Penelope Gilliatt

by Penelope Ann Douglass Conner

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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...

(This entire section contains 2356 words.)

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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

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 “Computers—Whither?,” is a suggestive version of Ivan Goncharov’s Oblomov (1859; English translation, 1915); in Gilliatt’s story a cellist refuses to get out of bed and assigns his own psychoanalysis to his pianist friend and former accompanist. “Property,” in the form of a one-act play, is, with computer-controlled individuals, a variation on Jean-Paul Sartre’s Huis clos (1944; In Camera, 1946; better known as No Exit, 1947). “Foreigners” employs the name Flitch (evocative of T. S. Eliot’s “flitch of bacon”) and a reflection of India to rehearse the aura of The Waste Land (1922). The collection swings from technological science to social science with its concluding quartet, two stories picking up the Freudianism implicit in “Staying in Bed”: one story glancing at the Communist Party as expressing “a sort of chivalrous exasperation at things as they would always be,” and one, punctuated by astrological readings, being a de-centered account of a woman who, having given up computer programming, dabbles in astrology.

Splendid Lives

Splendid Lives opens with its titular story about a racehorse-owning nonagenarian bishop and his octogenarian sister. The nine stories in the collection generally support an undercurrent of trades versus professions versus landed gentry and make a swipe, at once curiously both broad and subtle, at the British class system. The fifth story in the group, “Catering,” works out an ingeniously cubistic double perspective on temporal movements: Time-forward moves through the week-long preparations for a wedding reception, and time-backward is retrospective of two generations of involvements in extramarital sex.

Quotations from Other Lives

Although none of the twelve stories in Quotations from Other Lives carries the title of the collection, the title is apt because all the stories intone the existentialist Other, sometimes as subject, with “quotations” denoting words, and sometimes as object, with “quotations” connoting the value of persons as commodities. The opening selections concentrate on the proper name. In “Break,” a Czechoslovakian of Scottish ancestry identifies himself with Nazi-harassed Jews by changing his name from Alastair to Eli. Near-Scottish provenance (Cumberland) in “Stephanie, Stephen, Steph, Steve” underlies the story of Stephen, a shipbuilder, who finds his identity in his namesake wife and daughter. Both “Teeth” and “When Are You Going Back?” subtextually quote or cite Sigmund Freud. In the latter, a young American woman experiences “otherness” as social displacement in English society. In “Teeth” a male dentist and a female sculptor find their love disapproved both by her family and by his reluctance to impinge in any way on her artistic independence. Subjective examples of eccentric affairs of affection follow in “As Is,” in which a nineteen-year-old woman pursues intimacy with a sixty-four-year-old professor, and “Fakt,” in which a Polish exile visits Warsaw and is received as a famous Polish exile with the same name; each exile appears in the company of his wife and a mistress who is sanctioned by the wife. The Polish corridor figures in both stories, analogically in “As Is” and literally in “Fakt.” Wordplay marks the next pair of tales, taking the form of mottos and truisms in “Timely Is the Hand That Winds the Clock” and that of semanticism in “In Trust,” which is composed as a three-act play. The concluding quartet of stories revolves around the vitality and special insights of the aged, one of whom, a ninety-three-year-old grandmother, is exemplary in her ability to see the Other as subject instead of object or commodity.

They Sleep Without Dreaming

They Sleep Without Dreaming includes two stories on the superiority of the aged: the already mentioned “Cliff-Dwellers” and another, “Addio,” in which a seventy-one-year-old opera soprano, who for fifty years of her career has played the boy Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro, joins in song a brilliant young woman finalist at an audition, abbreviating thereby the qualitative distance between youth and age. The initial story, “The Hinge,” is embossed in its lack of plot by the strength of the woman Kakia, an octogenarian survivor of Auschwitz upon whom many depend for help and advice. The titular story elaborates a theme introduced in “Twice Lucky,” from the concluding quartet in Quotations from Other Lives, namely, the “aboriginal saying that a man who loses his dreaming is dead.” Three stories—“The Nuisance,” “Broderie Anglaise,” and “Purse”—illustrate the means by which a woman, reduced to her own resources, achieves dignity. Particularly compelling is “Broderie Anglaise,” in which “dainty,” a word commonly evocative of femininity, subtextually sustains the irony of its derivation from Latin dignitas (dignity).

