VARIED COLLECTION OF SHORT STORIES
The Best British Short Stories of 1923, Edited by Edward J. O'Brien and John Cournos. Boston: Small, Maynard and Co. 1923.
Such is the variety in a collection of short stories by many authors that a post in the reviewer's stand dilates and bewilders the eye with a thousand tufts and plumes in disorderly parade. To discover a common tilt to the hat or characteristic gait in marching is impossible. The stories in this collection have been conceived and penned in a variety of moods, and only the reviewer, clutching at straws, could pretend to detect a motive proper to the entire company. A certain prosaic literalness and timorous aversion from the loftier strains of prose perhaps comes nearer than any other quality to providing a measure for the book as a whole; at best, it is little above mediocrity. There is a ghost story by Somerset Maugham, for instance, in which the author describes an uncanny scene in the most matter of fact terms, no doubt believing this the certain means of investing the supernatural with reality. The story cannot help reminding the reader of "The Phantom Rickshaw", an unfortunate recollection, for Mr. Maugham has been matter of fact and nothing more!
There are a few specimens of the type "realism" in the collection which provoke the question, Is not the thesis of realism, a valuable and truthful thesis in itself, already proved to satiety? Ought not the case to be rested? The virus has been injected into the body politic these many years; are not all purposes of innoculation served? Surely the last pair of rosy spectacles has been dashed from the last contented nose; surely there is left no benighted Victorian who has not learned that "beauty" is a quivering suggestion of sex and neurosis? For there seems to be not a page in this collection of stories to which one can return with admiration and warmth, saying, "Here is good writing! Here the austerity of loveliness has been touched, here is a paragraph of music and mystery!" Perhaps there is no demand for these articles in the trade today. True, we find Mr. Burke babbling in a slum story of "beauty gone astray", but one easily sees what he means, and there's an end to that!
The most successful stories these British authors have given us are in humorous vein. "The Mayor's Dovecote", by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, is an amusing tale, a pleasant revival of human nature in fiction. "Miss Bracegirdle Does Her Duty", by Stacy Aumonier, contains a situation upon which Leonard Merrick might have congratulated himself. This is another story that inevitably suggests a much greater writer; would that Mr. Merrick had put his finger in the pie!
It remains to signalize one or two tales more, to signalize them for success incomplete and laurels all but won. How Mr. Hutchinson endures his own iteration it is difficult to see. And not only his iteration, but his childishness is disagreeable. "What jolly, jolly fun!" he exclaims; bang! goes the book and the reader's patience. But reader, reopen! At the end of the story you will be rewarded with what is perhaps nearer nobility than any other page in the volume. Courage triumphing over infamy, a grotesque and petty nature winning its hard verdict from truth and struggling into the light at last!
Mr. Walpole, from threadbare materials, makes a story truly pathetic, in that it touches those material strings in us that vibrate with unreasonable animal regret. Pathos is material and animal always; it is a catch in the throat, a turning over of the heart--purely physical sympathy; and with this emotion Mr. Walpole moves us. But the plot of his story is too palpably outworn, and "The Enemy" fails of its full effect for this reason.
"A Melancholy Adventure", might have been the greatest story in the book; might even have been the greatest story. But in this instance, as in Mr. Maugham's ghost story, the author failed through the attempt to make the commonplace suggest the emotional. Mr. Boyd loses his laurels by pure timidity. No doubt one says less than he means, and it is an offense to open the heart; but Mr. Boyd plods with matter of fact foot along a path where Merrick would have sung with "voice memorial". Perhaps it is not timidity that led Mr. Boyd astray; he sinned by rushing in where genius might have trod.
Mr. O'Brien sagaciously observes that any year in which a single great story appeared would be a year distinguished above its fellows. The stories in this book he found worth reprinting, he continues. The reader should be careful to take the word "worth" in the right sense.