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William Sansom’s Perfect Horrors

William Sansom’s Perfect Horrors

‘Welcome strangers! Come into my parlour, as a well-known spider said…’

(William Sansom, The Body, 1949)

I suspect you will know what I mean when I try to speak of a little literary subgenre we might usefully call ‘the nasty story.’ The type will surely seem clear to you if you have read, just for instance, ‘A Nasty Story’ by Dostoyevsky. Stories of this sort tend to centre upon a character – ideally but not necessarily painted for the reader in the first-person – who labours most painfully under a misunderstanding about life’s workings and the people around him, who doesn’t quite see the true extent of his own folly or pretentiousness or snobbery, or whatever. Someone who, in short, is cruising for a comeuppance, or worse, an outright calamity.

Very often nasty stories are portraits of a marriage, wherein the partners are simply incompatible, but sometimes it’s a case where a fellow ought really to appreciate more of what he has and love his wife a little better. Quite regularly nasty stories are comedies of acute social embarrassment – cf. Dostoyevsky. There may also be a hard twist in the tail: my generation grew up watching a great many nasty stories on television every Saturday night, courtesy of Roald Dahl’s ITV series Tales of the Unexpected. Vladimir Nabokov, self-appointed scourge of Dostoyevsky yet covertly kindred in certain ways, excelled at nastiness and in Laughter in the Dark gave us a nasty story the very title of which indicated the type of reaction liable to be drawn from sophisticated readers…

But I digress, and must get to the point, which is William Sansom. Sansom was a gloriously gifted writer who could turn his hand to many forms and subjects, the nasty story merely one such. Finds has been delighted to reissue his novels A Bed of Roses and The Face of Innocence alongside his eyewitness/non-fictional The Blitz, but here I just draw your attention to our reissue of Sansom’s novel The Body. This tale concerns one Henry Bishop, a lightly-employed hairdresser by trade who considers himself ‘probably rather a dull man’, ‘left over from the home-hobby age.’ His wife Madge he tends to regard ‘most dispassionately’, with a sort of freezing irony (‘Together’, Henry remarks, ‘we passed what I think is one of the greatest tests of love — we felt a real sensation of toleration and pleasure when one of us did something against the other’s principles.’) But all this changes for Henry when a new neighbour, a car salesman, Charles Diver by name, appears to become most impertinently interested in Madge.

Sansom was a master of the short story, and his short-form work, fairly or not, has generally garnered more praise than his novels. But whatever the form he is always utterly brilliant on telling detail, with a true miniaturist’s eye and the ability to prolong a moment on the page, twisting and turning it across the run of sentences. (The Body, for instance, begins with Henry’s quite insane account of bringing down death upon a garden greenfly: ‘To hold the syringe gently, firmly but delicately – not to squirt, but to prod the sleeper into wakefulness with the nozzle, taking care to start no abrupt flight of fear…’) Frankly I would take Sansom any which way, long or short – he’s that good. On that note let me say 1) that Anthony Burgess included The Body in his selection of the 99 best post-WWII novels in English, and that 2) we also offer a cherishable selection of Sansom’s stories, introduced by Elizabeth Bowen. I recommend him to you with great enthusiasm and confidence…