“It is like the act of love, he thought again. You try to make it last longer. Draw out the sweet final moment. But it can’t be held at that point. It has to go over and down, it has to be finished. And then you feel cheated somehow.” – ‘Gift of an Apple’
I was given a copy of Tennessee Williams’ collected stories by my father. He had found it in a second-hand bookshop in New Orleans. Its cover is disintegrating and the pages are yellowed, but I love this book not just for its outward appearance but also for its remarkable content. Williams’ stories, written over a period of about forty years starting in the late 1920s, often offer a portrait of a swath of the American population at the time. Many are concerned with homosexual men (as Williams was himself), women who are victims of the context in which they were born into, and other marginalised figures in society. The Introduction to the stories, written by Gore Vidal, is informative about their content. He explains that Williams’ immediate family, as well as his lovers, acted as the springboard from which he created his characters. ‘The Man in the Overstuffed Chair’ is directly concerned with his alcoholic father, whereas ‘Grand’ is about his grandmother. Some of the stories were used as a framework for his plays.
The tone of the stories is candid and engaging, and the characters are realistically depicted. Although some of his later stories become heavily pornographic, they remain interesting and allow the reader to better understand the creative arc of Williams’ work. One of the stories that struck me most was ‘The Vengeance of Nitocris’. It is the first in the collection and was published in 1930. Although it is not concerned with Williams’ habitual subject of the underdogs in American society, it is certainly riveting. It is about an event that occurred in ancient Egypt when the sister of the pharaoh avenges her dead brother by slaughtering those responsible for his death in a supremely savage way. The tension is built up superbly and Williams expertly captures Nitocris’ insatiable desire for revenge. Others I enjoyed included ‘Ten Minute Stop’, ‘The Field of Blue Children’ and ‘Two on a Party’.
I read many of the stories over a period of mid-autumn travel during which I was lucky enough to encounter many old and dear friends. I had a delicious and revivifying breakfast of poached eggs on sourdough in Tamper in the spectacularly steep and lovely British midland town of Sheffield. This occurred after a dawn flight and dizzying bus journey through the Peak District and was certainly most welcome. The weather was overcast and brooding, but good eggs, excellent literature and the best company made the occasion momentous and happy in the extreme.