Under embargo until publication on June 21st (words which terrify the living daylights out of me when I see them on a press release,) the forthcoming Virago edition of Elizabeth Taylor's Complete Short Stories is likely to solve all those problems most of us have in accumulating them in different volumes. Or even better, if like me you are convinced you had a copy of The Blush but can't find it anywhere so you order another one, only to find it sitting right next to your desk, well it's going to be good to have them all in one place.
So 'under embargo' means I can't say much about this new volume now, other than that at 626 pages it's big... it contains sixty-five stories and the cover is nice...and it's heavy.. and the lovely introduction is by Joanne Kingham (daughter of,) but I can write about eleven of them in The Devastating Boys, which was my first proper introduction to the short stories of Elizabeth Taylor whilst I made that right royal progress up and down the London to Paddington line a few weeks ago.
I nearly always have a short story collection on the go, sometimes reading over several months but then I often find it inordinately difficult to write about them on here. Trying to pull a collection together into a whole, spread over weeks of dipping in, eludes me and somehow pulling one out and focusing on that seems to do the rest a disservice. Some stay uppermost in my mind, others have faded into obscurity and that clouds my judgement about whether a collection feels worthy or less so.
Jackie Kay in a recent interview suggested this about the workings and the impact of the short story...
'....you can focus on people who are really on the edge, whereas if you did that for the whole length of a novel it might get very tiring. It's like having a malt whisky really, a short story. You can have a wee malt but if you tried to drink a whole pint of whisky you'd be dead, so there's something about the intensity. I like seeing people at a moment of crisis or at a moment in time.'
But even better she says this...
'...I think the short story is perfect for our time, and perfect for people's time," she says. "You can read a short story in your lunch hour or before you go to sleep and it's a complete experience. You can carry the story around with you in your head and if you put it down in a large field it should still glow because of its intensity.'
What a wonderful analogy, I'm keeping that in my mind for ever, and though I should be applying it to Jackie Kay's latest collection, Reality, Reality, and doubtless will eventually, it fits my thinking about The Devastating Boys to perfection.
I wonder if, like me, you read a collection of short stories and may be hard pushed, if I quoted you a title from the collection, to remember what that story was about. I know I usually am, but not so here, and it was one of the details about the recent Elizabeth Taylor day that impressed upon me how, once read, Elizabeth Taylor's stories have real staying power. Philip Hensher mentioned Nods & Becks & Wreathed Smiles... Neil Reeve referred to In and Out the Houses... Diane Freeborn had loved the title story from The Devastating Boys, and each of them outlined the content and some of the detail as I marvelled at their literary recall.
Well I still marvel, clever people all, but I also can now reel off an outline of almost every story that features in The Devastating Boys, and that surprises me...because as you know I can't always remember where I have parked my car quite so clearly.
The Excursion to the Source..ah yes... Polly's holiday romance in rural France thwarted by her 'minder,' the widowed, older and ever-so slightly possessive and jealous Gwenda and which was to end in... oh dear...
Praises... the retirement of Miss Smythe from the gown department store in which she has worked all her life and whilst we and her colleagues assume that Miss Smyth might be heading for a life of unfulfilled ennui and loneliness, Elizabeth Taylor has lovely little 'something different' waiting for us in the last line.
Flesh...oh yes of course, the hilarious and yet poignant holiday romance between Phyl the blousy London pub landlady 'massive and glittering and sunburnt' and Stanley 'full of alienating information'...yet Phyl is used to listening because for every evening of her married life that is what she has done. And slowly it emerges that Charlie, Phyl's husband stays home to mind the pub so that she can escape for some sun...
And each is still glowing and combusting in my mind with that intensity of which Jackie Kay talks.
Nor can Elizabeth Taylor be accused of staying in her comfort zone because one story blazes rather than glows, perhaps one of the most disturbing and memorable in this collection for me... The Fly Paper. Young Sylvia, orphaned, plain, plump and greasy-haired and being raised by her grandmother, travels by bus to her music lesson 'in Miss Harrison's darkened parlour' but is accosted in conversation by a strange man on the bus who declares himself 'fond of children.' My skin began to crawl so I was as relieved as Sylvia when 'the glaring woman from the bus' catches the man following her and warns him off. Giving Sylvia the stranger-danger talk she invites her into her house for a cup of tea. Not a word more but Elizabeth Taylor cannily lures her reader in ...and think again on that title, expect your mind to come back to this single story time and again once you have read it.
A brilliant collection and one that has sat unread on my shelves for more years than I can remember, my lack is now my gain in spades, and at £6.99 for the Kindle version Elizabeth Taylor's Complete Short Stories, working out at about 10p per story, has to be the very best value going, and I for one will be making sure I have them there and always to hand the minute they are available.
Putting my stickability theory to the test...does anyone else have favourite Elizabeth Taylor short stories to recommend??