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Brief Lives

Christopher Meredith
ISBN-13: 
9781781724521
Format: 
Hardback
Publication Date: 
Friday, June 1, 2018
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‘Six stellar short stories’ – Buzz Magazine

‘A glorious book about everything important: love and sex and conflict and mortality. Meredith writes with such acuity, above all with such generosity.’ – Tom Bullough

​'A tight, powerful little book. Meredith ... has produced a collection that plays very much to his strengths as a stylist.’ – Gary Raymond

'Fantastic. There's not a bad story in the collection.' – Jafar Iqbal

'I loved this collection. Really clever.' – Emma Schofield​

Meredith’s prose style is as fine and supple as any contemporary writer I know. It quietly and continually embraces dimensions of symbolism, resonances, that are suggested rather than laboured, and left to lodge in the readers’ imaginations and work there. And they do.’ – Wales Arts Review
 

From the nightmarish first story set in the South China Sea in 1946 to the final piece, set nowhere at the end of time, Brief Lives demonstrates in a short compass a huge range in technique and milieu and a unity of theme and sensibility. It opens naturalistically but is distinctly non-realist by the close. We meet an ex-collier in 1950 anguishing over whether to return to the pit, a young mother in the early 1960s quietly shepherding those around her through a bleak Christmas day, an industrial chemist in this century plunged into vortices of memories that cause him to question his grasp of the world, and more.

Meredith’s fiction has been marked by its willingness to push at literary boundaries, and Brief Lives is no exception: it is an intense distillation of Meredith’s abiding concerns to explore how memory shapes the present and the present shapes memory, the interplay between beautifully realised individual lives and the wider historical process, and the paradox of simultaneous human isolation and community.

 

 

REVIEWS

Review by Jim Perrin, Wales Arts Review

Thursday, August 16, 2018

... Over the last thirty years another demotic voice, quietly insistent, uncompromising, of exceptional inventiveness, range, insight and versatility, has slowly come to make itself heard through virtuoso and creatively diverse performances such as Shifts (for which I voted in the 2014 Wales Arts Review “Greatest Welsh Novel of All Time” survey – the verdict, predictably, went to a defining example of the sentimental trait in Welsh writing); or the remarkable historical novel Griffri, with its monastic setting in the period of Gogynfeirdd; or the poignant, elliptical humour of Sidereal Time; or the offbeat meditative mordancy of The Book of Idiots. Every one of Tredegar-born writer Christopher Meredith’s sequence of fictions has been a literary event relished by a faithful and appreciative following. He has emerged as one of our most distinctive, imaginative, unexpectedly elegant and humane writers. Seren have just published his first venture into the characteristically Anglo-Welsh genre of the short story.

“Six Fictions” is the sub-title, the title itself – Brief Lives – borrowed from the seventeenth-century polymath and literary portraitist John Aubrey. There’s a kinship here. Aubrey and Meredith both possess a sidelong humour distilled from acute observational skill. Aubrey, however imaginatively tinctured his characters may be, is held on the tight reins of historical verisimilitude and biographical fact. Fiction sets Meredith free from those constraints; though he remains true to an accurate portrayal of the atmospheres and plights of the post-industrial Valleys society in which his characters exist. Especially in the three stories which provide a central thread to this fine collection.

The first of this sequence-within-a-sequence, “Progress”, opens with “a thin young man” – that we never learn his name establishes his typological significance – at his wife’s behest taking a day off from his work as a railwayman to seek marginally better paid, though more arduous and dangerous, work as a collier. The story is a meditation on choice and its deciding values. “On a spring day in the middle of the twentieth century” the thin young man makes his and returns home on the bus, rehearsing the story he will tell his wife – that no work was available, and that he, she, their infant child, must make do with what they have. There will be no crossing the bridge for them. The power of the story – a quiet masterpiece – lies not only in its stark emblems but in what it leaves unsaid. Her unexamined consciousness is the achingly resonant suffering silent counterpoint to his self-aborted attempt at the aspirational. Of the other two stories in the central sequence, in “The Cavalry”, another nameless woman, a home help, with her two young boys visits an elderly man just before Christmas. The subject matter again is bleak, but the narrative is infused with motifs of firelight, humour, imagined elsewheres, and a ubiquitous sense of human community, kindness and concern. The longest of the central triptych, “The Enthusiast”, takes the history of a friendship begun in boyhood and extends it through a cuspal time of technological change impacting on Valleys society:

I listened. I could hear the world again. The river. It wasn’t a roar, but a lot of complicated trickling, a lot of threads, a lot of voices laughing, not in one laugh but in the laughter of many conversations.

