I have been rereading the stories in the Best British Short Stories series, beginning with the first volume, 2011. In his Introduction, Nicholas Royle says that short stories often get "short shrift" from readers because many have little point to them. He says there has to be something: an "epiphany, or a change of heart, or pace or tone; a twist, perhaps, a revelation that calls into question everything that came before." I agree, for I have little patience with pieces that are merely parts of novels, slices of "life," or experimental finger exercises.
Royle says he would rather be left with questions than answers after reading a story, with a "vague feeling of uncertainty rather than one of satisfaction at how neatly everything has been tied up." He wants the story's questions and ambiguities to remain with him." Most writers I have read would agree with that, and so do I.
Thus, it seems appropriate that I begin with the first story, David Rose's "Flora," which indeed left me with a satisfying feeling of uncertainty. I have read the story several times now, and am still pleasantly puzzled by it. I was first attracted to the language of the first-person narrator, who uses such language, in nineteenth-century formality, such things as "remonstrated," "contrived," and "sustenance." When he comes across a young woman sketching in the Kew Gardens, he is curious about her. He runs into again enough times to use the word "fate," which he says he has never believed in.
I am always interested when "fate" is evoked in a story, for since a story is obviously a "made" narrative, everything that happens in it happens for a reason, at least a narrative reason.
I am also always interested when a character in a story makes a general statement about the nature of reality, for it usually suggests that the generalization has some thematic significance. The narrator tries to save a Japanese maple from a fungal growth, but becomes taken by the strange beauty of the fungus, "the subtlety of its opalescent colors, the intricacy of its structure." He wonders "Are we right…to divide Nature as we do?" There would be no reason for a character make such a statement in a short story unless it has thematic significance, for this is not a novel in which a narrator has lots of narrative time to ponder things in general just to show us he is a thoughtful and dependable storyteller.
Soon after this observation about the fungus, the narrator sees the girl again and notices how rough her elbow is, from "propping bars" he thinks then "mentally rapped his knuckles" for his prejudice, and further reflects that what he was feeling was closer to "tenderness, almost pity for that nonchalantly uncared-for patch of skin."
When he sees her again and finds out she is interested in studying botanical illustration, he thinks of the fungus and the little patch of dry skin as similar in their appeal and offers her the use of his library of botanical books, for he feels "absurdly happy" with his garden and feels obligated to share it with someone.
When the young woman comes to use his books, he first brings her coffee and chocolate cookies, as if she were a child, but later realizes that a martini, crackers, and a dish of olives would be more suitable. He also discovers that she has a male friend, although she tells him he is not her boyfriend. The man is older than the girl, but the narrator is glad that someone loves her. He watches them in the garden from his bedroom window, sometimes with binoculars.
Then an "incident" occurs; he hears a "little scream" or a "moderate cry" and sees the man stamping "almost viciously" on something on the grass." Later that evening he looks and only finds the outline of something "lozenge-shaped and sharp stamped into the lawn."
He never sees the man again and soon the girl stops coming also; he is hurt that she did not say goodbye. When he goes into his library, he notices a book out of alphabetical sequence. When he takes it out he finds a hair, like a minuscule bookmark. When he lays the book down, it opens to the middle with the illustrations flapping like a "lantern slide show," (which finally locates the story in the nineteen century). He notices that tendrils have been added to one of the engraved plates in pencil. "They were almost obscene in the outline they limned." He takes down other books and finds they too have been altered. He also notes that the books have letters inscribed in red on the bottom edges. When he rearranges the books in correct order with the bottom edges facing him, they spell—with gaps where they had been replaced out of sequence—"on ly win ter is tru ."
At first he felt a "shock of desecration." Now he feels a "wearying sadness." He puts the books back in the bookcase, locks the glass door, and throws the key away. It lands under the desk. "After some thought, I retrieved it, and hung it, with the spare, by the clock, in the hall."
And that's the last sentence in the story.
There are at least two kinds of mysteries in stories. First, there is the mystery of fact or detail, something left out or not explained. In this story, the two mysteries are the lozenge-shaped outline of what has been stamped in the lawn and the meaning of what is spelled out by the letters on the books: "on ly win ter is tru ."
