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26 April 2016

Fade to white: Philip Hensher’s short stories emphasise the freedom of his novels

As a fiction writer, Hensher has virtuosity on tap, so every page delivers something enjoyable and even eye-popping.

By Leo Robson

At one point in his introduction to the two-volume Penguin Book of the British Short Story, which was published at the end of last year to a chorus of praise (what a feast!) and pedantry (no George Eliot?), Philip Hensher alights on what he calls “the single-author collection”, distinguishing it on the one hand from “anthologies like this one” and on the other from the newspaper or magazine, in which a story will be “read singly and in very varied company”. Speaking from experience, he says that a book such as Douglas Dunn’s Secret Villages is so “beautifully conceived and executed” as a collection that it becomes almost impossible to choose what to reprint.

But given that most stories never get near an anthology or even, these days, a magazine, the single-author collection has become the prime and almost the sole vehicle of the short story, British or otherwise. What matters is how it sits with the reader, not how it frustrates the anthologist – though admittedly, if you have devoted the best part of a couple of years to “systematically reading thousands of short stories by hundreds of writers”, the last thing you need is a critical nuance.

Hensher only stops to note that the ­single-author collection is able to portray a “world with intensity and power” – but this applies more specifically to the collection with a thread or theme or consistent setting than the more common type, the gathering or hotchpotch, of which Hensher’s new book, Tales of Persuasion, is a typically ­troubling instance.

Hensher’s title – changed from the more abstract and elusive After the Death of the Prince – seems to seek unity, even uniformity. It may be an allusion to Tales of Unease, an example (from the 1960s) of the book of stories by different authors on a shared theme. There, the principle was unity with variety, the opposite of what – despite the title’s implicit promise – we get here, which might be characterised as randomness plus repetition.

As a fiction writer, Hensher has virtuosity on tap, so every page delivers something enjoyable and even eye-popping: a vibrant exchange, a spry description, a tickling bit of indirect speech. Yet the story emerges as a less-than-ideal courier. You can see Hensher’s literary personality, never less than pungent, being overwhelmed by the DNA of this most custom-bound of literary forms. There is an emphasis on resignation and mild regret and the clarifying long perspective. “That was a peculiar time,” the narrator of “My Dog Ian” concludes. “I feel very much settled now.”

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Several stories end on a note of ever-so-gentle, life-goes-on sadness – what Viktor Shklovsky in Theory of Prose identified as the short story’s “open” or “negative” ending. For “The Midsummer Snowball”, a nostalgic story of schooldays: “. . . and in a moment the man stood up and walked in another direction”. “The Pierian Spring”, about the effect of the smoking ban on a successful writer: “. . . in a few moments, soundlessly, snow began to fall on the street, empty of people” (the sombre cadence relies entirely on the repression of “which was” in the final clause). On the last page of another story, “A Change in the Weather”, in which a young man starts a new job: “Nobody else would ever see the sight of Whitehall as blank and clean and silent as a remote moor in deep winter, unpressed by the tread of foot.” Enveloping hush and a sub-zero climate – both at once, ideally – emerge as something to reach for, a short story short cut.

Hensher was right to emphasise in the Penguin collection that stories were written to be read in isolation but he unwittingly identified the central problem with the book he was introducing. Reading an anthology of short stories for any length of time risks inviting weariness (the characteristic British short story being, after all, “a ferocious ride with hidden traps and unpredictable bogs, explosions and patches of tranquillity or exhaustion”). Momentum has to be willed. You take a deep breath as you prepare to meet another round of characters taking tea or lying to each other, another outsized monologue or exercise in purring irony. Tradition weighs down the pages. Everything feels pinched between inverted commas.

If the anthology fails to flatter the repertoire of the story form – though reading 15 sonnets on the bounce would hardly be any better – the single-author collection exposes not only a practitioner’s limited resources (let it snow, let it snow, let it snow) but his peculiar priorities. In his introduction to the Penguin collections, Hensher, complaining that prizes for short stories reward “pondering”, goes as far as to identify “social interaction” as “the proper subject of fiction”. As things turn out, this strain of essentialism is less evident in his work as an editor, in which his taste proves varied (V S Naipaul rubs shoulders with J G Ballard), than in his own stories, which bombard the reader with little bits of noticing: “I looked at his clothes . . . with compassion. They were the clothes of the children of theology professors the world over.” Fiction writers have always specialised in this kind of thing but Hensher in a certain mood treats it as an end in itself and not the route to a more refined – genuinely compassionate – sort of insight. There is a pleasure in jaunty cynicism that crowds out the easy relations with the sublime and open-hearted that he has developed in his recent work.

Indeed, if Tales of Persuasion achieves ­anything, it is to emphasise the freedom and amplitude of Hensher’s novels. Much of the writing here carries the air of a dry run, as if he wanted to try out a voice or a device: the epiphany episode, perspectival pinball. But the writer who gave us The Emperor Waltz has no need of the five-finger exercise. 

Tales of Persuasion by Philip Hensher is published by Fourth Estate (316pp, £14.99)

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This article appears in the 20 Apr 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Shakespeare 400 years Iater