William Sansom Sansom, William - Essay


(Short Story Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Critical Reception

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."

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

Short Fiction

Fireman Flower, and Other Stories 1944

Three 1946

The Equilibrand 1948; included in Among the Dahlias Something Terrible, Something Lovely 1948

South 1948

The Passionate North 1950

A Touch of the Sun 1952

Lord Love Us 1954

A Contest of Ladies 1956

Among the Dahlias, and Other Stories 1957

Selected Short Stories 1960

The Stories of William Sansom 1963

The Ulcerated Milkman 1966

The Vertical Ladder, and Other Stories 1969

The Marmelade Bird 1973


The Body 1949

The Face of Innocence 1951

A Bed of Roses 1954

The Loving Eye 1956

The Cautious Heart 1958

The Last Hours of Sandra Lee 1961; also published as The Wild Affair

Goodbye 1966

Hans Feet in Love 1971

A Young Wife's Tale 1974

Other Major Works

Jim Braidy: The Story of Britain's Firemen [with James Gordon and Stephen Spender] (nonfiction) 1943

Westminster in War (nonfiction) 1947

It Was Really Charlie's Castle (juvenilia) 1953

The Light That Went Out (juvenilia) 1953

Pleasures Strange and Simple (travel essays) 1953

The Icicle and the Sun (travel essays) 1958

Blue Skies, Brown Studies (travel essays) 1961

Away to It All (travel essays) 1964

Grand Tour Today (travel essays) 1968

A Book of Christmas 1968; also published as Christmas

The Birth of A Story (nonfiction) 1972

Proust and His World (biography) 1973

Skimpy (juvenilia) 1974

Ronald Mason (essay date 1947)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "William Sansom," Modern British Writing, edited by Denys Val Baker, The Vanguard Press, Inc., 1947, pp. 281-91.

[In the essay below, Mason focuses on the stories in Three, contending that these works demonstrate Sansom's attempt to unify parallel strains of realism and allegory in his work.]

Elaborate yet compact, the specimens so far published of this arresting writer have begun to shape themselves into a pattern calling for examination by critics wary for important developments in modern literature. It is naturally early to make ambitious claims for Sansom's work; but he is, in his way, prolific, he keeps his name regularly before the public in the reviews which those sympathetic with his general aims are most likely to read, and he is establishing a reputation as a writer who is guarding and cherishing a distinctive province of his own with an almost solicitous exclusiveness. It will not be long before someone with the gift will parody him aptly and effectively; and that is as much a tribute as a criticism. Character and distinction come seldom so early to a young author, and they throw even his early productions into refreshing relief against the competence level of the literary reviews.

It may be that writers of imaginative fiction are not common enough in this country nowadays, death and the contemplative life having knocked the bottom out of most progressive work in that field in the last twenty years. For this reason, perhaps, the appearance of a writer with courage enough to exploit an imaginative individuality from the start may be deceptive; and it is possible that a critic who leaps to herald an important innovation may simply be betraying his own inability to distinguish between a swan and a goose in the silence where all birds are dead and yet something pipeth like a bird. Whether Sansoni's work would catch the eye in an age rich in imaginative fiction is not really relevant; the point is that it happens to catch the eye today.

Up to and, I think, including the publication of his most recent book of stories, Three, he has contrived at present to do little more than to state his case. And although, as I will explain in a moment, there are passages in Three where his peculiar imagination does seem at last to have moved out of a static into a dynamic condition and to have achieved moments of really significant artistic illumination, yet he has not penetrated effectively past the necessary experimental stage. By wisely tempering ambition with caution, he has escaped the disasters to which a more ambitious writer like Rex Warner has laid himself open; but avoiding Warner's clumsinesses has involved missing Warner's undoubted triumphs. Sansom's imagination is clearly enough of somewhat the same order as Warner's; and they both owe much of their expressive form to Kafka. Here the resemblance ceases; for Warner, working broadly with a fine imaginative clarity, reduces large generalities to dramatic and artistic compass, while Sansom battens on the familiar symbol and enlarges it to proportions calculated to overpower and capture the imagination by unfamiliarity. That is the first stage well accomplished in his remarkably interesting progress; and though it seemed difficult for him at one time to do any more than consolidate the position he had daringly achieved, his recent work has hinted at wider developments which may have great value in the future. Any ultimate importance that his writing may have will depend on his use, at this crucial point, of his mastery of realism, in imaginative contexts which until lately have been beyond his reach; and any conclusions drawn, without the essentially preliminary nature of even his best work in mind, are bound to be conjectural.