Meredith’s prose style is as fine and supple as any contemporary writer I know. It quietly and continually embraces dimensions of symbolism, resonances, that are suggested rather than laboured, and left to lodge in the readers’ imaginations and work there. And they do. The tadpoles in that river, for example, that “start eating each other when they grow a bit.”

“I know,” says the narrator, in summary comment.

The first of these fictions, “Averted Vision”, re-works scenes equivalent to those of the freighter’s hold in Conrad’s Typhoon, anchoring them to a character’s solidly-realised previous life, which will be forever changed by a Lord Jim moment he will carry back with him when he returns to his former security. “Haptivox” is a sensuous science fiction that plays with notions of cryogenics, Kubla Khan and gender-fluidity, and contains some of Meredith’s most ravishingly lovely writing:

All the space that matter is made of suddenly understood itself, and was generous, and let the other in. Their different grammars and lexicons didn’t just blend into a creole. They atomized as they crossed and reconfigured. And once this had happened there could be no images, nothing to observe, only this new building, with nothing outside its own self-awareness and an apprehension of the marvellous.”

And the final story, under the sardonic, socially-reflective title of “Closing Time”, in apocalyptic Welsh fashion imagines the innumerable hosts of the dead arising corporeally renewed from all the bleak hill burying grounds at the last trump and hastening westwards, “towards an orange smirch in a milky grey sky, and I would have to go back up the hill and over the shale and across the cinders with them. I thought of the gritty chippings of sugar lodging between the boy’s teeth and I knew that whatever lay at the end of my walk, it could not be paradise.”

 

Read the full review on the Wales Arts Review website.

 

Review by Suzy Ceulan Hughes, Gwales

Thursday, August 16, 2018

 

... Brief Lives is [Christopher Meredith’s] first collection of short fiction. Comprising just six stories, it is intensely achieved and confirms his reputation as a writer of fierce intelligence and razor-sharp observation. 

The collection is book-ended with two extraordinary lines – ‘Edwards knew that he ought to be dead’, and, ‘…I knew that whatever lay at the end of my walk, it could not be paradise.’ – and the stories deserve to be read in the order in which they are presented, progressing from a realistically portrayed unnecessary death to a surreal picture of the dead coming back to life and rising from their graves, all apart from one heading in the same direction across a cindered plain, towards ‘an orange smirch in a milky grey sky.’ In this final story, ‘Opening Time’, Meredith’s description of the physical sensation of a body reassembling itself is extraordinary: ‘I was aware of my weight flattening my buttocks, my feet hanging to one side, twisting the relinked columns of bone, muscle, sinew and ligament in my legs. A mild popping passed through me with the reopening of arteries and veins. My jaw pulled up against its own weight, set the rows of teeth into their old bite.’ You can almost feel it happening as you read. A similar effect is achieved in ‘Haptivox’, in which a man and woman physically swap gender as they make love, experiencing each other’s physical sensations. Paradoxically, the intense reality of these physical descriptions serves as a reminder of our inability to know another’s experience or feel someone else’s feelings. We can only speculate and imagine; there is no way of knowing whether we are right, though often we find we are wrong. 

This is a theme that runs through the stories collected here, especially in ‘The Enthusiast’, the longest and perhaps most powerful and moving story in the collection. Two old schoolfriends get in touch via email when they are in their fifties. The narrator struggles to know what to write, what to reveal and leave out in the brief account of his life; he imagines how what he writes might be misconstrued, while utterly mis-imagining his old friend’s life and circumstances. It is about loss and grief and human (mis)understanding, about what we do and do not know about each other, the poverty of words and the tragic brevity of life, and ‘the packed unknowable freight of memory’. It is worth buying Brief Lives for this story alone. 

There is something in these stories that works on a non-verbal level, so that what is not said and not written has as much power and meaning as what is there on the page. There is a meticulousness in the fine detail of descriptions of people and place that has an almost hypnotic effect, conjuring a sharply chiselled world that is nothing more than a mirage, a creation in the mind. This is the skill of the storyteller and our own flawed defence mechanism – the art of deception, of weaving a coherent story out of the confused jigsaw pieces of our lives, which are indeed brief. 
 

A review from www.gwales.com, with the permission of the Welsh Books Council. 

Adolygiad oddi ar www.gwales.com, trwy ganiatâd Cyngor Llyfrau Cymru. 

