This year I have read Trollope, Ford Madox Ford, Aldous Huxley, Stella Gibbons, and Mary Webb.
I know, I know. I usually read the dead.
I do occasionally read a good new book, though.
In D. J. Taylor’s sharp, witty new collection of short stories, Wrote for Luck, his characters rely on gentle irony as they struggle to fulfill social obligations and navigate the workplace. They dine with people they do not like, sell few books at their bookstores, give readings at Oxford, break china, and argue with their bosses.
Few writers are wittier than Taylor. In his hilarious story, “Some Versions of the Pastoral,” Tony and his wife Jane visit the Underwoods, an elderly couple with literary leanings. The flowers in the Underwoods’ garden are so dense that “to negotiate them was to pass through a children’s book where all the animals had grown to fantastic sizes and nuance was forever kept at bay.” Over tea, Mrs. Underwood repeatedly asks Tony to be careful of his teacup. Tony wonders:
What heights had the teacup scaled in its past life that such efforts had to be made to preserve it? Done service on some far-off Garsington lawn? Been sipped out of by one of the Bloomsbury group? There were pictures of Virginia Woolf and Carrington on the walls of the Underwoods’ tiny drawing room, and a bookcase harboring the signed first editions of Cyril Connolly and Angus Wilson.
The Underwoods are old and fragile now. Mr. Underwood has given up writing his book about Cyril Connolly. They have not been to the Corot exhibition at the Tate. They don’t “gad about” anymore. When Tony carries the tea tray into the kitchen, Mrs. Underwood complains about having caught her husband writing an inappropriate letter to an actress. Tony breaks some china, but learns with relief that Mrs. Underwood is tougher than her teacups.
Taylor’s women characters are particularly sympathetic. In “As Long As He Lies Perfectly Still,” Claire, a novelist, is slightly strung-out at the Holiday Inn as she studies pages of her novel before a reading in Oxford while her husband Jamie and their children sleep. She worries about Jamie’s taking the children to meet his eccentric friends without her supervision. (Once the children were not fed.) And at lunch after the reading, there is indeed a disconcerting accident, and the situation spins out of Claire’s control.
In the subtle, gracefully-written title story, the heroine Lucy and her partner Mark dine with his millionaire boss, Clive, and his wife, Henrietta,. Envious of their extravagant house and enraged by Clive’s superficial regrets about breaking news of financial ruin to a client, Lucy argues about the economy and mocks Henrietta’s taste in books. When Henrietta asks why writers write what they do, Lucy replies with the non-sequitur, “Beckett wrote for luck.” Although this expresses her dissociation and sense of the surreal, we feel that Lucy could use some luck, too .Without Mark’s salary (five times what she gets at the BBC) they could not afford to buy a house, but once home, Lucy learns that Mark’s absorption in the money business will ironically get in the way of their buying a house.
The workplace is a hostile force in many of Taylor’s stories. In “The Blow-Ins,” a couple struggles to keep their bookstore afloat when tourist season is over. In “Teeny-Weeny Little World,” an exasperated teacher must justify teaching poetry to a new headmaster. In “Jermyn Street,” a down-and-out employee at an antique shop is exasperated by his boss’s daily fights with his wife. In “To Brooklyn Bridge,” set in Chicago, a young woman escapes her job sewing in a sweatshop in Chicago to go to college; on the beach she recites Hart Crane’s poem “To Brooklyn Bridge”to her boyfriend, a salesman who does not understand…
All teachers have their breaking points. In “Wonderland,” a realistic, beautifully-written, slightly edgy story, Amy, an unhappy English teacher who lectures on modernism at a third-rate (or fourth-rate?) university, dislikes her vacuous students. She thinks of them as the anorexic girl, the “fat-arsed one,”the dull sisterly pair, and ” Lily Chen, formerly of the University of Taipei or some such place.”Amy especially dislikes Lily, who does not know English well enough to read Virginia Woolf and seldom comes to class. When an administrator confronts Amy about the failing grade on Lily’s paper and suggests it is racism, Amy is shocked. But a twist at the end of the story makes Amy sympathetic to Lily.
I very much enjoyed this remarkable collection of short stories, and am impressed, as always, by Taylor’s versatility and brilliance.
A little bit about Taylor: His novel, The Windsor Faction, won the Sidewise Award for Best Long-Form Alternate History in 2014. His histroical novel, Derby Day, was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2011. And he won the Whitbread Award for his biography of Gerorge Orwll in 2003.