Marina Warner is a feminist historian and novelist; her latest book Fly Away Home was published last September. Twenty short stories have flown away home to this collection, from their original appearances in radio broadcasts, festival performances, and literary magazines and websites. All of these stories were written between 2003 and 2015.
This is very much occasional prose. Many of these stories seem to have been commissioned in some way, or to have arisen from chance interactions on the ground. “Red Lightning” was written for an Arts Fund campaign to publicly buy the Staffordshire Hoard. “The Family Friend” was scripted for the actor Alan Howard to perform on Radio 4. One story was first published in French in an anthology of fiction dedicated to the diorama maker Marie-Claude de Brunhoff; another was first performed at a music festival in Bath.
The compilation of this book is possibly more noteworthy than the finished product. The key to Fly Away Home is the “Acknowledgements” section at the end. Rather than merely bestowing thanks upon local helpers, these pages are meant to exhibit the short story writer in their rightful role. Warner has not sat alone with her thoughts and then emerged from her house with her stories. She has been instead out and about in the world, responding to the day-to-day obligations and requests which culture is always turning up. The short story writer is, in this civic interpretation of their duties, a little like those poets who embark on residencies aboard oil rigs or at biscuit factories.
In his “General Introduction” to last year’s excellent Penguin Book of the British Short Story, we find the editor Philip Hensher alleging that “the possibilities for the writer of short stories have narrowed significantly in recent years.” This is, he proposes, because “the principal outlet for many writers of short stories is not publication but competitions.” Those who still read mass-selling newspapers and magazines no longer look for short stories or expect to find them. Whenever a rare exception is printed in the pages of the Guardian or the New Statesman, it is always written by a household name and never by an up-and-comer. New writers often have to pay fees to enter short story competitions, in order to fund them, and there is no genuine market for the resultant writing. For Hensher, the infrastructure which “could encourage a writer to persist… with the sort of editorial investment that will enable a writer to develop” has floated away.
Hensher is condemning an absence of leadership. He thinks that there is a market out there for short stories, if only newspaper editors were committed to locating it. But there have been extensive redundancies across most newspapers over the last decade, and so it is surely quixotic to imagine that the same publications might start hiring fiction writers again. Moreover, it is not very flattering for the genre of the short story or empowering for its proponents to assume, as Hensher appears to do, that magazine pieces are just schoolwork for developing talent. He also overlooks the continued willingness of corporate publishers to gamble on untried writers such as Lucy Wood and Colin Barrett.
Why can’t a writer with many years of maturation behind them go out and find readers for their fiction? And as if by immediate reply, Fly Away Home has surfaced to energetically demonstrate how broad “the possibilities for the writer of short stories” actually are these days.
Our question is, though, whether Warner’s stories can enjoy a fulfilled existence both when at large in the wilderness of contemporary culture and when subsequently collected in this anthological menagerie. Once a story has been extracted from its original context, is there still a part of it which is always somewhere else? Has its full meaning been divulged only to the exclusive club of its original readers? If you removed the “Acknowledgements” pages from Fly Away Home, would these stories become impossibly mysterious?
The opposite could be true. This book’s dazzling breadth of sources and subjects might initially overwhelm you with its mystery. Through an impenetrable hopscotch we are carried from wisecracking mermaids to a sorrowful medieval anchorite, from The Nutcracker Suite to the memoirs of MR James, from aid workers in Damascus to vivisectionists in Jamaica. The power of these stories is seldom in their characters and plots, and it is usually communicated by a dramatic incident, or even just a single image. The child’s glimpse of marital crisis at the end of “A Rare Visit,” or the awful conversation with a parent’s possible lover in “Item, One Tortoiseshell Bag,” stand out and gleam like coral atolls. They are enough in themselves, as sheer random information, and they often prove more memorable than the narratives from which they issue.
Warner is a connoisseur of inspirations and sources. The careful selection of the starting points for her stories is at one with the decadence which runs through them, the constant mesmerised preoccupation with fur and luxury.
