(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

William Sansom is distinct in the writing of short stories in England from the 1940’s onward, since he does not focus necessarily on plot or character but is rather interested in setting and situation or a moment of revelation, a rendering of the visual. His concern is primarily aesthetic, and he emphasizes the very process of writing. Most significant, his short fiction presents a Seeing Eye that renders the visual as an ideal. He often speaks of a canvas, and, like the artist/writer, he concentrates on process as development. Often, Sansom focuses on a moment of Joycean epiphany, a significant opportunity lost, or an awareness too late for reconciliation.

“The Wall”

The course of Sansom’s short fiction began with the Fireman stories (Fireman Flower), which are often characterized by a Kafkaesque stream of consciousness. Many of these stories seem to be reportage blended with art, since they stem from Sansom’s actual experiences as a firefighter in London during the nightmare of the German buzz bombs and heavy blitzing of London. The first collection of short stories about firefighters contains “The Wall,” the first story Sansom wrote about the tireless men who extinguished the London blazes. This story, a hallucinatory and apocalyptic fantasy of a wall that collapses on the firefighters, stuns the reader. It begins with, “It was our third job that night. I suppose we were worn down and shivering.” Suddenly, a five-story wall started collapsing on the firefighters. The narrator says, “I was thinking of nothing at all and then I was thinking of everything in the world.” Time stopped as the narrator waited for the wall to smash into the four men. He was hypnotized, arrested in time and space. One man was killed and three survived with severely burned faces because the three crouching men had been framed by a window space. The action lasts for a few seconds, but the frozen moment in time keeps resonating. Sansom achieves this effect in four pages.

These Fireman stories are often allegories. The men search for the source of fire as if for the Holy Grail. The fire, smoke, and steam symbolize obstacles. In the title story, Fireman Flower remarks that he has at last “come face to face with the essence of things.” The firefighters encounter odd and strange businesses—coffee warehouses, clothing stores, even candy storages. Awestruck at the convulsion of man and nature, the workers are struck dumb.

“The Witness”

One of the most harrowing of the tales is “The Witness,” set in a coffee bean warehouse in flames. The steam of the water used to fight the fire creates an eeriness when the air is filled with the pungency of roasting boiling coffee beans. The men see a fireman poised on the wall far above; he is panic-stricken because he has had an earlier argument with the hose operator. Believing that he sees the operator smile (and it could have been only a grimace), “a yellow snarl of delight,” he jumps into the boiling furnace of beans and perishes. The story, horrifying in its mere telling, reflects the untrustworthiness of sense perceptions. The men who witness the horror cannot verify that the hose operator really would or did increase the water pressure. The steam obscured their vision. Bombed London becomes a microcosm of the world. The men who extinguish fires or search through debris for bodies, living or dead, become crusaders and knights of the Apocalypse.

“Something Terrible, Something Lovely”

Published in 1948, Something Terrible, Something Lovely is a kaleidoscope of twenty-one memorable stories, narratives and sketches depicting not only traditional realism but also surreal landscapes, pathological personalities, satirical comedy, and weird tales. Sansom displays himself as a magus of landscape and a facile raconteur. The title story, “Something Terrible, Something Lovely,” leads the reader along the garden path as Nita, who is nine, and her younger cousin talk about the boys. “It was a boy done it we’ll do it back on the boys.” The reader is led to believe that some catastrophe has occurred and that the girls will exact an awful revenge. The secret is revealed only at the end of the story. The boys had written on a hospital wall in spidery, capital letters, “NITA HOBBS LOVES STAN CHUTER.” The charming and naïve girls exact their pound of flesh sweetly and humorously. They cross out the five-word message and write their seven words, “THE PERSON WHO WROTE THIS IS DAFT.” The charming artlessness reminds the reader of Jane Austen’s heroine Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey (1818) when she looked for gothic mystery and found only a laundry list. Sansom succeeds in his theme of revenge, a favorite one, in future stories that will entail neither children nor unadulterated charm (such as “A Contest of Ladies”).

“The Vertical Ladder”

In this same collection, Something Terrible, Something Lovely, are two Sansom cameos. One is the harrowing tale “The Vertical Ladder,” portraying Flegg, a young boy, who is dared by his friends to climb a vertical ladder on an ancient gasometer. A young girl, perhaps showing sexual awareness, particularly urges him to mount the ladder. As he climbs upward with growing vertigo, he loses a sense of familiarity and feels endangered and defenseless. He begins to descend but discovers that his friends, who have left, removed the ladder below. As he climbs back upward toward the platform, he finds that the top rungs are missing. Flegg is arrested in space, unable to climb to safety either above or below. The tale ends as “Flegg stared dumbly, circling his head like a lost animal then he jammed his legs in the lower rungs and his arms past the elbows to the armpits in through the top rungs and there he hung shivering and past knowing what more he could ever do.” The story does not probe character but delineates simply what happened. Readers can conclude what they will—a moral, pride, sexual awakening, exploration into the unknown, desertion of friends, risk-taking or, as a final possibility, the terrible aloneness of the individual.

“Difficulty with a Bouquet”

“Difficulty with a Bouquet,” a two-page story, is one of Sansom’s best-known anthologized pieces. The protagonist, Seal, has picked in his garden a bouquet of flowers that he wishes to give to a Miss D., a neighbor, but after a few moments he is aware that the gift might be considered an affectation. Miss D. watches the discarding of the flowers from an adjacent window (Sansom was preoccupied with windows, especially in the novel The Loving Eye, depicting an almost compulsive voyeurism). Miss D. wishes that Seal...

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