William Sansom Essay - Sansom, William (Vol. 6)

Sansom, William (Vol. 6)

Sansom, William 1912–1976

Sansom, a British short story writer and novelist, also wrote essays, travel books, and books for children. John Lucas quipped that "if you wanted to know how the average Briton dressed at any particular time in the last thirty years you could do a great deal worse than consult a Sansom short story" and thereby defined Sansom's particular excellence. Along with his eye for exact visual detail, Sansom's attention to conversational and social nuance serves to bring his characters into uniquely sharp—and captivating—social focus. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Mr Sansom makes oblique apologies for his title, Hans Feet In Love, for which he has only himself to blame, and then proceeds to write as flat-footed a book as a man of his experience and facility can have produced; it is a book that works hard at being charming, and seems always to be thinking itself a bit funnier than it is. (p. 308)

R. R. Davies, in New Statesman (© 1971 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), September 3, 1971.

Hans Feet in Love is an idle and profoundly complacent squib. Equipping his hero with only the weak and contrived joke of his name, William Sansom pushes him through a series of amorous encounters. These are no less monotonous for their oddity, and are doggedly hilarious in a depressing way, rather like the jacket photograph of the author with a large parrot standing on his head. (p. 343)

Mary Sullivan, in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1971; reprinted by permission of Mary Sullivan), September 9, 1971.

Not far from the beginning of William Sansom's [Hans Feet in Love], his arbitrarily and pointlessly named hero seems well set for a picaresque journey through the sexual mores of our time which appears likely to provide engaging, if trivial, reading and at least to show a variety of amatory follies and anguishes even if the method is one of caricature. But the joke palls as Hans moves on relentlessly through a series of adventures almost all of which Mr Sansom has done with more wit, invention and care in other places; and Hans Feet in Love seems increasingly like a curiously perfunctory sort of pot-boiler. It is as if the author has tired of working to achieve the sharpness of observation, the elegance of manner, the lively sense of character which his best work reveals….

Mr Sansom continues to have a fair eye for the most outrageous or unlikely of feminine quirks, but all this is weird, offhand, cynical stuff. At moments he rises to the level of ingenuity which makes his more fantastic narratives at least readable, and there is always a certain verve about the prose. More often he is lapsing into anecdotal facetiousness in the storytelling, and sophisticated travelogue in the style.

"Flat Feet," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1971; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), September 24, 1971, p. 1138.

William Sansom is a writer who is very much at home with the short story—a form that is notoriously unpopular with the reading public. In [Hans Feet in Love] he contrives to have his cake and eat it, and has produced both a novel and a short story collection. The book is concerned with the love-life of Hans Feet (a damp squib of a joke), who gives the book its continuity, and each chapter is a self-contained episode in his itinerary from calf love to wedlock. All the stories are skilfully done; some are good, some are unappetising. Hans is very much a peg on which the stories are hung: it must have been difficult to make him convincing and it is to Mr Sansom's credit that he succeeds. Unfortunately, though lifelike, Hans is a very unattractive character; the sort of person one meets often enough, but whose fish-like drabness discourages one from continuing the acquaintance. The mechanics of the book are creaky: Hans becomes distinctly middle-aged three-quarters of the way through the book, and then makes a magical return to his late twenties. The penultimate story tells of an abortive engagement, and a subsequent winter of moping about in the slush. But in the next story he is off on holiday a month or so after this same engagement, meets a nasty person by the name of Rita who paints buns in her spare time, and marries her as autumn begins. So où sont les neiges of the previous story? (p. 44)

Diane LeClercq, in Books & Bookmen (© Hansom Books 1971), November, 1971.

Mr Sansom is not always tuned to the soft centre of his own imagination—too many idylls that vanished, too many wistful glances at what might have been, and one attempt at ecological irony, on an East Ender's Brighton day-trip, that badly misfires. But he is never superfluous by a word, and there are few writers of short stories so consistent, not only in making us share his "continually astonished interest" but in refreshing the tired verbiage of narrative. (p. 1045)

The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1973; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), September 14, 1973.