His work is based on a sure foundation of exact and telling realism; his eye for detail is photographic and his skill in selection sure. His mastery of realist narrative is apparent in the greater part of his shorter pieces, and is excellently illustrated in the opening of the sketch "Steam Tugs and Grey Tape." As, however, I regard this basic quality of realism as fundamental to Sansom's imaginative achievement, I would prefer to take by way of illustration two much more considerable pieces, oddly similar to each other as it happens: the famous showpiece "The Wall," even now possibly his best-known sketch, and the more recent "Building Alive," which appeared a few months ago in Horizon. Both of these pieces squeezed the last drop of imaginative suggestiveness out of the reportage which was the stock-in-trade of so many of the more alert writers of the late 'thirties and early 'forties. Two of the best pieces of straight reporting that the war produced, they are lifted out of the region of ordinary journalism by Sansom's power of injecting emotional value into a scene that is ordinarily without it, or in the present instances into those parts of the scenes that do not usually contain it. In these short sketches it is the falling wall, or the bombed and tottering house, that is instinct with horrifying life, not the groups of men in danger of being crushed by them. The moment of Sansom's imagination that saw the thing as living and the men as passive and powerless subordinates has been extended and amplified into a prime factor of his inspiration. This brilliant reversal of the design of familiar activity has determined, whether consciously or not, the form of his more important later writings.

The part that Sansom's duties in the Fire Service have played in forming the chief characteristics of his writing can, I suppose, be easily exaggerated; but it is clear that its uniform routine and its surrealist duties provided him with ready-made material for his specialized imagination, offering him at a crucial stage in his development the rare good fortune of a necessary routine familiarity with some activity that, whether he liked it or not, excited his creative faculties beyond any other contemporary experience. The result is that in his stories, far more than in any official or semi-official write-ups, films or pictures, the precarious and monotonous intricacies of this Service find their most imaginative rendering.

Here, of course, he finds worthy companions. Stephen Spender's connection with the N.F.S. has been less conspicuously productive of this kind of literature, probably because his imagination is more sensitive to the variety of impressions in normal day-to-day existence and hardly needs an abnormal set of connations to inflame it to creative pitch; but Henry Green, who had already revealed in Living and Party Going an original power of infusing dynamic life into strictly localized settings like factories or railway-stations, was able to a build the Fire Service into the background of several sketches, and most particularly into his remarkable novel Caught; and his use of it in this way points to a very clearly defined distinction between his view of modern life and Sansom's. Green, for all the paraphernalia of realistic description in Caught, is interested less in the technicalities than in the psychological relationships between his characters; and we remember Piper and Pye and Shiner Wright the more vividly perhaps, but no more certainly, for having seen them in their routine context. Sansom is radically different. He is not interested in character for its own sake as Green is; he picks out in his characters' minds only those few instants in which they are being immediately reacted upon by some impersonal power, fire or water or steam, by which they are in danger of being controlled. In this way Green's more orthodox picture of human action against the background of the blitz is replaced by a disturbing vision of dwarfed human insignificance before the elemental onset of fire or explosion or vertigo or pressure of water. Smoke billows up, flames crackle, pumps roar, jets play, walls fall; and in the eyes and mind of the helpless firemen the imagination transfers the terrifying dynamism to the inanimate object. "The Wall" can be taken as the perfect example and epitome of Sansom's instinctive imaginative approach to contemporary activity; and he has repeated this unashamedly enlarged realism in later studies, notably, "In the Morning" and "The Boiler Room," in both of which the destructive power latent in certain objects, a storage tank full of petrol and a boiler on the point of bursting, supplies the motive force for what little human action there is.

