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Wyndham's war

Revisiting a modest master
By CHARLES TAYLOR  |  July 21, 2009

HUMAN RESPONSE: Wyndham’s work is proof that writing about drab lives need not itself be drab.

The Complete Fiction of Francis Wyndham | New York Review Books, 416 pages, $16.95
Francis Wyndham's first book of short stories, Out of the War, was published in 1974, when the author was 50 and in the midst of a distinguished career of reviewing and editing. Reading the stories now as part of The Complete Fiction of Francis Wyndham, you might be shocked to learn they were written by a teenager, in the early '40s, after a case of TB had excused him from military service.

The Complete Fiction of Francis Wyndham, which also includes the 1985 Mrs. Henderson and Other Stories and the 1987 novella The Other Garden, is a collection of beguiling consistency. Some of it — the novella, and the stories in Mrs. Henderson, which are told from the point of view of a protagonist whose life follows the outline of Wyndham's — feels autobiographical. In a larger sense, what Wyndham has accomplished is a memoir of London in the '30s and '40s.

Fiction and memoirs that recount the city in those years have typically focused on the impending sense of doom that hung over the '30s, and the deprivations that defined the '40s. Out of the War is quite different. Removed from action because of his illness, Wyndham obviously meant the title to refer to his situation. But it also refers to the young and middle-aged women who are the protagonists of these stories. It's not just that they're out of the war; in some sense, they're out of life. Leading a faded existence relieved by a trip to the lending library or the cinema or a pallid outing with a girlfriend, these characters pass unnoticed through the respectable borough streets. Wyndham's writing — straightforward, descriptive without being ornate, never forgoing subtlety — is proof that writing about drab lives need not itself be drab, and that reading about these lives need not be depressing.

The attention to these characters is balanced by the lack of self-absorption in the more obviously autobiographical stories. In "Mrs. Henderson" and the exquisite The Other Garden, Wyndham shifts the focus to other characters. If the subject of The Other Garden — the tale of a young man's friendship with a misfit older woman — sounds familiar, let me add that Wyndham treads neither the tragic ground of, say, Truman Capote's "A Christmas Memory" nor the initiation-into-the-mysteries-of-love scenario so common to such tales.

Toward the end of The Other Garden, the narrator, contemplating the impending death of his older friend, writes: "Throughout the war I had somehow managed to keep awareness of its full import on the edge of my consciousness, so that while I imagined I felt concern about the slaughter involved, I had not really been affected by it at a deep personal level. Why then was I touched so keenly by the approaching death of Kay? Was I so mean a spirit that I could only react to human tragedy if it occasioned a loss in my immediate circle?"

Deep in those lines is a realization of the inadequacy, particularly for the artist, of responding to anything as large as World War II. Wyndham's work, however, seems a perfect example of what, during the war, Cyril Connolly, then editing Horizon magazine, insisted on: a human response not consumed by the war, a belief that other values were still, must still, be possible. And that is the scope and depth of this deceptively modest body of work.

Related: Interview: Ed Zwick, Review: Defiance, Review: Inglourious Basterds, More more >
  Topics: Books , Media, World War II, Truman Capote,  More more >
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 See all articles by: CHARLES TAYLOR

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