Eccentric Tales Shaped With Wit and Care

BOOKS

SELECTED STORIES OF SYLVIA TOWNSEND WARNER, by Sylvia Townsend Warner. New York: Viking. 440 pp. $24.95. WHY is Charlotte, presumed happily married, constructing herself a widow's quilt, and why did Miss Logie put powdered coffee in the rissoles? Was it wise to let an apprentice pastry cook liven up the Old Masters? A woman uses her son-in-law as a model for St. Luke, and what a mistake that turns out to be.

Such strange quirks are the inspiration for Sylvia Townsend Warner's short stories - her bread and butter, or perhaps caviar and lemon would be a better metaphor.

She doesn't simply capture our imagination with her offbeat plots; she constructs her tales with memorable characters and backgrounds, writing with wit and a kind of poetry.

In fact, perhaps wit or, more precisely, irony is the quality that truly distinguishes her.

In that way she reminds us of Saki, another writer belonging to the British tradition of short-storytelling and spellbinding. Like Saki, she too will sometimes let a kind of pantheism - Mother Nature beckoning - take charge, though I am grateful to say her feet are usually anchored firmly in reality, however odd the form it takes.

And in this collection, at least one story - ``My Father, My Mother, the Bentleys, the Poodle, Lord Kitchener, and the Mouse'' - reminds us of an American master. As one perfectly explainable eccentricity piles upon another, reaching a climax almost too gentle to be called slapstick, we remember James Thurber's ``The Night the Bed Fell.''

But few of these stories are purely lighthearted.

Underlying almost every one lies irony - often bitter, sometimes tragic. Many of her characters are women ``sunk in marriage,'' like the missing Mrs. Ridpath, whose husband of 25 years realized he couldn't describe her to the police.

And although the stories collected here (45 of them) deal so often with loneliness or despair, the overall effect is not depressing. Her wit and a fascination with language take care of that.

For instance, she makes a discarded wife compare town and country charwomen so that we smile at the description, while recognizing the sadness: A London charwoman ``does not spongily, greedily, absorb your concerns, study your nose to see if you have been crying again, count the graying hairs of your head, proffer sympathetic sighs and vacuum pauses and then hurry off to wring herself out, spongily, all over the village ... not to mention the fact that a London charwoman is immeasurably better at charing.''

Happier passages, like her description of a Paris railway station on a rainy day, linger in the memory (especially if we bear in mind that mackintoshes are British for raincoats): ``Yellow mackintoshes, white mackintoshes, black mackintoshes emerged from suburban trains and disappeared like a flitting of butterflies. Long dead, and grown quite respectable and undebatable, the French Impressionists continue to paint Paris. The canvases of the Gare du Nord replaced the canvases of the Gare de Lyon.''

Perhaps it was her interest in description that made Sylvia Townsend Warner, in her much-praised biography of T.H. White, draw attention to White's observation, ``The more I think about it, the more I see that success or failure [in storytelling] lies in the description of the event, not in the event itself.''

In this book, however, we have both the intriguing event and the description. Lucky us.

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