SEPTEMBER 25, 2014
IN THE INTRODUCTION to her 1998 Selected Stories, Alice Munro described the short story as a house the reader explores at will: “You go inside and stay there for a while, wandering back and forth and settling where you like and discovering how the room and corridors relate to each other, how the world outside is altered by being viewed from these windows,” she wrote. “You can go back again and again and the house, the story, always contains more than you saw the last time.”
I’ve always loved this metaphor of Munro’s for evoking how the best stories feel at once spacious and enclosed, loosely structured yet perfectly controlled. I thought of it when reading another volume of selected stories, this one by Elizabeth Taylor, a British writer who is, as Benjamin Schwarz once put it in The Atlantic, “best known for not being better known.” Taylor’s stories, like Munro’s, are beautifully architected homes; elegant and funny, they are miracles of compression, with sharply turned endings that rise up suddenly and then linger at length in the mind. She specializes in witty descriptions (a character sits on a jump seat with his arms folded “like a collapsible model of a man, especially designed for carrying in taxis”) and slyly deadpan dialogue (“a grave is no place for self-expression,” remarks an elderly drunk woman laying a bland bouquet on a cemetery marker).
Taylor wrote 12 novels and five collections of stories, most of which were published in The New Yorker. Her work is exquisite; so why isn’t she more famous? A list of possible reasons given by critics over the years includes the following: Because her life was not sensational. Because she abhorred publicity. Because she competed for name recognition with a screen goddess. Because her books were too funny and too accessible. Because her characters’ lives were too privileged. Because she excelled at the short story. Because she wrote no single book that could be called her “masterpiece.” Because she was a woman. Many of these seem to me like dumb reasons for a writer to be under-recognized; but just because something is dumb doesn’t mean it isn’t true.
A contemporary of Elizabeth Bowen and Ivy Compton-Burnett, both of whom were her friends, Taylor was born in 1912 in Reading. Her books sold reasonably well during her life, though she never won any major prizes and the reviews ranged from ecstatic to mixed. After her death in 1975, her reputation, lacking champions, faded. But in the past ten years, this has changed. Her work has been been reissued, she is the subject of a chatty, appreciative biography by Nicola Beauman, and two film adaptations of her novels have been made. The forthcoming publication of her selected stories is the latest event in this sequence, and I hope people will pay attention to it. The book reaffirms her rank, as the Times Literary Supplement wrote in 1972, “among the four or five most distinguished living practitioners of the art of the short story in the English-speaking world.”
The child of a family without great means, Taylor lost her mother young and her indifferent grades prevented her from pursuing higher education. She wasn’t left with many options; she worked as a librarian and governess and briefly joined the Communist Party. Eventually she married a successful businessman from a prosperous family and settled into a quiet life as a wife, mother, and writer. In the few interviews she gave, she spoke mainly of the blessings of routine, emphasizing her stolidly uneventful life. She seems to have wanted to present her life as boringly as possible.
Beauman’s biography, The Other Elizabeth Taylor, uses letters that Taylor herself wanted burned to inform us that this outwardly uneventful life contained its share of inward drama. Taylor had a decade-long, off-and-on extramarital affair with a man of few prospects but with whom she shared political leanings and artistic drive. He was an artist, she a writer; they understood each other. But Taylor had made a decision to live a less bohemian life. After discovering the affair, Taylor’s husband asked her to break it off — although he had also been unfaithful — and she complied. Her letters to her lover show her as passionately romantic, and also passionately ambitious, to the point of self-involvement. When he was a prisoner of war in Austria, she wrote him long letters about how her writing was going. Whatever degree of security and calm she craved in her domestic arrangement, she was intensely, even explosively devoted to her writing from the time she was a teenager.
Had she known that her lover would save the letters and even share them with a biographer, Taylor would have been mortified. If she can have been said to have a religion, it was privacy. She resisted at every turn the cult of personality that conflates a writer’s life with her work; she was the anti-Knausgaard of her time. And she succeeded — perhaps too well — in projecting a level of personal dullness that may have allowed people to see her work as quieter and less subversive than it actually is. After she died, Kingsley Amis wrote that “her deeply unsensational style and subject matter saw to it that, in life, she never received her due as one of the best English novelists born in this century.”
Even now, some critical re-appraisals of Taylor’s newly republished work seem to diminish it. They place undue emphasis on her work as domestic miniatures; she has been described as “the thinking person’s dangerous housewife” writing about “the quiet horror of domestic life” (Valerie Martin). This language is both highly gendered and reductive. It’s true that Taylor is a domestic writer, in the sense that Fitzgerald or Forster are domestic writers: she presents the lives of individuals, seen close up, mostly in relationship to their personal lives. Home life is the context for her stories, not the heart of them. Perhaps she so needed and believed in privacy because she understood how fragile are our interior lives, how dearly they must be protected. Her true subject is our painstaking attempt to maintain the crumbling edifice of the self.
