May 2009

Jacob Silverman


The Complete Fiction by Francis Wyndham

In his introduction to Francis Wyndham's The Complete Fiction, Alan Hollinghurst writes that Wyndham's work "belongs in a tradition of social comedy going back through Henry James to Jane Austen." His comparison is an apt one, but it does, for the uninitiated, risk pigeonholing Wyndham's work, which, like those two acknowledged 19th century masters, is marked by a highly refined sense of subtlety -- an awareness that permeates nearly all aspects of his work, from the precision of his diction, which is light on metaphor, to his attention towards the portentous meaning of a slight shift in conversation, one that could ruin a courtship or friendship because of the tight strictures of polite society's expectations.

If all of this sounds old-fashioned, it is because, in his way, Wyndham is an old-fashioned writer, one deeply embedded in English sensibilities. These stories, divided into Mrs. Henderson & Other Stories, the novella The Other Garden, and the short stories of Out of the War, mostly take place during and after the two world wars. But they are, as Hollinghurst's fine introduction notes, largely concerned with events outside the wars, in small market towns or during brief forays into a London under the pall of the Blitz. The effects of both wars are always looming but often unclear; some upper-crust country denizens express shockingly mild or mixed feelings towards Hitler; but this confusion is a feature of the landscape, one from which many people left never to come back. In the story Ursula, the title character considers where she stands after WWI has ended:

Her brother Jack had been spared -- but most of the young men she had known, or expected to know, were dead.

Here there is assiduous precision in the inclusion of the phrase "or expected to know," an interrupting thought that encompasses Ursula's feeling of her life having been pushed off its axis. The subsequent death of her mother in the influenza epidemic provides an even greater blow.

Minor aristocracy, prestigious preparatory schools, homes with names like "Stars" or "Love's Cottage," men who use the exclamatory "Capital!" as a cry of celebration, repeated references to drawing rooms -- these are the details on which some of Wyndham's stories rest, and which threaten to make his work seem provincial or anachronistic. But Wyndham's stories often belie these expectations because he manages to load his narrators with a keening sympathy, often quietly longing for some sort of freedom that must be out there, though it can't quite be known -- not in a society where young women live under the firm rules of their parents well into their thirties. There is also a sense of the absurdity of living under such conditions when war and deprivation seem not too far off, when a decision must be made to attend Oxford or sign up to fight.

Mrs. Henderson & Other Stories is Wyndham at his best, and so it is likely not coincidental that the Out of the War stories are left for the end. These pieces were written between the ages of 17 and 20, when the author was like Saul Bellow's Dangling Man, waiting to be called up for military service, only later to be invalided out because he had TB. (Nor is it likely coincidental that the then-young writer's best story is the one that is the most autobiographical, describing an injured soldier's time in a hospital.) And while these narratives aren't necessarily immature, his conception of women appears so. Many of these stories feature the same female protagonists; occasionally a minor character in one takes over the starring role in the next. But they are largely drawn of the same primitive type: naïve, young, often desperately romantic, confined to roles as secretaries or simple schoolgirls, and prone to emotional outbursts. These archetypes may be reflective of the times, of a less liberated period for women, but Wyndham has already shown earlier in the book that he is capable -- or at least, later in his career, became capable -- of creating more complex, vibrant female characters. In one of several examples found here, "Ursula" tells a beautiful story of the lifelong love affair between Ursula, an Englishwoman who later struggles with drug addiction, and Ruby, a striving, compassionate African-American actress living in Harlem.

That brings us to an interesting feature of some of the Henderson stories: Wyndham's depiction of homosexuality in early to mid-twentieth century England. It is here that his sense of subtlety comes through best, for these stories aren't simply gay stories. In fact, the stories that feature gay characters are often about broad themes of obsession, longing, the decay of troubled families, even boredom. And so it's refreshing to see these gay characters presented with no underlying thesis -- only a desire to tell us their stories.

Since this book represents an author's complete work of fiction -- Wyndham has also spent decades as a journalist and literary critic and mentored Bruce Chatwin, V.S. Naipaul, and Lucian Freud -- it is possible to undertake at least a haphazard examination of his development as a writer, keeping in mind the revisions that undoubtedly took place over the years. His later work, found in Mrs. Henderson & Other Stories, shows an adroit sense for comically dissecting society's absurdities not found in Out of the War. In The Ground Hostess, a widower, so desperate to escape the excessive, time-consuming attentions of two worried friends, invents two new lovers for himself -- one male and one female. Each is cleverly marketed to the friend who considers him gay or straight, until the story takes a suddenly surreal turn when the supposedly mythical lovers find real-life counterparts. The narrator, loaded with feelings of despair and absurdity, laments:

Now I understood what my punishment was: to be believed. My powers of invention were called into question; I had been taken literally; irresponsible fantasy was reduced to inconvenient fact.

Considering that the narrator is a writer, the story contains a sort of running commentary on the complications of imagination, of finding boundaries between creating comforting fictions and accepting difficult truths.

For those who enjoy James and Austen, Wyndham's work may not reach the same canonical heights, but many of these stories, particularly those from Henderson & Other Stories, are very good and surprisingly modern (in Mrs. Henderson, a boy is convinced that his mother has a penis). Those that aren't -- well, they shouldn't be ignored, but they can be considered for what they are: the early, rough-hewn work of an author who eventually found his voice.

The Complete Fiction by Francis Wyndham
NYRB Classics
ISBN: 1590173120
403 Pages