A brief taxonomy of the Club Story
O Best Beloved ! In the High and Far-Off Times, when people gathered and stories
were told . . .
The path from the Arabian Nights and the coffee houses of Cairo through “ The
Rime of the Ancient Mariner ” to the postprandial conversations
of Edwardian clubmen and London yachtsmen is one that can be traced; by someone
I use the term “ club story ” I refer to a form in the
literature of the English-speaking world that flourished from the late Victorian
the middle of the twentieth century. These stories are incidents of story-telling,
written works recording a narrative told by another, generally
at a small gathering. The Season of the club story is Edwardian autumn, rain
and hideous palls of smog
we can hardly imagine ; the setting is frequently but not exclusively
the narrators and audiences are almost invariably men (the Larger Question
this raises is duly noted, to be considered below) ; there is, equally
invariably, an element of the Exotic involved ; an important convention
of the form is that paradox is involved — whether as part of the
story or merely to prompt the story-teller's recollection and resolve. The
club story is, finally, a particular species
of the frame story : what is crucial is the central idea, the tale within
The club story attained its apotheosis early : Conrad’s “ Heart
of Darkness ” (1899) and Lord Jim (1900), tales of
“ dark places of the earth ” and courage arising from
cowardice, define and transcend the form. It quickly became a cornerstone of
detective and thriller
the Fog by Richard Harding Davis (1904), The Man Who Knew Too
Much by G. K. Chesterton
(1922), and The Runagates Club by John Buchan (1928). P. G.
Wodehouse’s stories of Mr. Mulliner and the Angler’s Rest or the Oldest Member’s
golfing memories are humorous manifestations of the same form. Buchan includes
tales with fantastical and supernatural elements, and there is a long line
club stories in science fiction. These are, however, chiefly successors to
the tradition, set in bars and pubs : Fletcher Pratt and L. Sprague de
Tales from Gavagan's Bar (1953); Arthur C. Clarke’s Tales
from the White Hart (1957), and Spider Robinson’s Callahan stories.
Sterling Lanier’s two volumes of Brigadier Ffellowes stories (1972 & 1986)
are late but entirely in the voice and style of the club story.
Dunsany and the Club Story
The signal omission from the preceding overview of the club story is Lord Dunsany,
a contemporary of Buchan whose travels and accomplishments might easily have
qualified him for a seat at the Thursday Club (the official name of the dining
club in Buchan’s collection). The 18th Baron Dunsany (1878-1956), an Anglo-Irish
peer of ancient lineage, was educated at Eton and Sandhurst, a veteran of the
Boer War, and a sportsman and chess-player. The milestones of his first quarter
century give no indication of the literary career he followed thereafter. Beginning
in 1905, he published hundreds of fantastical short stories in an elaborately
high literary style, and went on to become a widely produced playwright associated
with the Abbey Theatre and the Irish Renaissance. “ The Glittering Gate ”,
written and first produced in 1909, about two Irishmen waiting before the gates
heaven, must be counted among the precursors to Beckett. At one point in 1916,
five plays running simultaneously in New York.
With the devastation of the Great War, Dunsany wrote no more stories in the
tone of his early fantasies. He published a novel in an archaic mode, The
Chronicles of Rodriquez in 1922, and then soon thereafter wrote The
King of Elfland's Daughter (1924), one of the classics of fantastic
literature. Darrell Schweitzer’s review on the occasion of a modern reprint
(in NYRSF 137)
touches upon many interesting aspects of the book, to which I would add the
its magical, sonorous
prose is intertwined with passages employing the natural rhythms of English ;
and that is part of its magic. The novel is a departure from his earlier work ;
there are signs pointing to his under-appreciated novel of Ireland, The
Curse of the Wise Woman (1933) and his later fiction. The path from
Elfland to Ireland is to be found in the Jorkens stories, written beginning
The narrator (unnamed but clearly Dunsany), a member of the Billiards Club,
records the travel tales of Mr. Joseph Jorkens, who is fond of a refreshing
whose truthfulness is questioned but never quite impeached. Having discovered
this form, Dunsany once again became prolific and eventually published five
Jorkens collections ; the first two are reprinted in the present volume.
In the Fog
The Collected Jorkens, Volume One collects The Travel Tales
of Mr. Joseph Jorkens
(1931) and Jorkens Remembers Africa (1934). Jorkens's putative
travels are often in the Sahara and the East, but just as often (and with quite
an effect), there are recollections of incidents in England. The frame story
totters a few times in the early stories, but as with the occasional lubricating
whiskey-and-soda, these are “ remarks that may be likened to little
dead twigs that one throws down to keep a fire going ” (35). Once
the fire gets going, Jorkens tells of magical objects, travellers to distant
treasures, unusual animals, a mermaid, a tormented capitalist and a visionary
one, an African tribal chief turned cricketer for Cambridge, a circus showman,
and several unusual women.
I will address (briefly) the Larger Question noted above. The membership of
the Billiards Club, and thus Jorkens’ listeners, is exclusively male ;
there is an occasional misogynistic flavor in certain asides (79-80) that is
as an aged relative's dusty attitudes. One may, indeed must question (as
Virginia Woolf did) the social and economic reasons why the dinners at the
men’s college were more convivial than those at the women’s college ;
but one cannot fault Dunsany for accurately recording the tones and ideas of
(We might all be interested to read stories from the women’s club :
Le Guin’s “ Sur ” is
surely and subversively one. But that is another matter.) Dunsany’s female
characters have innate dignity and genuine autonomy ; the great issue
of his later work was empathy with other sentient beings. And now to move on.