The second kind of mystery is the mystery of motivation: why a character does something that seems strange or perverse or simply unmotivated or unexplained. In this story, the most obvious mystery is why the girl alters the botanical illustrations. The other mysteries are why the man angrily stamps something in the lawn and the mystery that makes this a story--why the narrator is interested in the young woman and feels fated to have met her.
The only clue we have to the mystery of the imprint in the lawn is that it is lozenge-shaped, which suggests a diamond, and since the narrator refers to it as a "sharp" outline, we might guess that the object the man has stamped into the lawn is a diamond ring, presumably one he has offered to the girl as a proposal of marriage, which she has turned down, perhaps because he is too old for her. We can make these presumptions based on details in the story, but cannot know for sure if we are correct. I am hesitant to make such a presumption because I don't see how a diamond could make an indentation in a lawn; it would have to be quite large, would it not?
Why the woman alters the illustrations and what this means to the narrator are, of course, the most puzzling mysteries of motivation in the story.
The mystery of motivation is one of the most common challenges to understanding a short story, for the drive toward significance in a short story is often more pressing than the drive toward verisimilitude. Consequently, ordinary human motivation is sometimes overridden by aesthetic motivation. The story's insistence on significance is more pressing than its insistence on realism or ordinary human understanding.
That goes against the grain of many readers, for they are more likely to think of the behavior of characters in a story as being like the behavior of real people in the real world rather than "characters" in a fiction there to serve a certain "function" rather than to be "real-like." One of the problems many folks have reading short stories is that they have a limited notion of what "reality" means, usually thinking it simply means the ordinary stuff that happens to ordinary people in an ordinary world. But this is just not the case in short stories, for we are actually reading about invented characters in an invented narrative who, even as they seem somehow real and driven by everyday human motivation, are at the same time functions of a story that "means" something.
In "Flora," we have a botanist whose life is governed by careful observation and preservation of the natural world. However, as he observes, sometimes he is drawn to, or interested in, or curious about, deviations from that natural world—like the fungus that threatens the tree in his garden or the roughness on the young woman's arm.
A thematic convention that often occurs in the short story is that of a man who lives a formally precise life, a life of science, a life of exactness, who deserves to experience a disruption of that precision. "Flora" may be that kind of story. The central character has no life of his own except the life of his observation of the natural world, which he finds predictable and precise, even though he suspects there is something that always threatens that precision, like the fungus, which has a kind of beauty, albeit destructive.
He is drawn to the young woman and watches her relationship with an older man, perhaps seeing acted out some desire which she cannot fulfill. Without admitting his own needs, he watches his desires played out in the actions of the man stamping the ring into the ground. The theme of the story demands that the girl make clear to him that his notions of what is natural and precise and predictable are susceptible to being undermined, even, as he says, "desecrated." Consequently, the theme of the story mandates that she make human changes in the precision of the natural images that make up his life.
Even as the narrator believes that the life of his garden, the life of the natural world is real and true, she reminds him that only winter, only the frozen image is true, only Keats' "cold pastoral" is true, for only beauty is truth and only truth is beauty, and that is all you can ever know or ever even need to know. Artifice, as Oscar Wilde loved to remind us, always triumphs over nature. Thus, "on ly win ter is tru ."
I apologize for going on so long about this story. I obviously cannot do this for every story in the five volumes of Best British Short Stories, for it would take months that I do not have. However, this story provided an irresistible introit to whatever discussions follow, for it seems such an epitome of what makes the short story form so fascinating to me.
I always told my students that if they read a story that did not seem to make sense to them, the fault would more likely to be theirs that that of the author. I am still puzzled by David Rose's story, but that is my fault, not his. I would appreciate hearing from any of my readers who has a more satisfying explanation of its mystery.
David Rose has a new collection just out entitled Posthumous Stories, which includes "Flora." I have just ordered a copy and look forward to reading it. I thank Nicholas Royle for introducing him to me.