When Robert Aickman was editing the first of the Fontana Book of Great Ghost Stories in 1973, he encountered a problem early on. Once he’d discounted the standards that had turned up in every collection since the Victorians discovered the thrill of visitations from the dead, there wasn’t a lot of real quality left. His own short stories show he was not one to take the path of least resistance but if the collection failed to sell he’d be accused of the worst crimes an anthologist can commit, weak judgement, blandness and poor taste.
That’s the nature of the anthology. It is a collection of works by a number of authors but it is a statement by one, the editor, who does not need to add a word by way of introduction to face charges of having said too much. We accept that with genre fiction. Throughout the 1970s Fontana and Pan were in competition with their anthologies of supernatural and horror fiction, but what stand out most vividly are the covers, which took grotesque to new levels and could make the contents seem disappointing by comparison.
All we ever asked from those however was a fleeting and vicarious thrill. With survey anthologies of national literature, there’s an assumption the editor has done more than gather a collection of old favourites. He or she is making a statement about the nation’s identity, and by picking up the book the reader is engaging with it. Which is where things get difficult.
In 1957, Frank O’Connor put out Classic Irish Short Stories, in 1980 Penguin released Ben Forkner’s Modern Irish Short Stories, and nine years later William Trevor played his hand with The Oxford Book of Irish Short Stories. O’Connor and Trevor were Irish, but that was about their strongest common link. O’Connor joined the IRA in 1918, when he was fifteen, and participated in the War of Independence and the Civil War. Trevor was born too late for either event and spent most of his life from the 1960s onwards living in England. Forkner was an American academic with a dual career as an anthologist of literature from the American South.
From those backgrounds we ought to expect diversity, yet if anything distinguished the anthologies it was their sameness. All three included Joyce’s “The Dead”, which made sense if the thinking was that Joyce being “Ireland’s greatest writer” and “The Dead” being his “greatest short story”, to leave it out was an admission of ignorance, if not blasphemy. But there was also the question of whether to anoint Liam O’Flaherty’s “The Pedlar’s Revenge” over “The Sniper”, or Seán Ó Faoláin’s “The Trout” over “The Faithless Wife”. What story by O’Connor himself ought to be in (he included two), and, with a paucity of women writers in the pantheon, what by Elizabeth Bowen and Mary Lavin (one also claimed by the British, the other born in America) made the grade?
All three collections were marked with a complacency and chauvinism that was not at all unique to Ireland but riddled twentieth century thinking. Literary canons were resilient and assumptions about greatness and relevance blithely accepted. Drawing up a list of the best American writers was easy when one was already in place and approved by experts: Twain, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, throw in Poe if you wanted to extend the timeline of “modern”. It was no more difficult with British or French literature.
Things were changing by the last decade. Harold Bloom wouldn’t have published The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages in 1994 if he hadn’t sensed the barbarians at the gate. But the shift had more at stake than literary standards. “National identity” was becoming wearisome, contemplated by traditionalists from right and left but becoming increasingly redundant as “identity” took on more specific connotations. Emerging ideas could be intellectualised under terms such as post-colonialism or intersectionality, but on a less cerebral level, “national identity” was anathema to anyone who believed inclusiveness was key to a nation’s psychic health.
“Certainly I felt unclear about what ‘British’ might mean,” Philip Hensher wrote in the introduction to The Penguin Book of the British Short Story (2015), having declared just two sentences earlier that Britain’s short story tradition was the “richest, most varied and most historically extensive … in the world”. The two statements aren’t as contradictory as they might first sound, but between the doubt behind one and the confidence of the other lies the measure of the distance the contemporary anthologist has to travel.
The Penguin Book of the British Short Story was a massive undertaking: ninety stories across two volumes, beginning with Daniel Defoe in 1706 and ending with Zadie Smith in 2015. Nothing in the title suggests that the collection was developed around ideas of greatness or popularity, but the expanse is such that any attempt to divine core ideas about Britishness has to be self-defeating. If anything, it resembles the history of the nation as laid out in art at the Tate Britain. That begins in 1545 with Tudor portraits, moving chronologically to end at the late twentieth century with Tracey Emin’s My Bed from 1998 (at least it did last time I was there). The trap is to think that what is at play is a call and response, when more accurately it is a gaggle of voices, some cheerfully ignorant of earlier traditions.
