Harvill Secker £12.99 (275pp) £11.69 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Notwithstanding, By Louis de Bernières
Friday 09 October 2009
British publishers hate short stories. Their reasoning has nothing to do with literature and everything to do with sales figures. Unless a collection is notoriously shocking, like Ian McEwan's First Love, Last Rites, strung along a theme currently in the headlines, like Adam Mars-Jones and Edmund White's Aids-themed The Darker Proof, or its author blessed with a readership of fanatically loyal completists, it will rarely sell in significant numbers. Only in North America do story collections ever reach the top ten and I doubt whether, even there, publishers have much success in persuading supermarkets to stock them.
The fourth exception is the collection whose stories are so closely linked that it can be marketed and, indeed, reviewed as though it were a novel. Notwithstanding is one of these. Published or broadcast between 1996 and 2004, the stories are all set in a thinly disguised version of the Surrey village where Louis de Bernières grew up. Mostly set between the 1960s and the 1980s, they conjure a sense of small community by drawing on the same pool of characters and a sense of social irony by shifting the narrative focus from tale to tale. Almost everyone is revealed to have a concealed driving motive, usually a sad one. Even the repeatedly encountered characters who never get a story to themselves at least have their erratic behaviour explained. The cumulative effect is comic, benignly forgiving and shot through with threads of nostalgic regret.
De Bernières has a big heart and his narrative impulse tends always towards the revelation that everyone, however they try to disguise it, merits our love or at least our understanding. Inevitably this means he is often at risk of sentimentality. In his novels his defence is regular injections of brutality. Here, the brutality is largely in the natural world. Notwithstanding is as packed with animals as it is with characters – cats, dogs, squirrels, horses, moles, rats, birds, a goat and, notably, a spider – and if they're not dying, they're killing each other or being killed. De Bernières doesn't anthropomorphise them – although he brilliantly shows the depth of feeling that can exist between man and beast – but observes them with a naturalist's unsentimental eye, nowhere more successfully than in "Silly Bugger", in which a small boy rescues and tames a marvellously anarchic rook chick. As in The Cunning Little Vixen or the novels of Mary Webb, Nature and her creatures provide a chorus that at once justifies and debunks the posturing and weakness of the men and women in the foreground. "The pheasants that have survived the last season's holocaust strut ridiculously in the orchard, the males engaging in combat, while the females wait to be covered. The voice of the turtle is heard again in the land, but for the last time, because the turtle doves will not come again in subsequent years. They are exterminated pointlessly but systematically by the Maltese while en route from Africa."
If De Bernières doesn't always succeed in keeping sentimentality at bay, I suspect he doesn't give a hoot. He cares deeply for this vision of a vanished, or vanishing, English rusticity. He knows his ideals are outmoded but has the confidence born of sure knowledge. "In these parts Helen Allingham had painted her pictures of rose-draped cottages and the rural life thereabouts, to be condemned for ever by urban art snobs as a sentimentalist, even though those places were exactly as she depicted them, and often still are."
The honest vision he is celebrating is of "the England that the English used to love, when England was still loved by the English". Notwithstanding is a fond memorial to a corner of England where people still say "Drat", shoot, drive Hillman Minxes, make jam, wear ties at weekends and prefer poetry that rhymes, where a lesbian couple is respected but never spoken of as such. The urban art snobs will almost certainly sneer but, if listening figures for The Archers are any indication of a public appetite, Notwithstanding will sell, well, like a novel.
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