Penelope Gilliatt’s short fiction illustrates the twentieth century phenomenon of the de-centered narrative. Breaching the Aristotelian holism of mythos (plot) comprising beginning, middle, and end, de-centered fiction disregards plot and eliminates one or two of the narrative stages. De-centering is not exclusively a matter of removing the middle and either leaving only beginning and end or presenting only the removed middle as the narrative. Rather, de-centering eschews the triad that is defined by a middle.
Other of Gilliatt’s favored themes include Slavic culture, gourmet cooking and dining, appreciation of music (especially opera and modern music), language study (English, Greek, Latin, and modern foreign languages), dentistry, and the superiority of human brainwork to computerized authority. Her short fiction is also incident with eccentric affairs of affection, notably May-December romances and grandparent-grandchild attachments.
Discernible in each of her collections of short stories, moreover, is a thematic or imagistic continuity. The exception is Twenty-two Stories, which merely culls representative selections from the five preceding collections. The skull motif informs What’s It Like Out?, with the word “skull” appearing in seven of the nine stories. In the two exceptions, “The Tactics of Hunger” and “Come Back If It Doesn’t Get Better,” a preoccupation with death substantiates the motif of the skull.
What’s It Like Out?
In Gilliatt’s first collection of short stories, for example, “Fred and Arthur” is a dyad consisting, first, of Arthur teamed as a comic entertainer with Fred and, second, of Arthur living without Fred after his partner marries and then dies. With Fred, Arthur is fat and jocund; without him, Arthur becomes thin and serious. The triad, consisting of Arthur, Fred, and Fred’s wife, destroys the duo of Fred and Arthur.
Aristotelian or classical logic, then, is rooted in triadism—for example, the syllogism. De-centering disestablishes classical logic. “Living on the Box” spotlights a vestigially classicist writer attempting to imbue his nature poetry with spatial logic and moral order. He attributes the staleness of his existence not to his own unawareness of creative disorder but to the world, to which he cannot adjust, and to his wife, whom he neglects. His wife sees through his inauthenticity and, after their inevitable separation, remains available to him in his unacknowledged dependence on her. The story, lacking any specific beginning or end, amounts to a juxtaposition of the limitations of logic with the inherence of chaos.
“The Redhead” holds up to view another person, a six-foot-tall woman upset by the “romanticism of the period,” who opts for logic and finds it hellish but yields in time to the attraction of Newtonian mathematics. The narrative, which changelessly details the redhead’s changelessness, doubly confutes logic. Harriet, the redhead, is said to be fifteen in 1912, which would make 1897 her birth date; later, she is said to have her fortieth birthday in 1943, which would set her birth date at 1903. Further, the second paragraph of the story relates the unchanged color of her hair “to the end of her life,” and the penultimate paragraph of the story begins, “She is still alive.” The story saw three editions without revision, making it clear that its plotlessness is abetted by contradictions that identify the narrative as an instrument of opposition to logic.
“What’s It Like Out?,” the last and titular story of the first collection, introduces a theme that becomes prominent in Gilliatt’s short fiction: old age, or the final period of life, as the most efficacious period. The once-conventional notion of the triadic life—youth, maturity, age—was de-centered by the twentieth century’s obsession with youth; Gilliatt elects an obsession with advanced age. Her octogenarian Milly and Franklin Wilberforce, for all their age-related physical impairments, prove to be psychologically and intellectually superior to a young newspaper interviewer named Ben. Milly evinces her existentialist authenticity by her thought, twice expressed, that she will never become accustomed to the ravaging of old age and that she has not “any obligation to get used to it.” Fifteen of the sixty stories published through 1990 develop this theme, including the especially compelling “Cliff-Dwellers,” a story in a one-act play format in which the octogenarian Emma and Henry sustain the full psychological experience of youth without a trace of self-deception.