Hensher’s problem in struggling to define Britishness is that he has attuned to that clamour rather than search for a unifying idea. His dilemma can be read in the bookends of Volume 2 of the anthology. The first author is PG Wodehouse, a writer whose description of the English upper-class was so acute that a century later it still resonates, not the least with journalists searching for analogies to Boris Johnson. “Unpleasantness at Bludleigh Court” (1929) has the familiar Wodehouse milieu: hyphenated names perplexed by fate’s erratic processes finding refuge at country houses. The last story, Smith’s “The Embassy of Cambodia” (2013), is set in affluent Willesden. It centres on Fatou, also perplexed, who has come from the Ivory Coast and works for an Indian family, the Derawals. Nothing in this story is foreign or exotic, not to anyone who has spent more than a few minutes in London in the last fifty years. But that measurable distance between the two stories has nothing to do with the physical appearance of its characters. Wodehouse depicted Britishness with the self-assuredness of someone under no obligation to consider alternatives. To be British in the 1920s was to have absolute faith in Britain’s moral authority, to implicitly believe that the national history had been progressive, from stone hut to glass tower, feudalism to universal suffrage, and that the future was a continuum. One could question the direction the country was heading but not its ability to find the right path.
That ethos was also a constriction, and for Smith, its collapse an opportunity. The inhabitants of Wodehousian England would have not only failed to recognise her Willesden, they would have considered its transformation revolutionary. Hensher doesn’t say whether his decision to start with Wodehouse and end with Smith was as political as that suggests, but it works because it is, providing a bridge for the other voices.
Among his selection in Volume 2, a significant number are by authors who have been forgotten: Jack Common, Leonard Strong and Leslie Halward for starters, while two writers of short stories who you might think typified mid-century Anglo-Saxon attitudes, Daphne du Maurier and HE Bates, didn’t get in. There are also lesser stories by well-known writers like Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh. Elizabeth Bowen makes it, as she does for all three of the Irish anthologies, but Joyce doesn’t, even though “The Dead” was written and published while all of Ireland was under British rule. Some dogs are best left sleeping.
What defines Britishness isn’t something as nebulous as identity, which is entirely acculturated, but voice, which comes from within. Hensher’s problem was the opposite of Aickman’s because articulate voices have never been in short supply in Britain, and some of the writers he included, Wodehouse, William Sansom, Kingsley Amis and Elizabeth Taylor, possess them so distinctly they can pierce the din of a crowded bar. Also, thanks to literature, radio and especially cinema, there is a vast typology of British voices immediately familiar to foreigners. We don’t have to have ever visited Britain to recognise Samuel Selvon’s Caribbean immigrants or Shena Mackay’s self-conscious teenage girls, or James Hanley’s coarse sappers in the Western Front trenches. And then, to state the bleeding obvious, Hensher is himself English, but that matters a lot. He never had to contend with the problems of translation, not the least the translator’s role as gatekeeper between reader and author, never felt a responsibility to introduce the culture, had to worry over precise meanings, or whether the reader was likely to appreciate the finesse in the language. In short, he did not have to explain himself.
With The Penguin Book of the Italian Short Story (2020) however, Jhumpa Lahiri is obliged to, not the least because a lot of readers will require it. To understand why, you only have to read Ennio Flaiano’s story, “A Martian in Rome”. The first sentence reads: “October 12 – Today a Martian descended in his spaceship upon Villa Borghese, in the race-track lawn.” Rome isn’t exactly off the beaten track to tourists but even so, it could take them a few moments to realise what every Roman and probably most Italians would immediately know: the UFO landed in the centre of the city. That, however, is a minor issue.
Throughout the brief story the narrator meets with cultural figures well-known in Rome in the 1950s but largely unrecognisable outside of it today, and perhaps even then. Fellini may be the best known to non-Italians born after the baby boom, but more often because they have heard of him rather than being familiar with his films. Others – Giovannino Russo, Vittorio Gorresio, Amerigo Bartoli ‑ will have escaped the attention of their parents.
Being able to identify these personalities is not necessary to understanding Flaiano’s point, which is really how Roman society habitually glorifies then trivialises its cultural figures. Anyone who has watched La Dolce Vita has taken in Fellini’s observations on the same phenomenon. But without Lahiri’s explanation we might not even know that Flaiano is inserting actual characters into his story, and the purpose in that is not to name-drop but to emphasise the frivolous nature of celebrity.
It’s the nature of an anthology of any translated language that there is a myriad of cultural references readers will miss. Where Hensher can offer an affirmation of British literary culture, Lahiri provides an introduction.
Contemporary Italian aesthetics have influenced English language cultures profoundly, but in specific areas: fashion, cinema, design, coffee-drinking, cuisine; literature isn’t one of them. Of the forty authors in Lahiri’s anthology, only Italo Calvino and Primo Levi are likely to be immediately recognisable to most readers. Pirandello, Moravia, Lampedusa and Buzzati will be familiar to some.
