Last year I made a journey from around about nowish back to the 1920s, travelling through the medium of the short story (I also read Volume 2 of the Penguin Book Of The British Short Story, but this is surely a coincidence).
I’ve picked out four stories that really stuck with me and written a bit about them, the first two of which are below.
Please do note that to properly ‘discuss’ these, this might get a bit spoilerific (so SPOILER ALERT – though these stories have been in print for well over 50 years).
Roald Dahl, Someone Like You (1945)
I’m not a big fan of war stories, but this one is so simple and effective, it just punches you in the heart.
We open with two former fighter pilots meeting in a pub – they haven’t seen each other in years and conversation is slow, but as they start to drink the dialogue loosens. We get less detail, less description and fewer long utterances as the story progresses – by the end, the whole thing is held together by short lines in which the two men seem to reveal their innermost thoughts.
The drink, delivered steadily throughout the piece, is key to the rhythm of the story and it becomes apparent that the setting is important too as they start to speculate on the fact that during the war they must have dropped bombs on places similar to the establishment they are drinking in… on people similar to those surrounding them.
He leaned back and waved his hand around the room. “See all the people in this room?” he said.
“Wouldn’t there be a bloody row if they were all so suddenly dead, if they all suddenly fell off their chairs on to the floor dead?”
The skill in this story, I think, is in the way that Roald Dahl reveals the characters’ troubles – it is not new information to us that men involved in dropping bombs from planes during a war would feel guilty afterwards, but he finds a new way to present this reality to us.
Rhys Davies, A Human Condition (1949)
From the beginning of this brilliant short story, Rhys Davies skilfully dripfeeds us little bits of information without spelling out exactly the occasion and the problem in which the main character finds himself. Here is the first paragraph:
Having done the errand at the Post Office, which he had timed with a beautiful precision that he imagined completely hoodwinked those left at home, Mr Arnold crossed the Market Square just as the doors of the Spreadeagle Inn were opened.
Over the next few pages we follow Mr Arnold in to various pubs, slowly learning that he must be back home by a certain time and that something is weighing heavy on him, “deep inside him was a curious dead sensation of which he was frightened.” We are given insight in to his character as he is greeted at each pub – and yet somehow the bar staff at each establishment know that he must not be allowed more than one drink, not today. On each occasion, they take pity on him and allow him a second, yet refuse a third. It is only after he returns home that it is made fully clear that this is the day of his wife’s funeral.
We are offered, via their words and actions, a perspective from Mr Arnold’s family, for whom the embarrassment of his appearing drunk at his wife’s funeral takes precedence. As such, there is an effective twist at the end of the tale when we are offered a third viewpoint – that of the nurses at the hospital who exclaim:
“He must have been a devoted husband to throw himself in to his wife’s grave like that! I’ve never known a man grieve so much.”