 

This, of course, is a common complaint about the short story. I suspect that the  2013 Best American Short Stories collection, which, as a great admirer of the short story form, I enjoyed a great deal, will not be liked by many readers who are more comfortable with the more realistic style of the novel. The stories in the new BASS may be just too "short storyish" for many.

Frank O’Connor says that although Coppard knew Chekhov and Maupassant backward and forward, he “never settles for one convention rather than the other, or indeed for any convention other than his own need to grip the reader by the lapel and make him listen.  As a result, his formal range is remarkable—greater I should say than that of any other storyteller.”

Coppard believed that the closer the modern short story remained to the oral tradition the more acceptable it was.  However, influenced by Henry James, he insisted that the story neither have the ragged edge of reality or the informal tone of a careless teller, but rather that it be controlled by unity and completeness of contour.

In It’s Me, O Lord, Coppard says he “envisaged the short story as a work of literary perfection, supreme though small, a phoenix, a paragon…. I felt that it was my mÄ—tier, and that I could give it a significant setting, gold maybe, and adorn it with gems, a creation to be treasured.”

If you have not read Coppard, Weep Not My Wanton would be a fine introduction.  "Adam and Eve and Pinch Me" is a magical delight.  The title comes from a child's verbal game that goes, as I recall from my own childhood: "Adam and Eve and Pinch Me went down to the river to bathe; Adam and Eve got drowned. Who do you think was saved?"  Of course, when the respondent says, "Pinch Me," the teller does so, although, we trust, ever so gently. It is a nice example of reality intruding on fantasy, or else fantasy becoming reality.  And this is what the story is about also. If you have not read it, I won't spoil it for you.

"The Higgler" is a realistic story with some inevitable Coppard fairy tale element, in which the fear of craft combined with the reticence of innocence make for wrong choices. As in many Coppard stories, death always hovers in the background.  Similarly, "The Watercress Girl" is a spoiled romance that may or may not be ultimately redeemed.

I thank James Doyle for sending me this book and sending me back to Coppard.  I recommend it to you highly.


Dorothy Johnston said...

I have a few thoughts on the Coppard and Dubus sentences that you invited readers to compare. The Coppard sentence strikes me as being at the same time complex in its suggestiveness and visually transparent, by which I mean that I have no trouble seeing the 'small scarlet notice' advancing towards me. Comparing the notice to a 'wound' is unexpected; a notice to stone-throwers being, after all, not of great importance, and it's small as well. But the wound makes it memorable. (I haven't read the story and so don't know the context, I'm afraid.)
The Dubus is at the same time harder to visualise, and, I suspect, rather shallow by comparison. Lights on screens one can expect to be spartan, so there's not much of a surprise there. And the 'wound' doesn't really take me anywhere. So my conclusion is that the example that contains something of a contradiction is the more effective.
On a more general note, I've recently re-read Susan Sontag's essay on the aesthetics of silence. (Last read a very long time ago.) It strikes me that some of her ideas are pertinent to the discussion of the short story form.

Charles E. May said...

Ah, Dorothy, a grand analysis of the two similes! Thank you. You are not only a fine writer, but a grand reader. I will go back and re-read the Sontag also. Always lovely to hear from you, my dear.