by Poul Anderson

Story Books, 1997

Memorials are for the living.

This book is a tribute to the late Reginald Bretnor, but those who have gathered together here a part of his work give themselves a gift -- an enduring pleasure in these delightful short stories. More importantly, they give them to the world. People who never knew Bretnor personally or who have known little of what he did will find some wonderful reading. They too will feel his spirit: genial, vivacious, widely informed, deeply concerned. May this go on for many generations to come.

That will serve a cause he cherished. It was not that he demanded fame for himself. What he fought for was a restoration of public literacy, the survival in our civilization of art and thought -- honest art, clear thought, rather than the fashionable frauds he disdained. The fact is, however, that his contributions to the heritage are not minor.

No doubt this assertion will surprise those whose acquaintance with his writing is superficial or nil. They may recall him as the originator of the "Feghoot," a kind of short-short story leading with inexorable logic to an outrageous pun. They may remember the saga of Papa Schimmelhorn, its gusto and merriment. Too often, that is all that will come to mind.

Taken simply by itself, it is not so little. Has mirth no value? Are the comedy of Aristophanes and Moliere, the wit of Chesterton and Knox, yes, the farce of Wodehouse, negligible? Humor successfully brought off is a high and rare accomplishment.

Yet it was by no means Reginald Bretnor's only accomplishment, nor his most significant.

He was a master of the short story in general. There never have been many. If it is to be done right, it requires very special skills. True, mediocre short stories are legion. Likewise are mediocre sonnets. But, to take a nearly random example, with its concentration, its lapidary structure, Shakespeare's 32nd ("If thou survive my well-contented day...") evokes an artist who is also a lover and strikes directly into his innermost being. Now add up just how much Bretnor's Unknown Things manages to say in its few pages about collectors and their curious world, sexuality, and passionless cruelty. No novel can have such a cold impact: not of the sword but of the poignard.

He could do a novel when he chose, with comparable style, inventiveness, and narrative pace. It is our misfortune that he seldom did.

As for the material of his fiction, it includes everyday life, made luminous, and crime, ingeniously devised, in contemporary settings. Most of it, though, is science fiction or fantasy. Long before these fields attained widespread popularity and a measure of academic respectability, he was proud to work in them and to claim for them equality with every other form. In making good that claim, he played a leading part.

Besides his stories, this was through his critical efforts, the essays and the three symposium books he conceived and edited. He might have tut-tutted at my adjective, since the pretentious twaddle that usually passes for criticism was an object of his derision, but I mean it in the sense of "examining profoundly and sympathetically." He pioneered, raising landmarks for those who came after.

Military matters engaged him equally. He neither glorified war nor went into hysterical denunciations of it. He studied it, considered how means might be kept proportionate to ends, published thought-provoking suggestions, and invented a field weapon, which, ignored at the time, was later independently duplicated and taken into use.

I forget who it was who said every fine writer owes his or her country a translation, but Bretnor paid the debt from the French of Moncrif's charming eighteenth-century Cats. Altogether, his range of interests and knowledge was vast, as the stories amply demonstrate.

His life was similarly diversified. He was born in 1911 in Vladivostok, to a Russian father and English mother. The family presently moved to Japan and thence to the United States, of which he became a citizen in 1934. Among the numerous jobs he held during the Depression was a stint as a soldier in the last horse cavalry the Army ever maintained. Medically discharged, he served in the Japanese section of our Office of War Information, absorbed after the end of hostilities by the State Department.

In 1947 he resigned to write full time and settled in Berkeley, California. There he married Helen Harding, a librarian at the University of California and herself a writer and translator. She was a dear person; everyone who knew her mourned when she died in 1967. Two years afterward, Reg married his colleague Rosalie Leveille. She too was lovable, but it did not become my privilege to know her well, because they went to live in Oregon, first Jacksonville, then Medford. She died in 1988. He worked quietly and uncomplainingly on until his own peaceful death in 1992.

In person he was a big, hearty man with somewhat of a British accent. His conversation, like his writing, sparkled with humor but could get wholly serious. He raised cats, cooked gourmet meals, and was a born collector, the sort who understands his material -- which, in his case, ranged from Japanese swords to firearms and, always, books.

His politics was conservative, not reactionary but respectful of ancient traditions and basic decencies. Strongly held, none of his opinions on various subjects lessened his warmth for friends who disagreed. During his time in California he met monthly with Anthony Boucher, my wife, myself, and a few others for poker. Households took turns hosting these games, and an amicable rivalry developed as to who could set forth the best dinner; though play was fierce, the stakes were small and the purpose, really, fellowship. Those years are long ended, but the laughter echoes in me still. All Reg's vividness does.

Come into this book and share.

back to Fred Flaxman's Home Page