Julian Maclaren-Ross / A brief survey of the short story
Julian Maclaren-Ross, from a print by Marc Glendening Photograph: NMG
A brief survey of the short story part six:
Best known as one of Fitzrovia's most memorable drinkers, Julian Maclaren-Ross wrote brilliant stories between his binges
Thursday 6 December 2007 16.00 GMT
For decades following his death in 1964, Julian Maclaren-Ross was chiefly remembered as the inspiration for X Trapnel, the impecunious writer from Books Do Furnish a Room, volume 10 of Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time. Flamboyant and eccentric, Trapnel gives the lie to Powell's contention that no living person could be inserted into a fiction without alterations being made by the author: he really is Maclaren-Ross, transposed directly from reality to page.
While Powell's fiction kept Maclaren-Ross alive after a fashion, over the last few years his novels, journalism, memoirs and short stories have been republished. The pleasure they afford begs the question as to how they ever slipped into obscurity in the first place. A penurious, alcoholic drug addict who stayed in boarding-houses when he had cash and Euston station or a Turkish bath on Russell Square when he didn't, Maclaren-Ross's body of work is even more impressive when you consider the fraught circumstances under which it was created.
His stories are typically conversational and discursive, as if recounted by someone you're standing rounds in the pub. "You know the Scotsman, off Soho Square?" begins Welsh Rabbit of Soap: A Romance, while The High Priest of Buddha, demonstrating his ability to hook a reader's curiosity, opens with: "You'd never believe I'd been a Buddhist, would you? It's true, though, I became a Buddhist for the whole of one summer ... Later it became the fashion for all of us to wear monocles, but before that came Buddhism..."
At their best, Maclaren-Ross's stories strike a note pitched between mournfulness, hilarity and the lightly surreal. The absurdist convolutions of the minor comic masterpiece I Had to Go Sick, in which a slightly disabled infantryman is bundled from NCO to medical board in a Möbius strip of countermanded orders and opaque regulations, is Dad's Army via Kafka. I'm Not Asking You to Buy, little more than a brief anecdote concerning a vacuum cleaner salesman swindled out of a few cigarettes and a free demonstration by a blacklisted customer, becomes something more when, having laughed off his misfortune, the narrator adds the final, telling line: "In those days I was an optimist."
He has a short storyteller's knack for compelling incidental details, too: a half-naked woman glimpsed at a window; the airman whose party trick is to recite chunks of Finnegans Wake ("You really ought to hear him." "I don't want to hear him and I've read Finnegans Wake"). These deviations from the stories' main thrust (they nearly all, no matter how brief, have a strong narrative drive) give the sense of a wider world existing around their immediate concerns, lending the work an unforced feeling of reality.
Maclaren-Ross's biographer, Paul Willetts, describes him as "the mediocre caretaker of his own immense talent", and it's fair to say that his fictional output is uneven. The examples Willetts has collected in the Selected Stories, however, are well chosen. All of his main settings are represented: colonial India (portrayed with such authority that many,including Cyril Connolly, wrongly assumed he had lived there); the French Riviera (where Maclaren-Ross was schooled); Soho and Fitzrovia (his spiritual home and drinking resort of choice); and army camps, inspired by his Home Guard service during the second world war.
Less philosophical, ambitious or sinister than, respectively, Greene, Powell or Patrick Hamilton, Maclaren-Ross nevertheless shares elements in common with each. There's a dash of Kingsley Amis, too, in his facility for sharp one-liners, while his work as a scriptwriter (he worked at Strand Films with Dylan Thomas) informed the terse style of some of his best writing. Towards the end of his life, as the speed and booze exacted their price, Maclaren-Ross lost control of his previously celebrated flamboyance and he came to be shunned. The disintegrating writer once announced, ludicrously but in earnest, that Iris Murdoch's "gang" was out to get him. He managed to evade them because his sunglasses made him invisible. One autumn night in 1964, having received an unexpected cheque, he drank a celebratory bottle of brandy and died of a heart attack. Off the literary map for so long, we can celebrate perhaps more judiciously, though no less vigorously, that his work has been retrieved from oblivion.