They Sleep Without Dreaming maintains imagistic or thematic continuity in repetitive or contrapuntal overlap. The first three stories have a café or restaurant setting. Stories three and four include, each, a prominent character named Joanna. Stories four and five involve music, stories five and six employees giving notice, six and seven taxation and characters named Peter, and seven and eight characters named Emma. In both story eight and story nine there is a duologue, in nine and ten the making of a carbon copy, and in ten and eleven the act of taking dictation. The dyadic quality manifest in this overlapping is also a part of Gilliatt’s transnarrational technique. A few of the very many examples are as follows. Stories six (“Broderie Anglaise”) and seven (“Suspense Item”) of They Sleep Without Dreaming intensify thematic counterpoint by each including the phrase “Needlessly messy anarchy” in different contexts. In stories four (“Addio”) and five (“They Sleep Without Dreaming”), there is variant use of the name Cherubino. The technique is a signature device in Gilliatt’s short fiction. “Known for Her Frankness,” in the first collection, quotes the German proverb, “A hungry belly has no ears”; in “Timely Is the Hand That Winds the Clock,” from the fourth collection, the proverb reappears as a motto, “A hungry belly hath no ears.” In “Foreigner” (from Nobody’s Business), there is a passage, “I’ll leap into my life, he thought, if it splits my face to bits”; this appears in “On Each Other’s Time” (from They Sleep Without Dreaming) as “I must leap into my life if it cuts me to splinters.” A Latin pun, lucus a non lucendo (something like “park is not derived from Sparking”), fits different contexts in “Autumn of a Dormouse” (from Splendid Lives) and the titular story of They Sleep Without Dreaming. The recurrences are not exclusively dyadic: A number of phrases and passages appear more than twice, but twice is the standard. Against any charge of careless or inadvertent repetition one need only note Gilliatt’s impeccable command of language and her deliberateness in juxtaposing stories with recurrences, such as “Keep the mind busy and the body seated” (“Fleeced” in Splendid Lives) and “Keep the brain occupied and the physique seated” (“Phone-in,” immediately following “Fleeced”), only thirteen pages away.


Lingo, Gilliatt’s 1990 collection of ten stories, restates concerns of the stories in her earlier collections. For example, “The Corridors of Mr. Cyril” expresses the same concern found in “Break” over the unpleasant fact that the word “monosyllable” has five syllables instead of one. Observations about linguistic peculiarities constitute the theme of the collection, to which titles such as “Lingo,” “Hic Haec Hoc,” and “Ex Libris” contribute thematic effect. Wordplay such as “Never trouble trouble till trouble troubles you” in “Hic Haec Hoc” is repeated from “Timely Is the Hand That Winds the Clock.” The titular story tests the psycholinguistic difference between referring to one’s self as “I” and as “one.” “Fat Chance” includes the word “Etymolo-whatnots”; and “Lingo” follows, in interior repetition, with “Onomato-thing.” In “Hurricane Ethelred,” a plotless story about an oddly matched couple (an oboist named Nina, who is heir to a 150-year-old turtle, and a computer expert named Maximilian), a stormy night elicits semantically different qualifications: Maximilian calls the night “heavily metaphorical” and an elderly neighbor calls it “actual.”

One of the most haunting of Gilliatt’s images amounts to a comment on the moribundity of organized religion. In “The Redhead,” the titular character’s hair is likened to the “wisps” of orange hair on the skulls in the crypt of St Bride’s Church. The same image is used in “Stephanie, Stephen, Steph, Steve”When the baby Stephanie was born, she had two tufts of bright red hair. They were the color that hair has turned on some of the skeletons in the crypt of St. Bride’s.

The image is clarified as the Redhead’s “wisps” of belief in an afterlife desert her irrevocably and as Stephanie dies shortly after she herself bears a daughter.

One critic calls Penelope Gilliatt’s de-centered short stories “snippets”; another calls them “sketches”; another insists that they are not slices of life so much as “elegant slivers.” Each of the labels is apt. The stories flash upon the retina of a reader’s thought with a cinematic impact that is almost subliminal. “As for plot,” writes Rosemary Dinnage, who provides the phrase “elegant slivers,” “it’s too coarse a concept altogether.”


Gilliatt, Penelope (Vol. 10)