Time: The Present Selected Stories – Tess Slesinger

Boiler House Press has simply outdone itself with the publication of two superb works under the Recovered Books imprint. Earlier this year, I read Gentleman Overboard, a splendid, psychological tale of a man faced with the terrifying prospect of drowning at sea, and now it’s Time: The Present by Tess Slesinger, an American author who sank without a trace during her time but is now seeing a revival. In a nutshell, this is simply the best short story collection I’ve read this year, and a shoo-in to my end of the year list.

Time: The Present is a superb collection of 19 stories exploring marriage, relationships, unemployment and class differences  where Tess Slesinger displays the kind of psychological acuity that make them so distinct and memorable.

Most of these stories were published in the 1930s in various journals and publications and capture the great turmoil of the period; a country grappling with the Great Depression and its crippling, sobering consequences on everyday living as well as the grim prospect of the Second World War looming large.

In this piece, rather than comment on each of the nineteen stories, I will focus more on those that to me were real standouts.

We begin with “White on Black”, the second story in the collection, a sharply observed tale on race, the difficulty of assimilation that comes with it; a look at how outsiders are always perceived as outsiders. Set in a private school attended by “nice” children, our narrator recalls a particular time when schools were starting to plant the seed of diversity in the minds of its students.

One of the private schools attended by the “nice” children of the West Side some twenty years ago followed not only the liberal practice of mixing rich and poor, Gentile and Jew, but made a point also of including Negroes.

This is particularly exemplified in the tale of the Wilsons, Negro siblings and central characters whose arrival at the school cause quite a stir. Paul, exquisite with striking features, quickly makes his presence felt with the boys, while Elizabeth makes similar strides with the girls. Boisterous and confident, both Paul and Elizabeth fascinate their peers, and contrary to being left out because they are black, they go on to become extremely popular in the school. But the innocence of childhood rarely carries itself into the harsh, cruel world of adults. As the children grow, so do their attitudes change with the dawning realization that it is not easy to practice the ideals of inclusiveness and diversity in the real world. Paul resents this fact, Elizabeth tries to adapt to it with varying results.

Slesinger’s flair for sarcasm and sharp, biting observations are on full display in the piece “Jobs in the Sky” – a prescient tale of ruthless corporate culture, mindless consumerism and joblessness. It’s a masterclass of character study, the stream of consciousness technique, satire and tragedy. The scene of action is the book section of a departmental store during Christmas rush and here is its principle cast of characters…

Mr Keasbey is the archetypical aggressive, competitive and experienced salesman, who always “signed in daily at eight-forty (ten minutes before the deadline).” Miss Bodkin is irreverent and a tad cocky, what she lacks in punctuality and discipline she more than makes up for in her superior sales skills. Joey Andrews is the new young man on the block, eager to please and massively relieved at finally bagging a job. Miss Paley, a teacher in her previous role, is a misfit in the book department, not really adept at selling, the pressure of being fired hanging like a Damocles sword over her head.

There’s so much going on in this story – the crippling impact of the Great Depression, the disintegration of the American Dream, a fiercely competitive and vacuous corporate life…and it’s astonishing how expertly Slesinger coalesces these various threads into a polished, unforgettable whole. The depiction of the commercial world replete with clichés is spot on – the customary, meaningless speeches given by the bosses at the start of everyday, the fear of not meeting targets and being laid off; as well as the rush of the Christmas season where customers behave like “animals stampeding in panic inside a burning barn.”  

The machinery starts with a roar; unorganized come into conflict with organized; the clerks are over-powered, the floor-walkers swept along with the stream of customers; the aisles are drowned; arms reach like fishing-rods into the piled bargains on every counter. But gradually the frantic, haphazard customers are subdued and controlled by the competent motions of well-trained officers, who reason, who separate, who mollify and implore. Still mad, but under direction at last, the crowd settles around counters creaming to be fed.

Brilliantly enmeshed in the story are Joey’s inner thoughts which highlight the crucial points of his former life – the ambition of securing a good education, the depression era turning those dreams into dust in a heartbeat,  followed by scrounging on the streets and finally gratitude at being employed at the department store. Also poignant is Miss Paley’s plight, another victim of the Depression era, fired from her long-held teaching post. Poor Miss Paley is out-of-sorts in a sales role rousing both pity and embarrassment in her fellow colleagues. The story ends with two dismissals – one hardly surprising, but the other one pretty unexpected.

