decemberthirty: (tree swallow)
A man worries vaguely about his sister while stuck in the Paris airport after his flight is cancelled. A young couple pay two separate visits--first to his parents and later to her family--and they each react differently to the way the presence of the other causes contexts to shift and familiar things and people to seem strange. Three strangers return to the house of their godmother, where they all spent time as children, to sort her possessions after her death. A daughter-in-law spends a weekend in the country with her husband's family.

It's difficult to summarize the stories in Tessa Hadley's collection Married Love. The plots are too wispy and too subtle to be captured in a sentence or two. Anything I write seems to say both too much and too little. The stories are richer than any summary can convey, but also finer and more delicate. But this is what I loved about the stories--the way they are little ineffable things themselves, brushing at the ineffable things of life. They reminded me of stories by Alice Munro in the way they felt so complete (each one a world unto itself) and the way they ranged so widely, encompassing entire lives' worth of memories and backstory in the space of a few thousand words. And they reminded me of A.S. Byatt's short fiction in their disregard for the conventional structural expectations of short stories.

In case it's not already obvious, I found Married Love unendingly pleasurable to read. I wanted it to go on forever and ever. But what I loved most about it (and what I envied beyond belief) was its effortlessness. I wrote earlier about Hadley's prose, each sentence obviously carefully crafted yet in such a way that the work never showed. The whole book was like that, in every element: the characterization, the plotting, the movements backward and forward in time. Oh, that my work could ever feel a fraction as effortless as these stories! Beautiful, beautiful.

The edition of Married Love that I read had one of those sections of supplemental material that are occasionally found at the backs of books--the sort of thing that sometimes contains discussion questions for book clubs, or previews of the author's next work, or whatever. This one contained a little four page autobiography by Tessa Hadley and a short essay on the writing of the stories in Married Love. One thing I learned is that Tessa Hadley is one of the late-in-life writers who I find so encouraging (and who we were talking about last week, [livejournal.com profile] marchioness): she was nearly 50 when she published her first book. She said a few other things I liked too.

About the years she spent raising children before going back to university and then pursuing her writing career, Hadley writes

I'm sure my daughters-in-law can't imagine a retreat so complete and dull-seeming as those years of shopping and cooking and cleaning and waiting in the school playground. They're right, probably. Though there's something to be said for all that slow invisible work the mind does when it isn't buoyed along by anything outside.

About short stories:

For me short stories represent a wonderful kind of writing freedom. In a novel, each element as you introduce it will have to have its fulfillment later and be woven into the created whole fabric of the book. In a short story, you can be irresponsible. The short form is so good at catching life on the wing, flashes from the intensity and mystery of people's inner lives, their strange motivations, their yearnings. [...] I think you have to feel that you can hold a story in one hand, however it sprawls. It's a single thing; it's a single room, if you like, in the house of fiction. Whereas a novel is a whole house, and the writer (and reader) can move around inside its different spaces.

If you had to wait until the end of a novel to find out what to make of it, the novel would fail. But you can hold a short story in suspension as you read, waiting to see: Where will this go? Where must it stop? What does it mean, that it stops there? [...] a moment comes that seems to clinch something or change something, but it's not obvious what or how.
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