The world is merciless if you expose yourself to it: Michael Flay, ‘The Dancer’

I’ve written recently about the first two stories in Michael Flay’s 1999 collection Closed Doors; today I’d like to consider a story with a different theme and tone.

Flay Closed Doors Many of the stories in this collection are baleful protests at the consumerist culture of modern society: the fat-cat ‘businessmen’ who often appear are excoriated for their banal, depraved practices, their cultural blankness and their selfish, gloating boorishness. Their sense of superiority is repulsive, and the author’s rancour is corrosive. Male-female relations are just another form of commerce in this bleak world.

I’d like to look, by way of contrast, at some softer touches the author is capable of. In ‘The Dancer’ there’s a poignant love story, delicately conveyed. It’s one of a few stories set in Finland, where Michael Flay taught for a while back in the 90s – hence his imprint’s name: Polar Books.

The eponymous Finnish woman dancer is gifted and the unnamed male (English) protagonist is attracted, as this striking image indicates:

She was liquid, and he would like her to pour over him.

When she dances she can both express and lose herself – qualities he admires and perhaps envies:

In this she could be herself, beyond relationship for the time…[Later] She had revealed herself quite barely in the dance; there was something brave, insolent in the revelation.

The relationship is strained, however, largely because of the exigencies of their economic situations, the ‘systems’: both need to work at jobs that are deadening, unfulfilling – in his case, teaching at an institution that exploits its staff with contemptuous disdain; each day is ‘trivial’; the work ‘was taking him down’.

There’s a bleak, unforgiving polar setting (the words ‘ice’ and ‘snow’ are repeated frequently, along with related terms – ‘frozen’, ‘cold’, adjectives ‘desolate’, ‘black’, ‘dead’, sterile’, etc.) In spite of this, the man and the dancer had ‘come close’:

He had wanted to draw her into his conscious world, had tried also to show her himself. And she had almost seen, had wanted to see, but had not wanted to show herself so much.

Here the pervasive influence in all of Michael Flay’s work of his literary model – DH Lawrence –  is apparent, but he adapts the imagery to make it his own.

The man is forced to return to England to seek more temporary work (no permanent contracts in his academic world), and again the scene reflects the emotional temperature of the characters:

A grey drizzle fell across the dirty London sky…It was all [the ‘council estate’ with its boarded-up houses] nauseous and forlorn.

He’s surrounded by the more privileged, the ‘cash complacent’, drawling, refined ‘businessmen’ so often reviled, as I have shown, in these stories – ‘how had they come to run things?’, the man muses, disillusioned, as they scurry to their ‘bank blocks’ (a favourite Flay term). He lacks their commercial drive. But here the venomous portrayal serves as a counterpoint to the ‘tenderness’ between him and the dancer.

Their separation is bruising; the estranging world is ‘merciless if you expose yourself to it.’ Why should he, the man thinks, ‘dent her defences for the outside to come in?’ I find those images beautifully done.

I won’t reveal the outcome; it’s the tender depiction of the ‘contact’ these two otherwise thwarted, disconsolate, constrained characters are able to establish in a harsh, uncaring world that gives this story its lustre.

I’m off on holiday tomorrow, so may not get a chance to post here for a while. Have a good summer, and happy reading, happy living.



8 thoughts on “The world is merciless if you expose yourself to it: Michael Flay, ‘The Dancer’

  1. I sense a gentle and delicate disagreement with the world view of the author here, Simon. His viewpoint does seem quite black and white. Yes, there is bleakness in the world, but I do not agree that the world itself is bleak. Perhaps a palate cleanser of Camus’ The Plague is in order.

    P.S. In my opinion, the artist has to guard him or herself against gall and bitterness, which will eat from the inside and discolor creative work. I remember a senior employee at one of my day jobs, who deeply resented the Office Manager’s clear preference for younger female workers ( in terms of work awards, etc.). The older man and the younger workers were generally equally competent, but the man’s dismissal was unjust. On the other hand, the man had not been willing to go for management positions himself. He had always been upfront in saying he just wanted a low key, 9-5 job. But the “price” for his lack of ambition and “lifetime” non-management role was less power over his destiny and the risk of being passed over.

    I also wonder, would an artist of wider scope be able to pierce within the core of the “cash complacent” businessman to pick up on what might be beneath the surface? I can imagine many corporate grinders might find the life of the itinerant academic and his adventures with dancers in Iceland something to envy! : ) It would be interesting to see what Henry Green or Bram Stoker (two brilliant authors who constantly balanced business demands with art) might make of this!

  2. Simon,
    Just another thought on your subtle observation that the powerful and the poor both have their bad actors. Just thought of Colm Tóibín’s novel “Brooklyn.” The spinster proprietor of a tiny shop in Enniscorthy, who is likely of modest means, is one of the most vile characters I’ve ever encountered in any novel. In her small, petty, way, she is a true “spirit killer,” who seems to take a sadistic joy in shaming the poor and vulnerable. And how about the nastiness with which Stanley Kowlowski attacks that poor, vulnerable sparrow Blanche in “A Streetcare Named Desire.” So twisted!

  3. Returning to this, Simon…. thinking back on “The Master,” can’t imagine any other author who could limn the fine sensibility of Henry James as well as Tóibín!

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