I suspect this is Martin Bax’s most personal book yet, and as such is full of surprises for anyone who wonders what really goes on inside the mind of an Editor (for the last 50 years) of one of Britain’s greatest literary magazines, Ambit.
Here is the incredible first few sentences: “It was Caroline who sounded the first note of alarm. She was copulating with a man when his penis broke off at the root. The affair had been a casual one…”
Martin Bax has led a remarkable and fascinating life, met some extraordinary people, and has the wit, insight and command of words to relate snippets of that life in a way that is blissfully entertaining. Not that this collection of short stories, is all autobiographical, who’s to say after all, and why should that matter. But the classic stance of “emotion recollected in tranquillity” yields here a certain melancholy, an enduring lust for life (and women!), and I dare I say it in this cynical age: a touch of that unfashionable stranger, sentimentality.
Yes, Martin Bax is a (unexpected) romantic at heart, and throughout these stories there is a pleasurable sense of life as a wonderful game at which even more fun might have been had, and perhaps it can still, through the art of artful recollection.
Some of these stories are, frankly, masterpieces, like “When Childhood Ends” which brilliantly explores the poignant and surreal metaphor of a Jewish boy playing with his soldier collection even as the real thing marches into Brussels to destroy his world (and so many others) forever, during World War Two. And “The Bells Are Ringing” in which we are reminded how the reality of the classic “brief extra-marital affair on business trip” is as much about sadness and wistfulness, as it is about supposedly exciting sex.
There are some stylistic wild cards here: like “Le Magasin des Gants” (bodice-ripper) and “Jump Up and Down Your Majesty” (dadaistic stage play) that show an eclectic mind of startling range. “A Trip To Dublin” is too hilariously eccentric to be anything other than utterly true. Then perhaps at times, in stories like “Beds” or “In The Commonplace Rooms” the stories read so much like diary entries, are filled with so much (one suspects) real-life detail, that they may not be considered by some people as high-flown “Literary Fiction” in that Booker-Prize-baiting sense. But who cares. Their loss is our gain.
Here is a book filled with honesty and the straightforward need to communicate simple anecdotes, exquisite slices of life, without the sauce of style or fashion. Martin Bax has made his reputation long since, to those of us who value his unique place in British literary culture. He doesn’t need to impress, only to relate. And that is the true art of storytelling, from which we all, old or young, can still learn from a book this good. Its foundations are sound, its messages authentic, the pleasure in its reading: timeless.