(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

When James Lasdun’s first collection of stories, Delerium Eclipse and Other Stories (1985) appeared, it was clear that his gifts for sensuous prose and psychological surprise would enable him to go far. In this collection, he continues to develop his talent for arresting images, vividly captured human emotions, and morally exciting situations. What he does not do is delve any deeper into the human condition than he did in his first volume. Readers were told that he was completing a novel at the time his first collection of stories was published. Perhaps the stories in this new volume represent an interlude or an attempt to sharpen his narrative control before finishing the longer work. In 1988 he published a book of poems, A Jump Start, to critical acclaim. This too could explain the delay of the novel. In any case, Three Evenings is more of a replay of what readers saw in Delerium Eclipse and Other Stories than an incursion into newer worlds of experience or literary innovation.

Even as a return to previously tilled earth, this new collection is often astonishing and always elegant. In addition, when Lasdun sounds familiar chords, there is a fuguelike elaboration that speaks for his artistic growth. For example, in this new collection the lead story, “Ate/Menos, or The Miracle,” develops the voyeurism of an earlier story, “Heart’s Desire,” into full-blown deception. In “Heart’s Desire,” a young man peeks from a bush while a young woman is almost raped. In the new story, readers are introduced to a more enterprising protagonist who begins the day by feigning religious devotion and ends it by following a strange woman, who has mistaken him for someone else, to her home. He encourages her error, teases her retarded child, and beds her without ever revealing his true identity. The woman’s estranged husband comes on the scene and exposes the charade: “He isn’t Matthew Delacorta.” As the protagonist-narrator flees the house, he hears “a high, grief-stricken female voice” he cannot identify cry, over and over: “No, no, no…o…o…o” The voyeur in darkness of “Heart’s Desire” who scattered the would-be rapists with stones thrown in a pool has become the voyeur as seducer who must listen to an anonymous cry. Is it the woman he slept with or her daughter? That tragic cry implies a revision of the title of the story itself from “Ate/Menos, or The Miracle” to the more appropriate and traditional paradigm “Ate, Hubris, Nemesis.”

Lasdun knows how to spin stories from obsessions. The object of the obsession usually stands in ironic contrast to the emotions aroused in the obsessed person. In the earlier collection there is a powerful story, “The Siege,” about a musician who sells off his dearest objets d’art to finance the liberation of a man imprisoned in an Eastern European country. His motive is not politics but desire. The wife of the imprisoned man is a domestic in the musician’s London home. She has promised to love him if he can succeed in freeing her husband. He plays passionate scores on a great piano, his dearest possession, that gradually arouse the young woman’s interest in him. He is forced to sell the piano to raise the final sum necessary to arrange her husband’s release. She gives herself to him the day her husband’s taxi arrives.

“The Coat,” an important story in the new collection, traces a middle-aged woman’s obsession with “a light summer coat of yellow velvet with a silk lining.” It is the gift of a suitor who is attentive but unwilling to rush into marriage with Muriel. He enjoys the courtship, and so does she. The coat is a symbol of the high romance and decorum that adds glamour to their declining years. On an excursion to the city, she loses a button from the coat but manages to keep the loss a secret from Donald, the suitor. The next day, however, she retraces their steps by herself. After almost giving up hope of finding the irreplaceable button, she finds it in a muddy corner that miraculously catches her eye after a pigeon brushes her face and lands on the very spot. The coat and its button are now no longer merely precious possessions but are talismanic. The coat is not something merely to be worn. She hangs it in her closet as a thing to admire, perhaps worship: “She hung it on its padded hanger, with a net bag full of cedar chips to keep away the moths.”

At this point, her son Billy enters the story. His father had died when Billy was still a teenager. A problem for his mother,...

(The entire section is 1850 words.)