Thursday, 31 December 2009

A Tale Told by Moonlight by Leonard Woolf

A delightful little volume from the Hesperus Press, this book contains three of Leonard Woolf's short stories, all set in colonial Ceylon, and two extracts from his autobiography which describe his voyage out to Columbo and his experiences at the Pearl Fishery in Ceylon, experiences which find their way into "Pearls and Swine", the second story here.  First published by the Hogarth Press in 1921, the stories are a frank appraisal of colonial life, its limitations and its opportunities.  The title story deals with a young colonial administrator in thrall to a Sinhalese prostitute; the second, which has strong echoes of Heart of Darkness, describes what happens when the narrator is sent to manage the Pearl Fishery with a young, ambitious civil servant, Robson, and an old alcoholic, White; it exposes the costs of imperialism, both to the coloniser and the colonised.  The final story, "The Two Brahmans", explores the effects of stepping outside the behaviour prescribed for one's caste, an ironic parable applicable to any class system. 

The first two stories use a framing device for the narrative: a first-person narrator opens each story, but the actual tale will be told by another character, in both cases something of an outsider.  These outsiders narrate their tales of the unfamiliar in a very English setting: in the English countryside at night with nightingales singing, for "A Tale Told by Moonlight", and in a Torquay hotel for "Pearls and Swine".  Victoria Glendinning's Foreword notes the affinity with framing techniques used by Conrad, a writer Woolf admired; the admiration seems to have been mutual, since "Pearls and Swine" may well have informed a later Conrad work, Allmeyer's Folly.  As with The Wise Virgins, the prose throughout this little book is crystalline, precise and elegant, equally at home with beauty, violence and degradation, and densely packed with meaning. 

This is a beautifully produced book, but, annoyingly, there seems to be a particularly egregious typographical error on page 3; "recruiting" is used instead of "recuperating" twice in the same paragraph.  At ten pence a page, correct typesetting doesn't seem too much to ask for.  Perhaps it was a Hogarth Press original error, and Virginia was having an off day?

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