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‘Tomorrow’ by Elisabeth Russell Taylor ****

I very much enjoyed Elisabeth Russell Taylor’s short story collection, Belated (review here), when I received a review copy upon its publication, and have been trying to seek out her work ever since.  It has unfortunately proved difficult to find any of her titles, but thankfully, Daunt Books have recently reissued her 1991 novella, Tomorrow.

9781911547129Shena Mackay writes that Tomorrow is ‘a memorable and poignant novel made all the more heartbreaking by the quiet dignity of its central character and the restraint of its telling.’  Elaine Feinstein points out that Russell Taylor ‘writes brilliantly of emptiness, and the need for love’, and Publishers Weekly highlights, rather fantastically, that ‘Russell Taylor mingles the elegant with the grotesque, as if seating Flaubert next to William S. Burroughs at dinner.’

Tomorrow takes place in 1960, on the Danish island of Mon, where ‘a number of ill-assorted guests have gathered’ to spend their summer holidays.  The protagonist is Elisabeth Danzinger, ‘plain, middle-aged… a woman so utterly predictable in her habits that she has come to the island every summer for the last fifteen years.’  Elisabeth grew up holidaying on Mon, where her parents owned a holiday home.  The pilgrimage which she makes for seven days each summer gives her the opportunity to remember her tumultuous past.  Her itinerary never changes, and she expects that every holiday will be exactly the same as the one before; she revels in, and takes comfort from, this certainty.

At the outset of the novella, which runs to just 136 pages, the current employer of Elisabeth in England writes in a letter: ‘Despite living under the same roof as Miss Danzinger for fifteen years, I can tell you little about her.  You must have noticed for yourself: she was hardly prepossessing.  As for her character, I would describe it as secretive, verging on the smug.  I do not know anything about her background, she never mentioned it, but I did observe she spent her afternoons off differently from my English servants.  She was a great aficionado of the museums and once a month, I believe, she attended a theatre.’  This is the first description which we as readers receive of Elisabeth, who proves to be rather a complex character.

Russell Taylor continues with this level of depth and attention to detail throughout.  When Elisabeth arrives at the hotel, Russell Taylor describes the way in which ‘She could hear the sea breathing through the twittering of the sparrows that nested in the wisteria.  She consulted her watch; she rose, put a cotton kimono over her petticoat, threw a salt-white bath towel over her arm, picked up her sponge bag, opened the bedroom door quietly, looked right and left along the corridor and, satisfied that no one was about, crossed quickly to the bathroom.’  Mon has been made a presence in itself, with Russell Taylor’s vivid descriptions and sketches of island life building to make it feel as though one is there, alongside Elisabeth at all times.  A wonderful focus has been given to sight and colour; for instance, when ‘Far our at sea, when ultramarine turned to Prussian, three fishing boats floated motionless’, and later, ‘Over a barely discernible grey sheet of water was thrown an equally grey shroud of sky, but the shroud was torn in places to reveal streaks of blood red and aquamarine blue.’

The loneliness which Elaine Feinstein picks out in her review has been given such attention, and is written about with emotion and understanding: ‘She was filled with an overwhelming sense of loss as she wandered from tree to tree, recognising many, feeling herself refused: she had overstayed her welcome in the world.  Life conducted itself independently of her.  The scents from the sodden earth filled her with an intolerable weight of memory; not that of individual occasions but of the entire past.’

Tomorrow is a beautifully written novella, filled with depth.  Mon comes to life beneath Russell Taylor’s pen, as do the characters she constructs.  From time to time, the secondary characters do not feel entirely realistic or plausible, but the very depth of Elisabeth’s character more than makes up for this.  Tomorrow is so well informed, and feels timeless; the issues which it tackles – in part, grief, solitude, and the legacy of the Holocaust – are written about with such gravity and compassion that one cannot help but be moved as the work reaches its conclusion.

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One From the Archive: ‘Belated’ by Elisabeth Russell Taylor ****

Belated, the newest short story collection from Elisabeth Russell Taylor, has been recently issued in a gorgeous edition by Kimblewood Press.  Only three of the sixteen stories included within it have been published in various magazines, and even if you have read them before, it is possible to view them with a fresh eye. 

