Sansom, William 1912-1976
English short story writer, novelist, travel writer, and author of children's books.
Often compared with the work of Czech writer Franz Kafka, Sansom's short stories are distinguished by minute descriptions of setting and character and by their depictions of people who are faced with extreme situations outside their normal experience. The author's precise writing and meticulous attention to language have been praised by numerous critics who laud the descriptive qualities and interesting uses of verbal rhythm in his tales. Sansom has also produced several collections of innovative "travel stories" that set fictional stories in exotic locations and emphasize the scenic surroundings of the area.
Sansom was born in London in 1912 and received his education at Uppingham School in the Rutland region of England. Aiming toward a career in international banking, he spent two years traveling and studying languages in Europe, before accepting a position with the British branch of a German bank in 1930. Five years later, he became a copywriter for an advertising agency, where he worked with the poet Norman Cameron. During World War II, Sansom was a fireman with the National Fire Service, combatting infernos created by German bombing attacks on England. This work became one of the primary subjects of Sansom's early fiction, as well as his first published book, a nonfiction account that he penned with two other writers. In 1944 Sansom became a full-time writer, publishing his first fiction collection the same year. After the war, he produced works in various genres in addition to short fiction, composing film scripts, travel essays, novels, children's books, a biography of French writer Marcel Proust, and other titles. He continued his prolific output of books until his shortly before his death in 1976.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Several of Samson's favorite themes and techniques are evident in his earliest stories, many of which are published in Fireman Flower, and Other Stories. The typical Sansom character in these pieces is alone, contemplating an astonishing twist that suddenly confronts him or her. In the course of the story, the protagonist becomes an acute observer at a crucial moment, recording both the events that transpire and the responses that result. Sansom's first published story, "The Wall," is an example, depicting a crew of fire fighters as a burning wall crashes down upon them. Rendering such scenes in microscopic detail and unnatural clarity, Sansom's painstaking construction evokes a sense of nonparticipation or unreality in the reader as the sensuous details slow the action to an almost dream-like pace. A similar attention to particulars is evident in volumes such as South and The Passionate North, though here Sansom's vivid imagery evokes the exotic locales in which the stories are set. These tales are closely related to the author's nonfiction works in the travel genre and have been described by Sansom as "a bastard out of the liaison of two distinct literary wishes—to describe a place (travel book) and to tell a story (fiction)." One of the best-known of these travel stories is "Three Dogs of Siena," which records the thoughts and adventures of three canines as they explore a new town.
In many of Sansom's stories that date from the 1950s, male-female relationships are a central feature. "A Contest of Ladies" recounts the misadventures of a man who attempts to woo a beauty contestant. In the end, they are wed, but the marriage promises revenge more than love.
The subject of marriage is also treated in "Life, Death," where a young man must give up the artistic aspects of his fish-market job in order to better provide for his wife-tobe. "Life, Death" also offers evidence of Sansom's rhythmic use of language, a tool he employs to enhance the characterization of the first-person narrator. Many of Sansom's later stories, collected in The Ulcerated Milkman and The Marmalade Bird, also treat romantic and family relationships, while the story "The Ulcerated Milkman" turns on the unusual friendship that develops between two hospital patients.
Sansom's technical abilities and descriptive skills are conceded by most reviewers, with many giving extensive praise to these qualities. American fiction writer Eudora Welty has been one of the proponents of Samson's work, declaring that "the flesh of William Sansom's stories is their uninterrupted contour of sensory impressions. The bone is reflective contemplation." Less appreciative critics have found that Samson's short fiction has several drawbacks. First, the lavish description can become too detailed, overwhelming and slowing the story. Second, the author's characterization has been criticized on the grounds that the people in his stories seem two-dimensional, appearing more as artificial set pieces than authentic human beings. Finally, several critics have complained that the author, especially in later stories, tends to explain too many of his ideas and is unwilling to let readers make their own connections. Despite these reservations, Sansom has been recognized as one of the important short fiction writers to emerge from England after World War II. William Peden has concluded that "the highest praise one can give Sansom is that even at his less-than-best, he is fun to read. And to reread. His continuing sense of 'wonderment at life' is contagious."