This post is part of an ongoing series on 101 weird writers featured in The Weird compendium, the anthology that serves as the inspiration for this site. There is no ranking system; the order is determined by the schedule of posts.
William Sansom (1912–1976) was an idiosyncratic English writer known for applying a surrealist’s sensibilities to the weird tale. Obscure today, Sansom enjoyed a brief period of acclaim in the 1940s and 1950s, when the fresh originality of his stories earned him a place in leading British literary magazines. A firefighter in London during the Blitz of World War II, Sansom managed to transform his experiences in a way that garnered him comparisons to Franz Kafka. Sophisticated yet passionate, his stories reward repeated readings. ‘The Long Sheet’ (1944) was published before the English translation of Kafka’s ‘In the Penal Colony’ and yet in their use of weird ritual to illuminate society the two stories share some similarities.
— David Davis, editor of 101 Weird Writers
“Have you ever wrung dry a wet cloth?” begins William Sansom’s “The Long Sheet”. “The muscle of your arm swells like an egg – yet the wet drop remains a pinhead!”
Well have you? Have you truly felt the pain of drying clothes by hand, so that not a drop remains? Only then can you begin to feel the dizzying pain, the torture and absurdity of the “captives at Device Z”.
With an innocuous beginning reminiscent of 1940s advertising copy, an anonymous narrator describes the task of wringing a long wet sheet in a humid room. Once the captives have wrung the sheet dry, they are assured of their freedom. Divided into four groups, each takes a different approach to their work. What begins as a simple exercise becomes a nightmare of human demoralization.
The wardens make the process as difficult as possible, pumping hot steam into the rooms to moisten the sheets. “Daily they encouraged the efforts of the captives with promises of release; but daily they turned on the steam cocks.” This Sisyphean effort bears comparison to Albert Camus’ classic work of absurdist philosophy: The Myth of Sisyphus.
Camus’ philosophy is integral to readings of the weird, particularly work from the first half of the 20th century. Many influential works delight in the absurd, with Kafka’s work inspiring part of Camus’ philosophical treatise. While The Myth of Sisyphus wasn’t published in English until 1955, absurdist philosophy emerged into English speaking culture during the 40s and 50s. The period during and directly proceeding World War II marked a shift in philosophy; a denial of God and search for meaning in a world marked by the crimes of a totalitarian state.
Although “The Long Sheet” was published in 1944, it is not improbable that Sansom could have read Camus in the 1942 French edition, as Sansom worked in Germany and also wrote a biography of Proust. Despite authoring six novels, and more short stories, little biographical detail is available on Sansom.
Throughout “The Long Sheet”, Sansom addresses the same question that Camus poses at the start of Sisyphus: suicide. Camus’ posed that “judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy,” and it is this question at the heart of “The Long Sheet”. What defines a quality life? Is it action, or the attitude towards those actions? And why do these captives not simply cut the sheet into strips and hang themselves?
Like a documentarian observing his subjects from on high, Sansom objectively reports the living conditions at Device Z, noting the number of people in each cubicle, their genders and their attitudes towards work. Claustrophobia perpetuates the story, from his detailed description of the wringing chambers, six-foot wide, six-foot tall and a hundred-feet long, divided into four metal cubicles.
Room Three contains “those who sought outside”, two married couples and a young Serbian grocer. “That the task was unproductive did not worry them,” as they were used to regular working hours. “It was as if they commuted regularly from their suburbia (the steel sleeping corner) to the office (the long sheet).”
Problems arise in Room Three when the workers wish to take an afternoon off for good behavior, allowing the sheet to get wet. They allow routine to “predominate the work itself”, not putting enough effort into the wringing of the sheet.
Room Two, “those who sought in and out and around”, contains five individualistic men, who set about their work with individual mindsets. There is the excuse maker, the quiet worker, the shortcut taker, the fumbler and the pervert. Their inability to work together means that the sheet will never be wrung dry.
Room Four contains “those who never sought at all”, with seven people including a twelve-year-old child. These people languish and refuse to work. Sansom writes that:
“Perhaps the real tragedy of these dispirited people was not their own misfortune, to which they had grown accustomed, but that their slackness had its effect on those whose ambitions were pure and strong.”
Room One, full of “those who sought inside”, represent the pursuit of philosophical freedom through manual work. The successful group strives for seven years to wring the sheet dry. Once dry, the sheet is drenched with water again. When asking for their freedom, the omnipotent warden replies:
“You already have it… Freedom lies in an attitude of spirit. There is no other freedom.”
This line is most emblematic of the absurd, where to rebel against futility creates meaning. Camus writes:
“Thus I draw from the absurd three consequences which are my revolt, my freedom and my passion. By the mere activity of consciousness I transform into a rule of life what was an invitation to death – and I refuse suicide.”[i]
There is the revolt, the decision to wring the sheet in spite of the alternatives; the passion, the effort with which they approach the task; and freedom, the final gift of obtaining consciousness through futile labor.
In discussing Sisyphus, Camus makes a point equally applicable to “The Long Sheet”. The gods, or in this case the wardens, believe that there is “no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor.”[ii] The tragedy comes from the consciousness of the hero. “If this myth is tragic, that is because its hero is conscious. Where would his torture be, indeed, if at every step the hope of succeeding upheld him?”[iii] The great trial is not the first wringing of the sheet, but the second and the third, to pursue the end goal despite the futile conclusion.
Comparisons have also been made between “The Long Sheet” and Kafka’s “In the Penal Colony. While the stories deal with similar themes of dehumanization and torture, Kafka’s story is very different in approach. Kafka takes a ground view perspective, with the Traveler observing and interacting in the situation. Sansom’s story is perpetually removed from the subjects, so far that they do not have names. Kafka’s story is meandering and overly long, with terse monologues from the Officer. Sansom’s story is short and swift, expertly edited and executed. While Sansom’s stories have not held the same longevity as Kafka’s, some of Sansom’s short stories and books have been re-released through Faber Finds.
While Camus’ concluded “the struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart,”[iv] there is no such hope at the end of “The Long Sheet”. Although the reader affiliates with the pain of the captives, Sansom’s cold voice never wavers, simply leaving us with the cutting remarks of the wardens, “You already have [freedom]”. Only one sentence remains. “And the skylights silently closed.”
[i] Camus, A. (2005). The Myth of Sisyphus. London: Penguin. p. 62
[ii] Ibid. p. 115
[iii] Ibid. p. 117
[iv] Ibid. p. 119