Sansom, William

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SANSOM, William

Nationality: English. Born: London, 18 January 1912. Education: Uppingham School, Rutland, and in Europe. Military Service: Served in the National Fire Service in London during World War II. Career: Worked in a bank, as a copywriter for J. Walter Thompson advertising agency, and as a scriptwriter. Full-time writer from 1944. Awards: Society of Authors scholarship, 1946, and bursary, 1947; fellow, Royal Society of Literature, 1951. Died: 20 April 1976.


Short Stories

Fireman Flower and Other Stories. 1944.

Three. 1946.

South: Aspects and Images from Corsica, Italy and Southern France. 1948.

The Equilibriad (story). 1948.

Something Terrible, Something Lovely. 1948.

The Passionate North: Short Stories. 1950.

A Touch of the Sun. 1952.

Lord Love Us. 1954.

A Contest of Ladies. 1956.

Among the Dahlias and Other Stories. 1957.

Selected Short Stories. 1960.

The Stories. 1963.

The Ulcerated Milkman. 1966.

The Vertical Ladder and Other Stories. 1969.

The Marmelade Bird. 1973.


The Body. 1949.

The Face of Innocence. 1951.

A Bed of Roses. 1954.

The Loving Eye. 1956.

The Cautious Heart. 1958.

The Last Hours of Sandra Lee. 1961; as The Wild Affair, 1964.

Goodbye. 1966.

Hans Feet in Love. 1971.

A Young Wife's Tale. 1974.


Jim Braidy: The Story of Britain's Firemen, with James Gordon and Stephen Spender. 1943.

Westminster in War. 1947.

Pleasures Strange and Simple (essays). 1953.

It Was Really Charlie's Castle (for children). 1953.

The Light That Went Out (for children). 1953.

The Icicle and the Sun. 1958.

The Bay of Naples. 1960.

Blue Skies, Brown Studies. 1961.

Away to It All. 1964.

Grand Tour Today. 1968.

Christmas. 1968; as A Book of Christmas, 1968.

The Birth of a Story. 1972.

Proust and His World. 1973.

Skimpy (for children). 1974.

Grandville. 1975.

Editor, Choice: Some New Stories and Prose. 1946.

Editor, The Tell-Tale Heart and Other Stories, by Edgar AllanPoe. 1948.

Translator, Chendru: The Boy and the Tiger, by Astrid Bergman.1960.


Critical Study:

Sansom: A Critical Assessment by Paulette Michel-Michot, 1971.

* * *

Although he is the author of novels, travel books, and a critical biography of Proust, William Sansom owes his reputation to his 11 collections of stories. It was during World War II that, having joined the National Fire Service, he discovered in the monastic solitude of his post at Hampstead the inspiration and the time to write. Being an artist at heart—he was a musician but also liked to paint and to act—Sansom gives pride of place to sensory impressions: all the senses are involved in his stories, sight in particular. Effects of light and shade often determine the atmosphere ("The Ball Room") or are brought to bear on events ("Cloudburst") and on characters' moods ("The Little Fears"). The weather, the light, the time of day, and the atmosphere of a place are in such close relationship that a Sansom story like "Eventide" can be essentially the result of their interaction. Evidence of Sansom's sensory perceptiveness is his demystification of prevailing beliefs concerning climate and colors, landscapes and skies: his Mediterranean settings are not dazzling with colors but rightly white or gray. Flat countries do not give an impression of infinity; on the contrary, the sky in Holland "approaches closer than everywhere else … the world appears finite" ("How Claeys Died").

But if Sansom likes to describe well-known, even touristic places, he often chooses much more fanciful settings, like huge vaulted rooms or glass houses, a water junction, or a lighthouse, where the light plays tricks upon characters and where normality and oddity intermingle; the precision of sensory impressions contributes to blur their limits. Places that might be considered as "ordinary," devoid of particular characteristics, like a pub or coffee house at the corner of a street, are suddenly endowed with a soul and keep the imprint of a past crowded with people and events. The countryside is credited with intentions, nature is often malevolent and threatening ("A Country Walk"). The sea, particularly, appears as an evil, devastating, and repulsive monster. Countryside and sea are liable to wreak havoc with people's hopes: in "The Little Sailor" the only survivor of a crew of 41 is adrift in his frail boat on the wide blue ocean at Christmas time. On Christmas Eve he sees palm tufts on the horizon, but the moment he is driven near the shore, the current bears away his now dead body. In many cases Sansom's characters have done nothing to deserve such a fate, but they suffer from a difficulté d'être and from so many fears that we are led to believe they anticipated their destiny. In spite of there being scarcely any religious undertones in Sansom's stories, he seems to imply that some guilt haunts us all and that a punishment lies in wait for us, whatever we do to propitiate fate ("To the Rescue"). In fact the recurrence of certain animals like spiders and octopuses in threatening circumstances, or of impending falls from a height ("The Wall"), mysterious prohibitions ("The Forbidden Lighthouse"), or claustrophobic places ("The Little Room"), seems to reflect Sansom's own obsessions. Childhood is considered retrospectively as a blessed moment, free, in general, from terrors of all kinds and graced with the miracle of first impressions, the memory of which will later be tinged with beauty and wistful poetry ("The Windows"). For this reason, the past and all that can evoke it—photos, postcards, engravings—are considered with nostalgic reverence in Sansom's stories.

The flight of time is one of his leitmotifs, hence the importance his characters attach to clocks, watches, time-markers of all kinds. In their haste to accomplish their destiny, many Sansom protagonists are egotistic, unlovable characters; his female characters in particular are seldom attractive, even more seldom interesting. We sometimes wonder if Sansom does not revel in ugliness ("A Contest of Ladies"). There are indeed few love stories in his collections, and they do not end well, perhaps because they are not given the time to develop. In other respects he excels at rendering duration and at creating suspense by playing on the elasticity of time and the racing intensity of events; for what seems an eternity he will halt a wall in its fall, protract the death of an old man lying on the floor, or delay the consequences of the face-to-face encounter, in zoological gardens, of a man and a lion that has escaped from its cage ("Among the Dahlias"). In the story of this encounter, for example, only a few seconds elapse between the moment the protagonist, Doole, catches sight of the lion in the middle of the path in front of him and the moment he starts crying, which triggers the action. But these few seconds are fraught with a tight succession of various, almost simultaneous impressions the enumeration of which fills nearly four pages.

It is precisely Sansom's clever handling of words that Eudora Welty and Elizabeth Bowen have so much admired, and that Sansom himself praised in Edgar Allan Poe: "The description of a minute's fear [inflates] that minute into dreadful hourlong insistence." Such is the compelling power of the circumstances Sansom creates that we accept, breathlessly, the taxing of our patience. This feat, together with his superb handling of words, his exploitation of their musicality, his clever juxtaposition of abstract connotations with concrete evocations—which contributes to his creation of a surrealistic universe—amply compensates for certain flaws in his manner, like his predilection for pointlessly long sentences, farfetched comparisons, or over-explicit comments.

—Claire Larriere

See the essay on "Fireman Flower."