 “The Friedmans’ Annie” is superb and poignant, a terrific portrayal of the internal drama of a woman and an incisive tale of class differences and manipulation. The titular character Annie is a loyal housemaid at the Friedmans’, a well-to-do Jewish family in New York. In their employ for many years, Annie is sincere and efficient, takes her work seriously and it is a matter of great pride to her that she is indispensable to the family. Annie also feels a sense of achievement in the hardwork and discipline involved in being elevated to that position. From a newbie (Greenhorn) many years ago to an experienced maid now, that successful transition is a product of the Friedmans’ training and Annie’s will of iron.

And yet we learn that something is amiss; a sense of loneliness and emptiness that wells up in Annie every now and then. For Annie desires a happy married life and a home of her own. The mornings are busy and buzzing with work as are the evenings, but the lonely afternoons with the hours stretching endlessly accentuate feelings of uncertainty and fear; we see a gamut of emotions raging in Annie’s soul as she contemplates hanging up her working boots and settling down.

The dining-room looked gloomy and dead through the window in the swinging-door. When there was no longer work to be done in these big room beyond the kitchen, they seemed too strange to enter alone…Oh yes, the afternoons were lonely, and it was too bad that she wouldn’t be going out tonight with Joe to Trommer’s.

She is already seeing a man called Joe who is crazy about her, but he resents how Annie is always at the beck and call of the Friedmans’ and how uppity she has become after years of working there. Joe feels Annie is being exploited while Annie, fiercely loyal, is always defending them. Thrown into this mix are Mrs Friedman and her daughter Mildred. Mrs Friedman expertly manipulates Annie’s feelings agreeing to her decision to marry but also subtly conveying how important it is for a woman to remain financially independent. Mildred, leaning towards the left, hates her privileged life and her mother taking advantage of Annie, but she is unable to make Annie understand her position. As the tale progresses, the sense of distress in Annie reaches fever-pitch as she is confronted with the frightening prospect of Joe possibly leaving her out of sheer frustration.

“Ben Grader Makes a Call” explores the psychological consequences of unemployment on a marriage, the erosion of self-esteem and the burden of dependency that this development involves. Taking place over the course of an afternoon, this is a tale of Ben Grader, a young man with a successful career who one day is unexpectedly fired from his job. At first, Ben displays a fair amount of bravado but as the day progresses as do his wanderings around the city, this bravado transforms into uncertainty, loss of self-esteem and resentment, the latter particularly aimed at his wife who would now take on the role of sole provider.

“Missis Flinders” is a scalpel-like, hard-hitting tale of an abortion, the emotional burden of which sets in motion the unraveling of a marriage. The story opens with Margaret Flinders on the front steps of the hospital waiting for her husband Miles to hail a taxi to take them home. We learn that Margaret was in the hospital for an abortion, and she is stricken with grief at the step she has taken. Margaret and Miles are left-wing intellectuals immersed in a life of exciting ideas, freedom, and independence. To them, raising children is not an option, it is simply too bourgeoisie and an unnecessary burden.

But when Margaret gets pregnant, she realizes that she wants to keep the baby, while Miles is against it. During an evening of drinks that leaves them both intoxicated and exhilarated, Miles convinces her to abort the pregnancy. Margaret goes through with it but she is devastated at the irreversibility of her actions. What deepens her sadness is the uncomprehending reaction from the other residents in the maternity ward – the women who have delivered babies, whether alive or stillborn – who can’t fathom Margaret’s decision to abort. Moreover, when she observes these womens’ husbands excited at the prospect of fatherhood and their indulgence towards their wives, she begins to wonder whether there is any substance to her married life with Miles.

…intellectuals, with habits generated from the right and tastes inclined to the left. Afraid to perpetuate themselves, were they? Afraid of anything that might loom so large in their personal lives as to outweigh other considerations? Afraid, maybe, of a personal life?

“In The Times So Unsettled Are”, Heinrich and Mariedel are Socialists who refuse to leave Vienna during a time of great political upheaval, when the Socialists are hell-bent on transforming the political and economic landscape of the country. But their dreams and plans are perennially in the threat of being torn to shreds. During endless conversations over cups of coffee in a traditional Viennese café, Heinrich and Mariedel become entranced by the American couple Richard and Mahli (Molly) – their infectious humour, love for one another and the aura of happiness that they convey warm the hearts of the Austrians. Richard and Mahli try to convince Heinrich and Mariedel to begin life anew in America, but they refuse. Several years later, Heinrich is killed and his death leaves Mariedel in a state of shock she is not willing to acknowledge, but it provides her with the impetus to finally leave Vienna for America, reunite with Richard and Mahli and live vicariously through their happiness. But things don’t turn out as planned and what Mariedel witnesses disturbs her even more. This is a beautifully written tale of love, loss, friendships and broken dreams.