The book’s blurb states that each one of the stories in this collection ‘sparkles with Russell Taylor’s extraordinary talent’.  She is ‘unafraid’, it goes on to say, ‘to probe the dark corners of character… [and] sharpens her teeth on the casual cruelties, subtle ironies and alarming contradictions of everyday life’.  Indeed, Russell Taylor is an author whose work is highly praised.  She has been shortlisted for several prizes during her writing career, including the Jewish Book of the Year, and publications think highly of her. The Times Literary Supplement, for example, writes that Russell Taylor’s ‘reflective, lyrical prose’ is ‘much admired by other writers’, and one can certainly see why.

Russell Taylor herself is a fascinating woman, and it is clear to see that her own experiences have influenced some of the tales within Belated.  Amongst other things, she has lived in several different countries, took her degree at King’s College London at the age of fifty two, and has even starred as an extra in a production of Aïda in Covent Garden.  Despite being rather a prolific author – she has over twenty titles to her name when one counts the four anthologies which she is included within, two of which are on the Virago Modern Classics list – Russell Taylor oddly seems to be little read.  It is with hope that the publication of Belated will bring her the wider readership which she so deserves.

The titles of the tales within Belated are as varied as the scenes and characters which they present.  They range from ‘Who She?’ and ‘Les Amants’, to ‘The Unexpected Marriage of Vanilla to the Stars’.  The settings span many geographical locations, and encompass small French villages and nineteenth-century Moscow just as well as post-war London and modern day English seaside towns.  The order of the stories has been well considered, and works nicely. Throughout, Russell Taylor touches upon many themes – loneliness, relationships, the melancholy which comes with living after the death of a loved one, poverty, wealth, illness, eccentricity, immigration and the devastation of war, to name but a few.

The longer works at the beginning of Belated give a real feel for Russell Taylor’s style and shrewd eye very early on.  The way in which she presents intricate slices of the everyday are reminiscent of the fabulous Alice Munro.  The sheer scope of the tales show just how good an author she is, and one cannot help but think that she could deftly turn her hand to writing anything which she pleased.

Throughout, Russell Taylor describes her characters marvellously, so much so that a picture of each and every one is built up immediately in the mind.  In ‘Les Amants’, seventy-year-old Fleur Cortot is ‘somewhat stooped, her once flawless complexion the texture of crumpled linen and her once gold-red hair the colour of thin cream’, and in ‘The Contract’, her reimagining of Eugene Onegin, Tatiana ‘was left standing alone, still as marble, yet so fragile that a sharp-edged word might fell her’.  The eccentric Alicia in one of the later stories is so sensitively wrought.  She presents the human psyche marvellously.

Throughout, Russell Taylor’s writing is stunning, and the details which she describes are often startling and reminiscent of the darker aspects of life.  Such phrases as ‘gold rope ties thick enough to hang a man’, ‘a cock crow cleaved the dark’, ‘the air was hard as glass’ and ‘the silver snake of the river’ ensure that all of her stories are tinged with menace.

The earliest three stories here are inspired by different quotes, ranging from thinkers as diverse as Pushkin and Simone Weil.  It would have been lovely had this theme of sorts been extended to cover all of the stories, to show that despite the way in which each is a separate imagining, they are still connected to one another nonetheless.  Still, Belated is a marvellous collection of short stories, which has something within its wonderful cover design to please each and every reader.

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Short Story Series: Part One

I adore reading short stories, and don’t see many reviews of collections on blogs in comparison to novels and the like.  I thought that I would make a weekly series to showcase short stories, and point interested readers in the direction of some of my favourite collections.  Rather than ramble in adoration for every single book, I have decided to copy their official blurb.  I have linked my blog reviews where appropriate.

1. Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams by Sylvia Plath
‘This collection of short stories, essays, and diary excerpts highlights her fierce concentration on craft, the vitality of her intelligence, and the yearnings of her imagination. Featuring an introduction by Plath’s husband, the late British poet Ted Hughes, these writings also reflect themes and images she would fully realize in her poetry. “Johnny Panic and the Bible of Dreams” truly showcases the talent and genius of Sylvia Plath.’

2. Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell
‘An awkward teen with a terrible haircut has a reversal of fortune when he finds artefacts from the future lining a seagulls’ nest. In a godforsaken barn, Presidents Eisenhower, John Adams and Rutherford B. Hayes are bemused to find themselves reincarnated as horses. Clyde and Magreb – he a traditional capes-and-coffins vampire, she the more progressive variety – settle in an Italian lemon grove in the hope that its ripe fruit will keep their thirst for blood at bay.’

3. Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters by J.D. Salinger
‘First published in “The New Yorker” in the 1950s, “Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: an Introduction” are two novellas narrated by Buddy Glass, a character often said to be a portrait of Salinger himself. In the first, Buddy has taken leave from the army during World War II to attend the wedding of the eldest Glass brother, Seymour, and an atmosphere of portentous suspense sets the scene for the tragedy that will follow. In the second, Buddy reminisces about Seymour and the novella unfolds into a deep and far-reaching exploration of a complex and sad character which displays all the tenderness and subtlety which distinguish the best of Salinger’s writing.’

4. Collected Stories by Carol Shields
‘In the Collected Stories we bring together Carol Shields’ original short-story volumes, Various Miracles, The Orange Fish and Dressing Up for the Carnival, as well as many stories not previously published in the UK, including ‘Segue’, her last work. In these stories the author combines the dazzling virtuosity and wise maturity that won so many readers to her prize-winning novels such as The Stone Diaries and Unless.’

5. The Whole Story and Other Stories by Ali Smith
‘This is a brilliant new collection of stories from a much loved and highly praised author. It presents stories for people who’ve grown up being told time is running out and don’t want it to. How do you ever know the whole story? How do you ever know even part of the story? How do you find meaning when chance and coincidence could, after all, just be chance and coincidence? In a celebration of connections and missed connections, an inquiry into everything from flies and trees and books to sex, art, drunkenness and love, Smith rewrites the year’s cycle into a very modern calendar.’

6. Belated by Elisabeth Russell Taylor
‘From award-winning writer Elisabeth Russell Taylor comes a dazzling new collection of short stories. Whether examining the unspoken deals brokered in every marriage, the inherent menace of daily exchanges or the secret lives of the unattached, each of these sixteen stories sparkles with Russell Taylor’s extraordinary talent. ‘The Contract’ brilliantly reimagines Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin; ‘Supporting Roles’ reverses the client-therapist relationship; ‘Charlotte’ looks at the life of a Jewish immigrant in postwar London; ‘Les Amants’ is a lyrical paean to love and loss in rural France; ‘Take Care’ sees the visitors getting too comfortable in a house that’s not theirs; ‘The Inquest’ is a whimsical feat of magical realism; while ‘Who She?’ and ‘Carter’ explore the mysteries and complications of identity. Here is a writer unafraid to probe the dark corners of character, who sharpens her teeth on the casual cruelties, subtle ironies and alarming contradictions of everyday life.’

My review can be found here.

7. New York Stories, edited by Diana Secker Tesdell
‘An irresistible anthology of classic tales of New York in the tradition of “Christmas Stories, Love Stories, “and “Stories of the Sea. ” Writers have always been enthralled and inspired by New York City, and their vibrant and varied stories provide a kaleidoscopic vision of the city’s high life, low life, nightlife, and everything in between. From the wisecracking Broadway guys and dolls of Damon Runyon to the glittering ballrooms of Edith Wharton, from the jazz- soaked nightspots of Jack Kerouac and James Baldwin to the starry- eyed tourists in John Cheever and Shirley Jackson to the ambitious immigrants conjured by Edwidge Danticat and Junot Diaz– this is New York in all its grittiness and glamour. Here is the hectic, dazzling chaos of Times Square and the elegant calm of galleries in the Met; we meet Yiddish matchmakers in the Bronx, Haitian nannies in Central Park, starving artists, and hedonistic yuppies–a host of vivid characters nursing their dreams in the tiny apartments, the lonely cafes, and the bustling streets of the city that never sleeps.’

