Thursday, July 7, 2011

Father Raven and Other Tales

While reading this collection of supernatural, fantastic, and absurdist stories by A. E. Coppard, I struggled to identify another writer, any writer, to whom he can easily be compared.  I was about to give up in despair when I noticed an advertisement for another book on the back inside flap of the jacket for this.  Of Rhys Hughes' Stories from a Lost Anthology, the copywriter says, "Hughes is a latter-day, post-Modern A. E. Coppard."  I read that, and thought, Yes, exactly.

Although Hughes' stories are (even) more whimsical and wide-ranging than Coppard's, like so much of the best contemporary literature more playful in their structure, the two share a tendency to interlock different levels of the bizarre and the unlikely in ways that should fail, but are instead delightful.  Even some of Coppard's story titles suggest the delightful skew of his imagination: "Arabesque-- The Mouse," "Clorinda Walks in Heaven," "Piffingcap," "Crotty Shinkwin."

The opening paragraph of the last-named story offers a useful example of one of the modes Coppard often employs, that of the idiomatic Irish storyteller:
This was a little man I'm telling you, Crotty Shinkwin, a butcher once, with livery eyes and a neck like a hen that was not often shaved.  He knocked out a sort of living by the coast of the cliff and the sandy shore of Ballinarailin, a townful of Looneys, Mooneys and Clooneys, the Mahoneys, Maloneys, the Dorans, Horans and Morans, but if you were to ask what was their scheme of life it could only be said they were seen gathering weeds from the sea and stones from the shore, which is poor stuff anyway to be passing the time of day on.
As you might expect, this story and others like it are tall tales, though less about heroism than about passing encounters with the subtly disturbing (as in "Crotty Shinkwin," where a mishap with an anchor causes a journey to an unusual island) or the numinous ("Marching to Zion," a yarn of a journey with an uncertain purpose alongside larger-than-life companions).  The conversational brogue in which these stories are narrated is not an easy one for any writer to adopt without descending to patronizing cliche, but Coppard threads the needle, producing funny, engaging, and not infrequently poignant tales.

There are thirty-one stories in this 301-page book, which might make a reader imagine that many or most of them are insubstantial, but Coppard is so matter-of-fact about the fancies he weaves that he can pile them on top of one another, to the point where (as Mark Valentine notes in his introduction) some compress a novel's worth of plot into about a dozen pages.  These miniature worlds are so diverse that I'd have to describe each story at some length to do justice to all of them, but here are a few of the elements that go into a few of the stories:

* A cemetery where the spirit of the last to die is forced to serve all the other "residents";

* A very strong man whose good nature forces him to accede to all requests for help whether he wants to or not... until a leprechaun makes him invisible;

* A trio of giants who menace a futuristic London, and the unlikely hero who defeats them;

* A man who at first seems to have become a ghost without realizing it, but who's actually experiencing something even stranger;

* And an almanac maker who has to find Father Christmas to save the world from a goblin named Old Moore.

Many of the stories in Father Raven are light-hearted and comical, but very few are pure escapism, and several are visionary, dark, or melancholy.  In "Arabesque-- The Mouse," for example, an everyday encounter with a household pest leads to an inescapable, upsetting chain of memories and associations focusing on loneliness and the cruelty of the world.  "Polly Morgan" and "Ahoy, Sailor Boy!" are ghost stories, one deeply ambiguous, the other simultaneously psychological and viscerally frightening; both feature young women whose seemingly small failings leave them tragically isolated.  And the final story in the collection, "The Gruesome Fit," is a vivid portrayal of a life-destroying maniacal obsession.  Coppard's storytelling brio and wild imagination should not lead readers to dismiss his body of work as a mere diversion.

In the introduction to Father Raven, Mark Valentine lists several notable writers and literary experts who esteemed Coppard's work highly, from Walter de la Mare to Elizabeth Bowen to Ford Madox Ford.  To that list we can add Herbert van Thal, who in the 1940s identified Coppard as among "living masters of the short story," one of three writers who "are vital, and distil for you more sheer essence than you will find in any average and laborious novel."  And indeed, Father Raven, although a comparatively slim collection of brief stories, has the richness of many a lesser writer's entire oeuvre.

No comments:

Post a Comment