Fractured relationships and mismatched wavelengths of both husband and wife are running themes, the myriad facets of which shine in many of these tales. Yet Slesinger is not keen on taking sides, both the men and women she portrays are flawed. For instance, in “Kleine Frau”, a young couple on a honeymoon is disconcerted by the drowning of a child belonging to one of the local families, but while the husband is bereft at not doing his best to help, the wife in her selfishness is unhappy with him for ignoring her in the mounting cold. “Mother to Dinner” wonderfully captures the intense conflict in a young woman who is torn between pleasing her cold, intellectually superior husband and her bourgeoisie mother who the husband never fails to deride. In “After the Party”, Helene Colborne, a wealthy upper class woman is tormented by her husband’s Socialist tendencies and later by his sympathies with the working class; and suffers a nervous breakdown when he pledges all his wealth to the Communist Party.

What’s remarkable about Time: The Present is the sheer variety of themes on display marked by Slesinger’s grasp on a wide range of subjects. Slesinger is as adept at painting a picture of the economic perils and complex social issues of her time as she is at showcasing the nuances of marriage and relationships, expertly weaving these elements together to form a rich tapestry of stories. Often written in a stream-of-consciousness style that is accessible and engaging, most of these stories are set in the 1930s but the topics that form the nucleus of these tales exhibit a timeless quality. These topics carry much weight even today – the travesty of race and its non-inclusive aspect; disparities of class and that unbridgeable economic divide; a bleak corporate culture that epitomizes soul crushing competition and mind-numbering drudgery; politics with its clear demarcation between socialism and capitalism; not to mention life changing events such as job loss, abortion, death and divorce that expose cracks in the relationships of ill-matched couples. At once astute, razor-sharp, gut-wrenching, tragic, perceptive and wise, Time: The Present is a magnificent collection, one that definitely deserves to be better known.

Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting – Penelope Mortimer

I love Penelope Mortimer. I’ve read two of her books now – The Pumpkin Eater (a novel) and Saturday Lunch with the Brownings (a short story collection) – both terrific (the latter found a place on My Best Books of 2021 list). And I’m happy to say that Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting, my second for #ReadIndies and published by Persephone Books, is as good as the other two.

Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting is a brilliant, superbly crafted tale of a challenging marriage, abortion, and the difficulties of a mother-daughter relationship told in Mortimer’s customary haunting, absorbing style.

We are introduced to Ruth Whiting, a bored housewife who lives with her well-to-do dentist husband Rex in the posh neighbourhood called the Common.

Ruth and Rex have a trying marriage, a union that has been the product of problematic circumstances rather than compatibility or love. Rex is a bully and a bore continuously torturing Ruth with questions and opinions that completely sap her energy. Ruth dotes on her children – her eldest daughter Angela and the boys, Julian and Mike. But they are growing up and have reached that age where they have lives of their own – the boys away at boarding school and Angela, an undergraduate at Oxford. In the holidays, when her children come down, Ruth’s home is filled with chatter, activities and noise, but for the better part of the year, the hours lie empty and the monotonous days stretch endlessly before Ruth.

As Ruth reflects on her reasons for marrying Rex, we are offered a glimpse into her past. On discovering that she is pregnant with Rex’s child (Angela), Ruth’s parents insist that marrying Rex is the only solution, there is no way out, and times being as they were then, Ruth and Rex have no choice but to agree.

The barren days with nothing important to occupy her, the joylessness of being married to Rex and the pressure of keeping up appearances in the well-heeled community they belong to begins to take its toll on Ruth to the point where she suffers a nervous breakdown.

The first stage of the nightmare is losing the ability to believe in insignificance. Consciousness is sharpened to a point in which nothing is trivial but every moment, every detail, has the same unbearable quality of dread. In this condition of despair there are no crises. The merciful censor of memory has broken down and everything is recalled with equal horror, the broken nail becomes a jagged pointer to the senselessness of living, the most commonplace remark, without warning, the grief or terror of a lifetime…the moral judgement delivered on this state of unhappiness is as severe as that pronounced on the lunatics of Bedlam. Lost, it says with smug disgust, all sense of proportion. Which is exactly true.

Rex hires a caregiver to look after her at home and as part of her recovery process Ruth is pushed towards holidaying alone in Antibes, but then a development takes place compelling Ruth to immediately (and with relief) cancel her plans much to Rex’s chagrin.