It is often a dismal London afternoon in early winter, and yet what Jorkens
talks about is sunlight : the Sahara, the headwaters of the Nile, the
Veldt, the eastern
Mediterranean, the Himalayas. or the English countryside in spring and summer :
“ I told of the difference between weeds and flowers, a knowledge
so slowly come by, so hard to accept ; for who could believe at first
that that glowing light the dandelion, that proud exuberance of colour, was
only a weed ? ” (218). Close observation of the natural world
is inseparable from Jorkens’ recollection
of events. “ Grass of parnassus was flowering in such abundance that I wondered
if those smooth lawns were not too marshy for golf ” (324) ;
that afternoon Jorkens wandered into the grounds of the Elysian Club. He has
tendency, and Dunsany the narrator occasionally records the conversational
tactics he employs
to keep Jorkens on topic.
A Line Drawn Round Regent’s Park
Several points about Dunsany’s stories struck me during this reading. The
first is one of influence : Lovecraft is an obvious instance (I suspect
he would have disliked the Jorkens stories), and there may be many others.
I have often
wondered whether St. Exupéry knew of “ The Escape from the
Valley ” ;
and I think the concluding image of Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon has
uncanny parallels with “ A Drink at a Running Stream ”. Dunsany
was extremely prolific, and sometimes an idea that another writer might use
the cornerstone of a vast structure becomes in the Jorkens stories a peculiar
in a short short.
Influence may be too forceful a word, but I mention the question because The
Collected Jorkens includes a foreword by Arthur C. Clarke :
his appreciation of Dunsany's writings and reminiscences of a meeting with
complete Correspondence was edited by Keith Allan Daniels and
published by his Anamnesis Press in 1998.) Consider then Dunsany : “ ‘ Is
there anything in this magic that they say they can do in the East ? ’
It very nearly shut him up altogether ; for he thought that I was speaking
of magic lightly. But he luckily saw I was serious . . . and, speaking
in a quite friendly way, said : ‘ You
might, just as well, doubt wireless ’ ” (329). This strikes
me as an early formulation of Clarke’s Third Law.
Distance and geography undergo certain evocative transformations during a Jorkens
yarn. “. . . all of a sudden, pale and clear on my right, I
saw a range of mountains that I did not know were there. . . .
he told me they were the Himalayas. The Himalayas ! Imagine seeing a waterfall,
and asking its name, and being told that it was Niagara ; or entering
a church by chance, and finding it was Westminster Abbey ” (93).
“ We had already changed bullocks twice, and done over sixty of
the fifty miles that they had
said it was to the monastery. I found that distances
in India were often like that ” (95). Other ideas, too : in
“ The Showman ”, Jorkens
describes the workings of another system of justice. “ It depends
what you call laws. But if you define them as any organised acts arising out
deep convictions or feelings of any community . . . ”(122).
The narrative frequently turns upon a change in point of view, or the ability
to take another view. The boldest statement Jorkens makes is : “ I
deprecate that hard and fast line between fabulous animals and those that you
to have seen . . . What does it amount to, practically, but
a line drawn round Regent's Park ? ” (222). How wonderful.
Jorkens has a greater capacity for imagination than the stodgier, establishment
members of the Billiards Club, and it is this that makes “ The Witch
of the Willows ” such a poignant, haunting tale. Jorkens makes
a choice he knows to be wrong as he makes it : “ I knew that
all would be well if I said yes . . . that she would change
as soon as I married her into something lovelier than the folk of the other
known of in ballad. I knew
all this . . . Yes, I made my choice ; I said no to her ” (163-4).
Jorkens regretted it as he did so, and never regained the magic he cast off.
S. T. Joshi’s introduction places Jorkens within Dunsany’s long career
and touches upon aspects of particular stories, suggesting with relevant examples
that the Jorkens tales might be viewed as efforts to prevent thinning (the
disappearance of magic from the world). Joshi notes astutely enough, “ Many
of the Jorkens tales may seem like nothing more than clever jeux d’esprit . . .
but they underscore messages that were very close to Dunsany’s heart ”
(xviii-xix). Joshi draws a connection between “ The Witch of the
Willows ” and
a story from Dunsany’s earlier period, but omits mention of how this story
points toward important later works. Again I mention The Curse of the Wise
Woman and its complexities : political, environmental, fantastical, historical,
and sporting. When asking rhetorically, “ Had his inspiration for
short fiction dried up ? ” Joshi omits mention of the catastrophic
impact of the Great War : Dunsany simply could not continue in the old
mode and said so in Unhappy
Far-Off Things (1919).
And then there was this new thing called modernism. I suspect it may have been
a prickly subject for Dunsany, but it is certain that no Irishman (or Anglo-Irishman)
of letters in 1922 could have ignored James Joyce. While Dunsany never adopted
the formal innovations of high modernism, it is significant that beginning
with Jorkens in 1925, Dunsany found a way to integrate the vernacular speech
forms of expression into his story-telling. The narrator of The Curse of the
Wise Woman tells his story of the stirrings of Irish revolution in the 1880s
from the vantage point of an elderly expatriate living in the eastern Adriatic :
surely that is Dunsany employing silence, exile, and cunning.
These are wonderful stories and they were almost unobtainable until now (the
1940 collection I have only read through inter-library loan). I have been waiting
for this new edition since Night Shade announced it a couple of years back.
A damp drear autumn is the perfect time to read these stories. Don’t read them
all at once ; with surfeit, even Wodehouse palls.
“ What a power is curiosity when once awakened ! I might have
Shakespeare speak. And yet I wasted my time in trying to satisfy my miserable
as to who the secretary was ” (326). Dunsany knew that he was writing
and yet he also offers glimpses of strange lands outside that “ line
Regent’s Park ”.