‘THE near-total decline of his reputation after his death is something of a puzzle given his writing’s consistent quality and penetration.’
So reads the entry for L.A.G. (Leonard) Strong in notes to the Penguin Book of the British Short Story (Volume 2).
This writer of ‘odd and genuinely chilling’ stories (Ian McMillan) earns a place among the pantheon of just over fifty authors in the 700-page Penguin, part of its Modern Classics imprint, despite having virtually vanished from the literary landscape.
The story that has put him there is ‘The Rook’, a piece of short fiction first published in 1931. And – as if to underscore the strangeness of Strong’s abandonment – it is surely one of the anthology’s most intriguing.
In his lifetime, Strong – in some respects a figure as curious as some of his stories – wrote more than a hundred works. Yet, today, he is almost unknown. Even among bookish types and academics, his name draws blank looks.
Raised in England’s West Country to a family of Irish heritage, Strong (1896-1958) had an output that as well as being prolific was immensely varied: novels, story collections, poetry, history, criticism and curios such as The Story of Sugar, The Psychic Sense and The Rolling Road (an account of the development of public transport) to name but three.
In terms of breadth and volume he might be likened to Arthur Machen. British writer and academic Philip Hensher, editor of the Penguin volume, describes him as a popular novelist and writer of short fiction of ‘unusual subtlety’.
Yet, as I have said, he’s someone who seems to have fallen – almost fully– from the page. Unless I’m mistaken, only the slightest fraction of his work is in print.
The major library to which I have access has (perhaps like similar libraries) no more than three or four (elderly) books of non-fiction by Strong. A branch has one collection of his stories (for reference use only).
I’ll return later to possible reasons as to why this situation has come about. For the moment, let us continue the comparison with Machen, a writer himself substantially forgotten until relatively recently.
Like Machen, the supernatural was a recurring theme for Strong, looming in several of his story collections, from Doyle’s Rock (1925) to Lady Cynthia Asquith’s Second and Third Ghost Books (1952 and 1955).
Again like Machen, Strong was deeply interested in the forces and mysteries of which he wrote.
He participated in experiments exploring telepathy and (as with Graham Greene) was interested in the subject of precognition (foreknowledge of an event via extra sensory perception).
Strong stated: ‘I believe that each human being is an immortal spirit and that death is the gateway to a new life. I believe that the dead can and do communicate with us.’ (From his essay ‘Psychic Research’, which, as if to illustrate the Machenesque diversity of his writing, can be found cheek-by-jowl with a piece titled ‘Pantomime’ in the 1953 collection Personal Remarks.)
Born to a professional family in Devon, Strong was an Oxford scholar before entering teaching and turning to writing full-time.
His short story ‘The Rook’ first appeared in the English magazine The Fortnightly Review.
It sits a little oddly in Professor Hensher’s Penguin collection (which includes stories by the likes of Wodehouse, McEwan, Kingsley and Martin Amis, Tessa Hadley, Ali and Zadie Smith).
First, there’s its scrap-like brevity (little more than six pages), not unique in this volume (Jon McGregor contributes the two-page ‘The Remains, Friskney’, itself so brief that the second side mistakenly carries the name of the author of the previous story). Yet Strong’s is significantly shorter than the norm here.
Its greatest distinction though is the arrestingly different nature of the story, which concerns the shooting and burial of a rook.
To state that the short story is a difficult literary form to define is to say nothing new. But it seems to me that, in ‘The Rook’, Strong captures, convincingly, the essence of what is surely a major concern: the significance of a moment, the insight gained from a glimpse. Not of something ordinary, but of something odd, awry, strange, that in some way goes against the natural or expected grain of things (which is precisely why it catches our attention in the first place).
‘The Rook’, I believe, offers other satisfactions. Not least our sense of transport away from the mainstream and, with it, our immersion into what Frank O’Connor called a ‘submerged population’ (The Lonely Voice).
Why, we find ourselves asking, as – intrigued – we’re drawn in, has the author chosen to write about this?
Finally, there’s – it registers this way with me, at least – Strong’s avoidance of the story-writer’s bear-trap: sentimentality.
Going back to Ian McMillan’s comment (given in a review of Strong’s work some years ago), ‘The Rook’ really is an odd little story.
It divides into two very distinct halves. In the first we meet an ‘unlovely old man’ set upon killing the rooks that gather over his garden. He is egged on by his daughter who speaks of making rook pie.
Our location is Ireland and there is some lively and effective dialogue between the two of a bickering kind.
‘Did I get them! Oh, bedad, I did. Wan of them, anyway. A quare dart, I gev him! A quare dart! The dirty, thievin’ devils.’
Strong tells us the old man is ‘malevolent’ and ‘vengeful’ towards the birds. Curiously, there seems something vaguely corvid about him: ‘… he began to hobble stiffly up the path…’
A bird Strong describes as ‘the ringleader rook’ is wounded by a shot from the old man’s gun and, in the second half of the story, comes down in a field that is part of a priest-run boys’ school whose pupils are being supervised in an exam hall.
The struggling bird, bewildered by its injuries, is noticed by two priests looking out from the building.
Maybe it’s coincidence, but Strong portrays one of the priests in a rather rook-like way: ‘dark and sturdy’, ‘blue jowl’, ‘his eyebrows met in a dark bunch’, ‘black nostrils’.
The other birds from the rook’s flock look on communally, a ‘concourse’ of them in a tree: silent and without movement, above the shot bird stranded on the grass.
Again, one can’t help but draw comparison between these avian watchers and a monastic community, its members robed in black.
The younger of the two priests walks out onto the field and – as an act of mercy – despatches the wounded bird ( ‘… he saw with compassion that its beak was full with blood’) while offering a prayer. Having ‘set down his burden’ (the rook), he buries it.
Switching to the second priest, who’s been observing this while supervising the boys in the hall, Strong writes, ‘Somehow he knew that what had happened was going to affect him all his life; that it had a meaning for him; that he would never be able to forget it.’
(Cont. next column)