That development is this – Angela, who was seeing her batchmate Tony, always riding with him on his Vespa, is pregnant. Not knowing what to do, she confides in Ruth expecting the latter to help her. The gamut of conflicting emotions felt by mother and daughter and how they deal with this tough situation forms the backbone of this novel.

As I mentioned earlier, Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting is a book about marriage, abortion, the difference in attitudes between generations and a portrayal of a community bound by strict moral codes where outward appearances matter but there is always tension simmering under the surface.

Ruth is a fascinating, complex character. We first get the impression that she’s a passive housewife, a pushover burdened by Rex’s domineering personality, and yet she fights back in her own way. At a particularly crucial time, Ruth rises up to the challenge of helping Angela with her predicament (the idea of abortion horrifies their GP, so they must discreetly arrange for a doctor and money without Rex ever finding out) even though she’s torn by the fact that this baby will never exist. As a mother she is glad to have supported her daughter in her hour of need, even though Angela’s wish fills Ruth with some modicum of sadness.

Ruth also supports Angela’s decision of not marrying Tony. In many ways, Tony is a replica of Rex and in her heart Ruth is relieved that Angela is not going down a part that she (Ruth herself) has come to regret. But the notion of terminating the pregnancy also troubles her. However, what else could they do? We are talking of a time when single parenting was unheard of; a child born out of wedlock was considered a disaster and a blemish on a woman’s image. If marriage was not an option, abortion was the only way out even if illegal.

Angela, for her part, is very clear about terminating the pregnancy although she laments at the unfairness of the situation. The dilemma she is confronted with brings out both the adult and the child in her; adult because she has her own mind and knows what she wants, child because she feels overwhelmed by it all. Tony is like Rex, only bothered about his image, his own importance, ready to support Angela as long as it does not hamper his chances at a meaningful career.

It’s also interesting to see how the attitudes of generations have evolved over the years. Ruth helps Angela in a way that Ruth’s mother did not when she was in a similar situation decades earlier. But she is also faced with the stark, debilitating truth – her children have flown the nest, are leading their own lives, while she must spend the rest of her days with Rex, a depressing prospect.

Will nothing ever happen to us, she wondered. Will this really go on for ever? Is it possible that nothing will ever change?

It’s her biggest irony that her children who fill her with joy are not the ones with whom she is destined to spend the remainder of her years. Things are further complicated by the fact that Rex has been unfaithful to her, carrying on an affair with a younger woman, although the whole of the Common is aware of this except Ruth.

A lot of the themes in Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting are similar to Mortimer’s other equally excellent book, The Pumpkin Eater – a philandering husband, the wife staring at a dull, desolate existence, the only bright spot being her children who give her a sense of meaning. Indeed, this novel gets its name from a toy Ruth buys as a gift for her neighbourhood friend’s baby but which she eventually keeps for herself – a child’s musical box whose “tune, picked up in the middle of a bar, was an insect requiem, desolate, thin as air.”

…Baby Bunting,

Daddy’s gone a-hunting,

Gone to fetch a rabbit skin

To wrap his Baby Bunting in,

Bye Baby Bunting——

The central women in both these books have successful husbands with comfortable homes but the dreariness of their days and the lack of purpose push them to the brink of an abyss. Quite a few of these aspects mirror Mortimer’s own circumstances, she acknowledged in one of her interviews that she has plumbed the depths of her own life for a lot of material for her books. Yet there is one fundamental difference – unlike her protagonists, Mortimer was independent in the sense that she was an author and had her writing to fall back on.

Valerie Grove, in her Preface to this Persephone edition, talks about how the kind of novel Mortimer wanted to write was already boiling inside her. She wanted an outlet to express the cloud of despondency that descended upon women of that era who could not really work and earn their living and had to fill time through endless and pointless activities and excursions. Here’s Mortimer –

“But this is how women spend their lives, not just the bad patches. And like it. And are gentle and loving and philosophical about it. What’s wrong with me?”

Mortimer’s portrayal of this affluent, claustrophobic community and its gender differences is spot on as can be gauged from this paragraph…

The relationships between the men are based on an understanding of success. Admiration is general, affection not uncommon. Even pity is known. The women have no such understanding. Like little icebergs, each keeps a bright and shining face above water; below the surface, submerged in fathoms of leisure, each keeps her own isolated personality. Some are happy, some poisoned with boredom; some drink too much and some, below the demarcation line, are slightly crazy; some love their husbands and some are dying from lack of love; a few have talent, as useless to them as a paralysed limb. Their friendships, appearing frank and sunny, are febrile and short-lived, turning quickly to malice. Combined, their energy could start a revolution.

