And for his exquisite short stories. The best of these were written in the late 1930s and early 1940s, before The Glass Menagerie (1944) inundated him with fame as a dramatist. There were a few more good ones in the early 1950s (such as “The Resemblance between a Violin Case and a Coffin,” 1950, and “Three Players of a Summer Game,” 1951, but the great ones were written when he was a rudderless, starving, sexually-lonely and alienated young gay writer in New Orleans—before he virtually took over the theatre single-handed, suddenly becoming America’s first great playwright since Eugene O’Neill.
This Penguin anthology is rich with the best of Williams as a short story writer. I was surprised by the lyric intensity of the stories. The language of the plays is beautifully clean and powerfully vectored, rolling the drama inexorably towards a greater and greater sense of resolution. But the stories are full of moments when the language stops rushing forward altogether and pauses, coiling itself into small eddies of enlarged description, leisurely examination, inventive commentary, and—frequently—soul-lacerating insights that appear, sometimes within a single phrase, in a way that can shake the feelings that lie deep and hitherto safe within you.
Williams is a dangerous writer. He’s dangerous to one’s assumptions about safely established emotional attitudes and permissible levels of isolation and pain. Here, for example, is the opening of “The Resemblance between a Violin Case and a Coffin”: “With her advantage of more than two years and the earlier maturity of girls, my sister moved before me into that country of mysterious differences where children grow up. And although we naturally continued to live in the same house, she seemed to have gone on a journey while she remained in sight,”
This last sentence astonished me (and still does). Its language is disarmingly simple, but its implications form a bolt of lightning hurled directly at the complacencies of memory and expectation. And Williams immediately deepens and enlarges our understanding of the new world his sister now inhabits: that tremulous state of transition from childhood to adulthood where, in the case of the narrator’s story, it is implied—the mystery of it hanging mute but eloquent in the air—that the young woman is now receiving her period: “…She was escorted to the kitchen table for breakfast as though she were in danger of toppling over on either side, and everything was handed to her as though she could not reach it….” “…It was,” Williams continues, “as if someone had carried a lamp into another room that I could not enter. I watched her from a distance and under a shadow.”
Williams’ poetry is sharp and unforgettable: he speaks of childhood’s “soap-bubble afternoons.” He finds indelible similes and unlikely adjectives to drive his atmospheres home: “As they went out of the white stone building the late afternoon sun, yellow as a lemon, met their faces in a beneficent flood. The air was filled with the ringing of five-thirty bells and the pliant voices of pigeons” [my italics]’ (this is from a story called “The Field of Blue Children”).
The prose of the stories is overwhelmingly elegiac. It is the prose of reconstructed memory and of the poignancy of unredeemable loss. And it’s often laced with a sudden surreality that is both bracing and disturbing: “Oh yes, fur a while she would seem to be thinking of something. But in the end it was always pretty much like a lump of sugar making strenuous efforts to preserve its integrity in a steamingly warm cup of tea. The cubic shape of a thought would not keep. It relaxed and dissolved and spread out flat on the bottom or drifted away” (from “The Coming of Something to the Widow Holly”).
The most terrifyingly, exhaustingly sad story in this collection is not—as one might think—the famous “One Arm,” but rather, a much less well-known story called “The Malediction.” It begins like this: “When a panicky little man looks for a place to stay in an unknown town, the counter-magic of learning abruptly deserts him. The demon spirits that haunted a primitive world are called back out of exile….” The rest of the story is simply too painful to recount here.