Swans on an Autumn River by Sylvia Townsend Warner

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.

A review round-up

image source

As with 2012’s Century of Books, there are some books which – for one reason or another – don’t get their own blog post, but I still need somewhere to link to in my run-through of 100 books.  So… here is that place!  Or at least the first part of it.  Let’s call them mini-reviews; that sounds better.

The Perfect Stranger (1966) by P.J. Kavanagh
A friend lent me this; it is a memoir of a young man’s life – at Oxford, at war, and in love.  I certainly liked it, and it was rather moving, but that’s about all I remember now.

The Sittaford Mystery (1931) by Agatha Christie
I think my Reader’s Block is FINALLY over, and that means my Agatha Christie binge has probably come to an end too.  Whenever I read too many in a row, the plots have to be really good to impress me, and – well – I just read too many, I guess.  So I liked The Sittaford Mystery and I think it was probably quite artful, but I didn’t appreciate it as much as I could have done.  I did very much like the feisty, no-nonsense, secretly-sensitive heroine who took on the role of quasi-detective.  I think her name was Emily?

Inclinations (1916) by Ronald Firbank
Mike Walmer kindly sent me a copy of this, but I’m afraid I didn’t have a clue what was going on while I read it.  I love some books which are mostly in dialogue (I call Dame Ivy Compton-Burnett to the stand) but this one just baffled me.  Luckily Karen/Kaggsy enjoyed it more – read her review for more elucidation.

Riding Lights (1955) by Norman MacCaig
Green Song and other poems (1944) by Edith Sitwell
Every now and then I think I should try poetry. I don’t remember anything at all about these.

Country Boy – Richard Hillyer

Goodness, it feels an age since I wrote a proper honest-to-goodness book review.  Let’s see if I can still remember how to do it.  Well, what better way back into the hurly-burly of reviewing than with one of Slightly Foxed’s latest Editions?  The review practically writes itself, because it seems impossible that SF will ever put a foot wrong with their endlessly delightful memoir series.  Country Boy (1966) by Richard Hillyer [real name Charles Stanks. You can see why he changed it] is no different.  Review in short: it’s wonderful, and you’ll love it.

photo source

I made the deliberate decision not to look up Hillyer’s post-memoir career, because I thought it would be more interesting to see what I thought about his recollections of childhood and teenagehood without any sense of where his path might go – and I never read introductions until the end, of course.  So I shan’t spoil it for you either, except to say that Hillyer doesn’t get as far as discussing his career, or even his adulthood – instead, the memoir ends as he moves into a different section of his life.  And for some reason I don’t want to spoil that shift either.  At times, the memoir is as tense and exciting as the plottiest novel, and it pays not to know much in advance.

Hillyer was born into a poor farm labouring family in a small village in Buckinghamshire in the first years of the 20th century – in a village Hillyer calls Byfield.  As the grandson of a farm labourer myself, I found it especially interesting to read how my life might have been had I been born a few generations earlier – and the oppressive sense Hillyer reiterates throughout that, though he loves his family and has some friends, ultimately there has never been an escape from Byfield for its non-wealthy inhabitants, and only a windfall or very good luck will enable him to attend grammar school, let alone find a world outside that determined for him by his circumstances.  As a second-generation university attendee, it was more or less assumed from the outset that I would at least have the chance of going to university, but for first-generation university students, I imagine it all felt a bit different (perhaps Our Vicar will comment on this…)  (Of course, with the huge increase in fees in recent years, and thus the clear indication that our government doesn’t value higher education in the same way that it values schools, things have swung back the other way.  But that’s as political as I’m going to get on Stuck-in-a-Book!)

Hillyer writes simply and touchingly about his family, and seems to have had an observant eye for his parents from an early age – as all children do, I suppose, which must be quite disconcerting for the parents at times.

I have no kind of fear or constraint with my father.  Mother is different, you never quite know.  Things went on in Mother’s head that were difficult to guess at.  Father is always easy to understand.  For him life was simple and had no worries.  If he worked, and earned what money he could, Mother would see to the rest.  In a dumb, speechless sort of way he loved and admired her beyond all things, and believed her capable of dealing with any crisis which might arise for any of us.  Beyond that his thoughts did not go.
In any marriage where one partner is idolised and bowed down to by the other, there is the opportunity for the powerful partner to abuse this obeisance, knowingly or unknowingly.  In the case of the Hillyer family, his mother (thankfully) doesn’t.  There is no tyrant – rather each family member plays a role in a fully-functioning machine.  It’s terribly tempting to (mis)quote “poor, but ever so ‘umble” – yet that is precisely what they are.  The stringent hierarchy of class in the village is nothing to celebrate, but the way people behave within it is often moving in their determination just to get on with life, and value the importance of family and friends rather than pipe dreams.

After quite a bit about his parents, I was surprised about how quiet Hillyer was being about his brother John, and thought perhaps they didn’t get on very well.  They were, after all, very different.  But towards the beginning of chapter 10, this beautiful passage appears:

We were brothers, but there was more than brotherhood between us, a special relationship, that was entirely satisfactory to us both.  We were two people, as different as could be in our ways and thoughts, and yet each perfectly accepting the other.  He would listen to my confidences without understanding them or trying to; just taking them as coming from me, and no doubt making sense so far as I was concerned, but outside his sphere.  Not treating them as trivial, because they were not his own; listening to them patiently but making little comment, and taking them just as a part of me.  He was the outlet for all the odd notions that milled about inside me, and all the better outlet because he made no effort at all to influence me.
What nicer testimony to a brother – or, indeed, to a friend – could there be?  Hillyer has such a touching way with words which, even amidst descriptions of the mindlessness of his menial apprentice farm work, or the visit of the lord of the manor, can bring out the most moving and acute sentence.

One of the main differences which set Hillyer apart not only from John but from everyone else in the village was his intellect.  In a section which all of us bibliophiles will love, he describes stumbling across a furniture store which also, somewhat indifferently, sold bundles of books.  The idea of owning a book was new and wonderful to Hillyer – and his earnings were soon redirected to this source of joy and the wider world.

Life at home was drab and colourless, with nothing to light up the dull monotony of the unchanging days.  Here in books was a limitless world that I could have for my own.  It was like coming up from the bottom of the ocean and seeing the universe for the first time.
Anybody interested in rural life in the early 20th century will relish this book, of course, but its appeal goes further than that.  Anybody who believes that a love of literature can be an act of escape will love this book.  Anybody who values the bonds of family, ditto.  And anybody who appreciates simple, evocative, kind writing will want a copy of this memoir too.  Slightly Foxed – you’ve only gone and done it again.