Forgotten Authors: No 8: William Sansom

Christopher Fowler
Sunday 05 October 2008 00:00
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Here's a truly forgotten author, all but expunged from literary history. William Sansom was once described as London's closest equivalent to Franz Kafka. He wrote in hallucinatory detail, bringing every image into pin-sharp focus. It was his strength and weakness; it made his stories hauntingly memorable, but his technique often left his characters feeling under-developed.

His style was as cool and painstaking as that of Henry Green, also a wartime firefighter. His 1944 collection Fireman Flower, and Other Short Stories may be his pinnacle. In "The Little Room", a nun waits for death after being bricked up in her windowless cell for an unnamed transgression. To make her fate worse, a meter on the wall marks the incremental loss of the air in the room, and Sansom describes her changing state of mind with passion and clinical precision.

The 1948 novella "The Equilibriad" owes a little too much to Kafka but shares the same strangeness, as the hero awakes to find himself able to walk only at a 45-degree angle. Sansom was also good with an opening hook. One story starts, "How did the three boys ever come to spend their lives in the water-main junction?"

Sansom's publisher described his work as "modern fables", but what makes them so ripe for rediscovery is their freshness and currency. His characters face inscrutable futures with patience and resignation, knowing that they can do little to influence the outcome of their lives. Sometimes terrible events, such as the collapse of a burning wall, slow down and expand to engulf the reader.

One of his strangest tales is "The Long Sheet", in which captives are required to wring out a great wet sheet with their hands, and the process is described in flesh-smarting detail. Nor can the sheet ever be completely dried, because fresh moisture is constantly sprayed on it. But the final lines of the story reveal the true nature of torment while pointing the way to another prescient writer, J G Ballard.

Sansom writes of head-aching hatreds and hopeless ecstasies, of malevolent objects and wasted lives. In his short fiction, he'd describe a taxi or an umbrella in a way that elided him with the characters of his novels. He fell from favour, but now there is a movement to rediscover his finest works.

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