Sansom clearly finds a diabolical fascination in the machinery which clutters up our particular corner of modern existence. The trailer-pumps which chug through his stories, the hoses that snake and coil through them, the dynamos that hum and the ladders that sway, are all given lurid...

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Alice S. Morris (essay date 1956)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Characters without Will," in The New York Times Book Review, March 25, 1956, pp. 4, 24.

[In this review of A Contest of Ladies, Morris argues that the story writer's usual concerns with plot development don't interest Sansom because his works are "entertainments" and "extravaganzas" that "come off best when quick and to the point. "]

In the fifteen stories that make up A Contest of Ladies, William Sansom again exhibits a gift for dazzling verbal prestidigitation. For surely, as has been remarked in the past, Mr. Sansom's sly and energetic legerdemain marshals the English language into magical bursts of freshness and improvisation. In these new...

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John B. Vickery (essay date 1961)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "William Sansom and Logical Empiricism," in THOUGHT, Vol. XXXVI, No. 141, Summer, 1961, pp. 231-45.

[Vickery is a Canadian-born educator and critic. In the following essay, he asserts that many of Sansom's short stories are philosophical, addressing "the nature of mind and the nature of reality. "]

The fiction of William Sansom, like the poetry of Empson, has by and large not made the transatlantic crossing with any great success nor has it aroused any sustained critical interest. The explanation does not lie in his having written too little to provide a basis for judgement, for he is the author of five novels (The Body, The Face of Innocence, A Bed of...

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Elizabeth Bowen (essay date 1963)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: An introduction to The Stories of William Sansoni, The Hogarth Press, 1963, pp. 7-12.

[Bowen was an Anglo-Irish fiction writer and critic. Her novels and short stories are often compared with the fiction of Virginia Woolf and display similar stylistic control and subtle insight in the portrayal of human relationships. Bowen is also noted for her series of supernatural stories set in London during World War II. Here, she asserts that two of Sansom's greatest strengths are his ability to convey hallucination and to depict scenes. She also comments on Sansom's ability to achieve "a compulsive hold on the reader."]

Rare is the writer with command of his powers who...

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Times Literary Supplement (essay date 1963)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Sansom and Delilah," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 3193, May 10, 1963, p. 340.

[Here, the critic comments on Sansom's wide variety of subjects and the stylistic flexibility he displays throughout his writing.]

The name of William Sansom first became familiar at a time when, in the little mushroom-magazines sprouting overnight from the literary soil of World War II, the short story flourished. It was the heyday of Horizon and Penguin New Writing (in both of which Mr. Sansom's initial stories appeared): also the period of the Kafka boom, when no Bloomsbury or Chelsea bedsitter was complete without a copy of The Castle or The...

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Eudora Welty (essay date 1963)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Time and Place—and Suspense," in The New York Times Book Review, June 30, 1963, pp. 5, 27.

[Welty is a highly-respected American fiction writer and critic, whose works include the novel Losing Battles (1970) and The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty (1980). In this review of The Stories of William Sansom, Welty notes the "wonderful set-pieces of description in the book" and declares that Sansom can "hardly be surpassed" in this regard.]

Since the appearance of his first book of stories, Fireman Flower, 20 years ago, the enormously talented English writer, William Sansom, has been warmly read and warmly admired for his stories,...

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James Dean Young (essay date 1964)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "William Sansom: Unwroughter," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. VII, No. 1, Spring, 1964, pp. 122-25.

[In the following essay, Young is critical of Sansom 's work because of a "failure of an appropriate point of view" in the stories, the author's "overdependence on syntactic qualification," and his "intrusive use of statements of meaning."]

Some things go without saying, but fiction is not one of them. William Sansom is a writer much published in the past fifteen years; the thirty-three stories in The Stories of William Sansom span those years in a rough chronological way, with the last story, probably the earliest, making a return to the...

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Peter F. Neumeyer (essay date 1966)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Franz Kakfa and William Sansom," in Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature, Vol. VII, No. 1, Winter-Spring, 1966, pp. 76-84.