William Sansom's short stories are characterised by precise visual detail and a relish for demonstrating the complexity of apparently commonplace happenings. He once described himself as a painter manqué, and the skill with which he observes the appearances of things has often been commented upon…. There is no doubt that it is this form which best suits his talents. (He has written novels, but with the exception of The Face of Innocence, 1951, they are not so good.) (pp. 89-90)

[In The Marmalade Bird] I admired most—and found most typical of Mr Sansom's gifts—the story called 'A Helping Hand', in which a lady tourist is robbed and raped by a Greek peasant, who then goes off wearing her clothes and with some of her hair (hacked off with a razor) sticking out from under her hat, perched on his head, in the hope that this disguise will enable him to reach Athens. The bizarre sexual encounter is transformed quietly by Mr Sansom into something authentically after the heart of Henry James or Joseph Conrad in that its violence is muffled, muted, not the central point of the story, whereas the woman's confused well-wishing regarding her violator becomes this centre at least in retrospect. The man's gradual erotic arousal is also a sensible factor in the story's success, while the Greek scene is vividly evoked, and the writing has an edge to it like objects perceived in Mediterranean sunlight.

In certain of the other stories, a taste for the merely eccentric is indulged…. [Sometimes] there is too much of an air of life being a series of short stories, and of human nature being easily reduced to short-story analysis. One occasionally has this feeling in reading Mr Sansom—while one does not have it with the absolute masters of the form, such as Chekov and Katherine Mansfield. The variety and energy of his descriptions soon expunge such doubts from the mind, however, and the title story may especially be recommended to those who have already noticed this writer's capacity for making the ordinary interesting. Someone once said that everything is beautiful if you only look at it closely, as a lover looks. At his best, that's how Mr Sansom looks at his material, with a result that it is not 'material'—but his own world, and alive, and quite beautiful in its way. (p. 90)

Robert Nye, in Books and Bookmen (© Hansom Books 1973), December, 1973.

[A Young Wife's Tale] has an exotic Italian contessa rudely forcing a young electronic-music composer away from his wife for fat sums and to satisfy her need for possession. The wife isn't given an even chance (for a start she has to go to the bank-manager every time she wants to pop over to Italy), and falls prey to loneliness, not to mention men in pubs and Suffolk beet-farmers. Sansom is fetchingly jokey (a couple of painted ladies are instantly dubbed World Whore One and Two: wish I'd thought of that), but he does have this annoying trick of laying claim to more out-of-the-way experiences than this reader, certainly, can truthfully boast: 'If you've ever made love outside in the hot summer rain, say in a thunderstorm, you will know what I mean.' Well, Mneh to you, as a late poem of the late W. H. Auden put it. (p. 871)

Valentine Cunningham, in New Statesman (© 1974 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), December 13, 1974.

Sansom is not a moralist. It is wonder, not approval or censure, he feels about his characters. He is the perpetual traveller, observing the peculiarities of his neighbours in trains, cafés, shops and offices, delighting in their idiosyncrasies, concerned to describe in carefully chosen words how they dress, speak, gesture, eat, drink and kiss. He is writing about faces in places, and often the faces might just as well be masks. Even a main character in a novel (Hans Feet, for instance) comes across more as someone he has run into on his travels and about whose apparently ridiculous behaviour he has made up fantasies and tall stories for his own and his companions' amusement. (pp. 128-29)

How extraordinary it all is, he exclaims. For example, let me tell you of someone I saw in Cruft's the other day, in Kew Gardens, in a hotel in Tunisia, in a Marseille fish-restaurant, the gardening department in Gamages: amazing, don't you think? He is a professional entertainer, remaining detached from his characters, marvelling at their reactions as he manipulates them against this or that brilliantly pictured background. He doesn't get involved. He never lets his characters take over. Sometimes he seems not to suspend even his own disbelief. And with this voyeurism goes a liking for unrequited love, for love that feeds only on glimpses of the beloved in public places such as buses or fish-queues, for love that breeds jealousy and watchfulness. To travel hopefully or distrustfully with, or a few seats behind, the object of one's lust or love is better than to arrive and consummate. (p. 129)

