BOOK REVIEW / Lost world of Southern comforts: The Oracle at Stoneleigh Court - Peter Taylor: Chatto, pounds 14.99

PETER TAYLOR is from Tennessee, and has been paying attention to it, one way and another, for almost 80 years. He is a master of the Memphis scene of the Thirties, and of the modern short story; his work is little known in Britain - where he is apt to be spoken of as a friend of the poet Robert Lowell - and is less than prominent, despite honours and awards, in America itself. His stories hark back to the Civil War South, and proceed towards the deluge of the Second World War, which enlists the sensitive young man who tends to narrate them, a young man fond of words and play and girls, and prone to acknowledgements of a genteel weakness. Many of Taylor's Southerners think of themselves as 'the special urban remnants of an old gentry out of another time'.

The stories in this new collection keep saying 'of course'. Sometimes there's no 'of course' about it. Sometimes, to the point of redundancy, there is: 'I was 14 in the summer of 1933 and of course 15 the next summer.' This recurrence of the expression seems inattentive of Taylor, but it isn't entirely so. The expression speaks of the course of time, and of matters of course, of the unchanging. His book can also give a sense of the arrival of a doubtful new world, after the deluge of the war. But it would be hard to read it as that of some Southern conservative, a praiser of the past.

These antediluvian stories are interested in comprehension, in power, and in strange powers. They are a lot taller than the ones I remember from 10 years ago: you have to ask yourself whether this Southern gentleman has gone supernatural. Each of the two main tales here, near-novellas, has its witch. The first witch is an old Washington hostess, astrological Aunt Gussie, who comes between the drafted narrator and his delicious date. The narrator is conscious, in retrospect, that his relations with the girl have been platonic, maidenly. Later he couples with her, brutishly, in the wartime manner, when the three meet again 'down in Memphis', where the sorceress has been taken to die.

The other story stars a jilted belle who goes queer in a fine old fairly shabby summer resort, amid a blaze of suspicious fires. Both stories are in the vein of the Jamesian occult, which forms part of an Edwardian occult, where the approach to the supernatural is, as often as not, hypothetical or tentative. In any naturalistic sense, they are not fully believable. Yet the possible presence of strange powers doesn't detract from, and can even enhance, preoccupations which are altogether authentic and which are very much Taylor's.

The book includes three ghostly playlets, charged with the intensities of family life. They are a bit too big for their one-act boots, and are no match for the human interest afforded by each and every one of the stories, the curiosity they arouse, the precise and delicate language of their narrators - those ghosts of Peter Taylor's childhood and youth. He has the ability to make lively and funny even so unpromising a theme as a fuss over the fate of a deconsecrated Episcopalian font at the back of the Tennessee beyond.

His talent suggests a common ground, rarely looked at now by literary historians, between the modern literatures of Britain and America, and it can bring to mind the work of certain English storytellers: Elizabeth Taylor, for example, and Francis Wyndham, whose stories do some of the things Peter Taylor's do with the advent of the Second World War, and have some of the same quiet and important virtues.

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