Nobody’s Business is primarily a collective variation on the theme of anticomputerism and, secondarily, a dyad consisting, first, of five stories in imitative evocation of literary works and, second, of four stories echoing such twentieth century trends as Freudianism, socialism, and astrology. The sequence begins with “FRANK” (Family Robot Adapted to the Needs of Kinship), a satire on cybernetics, which extends the cautionary observations about the mechanistic displacement of humankind in Karel apek’s R.U.R. (1920; English translation, 1923) and concludes with the titular story, a celebration of the aged at the expense of the obnoxious young. “An Antique Love Story” places British Adam-and-Eve figures Amy and Ed in a seedily Edenic New York, where a Polish-Jewish child is educated by computerized telephone (Touch-Tone-Tuition), while a Mrs. Green, who insists that she is God, knits human organs; Amy plans a trip to Czechoslovakia, the homeland, incidentally, of apek. “Staying in Bed,” inclusive of a theatrical seminar called...
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Gilliatt, Penelope (Vol. 10)
Gilliatt, Penelope 1932–
Gilliatt is an English novelist, short story writer, film and drama critic, screenwriter, and editor. Critics have praised her attentiveness to detail, her sophisticated use of word play, and her ear for dialogue. (See also CLC, Vol. 2, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)
In Nobody's Business … Gilliatt criticizes those who would organize life on scientific principles, who would use the computer to make sense of erratic human nature. In the face of computer analysts and efficiency experts, Gilliatt turns to that which celebrates the diversity and dignity of human life. (p. 322)
Throughout the collection, Gilliatt suggests that interpersonal communication deteriorates when computers and machines gain pre-eminence. This emphasis reaches its fullest expression in "Property," a story reminiscent of Samuel Beckett's Endgame. Confined to their individual beds, wired to separate electrocardiographs, a triangle of two men and one woman endure a hellish existence. The three-some understand neither themselves nor each other, as the absurdist dialogue indicates.
The machines are powerful, but the mechanical way of life is not inevitable. The final lines of the concluding tale, "Nobody's Business," summarize the heart of Gilliatt's statement. Emily Prendergast, who writes for the radio "the most popular low comedies of the century," expresses her understanding of life: "Nobody can do what he can't … Unless he has a terrific wish to…. Then I expect he could." Earlier in the volume, the "dispossessed"—a schizophrenic woman, a crippled young man, a bastard born to a British gentleman and a poor Indian—say much the same.
Gilliatt makes her point by using wit...
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[The stories that compose "Splendid Lives" are] resolute in forcing the reader to make up his own mind as to what he is supposed to feel after finishing them. I suppose that a virtuoso of exegesis might apply an almost unlimited number of interpretations to them, for, God knows, they are wide open to the winds of doctrine.
I propose to attempt only one, to resist the seduction of supererogation. It is possible to read "Splendid Lives" just as the title suggests, as stories about people who are not constricted by convention or economic considerations, who are free to follow their impulses and to need nothing more than impulse to satisfy themselves. This is not an altogether unrealistic depiction of a certain style in contemporary life. While the stories have what might be called the authority of eccentricity, I wish that they had more literary security—better-turned sentences, apter invention, more appealing or dimensional characters, a behavioral curve that pleases the mind as an agreeably contoured landscape pleases the eye.
In my reading, the stories work—if they do work—by virtue of their texture, relying on the unexpected or incongruous to keep the reader from growing restive or bored. When we do finally grow restive under such unremitting stimulation, the stories break off. Discontinuing in the middle of things, they baffle us, and this bafflement acts as a depressant that quells impatience. You have to concede that it's all very ingenious.
A writer who opposes the fatigue of the ordinary, who suggests a liberating gratuitousness as a counterpoint to riveting purpose, who lets air—even if it's hot air—into our lives, ought to have some claim on our gratitude. I take off my humdrum metaphorical hat to Miss Gilliatt. (p. 12)
Anatole Broyard, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1978 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 29, 1978.
[The stories in Splendid Lives] are amusing, even at times hilarious, in a quiet, British sort of way. Still, one doesn't quite know what to make of them beyond that; the stories seem to end at an arbitrary point, leaving one wondering what the point in fact was. I suspect that Gilliatt doesn't intend to make one, and that has its own virtues, though one wishes that behind the charming surface the characters had more dimension, more resonance.
The way to read Splendid Lives is one story at a time, delighting in its ingeniousness, expecting nothing more. (p. E5)
Susan Wood, in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), March 12, 1978.
Gilliatt is a comic writer with a piercing eye for the zany, the bizarre, the eccentric, but she lacks the intellectual energy and philosophical breadth, the penetrating view that's true of [Iris] Murdoch at her best…. Gilliatt is as witty, glib, as tangy, but thin as peanut brittle. Mistress of dialogue, of the flashy remark and the unusual situation, she seems to be afraid of exploring a situation, of developing a character, of examining the serious emotions…. She's quick, a phrasemaker, an evoker of fleeting attitudes, a conjurer-up of domestic situations, where frequently the women are strong, monolithic, and loving, and the men passive, ineffectual cadgers.
[The nine stories in Splendid Lives] are billed as English and American, but Gilliatt's American settings lack verisimilitude. Her grasp of American idiom is tenuous….
Gilliatt has the potential to explore human comedy and human tragedy, as in the best story of the lot, "Catering," which treats mother love, fidelity, caring, fertility, and abortion. But the wonderful mother in this story is never fully developed, is only sketched in through a hilarious, yet almost painful, description of her meagre house as she home-caters a wedding for 125. We want to know the mother better, but Gilliatt makes her too inarticulate, too much like a dumb beast of burden, to be able to carry the tragic dimension. Another potentially fine story, "Fleecing," fails to touch the emotions, though the tutor-boy relationship is well done, because the author skimps on developing the climactic moment….
I suspect that because the short story demands much more verbal analysis than a film—where the visual carries so much of the meaning—Gilliatt errs in applying film-writing techniques to fiction. The House of Fiction does have many doors, but Gilliatt has yet to earn her place there. (p. 6)
Eileen Kennedy, in Best Sellers (copyright © 1978 Helen Dwight Reid Educational Foundation), April, 1978.
In Splendid Lives, Penelope Gilliatt skates brightly on the surface …, whether in England or the States, but there is a humour, a critical discernment and a keen, satirical mind at work here, which make for more briskness and more fun.
These lives are far from splendid, although the satire in the first story, about an elderly English bishop, cossetted and materially secure—in fact everything His Lord said he should not be—is so velvet-gloved, you might miss it at first…. The social observation … is sharp-sighted, the writing alert, the dialogue true to (awful) life. The stories tend, however, to be shapeless, to end abruptly, as though the authoress didn't know where to go from there and didn't much care, either…. But despite their brisk, modern air and their satire, these stories are not really funny any more than these modern lives are splendid. All rather sad, really. (p. 51)
James Brockway, in Books and Bookmen (© copyright James Brockway 1978; reprinted with permission), April, 1978.
Gilliatt, Penelope (Vol. 13)
Gilliatt, Penelope 1932–
A British novelist, short story writer, and screenwriter, Gilliatt is perhaps best known as a film and drama critic. Her fiction is noted for its wit, its skillful dialogue, and its cast of clearly drawn and memorable characters. Gilliatt recently left her position as a film critic and writer for The New Yorker, a magazine with which she had been affiliated for many years. (See also CLC, Vols. 2, 10, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)
Splendid Lives is generally unified by the advanced years of its stories' pivotal characters, who have led lives both very and not so splendid. Because many of these people lie at certain strata peculiar to English society, Americans reading the book will be reminded of how differently the English look upon society as a whole and their respective places in it. The tone of the stories is not entirely sympathetic or positive, though moments of laughter are to be found everywhere in Gilliatt's stories. Old age is anatomized, but held at arm's length, with the result that we have somewhat clinical appraisals of the characters' predicaments.
The predicaments found in Splendid Lives are often far from dire…. The title story depicts a cousin of Queen Victoria, a ninety-two-year-old retired bishop whose main concern is how to get his prize race horse back on feed. One notable detail about the collection is the appearance of equine images in nearly every story, and those images relate directly to the characters' social status.
