Undream'd of Shores was Frank Harris' last collection of short stories, and his worst. The writing seems tired and there is a repetitiveness of theme: nearly all those that are not about a man's relationship with his wife instead expound Harris' half-baked approach to religion and moral philosophy.
'A Mad Love' is one of the marital relations stories: in this instance a musician, a genius, is tormented by jealousy of his wife - whom he has caught being kissed by a rival - until he commits suicide. The pity of it is meant to be that the wife is actually blameless, but as the characterisation is weak, it is hard to care very much.
'Akbar: "The Mightiest"' is a moral fable, in which a (fictional) ancient ruler adopts an Harrisian system of ethics and therefore reigns happily, beloved of his subjects. For what it's worth, the recipe involves inventing a religion which takes the best of Christianity, Islam and others; ruling in a spirit of tolerance and forgiveness; and having a good sex life with one's wife.
In 'A Fit of Madness', a husband loses his memory and woos his wife again, so she is sorry when he gets better. A pleasant little tale, which gains by its lack of pretension.
'A Chinese Story' is awful. Set in China, naturally enough, it concerns a Polish man, Shimonski, who acts as the narrator's guide through the cruel culture of the wily orientals. When a number of sadistic incidents have been witnessed or related, with the narrator becoming increasingly curious that Shimonski is not repelled by them, we hear Shimonski's own story. He had fallen in love with a young Chinese girl who was arranged to be married to a general; they eloped but in the end she was caught and raped and tortured to death. This terrible course of events is taken to explain his loss of human empathy. Again, as the characters are so poorly painted - and the Chinese setting is like something out of Fu Manchu - one is neither persuaded nor moved.
To attempt to write parables is risky, as 'St. Peter's Difficulty' shows. The Guardian of the Gate is troubled, and he makes his complaint to his master, Jesus. Apparently Mary the Mother of God has been smuggling in riff-raff, little crippled children and the like. Jesus responds with one of the most fatuous replies that can have been attributed to him in all literature: "Peter! you and I had not even deformity to plead for us --". Harris presumably meant to imply that earthly suffering ought to win credits in the afterlife, but since it is hard to see him as the mouthpiece for divine instruction, the effect is ludicrous.
'Love Is My Sin' is another artist-driven-mad-by-wife-commits-suicide story, as if one were not enough. In this case the artist is a painter; his wife is not innocent but a grasping coarse materialistic creature who shuns him for his flat feet(!). After he quite justifiably gets shot of her he finds himself haunted by her face. Unable to live with or without her, he does himself in. Having the nasty wife in the story, although she is ridiculously caricatured, makes it one of the more entertaining ones here, if not exactly in the way Harris meant it.
A more complacent view of the married life of the artist is presented by 'As Others See Us', in which a writer's wife sees herself in one of his characters, a beautiful and exciting young girl. The character is of course actually based on a former mistress of his, while the wife's unrecognised true portrait is to be found in another character, a dull and commonplace woman. This marriage lacks true communication between the parties, but is at least amicable and comfortable: the reader can believe in it.
In 'A Lunatic?' Harris uses the voice of the unfortunate fellow of the title to expound another tenet of his philosophy of life, that those who rule us are mediocrities - one with which it is difficult to argue, certainly not from observation: but Harris' approach here is so hackneyed that it detracts from what he is trying to say, to the point where one perversely feels inclined to disagree with him.
'In Central Africa' is turgid and unbelievable, so much so that I found it impossible to get through, but the impression it left was of soft pornographic, mildly racist, fantasies about the narrator's amours with one (or more - I was too bored to pay attention) of the wives of a sadistic African chief.
Much better is 'The Extra Eight Days', which is a brief, frothy tale about a couple who inherit a cabaret, and the change it brings to their characters.
Now we reach what I think the best story here, 'The Great Game' - although it is still a little overlong. An example of Harris' amoral adventure for boys style, in this case a variation on the hackneyed boy-from-the-slums-becomes-great-boxer-and-marries-wealthy-heiress plot familiar from many dreadful B-movies: Harris' hero not only learns to throw fights when it is worth his while, but persuades his sweetheart of the virtues of this dubious philosophy. It is pleasurable to have one's expectations thus confounded.
'The Temple to the Forgotten Dead' uses the story-within-a-story trick that Harris is often fond of, though in this case rather clumsily. In a pub a man tells stories which his hearers rate very highly; and Harris in the guise of narrator, retells three of the them: 'The Temple to the Forgotten Dead'. 'The Strait-Waistcoat' and 'A Mere Imagining'. The problem is that Harris' narrator raves over them as if they were works of genius, which they are not, and thereby kills them stone dead.
Finally Harris rounds his book off with 'My Last Word', a half-page afterword delivered in a portentous pseudo-biblical style, a valediction to the pleasures and the pains of life: he was 67 and feeling old.
Some like Beethoven attain a pinnacle of Art late in life, though most gradually lose their powers. This is evidence of Harris' membership of the latter category: there are flashes here of his strengths as a short story teller, but altogether too much of his weaknesses.
Scribbled by Alfred Armstrong 12 years 1 month ago