Review by Prof. Tony Brown, New Welsh Review

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

In the preliminary pages of this new collection of short stories, Brief Lives, Six 
Fictions, Christopher Meredith admits that ‘several books have been called Brief
 Lives’, but that he has stuck to it ‘like those composers and visual artists who 
sometimes take their titles from the common store, partly in acknowledgment that we’re all in this together.’ In fact, the title contains, in its characteristic Meredith
 punning, a richness of meanings. For instance, what we get in these short stories are 
brief episodes in the characters’ lives, moments in time and process, haunted in a 
variety of ways by a sense of life’s brevity. The six stories are in fact arranged in a 
chronology which is both social and individual. Thus, ‘Averted Vision’, the first story, is 
set immediately after the end of the Second World War as two soldiers guard a hold
-full of Japanese prisoners on an old coal ship, far out in the southern ocean at night.
 One of the soldiers accidentally injures a prisoner and, to avoid punishment, quietly
 pushes him overboard. The other soldier, Lovat, averts his eyes and says nothing, 
though his consciousness of guilt by association is evident when, in response to his 
fellow soldier’s dismissive ‘He’s only a jap’, he thinks to himself. ‘He’s a jap. I’m a taff.
 Who the fuck are you?’ In its isolated setting, far out under the stars, the episode is
 reminiscent of one of James Hanley’s stark, existential stories, but the intertexual
 echoes are from Coleridge, as snatches of ‘The Ancient Mariner’, another sea-borne tale of moral choice under the stars, drift across Lovat’s mind: ‘The many men so beautiful....’

‘Progress’ is set just a few years later as a young ex-service man considers a return to the south Wales colliery where he had worked as a teenager before the War. He has, however, in these post-war years a sense of wider horizons, of being ‘involved in the flowing of people over the earth in the ordinary processes of life’. In particular, he is conscious of the social shifts, of social progress, following the election of 1945: the colliery has recently been nationalized, and the NHS is already affecting ordinary people’s lives – his young child has ‘been born in a hospital. A real hospital’. There is a moving sense of this individual young man, at this point in history, seeking to define his own route in life as the world shifts around him. There is a similar sense of ordinary lives in the flux of time in ‘The Cavalry’, set at the very beginning of the 1960s, as a young working-class family in a Valleys town celebrates Christmas. The magic of Christmas Day is in part seen through the eyes of one of the little boys – the toy soldiers, the annuals, the lights on the Christmas tree – with an innocent immediacy reminiscent of Glyn Jones’ stories of childhood. The festive domestic world is beautifully evoked, richly nostalgic for those of us, like Meredith, of that generation. Again there is a sense of realities and processes beyond the human; the little boy notices that ‘Christmas didn’t happen outside the house like you thought it would. It was grey and grainy and unmoving and nobody was about. It was like the day went on being itself, as if it didn’ care what it was supposed to be like.’ While there is still a sense of their living ‘After the War’, again the family lives in a world which is changing: they settle down on Christmas night to watch a Charlie Chaplin film on their little television, while outside is the dark and the night sky.

In the most substantial story here ‘The Enthusiast’, an email from a boyhood friend triggers memories in the mind of the narrator, Rob, of his boyhood in a south Wales housing estate. All through the story there is a sense of elusiveness, of our unique individual brief experience of life in time, and how little we truly know of the other people we encounter in that life, our childhood friends, our workmates. The patterns we make as we construct our lives are imagined in the story in terms of the ‘improvised secret’ footpaths the boys create, away from the official roads, as they walk to school; later, as the official tracks of Rob’s work life constrain him, these ‘half obliterated tracks of memory wound intermittently among them’. Again, memories are arbitrary, fluid, unpredictable – like, Rob thinks, the coloured handkerchiefs a magician produces from his sleeve – and the story itself is appropriately non-linear. In a superbly written final scene, Rob remembers a boyhood walk in the countryside with a friend. Reaching a river, ‘We tried to invent a path across like picking out a constellation’; when they reach the opposite bank, they each lie on the warm grass: ‘I listened. I could hear the world again. The river. It wasn’t a roar, but a lot of complicated trickling, a lot of threads, a lot of voices laughing, not in one laugh but in the laughter of many conversations. The threads crossed and joined and parted in a dance of so many rhythms and so many tracks that there was none.’ The whole passage is remarkable, an attempt to capture the flux of life itself. Looking back, the middle-aged Rob wonders, ‘What of any consequence could have happened in the moment that had passed since then?’ Another brief life in the flow of time.