But then we have "A Lovely Bit of Wood," with its somber picture of working-class retirement, and "Catering," rendering the tedium and hopelessness of lower-class family life. "Iron Larks" ought to become a definitive statement on how oblivious the academy can be. "Phone-In" is the collection's most adventurous story in terms of form, and in tone the most playful. (pp. 299-300)...
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[There's a] looseness, an almost decadent lack of direction, in Penelope Gilliatt's The Cutting Edge. The narrative hovers around the affection between two often-separated brothers—Benedick and Peregrine, a musician and a writer, respectively down and out in Istanbul and Positano—who are eventually reunited in the compliant arms of Benedick's ex-wife. There's an air of plundered notebooks about the desperately sparkling conversation and the redundant cast of eccentric minor characters, who look suspiciously like rejects from Miss Gilliatt's latest collection of short stories, Splendid Lives. At one point she says conversation is like 'the sound of souls buzzing in a glass prison of a world which they cannot escape but still try to understand'. This is all very well, but the chat has to be fairly remarkable if it's to continue to sustain our interest: 'We are the trustees of no culture but our own,' and so on. It's a shame, because Miss Gilliatt's laconic style occasionally creates moments of accurate poignancy which are worth pages of brittle dialogue and recycled aperçus. (p. 554)
William Boyd, in New Statesman (© 1978 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), October 27, 1978.
Penelope Gilliatt, the acerbic British movie critic for the New Yorker …, has produced a "novel" [The Cutting Edge] by stringing together a series of just the sort of dry martini, upper-crust and stiff-upper-lip character sketches the New Yorker is famous for. And like a long bout with dry martinis, it may be fun, but ultimately there's very little nourishment in a handful of olives….
The language of the book is determinedly literary, and often extremely effective; but it is most effective when most succinct. There are quick, glittering sentences ("He began to live in a chill delirium of work") and passages of extraordinary humor, as when Peregrine, who speaks little Italian, attempts to explain to his housekeeper in Positano that he is writing a play in poetry about a homosexual and instead informs her that he is composing a tragedy about spinach.
Gilliatt is keen to follow through with her investigation of "emotional links," etc. She loads the brothers down with a mirror image—another pair of siblings, these a set of twins, their illegitimate younger half-brothers. She then has Peregrine and Benedick change their hair and even their eye color (via contact lens) to more closely resemble one another. But three-quarters through the book having moved Benedick's ex-wife Joanna in with Peregrine, Gilliatt gives up. We know almost nothing about Joanna, little about why she left Benedick and even less about why she moves in with Peregrine. There is no ending and precious little ambiguous conclusion. When Peregrine says portentously, "I don't know whether you're in love with me because I'm not like Benedick or because I'm not like Benedick," Joanna comes back with the one natural retort in the entire book—she tells him to shut up.
Eve Zibart, "Gilliatt's Glittering Surfaces," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1979, The Washington Post), January 21, 1979, p. G3.
[Ambiguity] is the subject of ["The Cutting Edge"]. There exist meaningful characters … who cannot be considered clearly right or clearly wrong, and meaningful events that will always be murky, ill organized and impossible to pigeonhole.
On occasion, "The Cutting Edge" appears to be narrated from the viewpoint of ambiguity personified. The two brothers. Peregrine and Benedick Corbett, start out as Brother A. and Brother B., owing to a delay in their christening, and they continue through life closer than most married couples, one dealing with what the other will not, so that there is a kind of interlocking of functions…. They are seldom even in the same country, but their fond, witty letters leap continents and they have the rare ability to resume their relationship instantly whenever they're brought together again. Inevitably, they both love the same woman. It's while attempting to sort out the triangle that Peregrine and Benedick learn that some things are not capable of being sorted out; their lives will forever contain a number of blurred boundaries.
Penelope Gilliatt's fiction has always been brisk and economical, but never as stripped-down as it is here. She circles a scene with a quick swath of words, cutting an empty shape in the air for the reader to fill in. It's not that there are no details, but that the details describe something slightly off-center—a side character, a spot on the canvas where we...
