Tell No-One About This
Peepal Tree Press: 360pp.: £14.99
Based in Leeds, Peepal Tree Press publish, what they call, the best international writing from the Caribbean and its diasporas in the UK. The book in question here is Jacob Ross’ collection of short stories, Tell No-One About This. Having received the Jhalak Prize in 2017 for his crime novel The Bone Readers (a departure in tone, but clearly, a successful one) perhaps now the time is due to assess what Ross has achieved in the short form.
Assembled from a fourty-two year period between 1975 and 2017, Ross’ collection is collated into four elemental sounding sections: ‘Dark’, ‘Dust’, ‘Ocean’, and ‘Flight’. There’s no indication though as to when these stories were written and perhaps it’s because of the often youthful protagonists, or subjects of the stories, that makes us question what are the works from a more juvenile period. Youth offers something to Ross narratively and one of the prime instances of why this might be is exemplified by Agatha, in ‘Girlchile’.
Estimating her to be a teenager, the story opens with Agatha walking through her neighbourhood. Here, she sees a ‘stranger’ amidst the chorus of the regular crowd of puerile men, greeting her with their usual parade of ‘nasty things’ orchestrated by their ‘hands and mouths.’ The presence of the stranger nevertheless causes them to stop and they ‘no longer loud-whispered dutty words’ at her. Why is this? The question of her age is made complicated because, clearly, Agatha is not naive enough to not know what these ‘nasty things’ mean, yet she keeps them away from her mother.
The reader can only be left to assume why she has done this. Transpiring however that the stranger is her biological father, the man, named Gideon, approaches Agatha asking that she tells her mother he is in town. When Agatha returns home she says:
‘Who’s Gideon, Mammy?’
Her mother stiffened, dropped back the lid on the steaming pot and swung round to face her. ‘Where you get that name from? Who gave it to you? Eh?’ Her mother made a step towards her ‘Where you been to get it? Yuh bizness is school, not to shit-talk. Go change your clothes. I don’ have the strength…’
The girl retreated to her room, sat on the bed and examined her feet.
The fact that Agatha has framed it as a question, and her mother has then rebutted her with more questions, shows how the dynamics of their relationship are unsettled and threatened by what Gideon knows and represents. Her mother though appears riled at the fact that her daughter doesn’t just want to know something her mother is hiding from her, but also knows that whatever is hidden is structural to their relationship as it is now. Adults here, as much as givers of knowledge, are gatekeepers of it as well.
With this emphasis on the lessons to be learnt, it’s no wonder that we sometimes feel indebted to the fable. ‘Five Leaves and a Stranger’ is perhaps more of a conscious arrangement of a parable as an unnamed stranger arrives in a village to slowly tell the history of his own land. He’s treated with suspicion by the rest of the villagers but one mother, Minerva, is captivated by his stories and his history, and it is her ill child he eventually helps to revive. Once his work is deemed done the stranger leaves, but the story doesn’t deny itself the scepticism that we’ve seen in the rest of the collection when this question of what lessons, and knowledge, really constitutes is queried again. The final line feels coarsened with a tone of dubiety:
We looked back just once when she among us who had a view on everything and said we must, from this onward, greet the stranger by his name.
Assumedly, the moral, if there is one, can be generalised as something like ‘accepting this stranger from another land.’ It is though, only she who ‘has a view on everything’ that is reportedly able to say we must ‘greet the stranger by his name’: who, after all, has such a panoptic view on the world the story seems to ask. It’s not then, so much an innocence that’s preserved by the the village, and the likes of Agatha, but instead a way of preserving and protecting relationships people have with one another.
One of the most powerful renditions of this idea is from ‘Rum an Coke’. Norma, a mother (as you can probably tell by now, a frequent focus of Ross’), who is subjected to violence by her drug-addicted son, visits her son’s drug dealer so that she can buy him some of the substance he’s addicted to. To do so, Norma withdraws the last of her money and although the premise might be slightly chimerical, the story’s construction gives us an incredibly intricate exploration of this mother and son relationship. This notion of withdrawal for instance, overhangs the story: Norma withdraws money for son, who is experiencing withdrawal symptoms that, by the end, appears as a way for Norma to prevent, or cope, with the withdrawal as herself as a mother to him. Ross writes:
He would have gone over to Teestone’s house next door, or to some friend of his, and pumped his veins with a needleful of that milky stuff that did such dreadful things to him. The milky stuff, she did not understand…
Ross has captured here what other writers would take three-hundred pages to explain: the whole dreadful experience for Norma. It’s not just a world that Ross has created here, but a world in which Norma’s thoughts have also helped create. ‘Milky stuff’ could only be a word Norma has invented to describe the drug to herself (like Agatha’s ‘nasty things’), that at once represents that which is distant and astral, whilst also being something intimately and maternally connected to her role as a mother now. And so it’s the withdrawing of one to understand the other that makes these decisions, and the choices of what the characters learn about themselves and others, often so difficult in Ross’ collection.