The final two stories are similarly haunted by time and memory. In ‘Haptivox’, science has invented a virtual reality device for use by gerontologists in palliative care. The device enables an unnamed elderly couple in their separate institutions to bring themselves together again in a series of erotic encounters constructed from their memories. ‘Opening Time’ takes us a step further, beyond death into an enigmatic narrative of resurrection. The story is reprinted from Meredith’s poetry collection Snaring Heaven (1990); ‘I’m as certain as I’ve ever been of anything that it belongs in both books,’ he writes intriguingly in his acknowledgments. Emotionally and imaginatively, it is indeed a resonantly fitting ending for a book so concerned with the fluxes of life in time. The unnamed narrator leaves the crowd of people who have also been resurrected, as they tramp across an empty landscape and he arrives at ‘a familiar council estate’ and, unseen, enters a familiar house where a working man comes home to where a young boy is playing. This dreamlike homecoming echoes not only the return in memory of Rob to his council house home in ‘The Enthusiast’, but the return of Griffri, unrecognised, to his home and mother at in the final scene of Griffri (1991) and the return of Jack to his home valley in Shifts (1988). While an awareness of the brevity of the individual’s life in the sweep of time is manifestly a universal one, that awareness is in Meredith’s beautifully achieved fictions an acute one and is given texture and emotional resonance by its being rooted in the personal and the local.

Review by Tom Carlisle, The Independent Literary Fiction Blog

Monday, July 16, 2018

Christopher Meredith’s new collection of short stories opens with two men far out at sea, each staring up at the “unfamiliar constellations” above them, before being thrown together by an unpleasant coincidence. That’s as good a motif as any for these stories – people pondering their own place in the universe, forced into unexpected connection by chance or fate. They’re about the worlds that we build around ourselves, and how strong the bonds of tradition or culture or family can be.

In “Averted Vision”, the first story here, two soldiers in the South China Sea in 1946 argue over what to do with the prisoner upon whose head they’ve dropped a rifle. “He’s only a Jap,” says one to the other, and in a moment of brutal clarity the second man thinks to himself, “he’s a Jap, I’m a taff. Who the fuck are you?” “Progress”, the second story, has a similar moment of blinding clarity at its climax: in it, a young man ponders returning to the pit village which years before he left to work on the railways. Living now in “three rented rooms,” he finds himself thinking again about his home with “the infestation of black pats, the cockroaches with nowhere to go at the cold end of the terrace,” eating “corned beef and potatoes,” and wondering if the life he’s chosen is the right one for his family. Both narratives are, in different ways, stories about the worlds we build around us, and the strength of those bonds. And Meredith shows these conflicts with subtlety, expertly depicting the way that the mind works.

If there’s a particular strength to this collection, it’s really the evocation of place – whether the “spew-stench” from the hold in “Averted Vision”, or “the dark sea broken with the glitter of points of starlight”, or the shabby village in “The Cavalry” with “the cloud down on the ridges of the hills like a lid”, every setting is carefully realised and evocative. Depicting a bleak Christmas day, “The Cavalry”, is told from a child’s perspective, and the skill with which Meredith picks up the details one notices at such an age is impressive. In the later stories, “Haptivox” and “Opening Time”, the style shifts to become less naturalistic, but the imagery is no less powerful: it’s these settings that will stick with me after reading.

There are gems to be found in every story, though. “The Enthusiast”, which is about somebody fumblingly reconnecting with an old school friend, captures the melancholy one feels when thinking back on missed connections in one’s past. It also contains some of my favourite writing in the book: “The figures and graphs in front of me described the transmutation of one thing into another. They could even let you control it. But I’ve never understood. I thought of standing in the council house in City Gardens, looking from the smoking hearth to the smoking retort of the blast furnace, of the letters in dark blue on pale blue exhorting me to join something or other. What of any consequence could have happened in the moment that had passed since then?” That extract, as well as anything, describes the vividness of Meredith’s writing, and the force with which he flips between past and present.

...

[Read the full review here]

Review by Ben Newman, Buzz Magazine

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Short story collections, despite an author’s best efforts, are rarely focused, cohesive affairs. With Brief Lives, however, Christopher Meredith has managed to not only produce six stellar short stories, but has threaded each together with the mutual foundations of pastoral and working-class communities. Firstly, the collection is a meditation on memory, focusing around tradition and community-based historiographies. The second story in the collection, Progress, is both its shortest and most effective piece, neatly acting as both a meditation on industrial displacement, as well as the contradictory and awkward feeling of missing a negative place of employment. The rest of the stories meander between everyday events we take for granted, but Meredith has the knowledge that these are the events that ground us.