8. The Doll’s House and Other Stories by Sylvia Townsend Warner
‘Recently discovered in the New York Public Library archives, these four short stories by Sylvia Townsend Warner are as sharply insightful and observant as all her writing. They are published for the first time exclusively in ebook format alongside the new editions of her celebrated novels The Corner that Held Them and Lolly Willowes, which have brand new introductions by Philip Hensher and Sarah Waters.’

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‘Belated’ by Elisabeth Russell Taylor ****

Belated, the newest short story collection from Elisabeth Russell Taylor, has been recently issued in a gorgeous edition by Kimblewood Press.  Only three of the sixteen stories included within it have been published in various magazines, and even if you have read them before, it is possible to view them with a fresh eye.

‘Belated’ by Elisabeth Russell Taylor (Kimblewood Press)

The book’s blurb states that each one of the stories in this collection ‘sparkles with Russell Taylor’s extraordinary talent’.  She is ‘unafraid’, it goes on to say, ‘to probe the dark corners of character… [and] sharpens her teeth on the casual cruelties, subtle ironies and alarming contradictions of everyday life’.  Indeed, Russell Taylor is an author whose work is highly praised.  She has been shortlisted for several prizes during her writing career, including the Jewish Book of the Year, and publications think highly of her. The Times Literary Supplement, for example, writes that Russell Taylor’s ‘reflective, lyrical prose’ is ‘much admired by other writers’, and one can certainly see why.

Russell Taylor herself is a fascinating woman, and it is clear to see that her own experiences have influenced some of the tales within Belated.  Amongst other things, she has lived in several different countries, took her degree at King’s College London at the age of fifty two, and has even starred as an extra in a production of Aïda in Covent Garden.  Despite being rather a prolific author – she has over twenty titles to her name when one counts the four anthologies which she is included within, two of which are on the Virago Modern Classics list – Russell Taylor oddly seems to be little read.  It is with hope that the publication of Belated will bring her the wider readership which she so deserves.

The titles of the tales within Belated are as varied as the scenes and characters which they present.  They range from ‘Who She?’ and ‘Les Amants’, to ‘The Unexpected Marriage of Vanilla to the Stars’.  The settings span many geographical locations, and encompass small French villages and nineteenth-century Moscow just as well as post-war London and modern day English seaside towns.  The order of the stories has been well considered, and works nicely. Throughout, Russell Taylor touches upon many themes – loneliness, relationships, the melancholy which comes with living after the death of a loved one, poverty, wealth, illness, eccentricity, immigration and the devastation of war, to name but a few.

The longer works at the beginning of Belated give a real feel for Russell Taylor’s style and shrewd eye very early on.  The way in which she presents intricate slices of the everyday are reminiscent of the fabulous Alice Munro.  The sheer scope of the tales show just how good an author she is, and one cannot help but think that she could deftly turn her hand to writing anything which she pleased.

Throughout, Russell Taylor describes her characters marvellously, so much so that a picture of each and every one is built up immediately in the mind.  In ‘Les Amants’, seventy-year-old Fleur Cortot is ‘somewhat stooped, her once flawless complexion the texture of crumpled linen and her once gold-red hair the colour of thin cream’, and in ‘The Contract’, her reimagining of Eugene Onegin, Tatiana ‘was left standing alone, still as marble, yet so fragile that a sharp-edged word might fell her’.  The eccentric Alicia in one of the later stories is so sensitively wrought.  She presents the human psyche marvellously.

Throughout, Russell Taylor’s writing is stunning, and the details which she describes are often startling and reminiscent of the darker aspects of life.  Such phrases as ‘gold rope ties thick enough to hang a man’, ‘a cock crow cleaved the dark’, ‘the air was hard as glass’ and ‘the silver snake of the river’ ensure that all of her stories are tinged with menace.

The earliest three stories here are inspired by different quotes, ranging from thinkers as diverse as Pushkin and Simone Weil.  It would have been lovely had this theme of sorts been extended to cover all of the stories, to show that despite the way in which each is a separate imagining, they are still connected to one another nonetheless.  Still, Belated is a marvellous collection of short stories, which has something within its wonderful cover design to please each and every reader.

Purchase from the Book Depository