In his essay about the twin perils of hurricanes and wildfires, David Gessner recounts a scene he witnessed in the West two summers ago: “I can see fire burning on the ridge, the flames kicking up and leaving behind burned trees like sticks, the red of the flames reflected in the clouds above it, showers of sparks.” I lingered over that sentence while editing, not because it needed work but because I was reminded of a writer I used to love, a man who knew a thing or two about fire. William Sansom (1912–1976) was once thought of as an English Kafka. Today, he is all but forgotten.
At the outset of the Second World War, Sansom volunteered for the Auxiliary Fire Service, and it was in London during the chaos of the Blitz that he found his voice. His early short story “The Wall” depicts firefighters trying to extinguish a warehouse blaze, even as a section of the façade becomes detached and looms perilously over them. The story appeared in the writer’s first collection, Fireman Flower (1944). But Sansom, having known the real thing, wasn’t sure that his—or, for that matter, any—literary rendering of fire could accurately capture its essence.
Sansom argues in one of his essays that even the best stylists fail to “re-create for the reader the shape, colour, movement and emotional presence of the flame itself.” Not Pepys, not Gorky, not even Milton (who sings in Paradise Lost of “whirlwinds of tempestuous fire”) succeeds. What writers can do, Sansom writes, is render how fire is perceived: the burn, the sting, the shadow play of reflected light, the noxious smells, the look of charred wood. Pepys only redeems himself when he uses indirect metaphors, when the diarist of the Great Fire of London describes how one’s “face in the wind … almost burned with a shower of fire-drops.” As Sansom writes, “Let us admit ourselves defeated by the naked flame. Let us concentrate instead upon its symptoms and results.”
Fireman Flower made a strong impression on me when I first read it more than 20 years ago. So, too, did Sansom’s nonfiction account of the Blitz, Westminster at War. Another writer who served with him in the fire service, Henry Green, has had his moment of rediscovery. Surely now it’s Sansom’s turn.
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