One of the reasons I never make ‘end of year’ lists of best books until the last possible moment (more or less – I don’t spend New Year’s Eve parties typing away) is because sometimes I read something brilliant in the last few days of the year. And picking up Swans on an Autumn River (1966) by Sylvia Townsend Warner, I’m glad I’ve waited. (It was published as A Stranger with a Bag in the UK, but I’ve gone with the title of the edition I have.)
This is my second collection of short stories by Warner, and it’s just as brilliant as the first one I read (The Museum of Cheats). The more I read by her, the more I think – with the possible exception of the brilliant Lolly Willowes – that short stories were truly her metier, rather than novels. She somehow puts humanity powerfully into these curious, wise, and very adeptly controlled short pieces.
Warner is exceptionally good at first lines. They aren’t the pithy, quotable sort that are laboriously placed as some sort of diving board, after which the tone of the story becomes much more natural – we all know that variety, and they are indeed fun to quote, but don’t always sit well with the rest of the narrative. Warner captures your attention, but there is no jolt as we move from the first sentence to the second. Here are a few of them:
We had divorced in amity; when we met again after the statutory six months we found each other such good company that we agreed to go on meeting from time to time. (‘A Jump Ahead’)
From that morning when he woke to the sound of the first autumnal gale lashing like a caged tiger against the house fronts and knew with physical infallibility that after all he was going to recover, Guy Stoat burned with impatience to get out of the County Hospital and go home. (‘The View of Rome’)
As he quitted the Aer Lingus plane from Liverpool and set foot for the first time in his life on Irish soil, he was already a disappointed man. (‘Swans on an Autumn River’)
My favourite story of the collection is the first one, ‘A Stranger with a Bag’. In it, a travelling salesman notices a rickety old house out of his train window for the first time, and – on an uncharacteristic impulse – decides to go and see it. Warner weaves together his imaginative journey with the one he actually takes, putting both into simple sentences, so the reader is (for a while) unsure whether things like ‘he walked towards the house’ are actually happening or not. The scene he finds is unexpected, to him and to the reader, and the title shows Warner’s tilts of perspective – as he realises that, to the household, he is just a stranger with a bag.
I like it so much because it mixes elements of fairy tale with the unshakably mundane. Warner is very good at scene-setting and buildings – she shows us the house from a distance and then close-up, knowing that a house is very different from these perspectives, and somehow conveying it in her writing.
Other topics she looks at are the visit of a young relative to his grandmother and great-aunt, and the clash of his recollections of them with the real experience; a new wife and an old wife collaborating unexpectedly; a disturbing picnic. Many more. In perhaps her most famous short story, ‘A Love Match’, a brother and sister quietly become a couple.
A few of the stories feel a little too dramatic at their climax – the title story, ‘Swans on an Autumn River’, perhaps falls into that category – but, at her finest, she is brilliant at undercutting a reader’s expectations and, in doing so, showing a truer, brighter light on human nature. And that doesn’t mean that she always sees the worst – she sees past either cynicism or pollyannaism into the heart of what makes people who they are.