Time's a great stealer

FOUR LAST THINGS by William Palmer Secker pounds 12.99
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Some writers are masters of timing. With this, his first collection of stories, William Palmer goes one better and establishes himself as a Master of Time itself.

As a subject, it has already figured strongly in his three previous novels - The Good Republic, Leporello and The Contract. With this powerful volume, however, he is able to come at it from a variety of angles, exploring not just the way in which the past interacts with the present, but also the disappointment and regret inherent in that exchange.

In the title story, which occupies almost half the length of the collection, Cornelius Marten, an ageing, forgotten, booze-sozzled author, reviews his life in the company of a young researcher and the latter's girlfriend. "Do you know what the last four things are?" Marten inquires of his guests. "In the Christian Catechism they are Heaven, Hell, Judgement and Death. But in our secular age they should perhaps be changed. I suggest - First Love, Friendship, Betrayal and Death." One by one Marten takes these "four last things" and uses them as hooks upon which to hang reminiscences of his past. He resurrects his first lover, his closest friend, his early poetry, his wartime job, in each case releasing memories of pain and betrayal and unsatisfactory conclusions. His first love gets pregnant by another man; his best friend has an affair with his wife; the wartime agents for whom he provides false identities are betrayed and shot. Although the quintet of books for which Marten has become famous are entitled "The Conquest of Time," in reality Time has conquered him, leaving him embittered, squandering his creative energies on vain attempts to rewrite his own history.

This sense of rueful hopelessness, of Time as a receptacle of regrets and missed opportunities, carries over into the volume's other stories. A senile school-teacher dwells upon the single poem he published 40 years previously; an old Russian woman contemplates how much better it was in the days of her youth; a legendary jazz saxophonist giving one final performance in a world of which he is no longer a part - they are all, in their way, characters who have been left in the cold by the onward rush of years. "Perhaps," suggests Cornelius Marten, "all of life is simply the pre-selection of material which we then, at our leisure, proceed to fuck up."

On the strength of his previous books, it was to be expected that Palmer would produce something exceptional in the realm of the short story. The depth and eloquence of this fine collection, however, might surprise even the most ardent admirers of his novels. He revels in character and language, in the gradual, intricate revelation of plot-lines and themes; and while his protagonists dwell on failure and regret, Palmer, with this volume to his name, should be doing quite the opposite.