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The Cutting Edge is, in a word, insufferable. It is self-congratulatory in the way of novels that presume shared allegiances with the reader, without bothering to establish them. It is not entirely clear to me, moreover, what Gilliatt had in mind with her portrayals of Peregrine and Benedick; perhaps she thought she was illuminating the fallacies of a populist age through the brothers' tetchy resistance to them. Unfortunately, the two are less rugged individualists than priggish separatists and Gilliatt's fatuous elitism is made to stand in for more valid protestations. Finally, she confuses issues of taste with issues of morality, and her confusion is indicative of the novel's ultimately shallow level of preoccupation: "Values can't be measured against each other. They're incommensurable. They allow no reduction below themselves. One may prefer Dante to Shakespeare, or claret to champagne, but that ends it." Except for those of us who drink Coke. (p. 15)
Daphne Merkin, in The New Leader (© 1979 by the American Labor Conference on International Affairs, Inc.), January 29, 1979.
Much of the action [in The Cutting Edge] is narrated through letters. The characterization of the two brothers is often achieved by comparing them in a similar situation. This disciplined treatment and the fairly remote, privileged life-style of the gentle, intellectual characters … together produce a distinctly anachronistic impression. The Cutting Edge is endearingly reminiscent. It does not feel like the 1970s. (pp. 105-6)
This is partly because, as usual, Penelope Gilliatt provides a composite social and cultural background for her characters. As in many of the stories, the generations portrayed in The Cutting Edge are clearly the product of an education, the embodiment of...
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Gilliatt, Penelope (Vol. 2)
Gilliatt, Penelope 1932–
English novelist, playwright, short story writer, and film and drama critic. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 15-16.)
Penelope Gilliatt's characters dwell in the kind of soul-destroying English insularity that refers to the Virgin Mary as the B.V.M. In these nine stories … the oppressive plainness of middle-aged women in heavy shoes and cardigans, the dumpy agonies of uncommunicative men, and the terrible diffidence produced by boarding-school education vie with mad, mod England—and mostly lose….
These people live in the mind. If there is a sameness about their situations, there are rich variations and a wealth of cogent comment we have not seen since Jean Stafford's first stories came out.
Marian Engel, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1969 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 15, 1969, p. 33.
Penelope Gilliatt is becoming something of a literary treasure. Her movie criticism for The New Yorker is consistently intelligent and stylish, her screenplay for Sunday, Bloody Sunday has been acclaimed as one of the best in years. Now she's published a new collection of short stories (there has been one other, as well as two novels), and they are as fine, literate, and fresh as any being written today….
Miss Gilliatt is a transatlantic writer: Her time is literally divided between London and New York, and her fiction pretty much shares this division. Her characters, by virtue of their intelligence and sophistication, seem equally at home anywhere—the modern urban world has melted into a sameness they take with them wherever they go…. [They] are involved in neither failure nor fashionable rage, and they are alienated only insofar as their intelligence makes them alert to absurdity and disappointment. They are concerned, above all, with coping and, as a result, virtually adopt irony as a lifestyle. Even when they take postures, they are self-conscious about them. In Miss Gilliatt's hands this irony is fine-edged, rich, and funny—a species of literary humor rare in contemporary writing. And though her style is often intentionally oblique, it is not superficial. The writing seems to float above its subject, then focus on a situation like a high-intensity beam. She is a master of the revealing detail, the overheard snatch of restaurant conversation. Of course, all this runs the risk of mere cleverness, but there is much more—an intuitive feel for the density of relationships, the almost impossible confusion and variety of life. "I'll leap into my life," one character thinks, "if it splits my face into bits." Miss Gilliatt takes up such bits and makes them all a little clearer.
This is the kind of fine collection whose last page is turned with the hope that there will be more.
Joseph Kanon, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1972 by Saturday Review; first appeared in Saturday Review, September 9, 1972; used with permission), September 9, 1972, p. 73.
Penelope Gilliatt has been for some time very well known on both sides of the Atlantic as a film critic, and this year earned universal fame as the author of the script of "Sunday, Bloody Sunday"—a script which was voted best of the year by the New York Film Critics's Circle. She has written two novels—[One by One and A State of Change]—which seem to me to be of great originality and whose peculiar flavor is recalled, like a rarely consumed but classic dish, in this [Nobody's Business], her second volume of stories.