You’ll Enjoy It When You Get There, the title of Taylor’s selected stories, offers a reassurance that also feels like a forcible command. In the story, a young, socially inept woman suffers through a party she doesn’t want to attend, and things go from bad to worse. Taylor’s stories are full of social occasions that people are supposed to enjoy but don’t. The characters, largely women, are undone by worries about what others think, by social roles imposed upon them, and by the endless momentum of their interior monologues.
The brilliant story that opens the collection, “Hester Lilly,” follows Muriel, whose husband invites his much younger cousin, Hester, to live with them. Though outwardly settled, Muriel is ill at ease in her role as a schoolteacher’s wife; she is “childless, kitchenless; without remedy or relief.” Muriel is not a nice person. She “had little patience with gaucherie, though inspiring it,” and her frailty and her cruelty are inextricable. Taylor’s gift is to require you to come to an understanding of people you don’t like, and thus feel for them, without forgiving them or offering them redemption. Just when you think Muriel is hopelessly mean and self-absorbed, she reflects that her husband “had not so much become a stranger as revealed himself as the stranger he had for a long time been.”
Muriel befriends Hester on the surface while undermining her at every turn. Understandably dismayed, poor Hester goes off in search of other comforts, finding them in a lonely schoolmaster and a dotty old drunk. The narrative unfolds like a chess game, with characters jumping and sliding across the board, displaying sudden vulnerabilities, or taking out the others in startling power grabs. Taylor hated writing “chronology sentences” — the links of narrative and summary that connect one moment to the next. She almost always wrote in scenes, and this gives her stories direct, kinetic energy as one scene gives way to the next, often wildly but meaningfully juxtaposed. One moment Muriel is complaining about her marriage to her best friend; the next she’s flirting with a rake of a schoolteacher at a dance.
In his classic book Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular, L. Rust Hills proposed that as you’re reading a story, “alternatives to the character’s fate and to the plot’s action seem open, possible, available. But when you’ve finished the story and look back, the action should seem inevitable.” Muriel and Hester’s journeys are unforeseeable yet fated in just this way. The story is a bleak social comedy, but through it also runs a strain of perversity so thick that it can’t be called a streak. To be perverse, to be self-defeating, to inhabit your rage so completely that it becomes a form of art: this is what Muriel does, with a seriousness of intent that almost makes her heroic.
Like Elizabeth Bowen, whom she admired, Taylor is a master of rotating point of view and of authorial distance — swooping out to mock her characters and then moving in to describe what’s going on inside them, so that the picture grows ever more complex and intimate. This technique gives even the most ordinary situations emotional density and texture. In “The Rose, The Mauve, The White,” three teenage girls — preening, slightly ridiculous, fidgety with anticipation — go to a dance. The narrative dips into the consciousness of each girl, the boy who crushes on one of them, their parents. We expect the story to be about young love, and so it is; but it’s platonic love, not romantic. Instead of a kiss, its culmination is a perfect moment of tenderness between a girl who is dancing and her friend who is a wallflower:
Katie had felt treachery in the smile she had been bound to give — the most difficult of smiles, for it had to contain so much, the assurance that the dance was only a dance, and nothing very much to miss, a suggestion of regret at her, Katie’s, foolishness in taking part in it and surprise that she of all people had been chosen. “It is soon over,” she tried to signal to Frances. “You are yourself. I love you. I will soon come back.”
And Frances had received the smiles and nodded. There are other things in the world, she tried to believe.
Taylor gives Katie the gift of taking her seriously. And to Frances — poor Frances! — she gives the labored syntax of “tried to believe.” Because the love of a friend can be touching and true and still not enough to fortify a person who feels diminished by her own life, and Taylor, whose every sentence is free of sentimentality, knows it.
At Mrs. Lippincote’s, Taylor’s autobiographical first novel, published in 1945, also plays with romantic tropes then quickly, deftly leaves them behind. Julia, her husband Roddy, and his cousin Eleanor live together as part of a military posting at a home they rent from Mrs. Lippincote. Their conditional status as renters, and the displacement of the family that belongs at the home, hints at household instability from the start. The book begins like a love triangle (Eleanor is infatuated with Roddy) but in no way continues as such. Each of the three have secrets, and they are unable to live together, if living means maintaining self-determination and authenticity. Eleanor, a single schoolteacher, writes letters to a prisoner of war and flirts with the Communist Party; Julia refuses the social proprieties of a military wife, instead socializing with her husband’s boss and a waiter she knew in London; Roddy gets up to his own tricks. War hangs around the edges of the book, disrupting the lives of characters far from the battlefield; it’s not the center of the action, but Taylor shows how it affects and infects everything.
Throughout, she is witty and pointed. A stout woman in black satin enters a party “like a seal with a rope of pearls around its neck.” Eleanor, lonely and adrift, has trouble finding the connections she so needs. “It is seldom safe to confide in lonely people,” Taylor writes. “Better to trust in busy, popular people, who have no time for betraying one and no personal need to do so.”