Martyn Bedford explains on his website how he never had a foreign holiday until he was seventeen years old. When he did eventually go abroad, his parents took him to Belgium he says “to prove he hadn’t been missing anything”. After stints working as a journalist and travelling the world (perhaps he felt he was actually missing out on something), he enrolled on a creative writing course at East Anglia where he began his first novel, Acts of Revision, which ensuingly won the Yorkshire Post Best First Work Award. This was followed by four more novels for adults, and three novels for young adults; one of the latter, Flip, was shortlisted for the Costa Children’s Book Award amongst others. His work has now been translated into fifteen languages.
I’m speaking to Martyn about the publication of Letters Home, a collection of short stories that have been published over his career as well as some written especially for the collection. Martyn now lives in West Yorkshire and works at Leeds Trinity University as a Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing. We conducted the interview by email.
It felt to me that locality and place and particularly the absence of, was important to the stories. Considering that you’ve written these stories over the years, would you say this is a conscious idea, or something that might have developed and changed in your writing?
Place, for me, functions in two main ways in fiction: (a) as a physical location in which the events take place; and/or (b) as integral to thematic intent through the setting’s relationship to character or plot. In some of the stories in Letters Home, the setting is primarily the former – a backdrop – but, in several pieces, it plays a more vital role. For instance, in the title story, the asylum seeker’s separation from his home country, and family, and his struggle to build a new life in an alien land, in a hostile neighbourhood of Leeds, goes right to the heart of the narrative. In “Waiting at the Pumpkin”, the setting of a café at Manchester Oxford Road station seems, at first glance, to be incidental to a disaffected employee’s annual appraisal with her odious line manager. But, as the scene unfolds, the coming and going of the trains, and the announcements of their destinations, allude to the notion that she is static in a place of constant motion – and to her growing realisation of being trapped (in her job, at that café table) and of the possibilities of escape.
I have always been interested in the interplay between people and place, and how we often identify ourselves in relation to the localities in which our lives are lived. So, yes, it is very much a conscious, explorative process in my writing. It features in the older as well as the more recent stories in this collection, which spans two decades of my writing career, and is a recurrent theme – to one extent or another – in all of my novels as well.
There was a lot transition between places as well. Characters didn’t always seem aware of where their desires or actions were taking them. Is this an idea that you tie into a sense of ‘Home’ or place?
‘Home’ is a slippery concept in an age when people are more mobile than was the case in previous generations. Almost all of us will live in numerous homes during the course of our lives – different buildings, different places, possibly different countries – so you could say that the physicality of our home is mutable, or transient, but our abstract concept of what constitutes home, for each of us, might remain intact. Wherever I lay my hat . . . and all that. In comparison to our forbears, most of us will also have many more changes of job and relationship during our lifetime, so the ‘transition between places’ you refer to is echoed, in some of the stories, in a transition or shift in some other aspect of my characters’ existences.
It’s true that several of the protagonists seem unconscious of where their desires or actions might lead: the man fixated on finding out whether the Beckhams are, as rumoured, dining in Betty’s tearooms, in Ilkley; the boy playing detective in trying to solve the mystery of his mother’s failure to return home from a trip to London; the British backpacker taken ill while smuggling drugs in India. In these and other stories, what I’m seeking to explore are the tensions between the transitory nature of human experience and our desire to establish a reliable sense of ‘self’, a point of stability in the midst of flux.
On a blog, when you’re discussing fiction and autobiography, you reference Philip Roth’s rebuttal of his critics on the publication of his memoirs ‘The Facts’. He retaliated that nobody believed he was writing a work of non-fiction but still continued to mine his fiction for his autobiography. I’m certainly not asking you if your work is autobiographical, but as an artist and thinking of the stories, what are you looking for in your own environment to construct the environment of your stories? What drew you to a particular locality for instance?