When Sansom sees a potentially funny situation he becomes excited. You can sense his own enjoyment as he piles absurdity on absurdity—… but too often the reader's enjoyment is spoiled by the author's self-consciousness. He nudges you, digs you in the ribs, to tell you that he is on to something good and will soon surprise you. 'A sharp event was already assembling itself like a cloud upon a date in the following week.' We almost expect him to ask if we're sitting comfortably before he goes on to reveal the next stage in the buildup to a fantastic dénouement. Even the wildly comic office party in The Last Hours of Sandra Lee is marred by the writer's knowingness and awareness of his own skills; also, I think, by his lack of judgment in allowing himself to be carried away by what is essentially an anecdote or short story situation rather than the subject for a novel.

Is Sansom, in fact, a better short story writer than novelist? The smaller scale, and the discipline enjoined by it, enable him to extend his range and deal with death and terror, the macabre and the hauntingly sinister—subjects and moods which would almost certainly be beyond him at novel-length. His story, A Waning Moon, is a tour de force of creepiness, a wife-husband quarrel in their caravan parked for the night near a slate quarry in the Scottish Highlands. Another, Episode at Gastein, achieves an eerily cold and brittle atmosphere in which it is altogether fitting for the old-fashioned spa and its surrounding snows and waterfalls to dwarf the men and woman who play out their triangular drama on its sombre stage; place rather than person is the rightful hero in this most evocative of stories. On the other hand, there is something essentially prolix about Sansom's style which often breaks the discipline which a short story calls for. The much-praised How Claeys Died is, for me, ruined by authorial comment on order and anarchy in the scheme of things. The form which, I think, suits Sansom best is either the more than usually long short story (e.g. Episode at Gastein, c. 15,000 words) or the fairly short novel (e.g. … A Young Wife's Tale, c. 80,000 words). He is the sort of writer who needs enough space to spread himself, but not so much that his enthusiasm and delight in his own skill can outrun his talent. (pp. 130-31)

Sansom has written more than thirty books in thirty years since his first stories about firefighting in the London blitz. His fluency is perhaps his worst enemy. It is scenes and episodes rather than complete works that stick in the mind: the beauty queen sitting with each elbow cupped in the half of a lemon, the dog that begs 'like a small white unnoticed footman', the blind girl in Trondhjem describing to a stranger the colours of the warehouses lining up on stilts on either side of the river; and, from the many comic situations, the scene in Goodbye where Tony and Zoe argue in the kitchen, she insisting that she must leave him after eighteen years of marriage, he so infuriated that he picks up what he imagines to be a bowl of water and throws it over her, only for her to strip off dress and bra and storm out of the room, breasts glistening with chicken jelly.

I have never met William Sansom, but from his writings I have a vivid mental picture of him en voyage, always with one absurd incongruity of dress. On the Calabrian coast, in appropriate shirt and slacks and sandals but bowler hatted and briefcased. On the rue de Rivoli, in conventional blue pin-striped lounge suit and well shined black shoes, but with a fireman's helmet on his head. And, of course, he would be searching for a window to look through. He is an elegant English eccentric, a mandarin mariner with glittering eye and full log-book, a travelling transmitter of astonishment and offbeat singer of 'unrequited love … the finest love of all'. (p. 132)

John Mellors, "William Sansom: Voyageur, Voyeur, Virtuoso," in London Magazine (© London Magazine 1974), December 1974/January 1975, pp. 128-32.

Mr Sansom's trouble [in A Young Wife's Tale] is his excellence: Julia's narration is just too elegant to believe in (what is she doing instead of writing, if she can manage this?). But below the glossy, slight surface there is something one can believe in—Mr Sansom's special gift of reproducing exactly in the reader that disjunct feeling that goes with a minute scrutiny of the features of a lover, and the realisation that nothing seen gives any clue to what is happening inside the admired envelope. Doubts and ambiguities abound: things are exactly what they are said by the principals to be—and they are not as they seem to them to be…. Everybody, puzzlingly, tells lies when they speak true. (p. 190)

Neil Hepburn, in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1975; reprinted by permission of Neil Hepburn), February 6, 1975.