As ever, Mortimer’s prose is brilliant, honest and incisive. While there’s not much by way of action, Ruth’s internal drama is rendered beautifully making this a very immersive read. In a nutshell, Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting is another superb book from Mortimer’s oeuvre displaying the kind of psychological depth with much to commend it.

Happening – Annie Ernaux (tr. Tanya Leslie)

Annie Ernaux’s Happening is a riveting, hard-hitting retelling of a time in the author’s life when she underwent an illegal abortion and the trauma surrounding it.

When the book opens, Ernaux is at a clinic, anxiously awaiting the results of an AIDS test. To her immense relief, the tests turn out negative. But the circumstances remind her of another kind of test she was compelled to take in her early twenties when she was not so lucky and the stress that she went through because of it.

Rewind to 1963 in Rouen and Ernaux is a young woman of twenty three, studying at a university and not in any serious relationship.  She has missed her periods for a week and a visit to her gynecologist Dr N confirms her worst fears – she is pregnant.

Ernaux is very sure she does not want to keep the child. But at a time when abortion is not legalized in France, Ernaux’s options are limited. She has to find a backstreet abortionist and keep the whole affair shrouded in secret, confiding in her parents is certainly not an option.

In the meanwhile, Ernaux has to go on with her life as if everything is normal. She attends her university lectures and visits her parents every weekend, although it all feels unreal to her and a sense of detachment creeps in, normal life starts feeling quite alien. Indeed, here’s how she describes that surreal phase – “I was living in a different world. There were the other girls, with their empty bellies, and there was me.”

The rest of this novella, then, charts Ernaux’s anxiety inducing efforts of finding an abortionist, her own desperate attempts to induce miscarriage, and the near death experience she endures immediately after the abortion.

Ernaux, at the time, had no doubt she must end the pregnancy. The social stigma was just too great – first, the blemish on one’s reputation for raising an illegitimate child; second, the fear of being marked as a social failure, particularly exacerbated by her working class background.  But her decision unleashes a gamut of emotions – shame, loneliness spurred by her inability to confide to anyone about her predicament, alienation because suddenly she could no longer connect with her normal life.

The father of the child, a philosophy student called P, on learning of Ernaux’s pregnancy refuses to get involved and take any kind of responsibility. Ernaux must fend for herself. Both were equally involved in that passionate encounter, but in an unfair society, the man goes scot-free, the woman has to bear all the negative consequences. Ernaux talks about how it is a case of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” If an unmarried woman was expecting a child, she would be looked down upon for wanting to terminate the pregnancy, but should she choose to keep the baby her fate is even worse because then she will be judged harshly for bearing a child out of wedlock.

The question of class and its crucial bearing on her decision to abort is captured in this paragraph…

Somehow I felt there existed a connection between my social background and my present condition. Born into a family of labourers and shopkeepers, I was the first to attend higher education and so had been spared both factory and retail work. Yet neither my baccalaureat nor my degree in literature had waived that inescapable fatality of the working-class – the legacy of poverty – embodied by both the pregnant girl and the alcoholic. Sex had caught up with me, and I saw the thing growing inside me as the stigma of social failure.

This class distinction is also made painfully apparent to Ernaux when in a medical emergency she is admitted to the hospital post the abortion, reflected in the sudden change in the doctor’s attitude when he realizes that she is a university student and not just another uneducated, working-class woman.

Ernaux also makes a critical observation on law and how it is the axis around which abortion revolves.

As often was the case, you couldn’t tell whether abortion was banned because it was wrong or wrong because it was banned. People judged according to the law, they didn’t judge the law.

Happening, then, is a product of Ernaux’s desire or obsession forty years later to write about her abortion and “face the reality of that unforgettable event.” However, she finds it is not always an easy thing to do. Part of her fights against the idea of documenting that traumatic experience, but the other part wants to embark upon that venture at all costs and not be plagued by regret for not having taken that step.

I want to become immersed in that part of my life once again and learn what can be found there. This investigation must be seen in the context of a narrative, the only genre able to transcribe an event that was nothing but time flowing inside and outside of me.

Happening is short, barely 77 pages, but packs quite a punch with its weightier themes of emotional distress, trauma, perceptions of law, working class anxiety and the social stigma faced by women. Ernaux’s prose is crisp and crystal clear as she writes in a style that is unflinching, frank, and not mincing on details. This was my first book by Annie Ernaux and it won’t be my last.