[In the following essay, Neumeyer discusses how Sansom's use of detail and setting, as well as the mood and intent of his stories, was influenced by the writings of Franz Kafka.]

It has occasionally been recognized that there is a debt on the part of William Sansom to the writing of Franz Kafka, though the debt seems never to have been very precisely defined, nor the distinctions between the two authors very clearly drawn. Now, especially in the light of a letter from William Sansom himself, and in view of the fact that Sansom's...

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Philip Toynbee (essay date 1966)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Ulcerated Milkman, in London Magazine, n.s. Vol. 5. No. 12, March, 1966, pp. 80-3.

[Here, Toynbee expresses concern that Sansoni 's "extreme virtuosity may be sliding into the kind of professionalism which irons out all the natural wrinkles and awkwardness of a writer's imagination. "]

Ever since he began writing, around the beginning of the last war, Sansom has been very much his own man. It is true that his first stories were written under the influence of Kafka, but that choice of influence by a young English writer at that time was itself an individual and almost eccentric act of abasement. It did not prove, in the event, to be a...

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Paulette Michel-Michot (essay date 1971)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "A High-Water Mark," in William Sansom: A Critical Assessment, Société d'Édition Les Belles Lettres, 1971, pp. 145-76.

[In this excerpt from her book-length study of Sansom, Michel-Michot analyzes the stories in Lord Love Us, concluding that the collection is especially interesting because of "the way reality is heightened into art. "

Sansom finds his true self in the collection Lord Love Us. Here fancy is let loose but does not dwell on the sinister or the macabre as it did in many of the early stories, it is free to roam just for the fun and the beauty of it. Sansom succeeds in rendering the quality and the intensity of a moment's delight and...

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Lila Chalpin (essay date 1980)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Short Stories," in William Sansom, Twayne Publishers, 1980, pp. 105-30.

[Chalpin is an educator and critic. In the following excerpt from her book on Sansom, she groups the author's stories into several categories and analyzes representative pieces. The critic also summarizes the changes in Sansom 's writing that resulted in a move from the "brief epigrammatic" style of his early career to the later tales that reflect "the angst of contemporary life and his own mature view of the human condition. " ]

Compared with his novels, which are uneven in form, [Sansom's] short stories are uniformly successful. He has himself expressed greater enjoyment in writing...

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Clare Hanson (essay date 1985)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: 'The Free Story,' in Short Stories and Short Fictions, 1880-1990, The Macmillan Press Ltd, 1985, pp. 132-39.

[In this essay, Hanson discusses Sansom's early stories and analyzes the manner in which the author uses 'dreamlike and horrific' elements but ties them to everyday reality.]

William Sansom began his career in an advertising agency, writing 'formula stories' in his spare time. What he saw during the blitz in London changed his idea of what a story should be and altered the course of his life and career. The fictions which he wrote in the war period won great acclaim, and still form the basis of his reputation, though he subsequently published novels and...

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William H. Peden (essay date 1988)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Short Stories of William Sansom: A Retrospective Commentary," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 25, No. 4, Fall, 1988, pp. 421-31.

[Peden is an American critic and educator who has written extensively on the American short story and on American historical figures such as Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams. Here, he arques that Sansom's work is underappreciated and praises the "almost uncanny blending of the real and the fantastic" in the author's tales, as well as Sansom's ability to evoke a scene.]

The product of one of the most undervalued and least appreciated major twentieth-century fiction writers, William Sansom's short stories were never widely...

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Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


Anand, Mulk Raj. A review of Fireman Flower, and Other Stories. Life and Letters Today 41, No. 82 (June 1944): 178-80.

Reviews Sansom's first collection, addressing the allegorical aspects of the stories.

Hardwick, Elizabeth. "Three Stories." Partisan Review XIV, No. 3 (May-June 1947): 320-21.

Finds both strengths and weaknesses in Sansom's writing in Three.

Krim, Seymour. "Short Stories by Six." Hudson Review III, No. 4 (Winter 1951): 626-33.

Praises the "sensuous pleasure" and "zestfulness" of South, but complains that the stories are overly descriptive and...

(The entire section is 362 words.)