Tag Archives: Elizabeth Taylor

‘Complete Short Stories’ by Elizabeth Taylor

Collected Short Stories by Elizabeth TaylorUsually I post on books I have already read. This time I’m going to post on one I am reading because it may take me some time to finish it (like maybe years) and I want to share these ideas now.

At a recent book conference I attended a session called “In Praise of Short Stories”.  I found the session so inspirational and challenging that I came away with a personal mission to give short stories another chance. And in order to have something to “practice” on, I purchased this delicious brick of a volume (over 600 pages with 60+ stories!) by an author I already like. Elizabeth Taylor writes beautifully and has always been somewhat undervalued, perhaps because of the confusion around her name. When I read Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont I realized I wanted to read more of her work.

Once Upon a Time The EndTo be honest I have not been a fan of short story mostly because I got impatient with just getting into the characters and the set-up and then it would all abruptly end. So why spend all that investment on a story just to have to leave it and go on to another?

What I learned at the session, was that the short story experience has to be viewed differently, as with poetry. Short stories are small powerful self-contained nuggets, like a concentrated capsule or a core sample with only the important stuff. The impact is intense, like a bullet. That is not to say however, that there is always closure. As with a novel, a good short story can also leave much unsaid. Sometimes when I read a short story I have the nagging feeling that I’m not quite “getting it” (that happens with poetry too). Perhaps it will take some more reflection than I have been willing to give it in the past.

So, with short stories the main advice is simple – read one a day, no more. To get the most out of it, read it twice. The first time to be introduced to the story and the second time to go deeper and try to appreciate what the author has done; notice the word choice, the themes, the structure, and the development. Apparently short story writers have a purpose for everything and nothing is extra or unnecessary – very lean. In fact diehard short story fans get impatient with novels since there’s too much padding!

Short StorySo my plan is to keep this anthology nearby and read a story every couple of weeks, in between novels. I might pick up a collection by Alice Munro as well. She is probably one of the most celebrated short story authors and one whose stories I have enjoyed in the past. Munro said in her Nobel Prize acceptance speech: “Everything the story tells, moves you in such a way that you feel you’re a different person when you finish.” That kind of reading experience is worth the challenge! Actually all reading is that way. Experiences in literature do affect us and change us. That much we know for sure.

What do you think about short stories? Is there a short story author that you would recommend?

‘Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont’ by Elizabeth Taylor

Mrs. Palfrey at the ClaremontstarstarstarMrs. Palfrey moves into the Claremont Hotel in London, where she expects to live out her days. She joins a host of interesting old characters – magnificently flawed and eccentric – who each in their own way is dealing with the twilight years. One day Mrs. Palfrey is rescued after a fall by a young writer who becomes an unlikely friend and accomplice. They are complicit in a deception that he is her grandson, unlike the real grandson (and his mother) who are too busy to appear. This gives her social currency with the other tenants and alleviates boredom.

Old age is not for sissies. Elizabeth Taylor, in this small novel that rather reads like a short story, describes so beautifully and unsentimentally the loneliness and loss of dignity of the elderly. She does this very vividly using remarkably few words. What could be a very sad book, is actually redeemed by the comedy and good humour in it. Taylor’s strength lies in capturing nuance in the ordinary and the day-to-day. John Updike called it “giving the mundane its beautiful due.”

She wrote many books but is not so well known and often overlooked as an author. Perhaps it is because she is the (other) Elizabeth Taylor. Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont is considered to be her best. She wrote it more than 40 years ago and it has stood the test of time. It still feels fresh today.