Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Good Short Fiction: 3 tales from The Oxford Book of English Short Stories

Collection: The Oxford Book of English Short Stories
Editor: A.S. Byatt

Title: The Destructors
Author: Graham Greene

In London several boys have formed a gang. They content themselves with playing games and committing petty infractions, until a new member makes a more radical suggestion: to destroy the one house in the neighborhood that wasn't bombed during the Blitz. The man who lives there knows some of the boys, and they have nothing against him personally. But the thought of tearing down the home and everything in it - every possession, every piece of furniture, every plank and pipe and wall panel - is irresistible. They wait for the man to leave his house on a brief holiday, and they begin their work.

As I read this I thought of William Golding's Lord of the Flies and found Greene's story to be more chilling in some ways. The destruction here takes place in the heart of civilization, and it isn't driven by anything like revenge, anger, bloodlust or other out-of-control emotions. The boys don't steal anything, and they even admit that they don't hate the homeowner. In systematically destroying the house from the inside, while leaving the outer walls to collapse last, they work like single-minded termites. It's a kind of pure impersonal evil, not fueled by any emotion or ideology, except perhaps for the excitement of destruction and some deep-seated antipathy towards anything beautiful and worthwhile; maybe this uncompromising need to destroy lies at the core of every evil act. They spare nothing in the house, and wipe out every vestige of the man's identity within it. That this happens in a neighborhood already scarred by the Second World War makes it even more disturbing. The house survived the bombings only to succumb to a different manifestation of evil that seems inescapable; it's a part of day-to-day life, in wartime and peacetime, and exists even in the hearts of children.


Title: Solid Objects
Author: Virginia Woolf

The story begins with two men arguing politics as they walk along a beach. We don't hear the substance of their argument, and soon they give it up in favor of resting on the sand for a while. One of them throws pieces of slate out onto the ocean, letting them skim over the waves; the other man, whose name is John, wriggles his fingers into the sand - a childlike gesture - and finds a piece of green glass resembling a gemstone.

From then on he becomes obsessed with finding broken discarded objects that have an interesting appearance, such as fantastically shaped pieces of pottery and china, smooth lumps of iron and chunks of rock.
Anything so long as it was an object of some kind, more or less round, perhaps with a dying flame deep sunk in its mass, anything—china, glass, amber, rock, marble—even the smooth oval egg of a prehistoric bird would do.

As he combs through alleys, shrubs, and train tracks, his political career quietly implodes. Human affairs seem like background noise or faded wallpaper in comparison to the vivid objects that John finds; the objects endure as John's life slips by in his constant search for more of them. Each new find has to be more interesting than the last one. John's ambitions have been diverted into strange channels; the story never touches on what his political positions were, or what he had hoped to get out of life before discovering that first piece of green glass on the beach. None of it seems to matter.


Title: The Toys of Peace
Author: Saki (Hector Hugh Munro)

Harvey Bope has been asked by his sister to buy some peaceful toys for her sons, Bertie and Eric, when he next visits. The National Peace Council has recommended that boys be given toys that have nothing to do with war, so as to foster more peaceful impulses in them. Harvey is skeptical that "peace toys" will have any impact on his nephews' inclinations, but he decides to try the experiment. He brings them something altogether different from "the 'Siege of Adrianople' toy" they received from their Aunt Susan:
"It's a fort!" exclaimed Bertie.

"It isn't, it's the palace of the Mpret of Albania," said Eric, immensely proud of his knowledge of the exotic title; "it's got no windows, you see, so that passers-by can't fire in at the Royal Family."

"It's a municipal dust-bin," said Harvey hurriedly; "you see all the refuse and litter of a town is collected there, instead of lying about and injuring the health of the citizens."

In addition to the municipal dust-bin he's brought other civic buildings (including a municipal wash-house), along with figurines of civilian leaders. The kinds of toys, and the boys' reaction to them, are hilarious. The boys' resourcefulness is also a delight, as they turn the peaceful figurines and buildings into war toys:
Peeping in through the doorway Harvey observed that the municipal dustbin had been pierced with holes to accommodate the muzzles of imaginary cannon...

Clever and funny as the story is, it also has an underlying sadness. When Harvey observes at the end that he and his sister "have begun too late" in their peace toy experiment, you sense that he's not just talking about how old the boys are but about humanity as a whole.

Bertie and Eric, inspired by the riveting accounts of past battles they've read about, play at war with swashbuckling dialogue and cheerful slaughter. There's still an innocence to their play, because they don't know what it's like to be in real battle. In their lifetime there will be two world wars. H.H. Munro himself didn't survive WWI; when the war began he voluntarily fought as a soldier and was killed in France in 1916. The collection in which this story first appeared, The Toys of Peace, and Other Papers, was published posthumously in 1919.


Other recommended stories in this collection include At Hiruharama (by Penelope Fitzgerald) and Nuns at Luncheon (by Aldous Huxley).