 

Review by Sheenagh Pugh

Friday, June 8, 2018

The six short stories in this collection range in time from the 1940s to the present and beyond, and are arranged in chronological order. I even thought, when I first read through, that I could detect gradual language change in them, but it isn't that, it is rather a very keen and natural eye for period detail, so that one really feels one is in the postwar Valleys world with its Woodbines. cockroaches and the novelty of babies being born in hospital ("Progress"), or, later, in "The Cavalry", the same milieu in the changing times of the sixties, with TV and consumer goods just beginning to infiltrate a world where men could still recall war service and council estates were aspirational places to live:

 

They came to the end of the council houses and to the start of the terrace. The last estate house had the gable end of the terrace instead of one of its front garden walls. She'd known it before the estate was built but it was hard to remember. The terrace of Stanley Street used to point up the hill to nothing but some old mountain and a coal tip, some old farm. Yet it wasn't all that long ago. […]

 

It was still unchristmassy here. Mark looked at the front room windows as they passed. It must be funny to have no front garden.

 

Mark, a small boy, is one of the two point-of-view characters in this story (if any wiseacre ever tells you two POVs won't work in the same story, point him at this one) and as he has done before, Meredith proves adept at seeing through a child's eyes in a completely matter-of-fact and uncontrived way:

Christmas didn' happen outside the house, like you thought it would. It was grey and grainy and unmoving and nobody was about. it was like the day went on being itself, as if it didn' care what it was supposed to be like.

It may seem odd, when looking for a theme in a collection of stories, to start in the middle, but in this case it feels appropriate. It seems to me that the preoccupation common to all of them is human contact, and this comes over most clearly in the two middle stories. In "The Cavalry", a woman who works as a home help goes out of her way, on Christmas morning, to make contact with a lonely old man, and teaches her children to do the same. Later she is dissatisfied with her efforts and feels she should have done more, resolving to go and see him again very soon – "she'd heard of Home Helps finding people. She didn't want to leave it too long". 

 

In the next story, "The Enthusiast", set in the present, a man is accidentally reconnected via email with a childhood friend, Paul, whom he has not seen or thought about for many years. This sets off a train of memories connected with his childhood and young adulthood. The email correspondence continues but they live far enough apart for the protagonist not to think about actually arranging a meeting – though the way he over-analyses the content of Paul's emails and his own replies suggests he would like to. Then something happens which not only renders this impossible but also forces him to comprehensively re-interpret the emails he has been reading. 

 

It would be easy, but inaccurate, to conclude from the juxtaposition of these two stories that the reason communication partly succeeds in one and fails in the other is the difference between face to face contact and email. But this is misleading. The first story, "Averted Vision", takes place during World War 2; there is plenty of face to face contact and a catastrophic failure of human communication. In the second, "Progress", set in 1950, a man in what sounds like a happy marriage is nevertheless unable to communicate to his wife his understandable reasons for taking an important decision and resorts to a lie. And in "Haptivox", set in the future, a couple seems to achieve quite an enjoyable form of communication via virtual reality. Even here, though, the couple's dream of complete union is shown to be ultimately impossible:

 

It seemed to her that they were like two huge buildings, or cities, with their complications of floors and passageways, stairwells and liftshafts, the lacework of girders and fills of brick and concrete and then the surges of electricity and of fluids, the traffic and commerce of every day. Imagine all that thinning and becoming porous, and then these two universes interpenetrating, the stairwells from different buildings intertwining and joining, the skeletal architectures permeating one another and interlocking. The mechanical inhabitings of sex, the crude transformations on the beach were nothing to this, where the different-same energies whispered in the different-same channels. And he felt this too. All the space that matter is made of suddenly understood itself, and was generous, and let the other in. Their different grammars and lexicons didn't just blend into a creole. They atomized as they crossed and reconfigured. And once this had happened there could be no images, nothing to observe, only this new building, with nothing outside its own self-awareness and an apprehension of the marvellous.

 

And immediately some part of this new place started to fail. Images started to return of lights going out and pipework cooling, a sense of some shrivelled, hard thing disconnecting itself back into being.

 

Individuality reasserts itself; it may be that we are all ultimately "unreachable" like the old man in "The Cavalry" or "the imperfect likeness of a quick, intelligent face, glimpsed, so to speak across a gulf" ("The Enthusiast"). But the human impulse is to attempt to bridge that gulf and it is such attempts that these stories chronicle.

 

 

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