The Short Story

IN the Preface to Cosmopolitans (Doubleday, Doran, $2.50), his latest collection of short stories, Somerset Maugham writes in re the novel: ‘If it does not entertain you it is a bad novel. Nor does he fail to apply this wise dictum to the short story as well; witness what he has further to say: ‘I hope the reader will not think it presumptuous on my part to have touched on these matters of theory in a preface written to introduce a little collection of very short stories. I wish merely to warn him that I ask nothing from him but that he should find them amusing.’ Well, they are ‘amusing" and they do ‘entertain.”Written on commission from Cosmopolitan to fill a limited space requirement, they are for the most part expanded anecdotes — but the author has said ail that, too. The fact is, it is not an ‘important’ book, — Gott sei Dank there are a few such being written still! — but one to be read ‘now and then when he [the reader] has nothing better to do.’
Somewhat more pretentious is Kay Boyle’s latest, The White Horses of Vienna (Harcourt, Brace, $2.50), Although these stories, too, offer ‘intelligent entertainment,”they do most of the other things as well. They do not do them, either, in the stark and forbidding ways of so many of Miss Boyle’s contemporaries, but with a dexterity and lightness of touch that is, if anything, too deft at times. But there is an almost mediaeval grace and beauty about these faraway people whom Miss Boyle limns, about their comings and goings, with just enough that is ‘modern’ thrown in to affirm their verisimilitude. Marie de France herself, I think, would have been proud to have written: ‘In a while the three hundred beasts were herded into the courtyard, and then came the man and his son, with their blankets and sticks, and their shepherd’s capes on them, walking dark and hooded out of the deepening mist.’
In marked contrast to these volumes is Thomas Wolfe’s collection, From Death to Morning (Scribners, $2.50). ‘Fields, hills, mountains, riffers, cities, peoples — you vish to know about zem all,’ says one of his characters to him, adding, ‘Vun field, vun hill, vun riffer . . . zat iss enough.’ I can state his peculiarity no more successfully. Unlike Maugham and Miss Boyle, who invariably suggest the universal in the individual and personal, Wolfe more often than not strives to comprehend the small through the large — or, indeed, only the large. And since several of the stories in this volume, I suspect, are but independent sections salvaged from the grand-scale cutting of his novels — or modifications of those sections — the same charges of literary gigantism may be made against them as against his two previous books. But there are exceptions — notably the one called ‘ One of the Girls in Our Party ’ — which reveal a little-known aspect of Wolfe’s prodigious gifts and in which he has achieved a success that is about as complete as is possible in the short-story form. Utilizing with the utmost discrimination such difficult devices as the stream-of-consciousness and epistolary methods in the piece mentioned, he has transmitted to his reader by words rather than by implication alone the profoundest emotions of an inarticulate nature. I also recommend especially ‘The Far and the Near’ and ’In the Park,’and, for those who are perplexed by Wolfe’s way of seeing things, ‘Gulliver,’ which is the story of a man of six feet six in a world of five feet eight.