Book Review: The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford
Yet again, I find myself wanting to say something cavalier about a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction winner, this one from 1970, this time in regard to the selected novel’s delicious extent of vocabulary. But I shall attempt to keep the urge in check, for there is little that is cavalier about The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford. Beautifully written? Yes. A trenchant catalog of the human experience? Yes. Cavalier? No, although sometimes funny. Woe befall the commentator who attempts ‘jokiness’ in the hush that comes upon any real contemplation of the writer who produced such a book. It was the final work of her 20th century life, a work that followed three marriages, physical disfigurement from a car crash, and alcoholism. See. Crickets.
Stafford’s book itself is anything but silent. It comes to the reader in loudly proclaimed sections defined by geographical and tonal considerations. Stafford’s stories about Americans out in the wider world and those concerned with Bostonians tend to be quite cutting and full of dread disappointment. Her American West stories have happy-ish endings … sometimes … and lots of tuberculosis. Her stories of Manhattan are perhaps her most mature in that they are literarily enigmatic and lyrical. That final section also contained what very well might be my favorite story, "The End of a Career", a straightforward satire evoking true human emotion by encapsulating the death that comes to us all. If you read just one story, read this one. It has a strong enough sense of humor to be readily accessible and a tense enough context in the life of its author and the life of her book to keep it from becoming anything but cavalier. Which, I think, is more than I can say for myself, alas.