Reading Taylor’s stories, I was struck by how much they too are about the war. The sadness of the war years is everywhere in the book, and yet it is largely manifested in small, quietly observed details and in a kind of exhaustion suffered by the characters. Most of the characters are not directly touched by war — there are only a couple of stories that feature soldiers — and yet their lives are suffused with the uneasiness of it, a combination of privilege and worry that feels highly contemporary to those of us who have lived in an America at war for the past 20 years and yet have never seen a battlefield. How do we live with the knowledge of war? Taylor’s stories ask. The answer: uncomfortably and on edge.
In “Gravement Endommagé” an unhappy couple goes off on a terrible vacation — there are no relaxing vacations in Taylor’s fiction — in France. The husband, left by himself at a café after a brutal argument with his wife, remembers the town as it was before the war. A nun carrying a loaf of bread, followed by a thin cat, picks her way among the rubble, an image of austerity and determination. It weighs on him: “The faint sound of trowel on stone rang out, desultory, hopeless, a frail weapon against so convincing a destruction.” He wonders how it’s possible to move forward after all the disaster.
“That’s the human character — patience, building up,” he observes with willed optimism to the bartender at the café.
The bartender replies flatly, “You might say the same of ants.”
One of the pleasures of Beauman’s biography The Other Elizabeth Taylor is its discussion of Taylor’s relationship with William Maxwell, who edited all her stories at The New Yorker. It seems the original version of the story explained the wife’s prickly personality by revealing that she had been in an internment camp during the war, a detail Maxwell suggested be omitted. The result is a story in which the war haunts the couple in a more indirect fashion; the characterization is more subtle, but the change may also have contributed to the perception that Taylor tended to focus on the personal rather than the political, which was not in fact the case.
Perhaps Taylor’s most striking book is Angel, which follows the life and career of a monstrously unpleasant character in Angel Deverell. Born into poverty, Angel decides early on to be a writer, although she never reads anything, admitting only to liking Shakespeare, “except when he is trying to be funny.” Not particularly talented, but extremely driven, she succeeds in churning out lurid, comically inaccurate historical tomes whose risqué sexuality makes them runaway bestsellers for a largely female audience. (Taylor’s gimlet-eyed portrait of the book industry feels pretty resonant today.) She achieves wealth and status, along with Marie Antoinette-levels of clueless narcissism. She is one of the most unsympathetic characters ever committed to fiction, and the book is hilarious, only partially at her expense; it also satirizes publishing, English country homes, and animal lovers.
Angel’s self-absorption, which makes her a terrible person, also makes her a successful — commercially, anyway — artist. Her husband, who both condescends to and exploits her, observes sharply: “I think the secret of your power is that you communicate with yourself, not your readers.” She lives within her own imagination, which first frees her from poverty and then isolates her in wealth. The publishing industry chews her up and spits her out, and she ends her days in a crazy cat-lady fog. Angel could have been a straight satire, but the character is too complicated, and too interesting, for that. The book swings back and forth between comedy and tragedy, with the reader never able to settle on whether to hate Angel, admire her, pity her, or all three.
In 2009 François Ozon made a film version that attempts to deal with Angel’s unlikability with a tone of heightened displacement. Filmed as a Gone With the Wind–era melodrama, it features intentionally fake travel sets and mannered, though intelligent, performances by Romola Garai and Michael Fassbender. It’s a fascinatingly weird film and an intriguing experiment that nonetheless feels stilted and ponderous, lacking the novel’s light touch. Its failure points out just how well Taylor walks an impossible line between sympathy and its opposite.
Angel critiques both the misbegotten creativity of artists and the vagaries of literary fashion. It also raises questions about the lives of artists, women, and people in general. What does it mean to be an important person, to have status, to matter in the world? Is Angel punished for wanting too nakedly to be important, and for having the energy and self-assurance to make herself so?
I don’t think that Angel represented wish fulfillment on Taylor’s part — she’s too complex a character for that, and made to suffer too much — but it is notable that she gives herself permission for everything: for absolute commitment to her profession, for absolute selfishness. Taylor, who wrote only when her children didn’t need her, only when she wasn’t accompanying her husband to business functions, only when the housecleaning was done, gave herself no such leeway.
“Writing is the one thing one never gets paid justly for,” she wrote in a 1943 letter.
Being a woman is a lot to do with it. Written under the cover of a creaking door. […] To throw down her pen and cover her ms at any minute, so that she could lace up her nephew’s boots or answer questions. Apologetic. A man would have roared, ‘I am evolving a new sentence, changing the face of literature. I must not be disturbed.’ And shut the door. ‘Hush, children, Papa’s busy.’ It is always that way round. One day it won’t be.
Angel would have shut the door — but perhaps that’s why she only lived in fiction.
Taylor’s life was nothing like Angel’s, in either its heights or depths. But I did think a great deal about the question of importance in reading her work, wondering what it would take to bring her greater renown. “Importance” is a coded value, in which hierarchies of identity, subject, and genre are embedded. And of course literary reputation is mysterious, and history is crowded with writers; more of them disappear all the time. Taylor’s writing doesn’t plead for attention as her character’s sensational tomes do. But in its own deft, sophisticated way, it roars.