We return always to fur. In “After the Fox” the “first new thing” in Judith’s life after her husband’s departure is the “panicky flash of fur” which she confronts one morning in her garden. In “See No Evil” the vivisectionist Dr Earle still “loved the small, scholar’s faces” of the vervet monkeys whose innocent fur he plunges through. In “Mink” Donna Byrd rebels against the dreariness of tweed by saving up for a mink coat. It is “the best fur in the world” and when she is adorned in it she “never felt more feminine.” We elsewhere stray from fur to fakes, but these substitutes do not discard their redemptive status. In “Brigit’s Cell” the anchorite’s husband is drowned in fur after a swarm of bees “stuck to him; the writhing, buzzing mass swathed him from head to foot.” It is a nice revenge. “They said I was made of wild flowers,” Brigit reports, “they presented me like a bouquet.” In “Item, One Tortoiseshell Bag” we linger over the gorgeous tortoiseshell with “remembering fingertips”; in “Mélusine: A Mermaid’s Tale” there is no fur but scales.
In “Red Lightning” Hope’s birthday is celebrated with the pledging of everything material. “Cabbages and parsnips, clay and sand, the least of things promised their protection, too.” It would be a mistake to characterise all of this materiality as sexual fetishism. Freud’s 1927 essay traced “fetishism” to the infant boy’s horror at his mother’s lack of a penis. If the mother is powerful but lacking in the ultimate sign of power, then something else, something inhuman and prosthetic, is unconsciously adopted as a substitute. The fetish thus becomes “a token of triumph over the threat of castration and a protection against it. It also saves the fetishist from becoming a homosexual, by endowing women with the characteristic which makes them tolerable as sexual objects.”
You might have trouble navigating your way through Fly Away Home with this interpretation. The horror in these stories is not merely of castration but of a broader powerlessness: of forgetting, of being barred from the truth, of being unable to go back. The incessant fur and surfaces are signposts towards, and substitutes for, a past which is always inaccessible.
In “Item, One Tortoiseshell Bag” the narrator no longer has any reliable knowledge about her mother. The “Item” becomes a substitute, which nourishes the fantasy that her mother was happy and empowered. “Mink” is the same story but with a different substitute. The “isle of lanterns” in “A Chatelaine in the Making” is twinned with the Indian reservation in “Worm Wrangling,” or the treetop monkey communities in “See No Evil”: they serve as fantastical retreats from an uncertain or complex present. This symbolism is turned upside down in “Mélusine: A Mermaid’s Tale,” where the present is a fantasy world under the sea and escapism requires journeying to terra firma and the realities of human disappointment.
Judith, from “After the Fox,” is exiled from the past not only because it is gone, but because she could never read it properly when it was present. “This past mocked her as it flung at her, You just didn’t see it, did you? You missed the signs.”
The appearance of MR James in the story “Watermark” relates a thin joke about this fiction’s priorities. James’ ghost stories often unpeel the meaning of sexual fetishism, dispensing with the sex and locating the original horror of castration in its stead. As HP Lovecraft famously put it, “the average James ghost is lean, dwarfish, and hairy… usually touched before it is seen.” James was a squeamishly celibate personality and his ghosts, with their invading hair and skin, are like funfair mirror distortions of lovers.
In “Watermark,” however, the apparitions are whitewashed wall paintings of “virgins in paradise,” which are obscured behind the “choir stalls and wainscoting” at Eton College’s chapel. James, in his memoirs, recalls seeing these figures as a child. From James’ perspective, they are traces of a past which he cannot get at, like the translucent print which is left behind by water. They may have inspired him to pen creepy stories such as “A View from a Hill” much later in his life. The beautiful tale which Warner conjures up takes us on a very different journey, into a merry adventure about crossdressing Italians in pre-Shakespearean England.
Yes, we are being invited to compare them, the patriarchal and the feminine, James’ hysterical medieval frights and Warner’s relaxed Renaissance love story. Incidentally, these authors share the same model of writing: chance, occasional tales, which are eventually shuffled together into volumes. James and Warner are equally dedicated to the past, but neither gets any further in the end than the other. “Did the twins grow up at home…? Or could they have stayed on in Stratford-upon-Avon year after year…? The trail peters out.” We can never go back, just as the reader who is stranded with Fly Away Home has no authentic connection to the original circumstances and encounters from which its stories had emerged.