I once bought a copy of Giovanni Verga’s Little Novels of Sicily in a second-hand shop because I liked the cover. Up to that point, my references for Italian peasantry had been films like Bertolucci’s 1900. What sticks with me is that Verga depicted a world well outside these cultural references: desperately poor, brutally conservative, utterly devoid of the earthy eroticism that Italian peasants were supposedly blessed with. On the other hand, when I lived in Montreal I went to Indigo Bookstore to buy a book by Calvino but it wasn’t on the shelf, as the online catalogue said it would be. An assistant nonchalantly explained that he was their most shoplifted author. I was sceptical, but if she wasn’t telling the truth then full marks for quick thinking.
Both anecdotes represent poles on the spectrum in ways Italian culture has been transmitted and received. Verga’s world was one that writers and film-makers had often, whether unconsciously or by design, prettified to such a degree that it was erased. Even in Visconti’s film of The Leopard, the very poor dress with impeccable sensitivity to the landscape they inhabit. Anthologies like this one succeed when they restore common sense to the picture.
Calvino, by contrast, has joined the Vespa, Adidas and the cappuccino in transcending Italianness. He’d only occasionally contemplated what Italian identity meant and it was never significant in discussions of his work the way Jewishness was so integral to Levi’s. But in choosing a story by Calvino, Lahiri could have taken one from Adam One Afternoon or Difficult Loves, where contemporary Italian culture was indispensable to the reading. Instead she chose “Dialogue with a Tortoise”, which had originally been left out from Mr Palomar – itself neither a novel nor a collection of short stories. Clearly, she wanted something less familiar to readers, but this could theoretically have been written by anyone from anywhere possessing the right intellectual curiosity and wit.
There are a few stories in this collection that could only have been written by an Italian thinking about contemporaneous Italian issues – “A Martian in Rome” is an obvious example – yet there is always a danger in reading anthologies from another culture that we are setting out to find something that meets our expectations. If these are as ephemeral as Sophia Loren in a swimsuit or the sound of a mandolin wafting through a vineyard, then we are guaranteed disappointment. At least when the authors are unknown there’s a responsibility on the part of readers to begin with an open mind. And whenever their expectations are dashed, a conscientious editor can claim success.
The year Hensher’s collection was published, the British parliament passed the European Referendum Act. The consequences of what was assumed to be a legal formality were scarcely considered then, but Hensher’s trepidation at defining Britishness was portentous. With the Brexit result, the nation came alive with people hell-bent on doing just that, and the image receiving most attention was fundamentally ugly. That’s another problem with survey anthologies: they can rapidly and mercilessly fall victim to circumstance. Outside of Britain’s borders, the referendum confirmed exactly what the Yes vote denied; that Britain had cashed in its reserves in its dwindling status as a global power.
Nothing Hensher writes in his introduction is contradicted by this, but various voices within the anthology have taken on a new resonance. The parental coldness in Douglas Dunn’s “Bobby’s Room”, the plummy-voiced gynophobia in William Sansom’s “A Contest of Ladies”, or the prurience-tinged snooping in Elizabeth Taylor’s “In and Out of the Houses” ‑ though hardly conditions unique to the British, they’ve become so identified with a class-bound and double-faced stereotype that we can read in them if we want the hubris that led to the decision on June 23rd, 2016.
The anthologies by O’Connor, Forkner and Trevor have become museum pieces, representative of attitudes and judgements of times past. Lahiri’s is too recent to predict its progress; that depends upon a future we cannot and may not want to predict. Hensher’s has taken on a life of its own, but because they introduce readers to new and sometimes disruptive voices, his and Lahiri’s have some insurance against redundancy.
A survey is what it says it is; a gaze across the landscape, noting peaks and troughs. That landscape has been levelled in places and otherwise altered. Along the way, anthologists have had to reassess their values. There is no space any more in the survey anthology for feeling comfortable with the status quo.
John Toohey is a writer and photographer back living in Perth, Western Australia after nearly twenty years away working in Istanbul and Montreal, where he is still finishing his PhD on British landscape photography in the Edwardian era. His books include Captain Bligh’s Portable Nightmare, reissued by Skyhorse in 2019. Recently he won the Lawrence Wilson Art Writing Prize for 2020. His work has appeared in The Conversation and Public Domain Review. The collections referred to in this essay are The Penguin Book of the British Short Story: Volumes 1 and 2, both selected by Philip Hensher and published in 2015, and The Penguin Book of Italian Short Stories, a 2020 selection by Jhumpa Lahiri.