She is intelligent, economical, poignant, highly contemporary. She is also innovative. One of the remarkable features of [A State of Change] was to shunt plot-elements to a perfunctory margin and allow the characters to play word-games. In other words, no subordination of the surface of daily life to the engines of "significance." No manipulation. Not even, or so it would seem, any cunning. But in fact the concentration is astonishing.
Anthony Burgess, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 10, 1972, pp. 4, 36.
Gilliatt's second collection of stories [Nobody's Business] (all published previously in the New Yorker, for which she is a film reviewer) is full of good ideas and characterization. All her characters have something to say and say it very well. In particular the women come off as real contenders—but for all that, victims of the stresses and absurdities of modern times. The dialogue is lively and pointed and oddly rhetorical. While her people seem to need each other, they have the strangest air of preoccupation; distinctly dotty and self-absorbed, they seem to share in some kind of mutually affectionate inattention. And since no one is really getting through to anyone else (except in the most haphazard way), everyone is really dangerously alone and, very often, breaking down (the small non-violent breakdown being a commonplace of everyday life).
Gilliatt's contempt for the ultimate "straight man" seems to know no limit. Life is absurd, after all, and one ought to laugh as much as one can. Analysis, clinical or otherwise, offends her—in the sense, I think, that it seems to trivialize man's emotional ingenuity and astonishing durability.
All in all, Miss Gilliatt's collection is intelligent, original, funny and quite touching. Her intentions are modest and her talent considerable.
Julia Whedon, "Fictions, Afflictions," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), October 1, 1972, p. 6.
In terms of sheer output, Penelope Gilliatt, New Yorker Magazine film critic and authoress of the award-winning screenplay for the movie "Sunday, Bloody Sunday,"… has determined a creative pace for herself which might put many another writer under the table. Her most recent release, Nobody's Business, a collection of eight short stories and one play, composed in a period of 18 months between 1969 and 1971, reasserts, to whomever may have forgotten, that its author is an accomplished fiction writer comfortable in three distinct genres of writing.
Miss Gilliatt writes a great deal about persons, particularly older ones between the ages of 40 and 50, who "very much have a past"—whose previous actions and feelings were hearty and which still resound in their lives. Her writing, like herself, is tart, economical, and intelligent. Just as the dramatic tension in "Sunday, Bloody Sunday" arises from each character's prior personal history, so are the characters' affairs in Nobody's Business activated by their inheritances. As readers, however, we are not permitted a progressive account of the evolution of those ongoing subterranean pasts. Instead, we are spectators to involvements formed in invisible pasts, to conversations already three-quarters finished, situations interrupted, of endings not yet complete, and are expected with confidence to comprehend the ellipses….
Miss Gilliatt's auditory sense is highly developed and disciplinary. She dreams in dialogue, and finds herself speaking her stories as she writes to make certain the dialogue settles well in speech. Her concentration not on plot apparatus but on the language with which people reveal and express themselves, especially to their intimates, produces a kind of fiction interchangeable with film for its audience. Emergent in Miss Gilliatt's fiction is her delight in acting….
Nobody's Business is a fine antidote for the uncomfortable experience of feeling cowed by a writer whose unrelenting prejudices force both his characters and his readers to heel under his command. With sympathy and without judgements, Miss Gilliatt precisely displays contemporary wits adapting to life's pulsations within a particularly modern setting. In her confined imaginative context, with her consciously limited gear, Miss Gilliatt can be howlingly funny. In a prose style that is both nervy and deft, she articulates and makes humorous such grave contemporary liabilities as the casualness of disloyalty, the troubling sense of loss, the frequent invasion of privacy, and the lack of control over events…. One longs, occasionally, while reading this collection, for further dimensions, less limited circumstance, and lusher opportunities. And so one flees to works more broad in scope than Nobody's Business.
Gwen Kinkead, in Harvard Advocate, Winter, 1973, pp. 83-4.