The year I’ve just been back to is 1991 – my first year of living in the USA, and a year in which I seem to have read only 18 books. Two of them were pretty big, though: Charles Palliser’s pseudo-Victorian The Quincunx (at the beginning of the year) and Our Mutual Friend in the later part of the year. This was also the year my mother died, at the end of the summer in her 81st year; more or less at the same time I was feeling my way into a new role as editor of an American university’s weekly newspaper-cum-propaganda-sheet, leaving me little time (as I recall) for literary exploration.
Still, I managed to discover some US authors I hadn’t read before: Allan Gurganus, Andre Dubus, Peter Cameron … and Peter Taylor, whose In the Miro District I’ve chosen to re-read, mainly because it is still on my shelves. Who he? A well-thought-of US fiction writer (1917-1994), his fame doesn’t seem to have crossed the Atlantic. I don’t think I’d heard of him before I moved to live in the US; and maybe it was only after I had picked up this book, with its “Pulitzer Prize winner” label, in one of Boston’s (then) many second-hand-book stores that I perhaps knew anything about him at all. The cover of this paperback (see below) is rather odd, incidentally: it’s not credited to any artist, and I’m not sure what story it’s supposed to illustrate.
I have to admit that my memory’s not much help here: at no point in my re-reading this collection of eight short stories did anything come back to me from 1991. In other words, it felt like I was reading In the Miro District for the first time. What did I think of it? At first I was put off a little by the “Southernness” of the stories: nearly all of them are set in Tennessee, and quite a few of them purport to recall a past well before they were written, in the 1970s. They are also nearly all about well-off white families, who often have (black) servants. Take the opening story, ‘The Captain’s Son’: it begins with a disquisition about the differences between Nashville and Memphis – not the Memphis of the 1970s (where, after all, Martin Luther King had been shot only a few years previously) or the Nashville of country music fame, but as it was during the 1930s, among socially important families who have histories of grievance and entitlement stretching back to the “Spanish War” or earlier. “[D]uring those Depression years our family was doing whatever it decently could to cut corners,” the narrator notes at one point, but it is clear that economic conditions have little to do with the story of his older sister and her unfortunate marriage.
Once I got past my own prejudices I have to admit Taylor was a skilful writer, capable of a few surprises. The least “Southern” and backward-looking of his stories, ‘Her Need’ and ‘The Instruction of a Mistress’ both have unexpected trajectories: these and two others are written – I’m still not sure why – in irregular-length lines of free verse:
She tries to imagine herself
In one of those other parts of town
That she never went into as a girl.
And she doesn’t feel like herself at all.
She feels like something
That somebody else has made up. [‘Her Need’]
I remember your longing to know
How the man who wrote that poetry in his youth
Could waste the rest of his life
Writing those dull essays, those endless analyses … [‘The Instruction of a Mistress’]
We’re back in Tennessee for the final story in the book, ‘In the Miro District’, which is set in Nashville “in or around 1925”. It is a sort of meditation, from the vantage point of old age, on the narrator’s youth and his odd relationship as a teenager with his grandfather, a veteran of the Civil War (rather like, I suppose, from a very different point of view, Alice Munro’s narrators often look back on earlier periods of their life). It seems to have quite a personal basis: according to Wikipedia, Taylor’s grandfather had fought in the Confederate army and also (just like the grandfather in the title story) had a narrow escape from death at the hands of Tennessee’s notorious Night Riders. It’s the longest and, in some ways, the most technically accomplished of the stories in this volume.
So anyway, in the end I was quite grateful for this revisit to Taylor’s world. Next month – what? I haven’t decided yet …
Also read in March: in fiction, Charlotte Bronte’s The Professor (not a patch on Jane Eyre) and Last Friends by Jane Gardam (sequel to, but not as good as, her Old Filth). And in non-fiction, quite a few articles and chapters on the philosophy of sport.