Milan Kundera said (and I’m paraphrasing) that the novelist demolishes the house of his/her life and uses the bricks to build the houses of his/her fiction. Like most analogies, this is an over-simplification of a complex process; it also places undue emphasis on an author’s autobiographical experience in relation to two other essential sources of fictional material: research and, of course, the imagination. However, like many writers, I draw on the events of my own life to varying extents, with varying degrees of disguise and embellishment, in most of my fiction.
Sometimes, as in “The Beckhams are in Betty’s”, the premise is rooted in direct experience: the first half of the story (in which the narrator is told by his dental hygienist that the Beckhams are in town) happened to me, more or less as described. But the protagonist is not me and his response to the rumour was not mine, so the story shifts from semi-autobiographical to fictional as it proceeds. With other stories, the material might be sourced from something I’ve read in a newspaper or seen on TV; for example, “Here’s a Little Baby, One, Two, Three” was prompted by a nature documentary about bee-eaters (although my characters are human, not birds). The most overtly autobiographical piece in the collection, “Unsaid” – a story told entirely in dialogue – is based on the last weeks of my dad’s life, with many of the exchanges taken verbatim from real conversations, as best as I can recall them, albeit that ‘my’ character is female. As for locality, the drug-smuggler’s grim hotel room in “A Representative in Automotive Components” (as well as his illness and the unlikely friendship with the sales rep who helps him), were drawn directly from my own experiences as a backpacker in India – although the drug-smuggling aspect is made up, in order to provide a plot that enables a particular episode in my life to function as a story rather than memoir.
I don’t subscribe to the old creative-writing adage that you should ‘write what you know’, or not exclusively at least. But I do believe that personal experience, when filtered through a writer’s imagination, can lend essential depth and authenticity – both contextual and emotional – to a fictional narrative.
There certainly felt alienation in the stories here in deeply personal places of the characters, like their homes. For instance, in ‘Because of Olsen’ we have a man who enacts the role of the artist who used to live in the apartment he lives in now, because he’s visited by tourists every weekend. Is this alienation tangible as the writer/artist creates or is it a mere aspect of the story?
I didn’t mention this story in my first answer in this Q&A, as I’d spotted this question looming on the horizon. But the relationship between place and character is more central to “Because of Olsen” than it is to any other piece in Letters Home. The out-of-work actor’s bedsit isn’t actually haunted by the ghost of a long-dead Danish artist who once lived there, but his spirit certainly finds a place of revenance in the narrator’s psyche.
You rightly identify alienation as a key theme in this story, as it is in many of the pieces, with a recurrent focus on characters who are living isolated or marginalised existences, or who are struggling to find a sense of themselves in relation to those around them. In several cases, the protagonists – consciously or unconsciously – try to establish their identity vicariously through (sometimes unhealthy) attachment to others. This is especially true of the sleep-clinic technician in “My Soul to Keep”, who becomes fixated on her permanently sleeping young patient, and most of all in “Because of Olsen”, where Miller almost literally becomes Olsen as the story progresses.
For me, this goes to the heart of one of the vital dilemmas of the human condition: how to express ourselves as individuals within the collective constraints and expectations of society. Many of us are caught in this tension between fitting in and feeling alienated and I’ve often returned to this theme in my fiction.
I thought there was an element of the Kafkaesque in the stories. ‘My Soul to Keep’ reminded me of ‘The Hunger Artist’ and ‘Because of Olsen’, ‘In the Penal Colony’ in particular. The stories are also laced with a very dry humour and irony we might expect from Kafka. Perhaps we’re back to this sense of alienation but is this irony apparent as you write, or not write, or is it imparted as a defence against something else?
Well, I read a lot of Kafka during my twenties and have revisited his work down the years – Metamorphosis and The Trial, in particular – so, while I didn’t set out to emulate his style or to echo specific stories, I’m not surprised if Kafkaesque elements surface in this collection. I’ve always been especially drawn to his undercurrent of humour and irony – for all its dark oppressive menace, Kafka’s fiction is leavened by sardonic, absurdist comedy. And, as you identify, the theme of alienation is a central Kafkaesque preoccupation – as it is in Letters Home, as well as in some of my novels.
