Book review: Philip Hensher explores the minuscule moments that change our lives
In the introduction to his splendid anthology, The Penguin Book of the British Short Story, English novelist and critic Philip Hensher identifies three of the worst traits of contemporary short fiction: cursory references to social media; grave meditations on historical events; “present-tense solitary reflections, often with characters lying on their beds affectlessly pondering”.
Such tendencies, Hensher suggests, represent a clumsy and misguided attempt on the part of writers to be be regarded as “relevant” and “serious”, and fail to engage with “the world of social interaction which is the proper subject of fiction”. This failure is particularly injurious, he says, to “the great British short story”, which is, or ought to be, “outward-facing, analysing the world”.
And in his latest collection of short fiction, Tales of Persuasion, Hensher shows just how rewarding a commitment to this prescription can be.
The 10 elegant, absorbing and affecting stories gathered here are almost all concerned with the conventions and conversational registers that characterise various forms of social interaction, and often feature characters who, looking out at the lives of others, are brought into discomfiting proximity with alternative perspectives.
In the marvellous and darkly comic story, The Pierian Spring, Sam tells his wife an anecdote about recovering from his recent inability to write (cause: the smoking ban in pubs), and realises that what he sees as a tale of personal triumph, resourcefulness, indefatigability, his wife sees as an episode of self-indulgence and complicity in malfeasance: “For Sam, it had been a story about how he had got his inspiration back; she had heard a different story altogether.”
In the opening story of the collection, Eduardo, a lonely middle-aged journalist named Fitzgerald is able to enlarge his own life, and that of Eduardo, the beautiful and lonely young man he admires, by recognising and attending to his (Eduardo’s) private wish to be seen as interesting and intelligent.
And in My Dog Ian, a funny, vibrant and elegiac story about pain and the consolations of narrative and memory, a museum worker recounts a trip to Florence during which he spent most of his time listening to a sometime-actress tell the story of the performance that defined her life. It enriches them both.
This “looking outward” also shows us characters who are haunted by intimations of the randomness of the courses their lives have taken; by the smallnesses on which a life depends (see for example the warm and chilling, and aptly titled, The Midsummer Snowball); by reckonings with our imagined and unrealised selves (In Time of War).
It also yields countless memorable depictions of life as it is conducted, and English as it is spoken (Hensher is brilliant at capturing particularities of speech), in different social classes, and imbues the book as a whole with a sense of imaginative compassion, curiosity and a pervasive resistance to certainty.
Hensher analyses the world by observing it, posing questions about it, by writing about it with freshness, precision, resonance.
When he is imagining a star on a red carpet, he sees the carpet lined by a “shining cliff of flashbulbs”; when a man tells a small lie to his companion, he feels “as glossily invulnerable as an adulterer in possession of a good alibi”.
A “square old table” found discarded on the street is “like a cow in the field in the rain”; a terminally-ill man suffering from dementia sees a woman before him and attempts to make sense of the noises that seem to accompany her: “Somewhere about Lucy a harp twanged. She was surrounded with haloes of annunciatory noises, the harp twanging readily as if in joy or celebration.”
Hensher’s themes are often sombre (there is a valedictory quality to many of his stories; several are about loss, memory, impermanence, the fragility of all things), but his writing is of such quality that the sadness never comes without humour, energy, beauty.
Like the harps around Lucy, they precede it, they succeed it, they hang poignantly, painfully and affirmatively around it. Tales of Persuasion is a remarkable and transforming collection. And Hensher is a writer to make you look out at the world more carefully.
Matthew Adams lives in London and writes for the TLS, The Spectator and the Literary Review.