Saturday, 16 October 2010

"Selected Stories" by Julian Maclaren-Ross

As I may have mentioned before, short stories are not one of my favourite art forms, although I seem to come back to those of E.M. Forster (which I first read at school) at regular intervals. I read these Maclaren-Ross stories when they were re-issued a few years back, intrigued as much as anything by the title of Bitten by the Tarantula. I was struck then by the writing style. There is the lean, sparse style of Hammett and Chandler, by whom he admitted he was greatly influenced, but this is blended with occasional genuinely poetic insight, which feels more like Anthony Powell. Reading his biography, Fear and Loathing in Fitzrovia, by Paul Willetts, who also edited his stories, caused me to go rummaging through the wardrobes to find them and read them again.

The more time passes since his untimely death in 1964, the more clear it becomes that he was, if not a great writer, then a great writer manque (sorry, Blogger does not seem to allow for acute accents). As one of the obituaries said at the time, it will always be a matter for regret that he did not produce the great novel that his contemporaries were expecting from him. However, his range was remarkable. As well as his stories, he was a screenwriter, a radio playwright and a talented and consistently insightful book reviewer. He also translated French books for English publication.

A gregarious man who more or less lived in various pubs throughout his life (a factor which undoubtedly contributed to his early death), he knew all the great writers of the day, including Orwell, Powell and Greene, all of whom he admired, especially the latter. Indeed, according to his widow, "Graham Greene" were the last words which he somewhat puzzlingly gasped as he suffered his fatal heart attack in hospital. Olivia Manning was the wife of a close friend, and he also knew the likes of Tambimuttu, and shared an office with Dylan Thomas. Incidentally, the character X.Trapnel in Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time is based directly upon Maclaren-Ross

That he never wrote that novel must remain a source of personal regret given my own ambivalence about short stories (which many contemporary "novels" now resemble), but also surely to the wider literary community. One senses that he could have given someone like John Braine a run for his money.

Incidentally, the biography is very well written, and like all good biographers, Willetts manages to find the telling phrase to sum up this complex and contradictory character. Maclaren-Ross, he says, was "a mediocre caretaker of his own immense talent".

No comments: