Some time ago in Penguin New Writing John Lehmann asked for funny stories to print. He also suggested that both women and men would be leaping to their desks at the end of war to write the fiction they’d been bottling up during the war years. None of this is showing in what he’s publishing in Penguin New Writing. There is no humour at all, and several male authors are becoming regular, repeat contributors, while the women authors published so far can be counted on the fingers of one hand. In his Foreword for this first issue of 1948 Lehmann rails against National Service, and the impossible hoops that authors have to jump through to gain exemption. Given that only male authors feature in this issue, and only men were conscripted in peacetime, it’s pretty obvious that Lehmann doesn’t consider post-war women as authors, or have much interest in publishing what they might write. With editors like him, who needs enemies?
However, with authors like P H Newby, the woman’s perspective is not wholly ignored. ‘Crowning Glory’ is about the cutting off of a teenage girl’s long hair, at her mother’s instructions, against her father’s wishes. The barber’s hands are delicately intrusive, and the gypsy’s warning comes true. Newby is one of the few authors that Lehmann publishes who writes about women as fully and perceptively as he does about men.
A short story by the well-known literary critic Lionel Trilling — ‘Of This Time, Of This Place’— was unexpected but jolly good, positing the question of what an American professor can do when presented with madness in the classroom. How to grade incomprehensible brilliance, and how to suppress uncomprehending entitlement?
I was cautious about the critical essays, the last few issues having produced very little that was readable, but this issue has A D B Sylvester’s ‘A Chapter of Revelations’, a splendid report on the fuss and outrage caused by the National Gallery’s move to clean some of its paintings. Their account of conservation techniques, the physics of colour, pigment weirdness and the revealing huffery of eminent critics of the day is seriously entertaining.
Pause here to admire the emotion shared by Alec Guinness’s Richard II and Harry Andrews as Gaveston, in the Old Vic’s 1947 production.
The magazine’s enforced black and white reproductions of paintings don’t do much for the smudgier, blotchier styles, but John Minton’s Corsican landscapes come across beautifully. Crisp and solid.
In lengthy succession we have Andre Gide’s essay on Paul Valéry and Lehmann himself on James Joyce. Both are undoubtedly important but I could not summon the interest to read them. Penguin New Writing seems to have a tediously instructive element which is beginning to annoy me. However, William Sansom’s essay on Edgar Allen Poe explains much about his alarmingly gothic fiction that we’ve read in earlier issues: this was worth ploughing through.
This issue ends with reportage, so much more enjoyable and interesting to read than pompous criticism. Alan Ross’s ‘From a Corsican Notebook’ offers pretty much what it says on the tin: bar scenes, girls glimpsed sunbathing, traditional male fierceness, and buses with steering wheels on both sides. Keith B Poole’s ‘The Gift’ is an expertly crafted snippet of memoir from the war, shaped to fit a story’s outline and its tensions, but presented as fact. Which makes the box of severed human ears, presented to a squaddie as a gift at the end, all the more unnerving.