James Lasdun is one of those gifted writers who seems to have avoided the attention he deserves as a result of scattering his talents so far and wide. Novelist; short story writer (with a story adapted for film by Bertolucci); poet; award-winning screenwriter. And he’s friends with Michael Hofmann, mascot of this blog. Damn his eyes. But he’s good: his two novels The Horned Man and Seven Lies have been highlights for me of their respective years. Now, with one of those titles which seduces straight from the shelf, he returns to the short form.
It’s Beginning to Hurt is, in places, the best story collection I have read since Tobias Wolff’s Our Story Begins. Those places are where Lasdun plays to what is evidently his strength: creating a wry but rounded examination of muddled modern men, usually on the slip road (arriving or leaving) of middle age. The first of these, and a fine example of this mini-genre, is ‘An Anxious Man’, which won Lasdun the first National Short Story Award in 2006. (Didn’t I mention that above? Well: I didn’t want to embarrass him.) Happily, you can read this story in its entirety here.
Here we have a perfectly judged portrayal of the knots into which anxieties tie us, the restrictions they place on our lives, and the defeats we create for ourselves through them, in the story of Joseph Nagel. He is on holiday but failing to relax because he is too busy worrying about the performance of his wife’s inheritance on the stock market.
You could never get out once you were in anyway; couldn’t sell when you were ahead because you might miss out on getting even further ahead, couldn’t sell when you were down because the market might come surging back the next week leaving you high and dry with your losses, though of course when it merely continued tanking you wanted to tear your hair out for not having had the humility to acknowledge your mistake, and salvage, sadder but wiser, what you could…
“Whatever you did,” Joseph concludes, “it seemed you were bound to regret doing it, or not having done it sooner.” This comedy (well, I think it’s funny) of indecision recurs like a motif – or maybe just because that’s what we’re like.
In ‘The Natural Order’, a man on holiday with a friend is so taken aback by the other’s relentless bedding of every woman he meets, that he begins to doubt his own experiences and intentions. It occurs to him that his friend, on whom he had always looked down, “was in some sense a higher order of being than himself … under the man’s crassness a fine, bright flame seemed to burn in him. One was almost physically aware of it: a steady incandescence of sexual interest in the world, the lively brightness of which was its own irrefutable argument.” As a result:
he wondered for the first time whether his faithfulness as a husband had been a matter of deliberate choice, or passive acquiescence. Had he deliberately suppressed the appetites of a potential philanderer for the sake of a greater happiness, or had his life taken the shape it had because he didn’t have those appetites in the first place?
Elsewhere, men drive themselves to distraction over family tensions or health anxiety, and not always in the obvious ways (“Was it death itself that frightened him? Not exactly. […] More upsetting was the prospect of being reassigned in the minds of others from the category of the living to that of the dying, which appeared to him a kind of sudden ruin: an abrupt calamitous coming down in the world, with all the disgrace and shame that accompanied such a circumstance”). Often Lasdun seemed to have such an acute insight to my own range of neuroses that I suspected him of some kind of espionage. However, I’m suspicious of liking a book because of identification with the characters, and there’s no doubt that Lasdun has what it takes in pure prose terms too: there is wry spikiness, attitude without swagger, which appeals greatly to me, and best of all he resists the fussy or ponderous language which can mar fiction by poets.
This covers around half the stories. It’s when Lasdun seeks to expand his range – with a hint of the supernatural, or Dahlish revenge fantasies – that the results are less successful. These stories are not weak or bad; the problem is that they lack the force of personality which fills the others and makes them take flight. They could be by any competent writer. It is a perfect example of how a good writer’s limitations are also his greatest strengths. For about half its length then, this is a superb collection, which is more than you can say for most. If you want further persuasion, you can read the title story, a mere two pages, online here. And, to bring this review to a neat end, it’s worth commenting on Lasdun’s neat way with an ending. They’re judged just right, providing enough closure and leaving enough unsaid to leave the reader satisfied. In ‘The Old Man’, Conrad has just “received some momentous intelligence … that he needed to absorb” when about to open a bottle of champagne for a celebratory party.
All three women were looking at him now. They seemed to be waiting for some explanation as to what was all of a sudden filling him with this apparent reluctance to open the bottle. He was aware of something perilous in his own immobilised silence; that the longer it continued, the more he stood to lose. And yet for some time he was unable to move.