It’s a Dover Thrift paperback, thin, smallish, the pages rather yellowed at the edges, my initials embossed on the right hand corner of the frontispiece… and I can’t quite remember where I got it.
Published in 1997, the copyright note says – so it can’t have been in Cardiff, much less in Edinburgh. And it can’t have been London, because I know for certain that I already had the book by the summer of 1998 – and I wouldn’t move to London (however briefly) until a whole year later… No, my small collection of Crane stories must have come from Pavia, from one of several bookshops around the University that stocked books in the original language.
Stephen Crane, “The Little Regiment” and Other Civil War Stories – unabridged, says the cover, and it must have been one of those impulse purchases… All I knew about Crane back then was that 1) He had written The Red Badge of Courage (which I hadn’t read); 1) He had died young; 3) He had been Joseph Conrad’s friend, and quite possibly one of several people that Conrad combined into the title character of Lord Jim. Or, more precisely, I remember reading somewhere that Conrad may have modeled the friendship between Marlowe and Jim on his own relationship with the much younger Crane… So yes, I suppose this must have been my reason for buying the book.
There are seven stories in it: A Mystery of Heroism, A Gray Sleeve, Three Miraculous Soldiers, The Little Regiment, The Veteran, An Indiana Campaign, and the Christmas story An Episode of War. For some reason, when I read them, the one that stood out was A Gray Sleeve.
And mind, I don’t think it’s the best story in the collection – in fact, if anything, it’s a bit blander than most. Quite enjoyable, but less memorable than, say, The Little Regiment, or An Episode of War… Still A Gray Sleeve was the one I singled out for an experiment at stage adaptation. I was very, very green at the game, but not so green to miss the fact that, if nothing else, with its structure, characters, and single setting, this particular story had the right shape for a small one-act play.
So that’s what I wrote, at some point during the summer of 1998. I wrote it in longhand, would you believe? In what was at the time my half-journal half-notebook. With a fountain pen, and turquoise ink – of all things. The resulting play was rather short, but what particularly struck me was how the story – the soldiers warily moving in hostile territory, the girl trying to shield her wounded brother and angry grandfather, the perplexed officer… – could have taken place during any civil war, or indeed any war, at any point in history. I had a notion that it could have been interesting to show this angle – but at the time all I could come up with was a repetition with different costumes… Dreadfully boring concept, so I let it go, and both the adaptation and the book sank into half-oblivion, except that I’d adopted one half line from the story: There’s something – something, says at one point a young lieutenant, when he first glimpses the eponymous grey sleeve in a window… And that something – something has become my phrase for indefinite impressions, or things I can’t quite grasp. Strange, the things what we read can leave with us at times, don’t you think?
Well, it was several years later that, during a writing course, I dug out the book and brought it with me, to use as an example of the fine art of beginning a story. I read aloud a few of Crane’s brusque, evocative beginnings – and the pupils liked them enough that one of them asked to borrow the collection. I had misgivings, but I’ve never known how to refuse to lend a book without appearing rude, and so lend it I did. Then the course finished, the book did not reappear – but I kept in touch with several of the pupils, including the borrower of Crane, so I wasn’t unduly worried.
Now and then I would ask him about it, and he would promise to bring the book the first time he happened to be in my corner of the world… only, it never happened, so I got to the conclusion that he had lost my little grey and red book. He denied vehemently: no, not at all… it was just… it must be still back at his parents’ place… if only he could… if I had a little patience… Well, I confess: I kept nagging him relentlessly, poor fellow, until he actually found the book again, and mailed it back to me.
To celebrate the reunion, I read the stories again, and again wondered at my predilection for A Gray Sleeve. So I just had to unearth the turquoise-ink adaptation. As I remembered, it worked well enough, but lacked, well… it lacked something – something. Ah well. I sighed to myself, put away book and notebook again, and that seemed to be that.
Only, now… Yesterday I was looking for something to use for English dictation, and stumbled on The Little Regiment and Other Civil War Stories. And there was a Gray Sleeve, beckoning at me. And I did my dictation a little absentmindedly. And later I found the adaptation again. And began to take notes. And… And… And it’s quite clear that I’m far from finished with this story. Whatever else it may be, it’s a stubborn little thing: it won’t let go, it would seem, until I make something – something out of it.