What a good writer EA Markham was. He died last year in Paris after enjoying too little of his retirement from his position as professor of creative writing at Sheffield Hallam University. His publisher announces this as his last volume of stories, which is a great pity. This book and its predecessors, Meet Me in Mozambique and At Home with Miss Vanesa, make up a wonderfully rich and entertaining trilogy.
In the title story, Winifred Belair has returned from France to the Caribbean island of Saint Caesare (modelled on Markham's native Montserrat). After unhappy relationships with a Frenchman and an English writer, summed up by her as an "intellectual jackarse", "Fred" is placing discreet ads to find a new man. The first to turn up is a bogus clergyman, who is given short shrift by Fred's women friends, who are sifting the applications.
This is fairly straightforward comic stuff, but there's no such thing, really, as a typical Markham story. And perhaps "story" is the wrong term for his highly original style of narration. Take "Passion": it begins with a discussion of dreams, then the narrator wakes from a dream, gets up and sets off for his language class. He gets lost in Paris, and this starts a train of thoughts on absent-mindedness and its progression to geriatric dementia. The story ends with our narrator hunting for something to read at night, dreading sleep and its dreams.
It is difficult to convey the complex richness of Markham's writing: "Passion" is shot through with literary allusions, asides and jokes, all in a perfectly paced narrative.
Despite the title, most of this book is taken up with the thoughts and memories of Pewter Stapleton. In many ways, Pewter is Markham's alter ego: writer, intellectual, Francophile, ex-professor, ruminating much on age and death. In "The Artist as an Old Man", he imagines his final days: "bitter and disillusioned, homeless, begging on the streets of Paris". A dark ending? Difficult to see it that way, with the book so radiantly full of life.