I wouldn’t say that the irony in these stories is a ‘defence’ against anything so much as a counterpoint: the juxtaposition of the comic and the tragic, the serious and the ridiculous. It is the light that illuminates the shade. As Kafka (Sartre, Camus, Ionesco, Pinter and others) remind us: without a sense of humour, our lives – our search for meaning in a notionally meaningless existence – would be intolerable.
In ‘Withen’ you tell the story of a family dispute that has lasted for thirty years due to one of the uncles crossing a miners’ picket line. There are certain cliches of Northernness and the idea of mining and picket lines is potentially one of them. You make an interesting story out of it though, so what drew you to this idea for a story considering that it has been used often before? (Or perhaps you think it’s not been used often enough).
This story originated with a commission from Comma Press to contribute to the anthology Protest: Stories of Resistance, published in 2016. Comma offered authors a list of episodes in history from which to choose and I opted for the so-called Battle of Orgreave, during the 1984-85 strike by the National Union of Mineworkers. For the anthology, Comma paired the fiction-writers with historians, academics and other experts with specialist knowledge of the particular events – in my case, I consulted Prof. David Waddington at Sheffield Hallam University, whose research enabled me to place my fiction in an authentic socio-historical and political context.
I take your point about the potential Northern cliché-trap of coalmining and picket lines but, in my defence, these aspects are unavoidable in a story about Orgreave! Of course, as you infer, the challenge is to take hackneyed or over-exploited tropes somewhere different or cast them through a new prism, and I hope I’ve achieved that in “Withen”. What drew me to this particular topic was the personal as much as the political. Like the story’s narrator, I was a young journalist living in Hong Kong at the time of the miners’ strike and deeply affected by TV news footage from the UK of the violent clashes between riot police and pickets. Unlike the narrator, my dad wasn’t a South Yorkshire miner but a sheet-metal worker in Croydon, south London, where I grew up. The story, then, is as much about post-industrial concepts of masculinity, social class, and father-son relationships, as it is about Orgreave, or the strike, or Northernness.
There are clichés for certain reasons sometimes and I would say you averted any clichéd story. You say though, the story is personal as much as it is political; I just wonder if, that in a story like this, and with seemingly several elements that went into its development, and although you chose to write this story, whether something like this would have been ‘necessary’ for you to write at some point anyway? If not in this form, another?
Yes, I already had an underlying urge to delve into the personal context that informs “Withen” and the commission for this story came along at a time when I was ready – personally and creatively – to go there. As a man from working-class origins who has lived a middle-class, white-collar life since becoming an adult (newspaper journalist, novelist, university creative-writing lecturer), I’ve long been interested in the contrast between my working experiences and those of my father, grandfathers, great-grandfathers (sheet-metal worker, gasworks furnaceman, stone mason, wheelwrights, agricultural labourers). They used their hands to make things, I use mine to make things up.
In fact, I explored this theme some twenty years ago – in my second novel, Exit, Orange & Red – albeit in a much less overtly autobiographical way. But it seems I had unfinished business with this topic, and you might well be right: if “Withen” hadn’t provided the outlet for it, I would probably have found another way to approach it sooner or later.
Letters Home is published by Comma Press is out now. A discussion of the work will be featured on Curb Complex.
Captain of the Steppe (with introduction by Marcel Theroux)
translated by Ian Appleby
£12.00 rrp.: 231pp.
The Matiushin Case
translated by Andrew Bromfield
£10.00 rrp.: 249pp.
Reqiuem for a Soldier
translated by Anna Gunin
£10.00 rrp.: 185pp.
by Oleg Pavlov
published by And Other Stories
Chekhov wrote subtly but powerfully, as he often did, about the’need’, a desire to move from one state or another through the acquisition of something external and satiation of something internal. This feeling may hark back to times past, creating more illusions now, but a reality once, and might guide us to something that will not necessarily aid us. It is as Maria and Olga reflect in the story ‘Peasants’ “the terrible incessant need from which you cannot hide anywhere”. So is the need hiding from us, or we hiding from the real need? This is the question that has shaped modern humanity, and never have our needs and desires and how we acquire them been so permissibly accessed, and only now, perhaps, are those needs so questionable. It’s ironic now then that we go to a writer who shares his surname with a man who pioneered psychology – Oleg Pavlov.
But my needs are tied up to impose a narrative, contextualise. I return to Vladimir Sharov’s quip that “Russian history is, in fact, a commentary on the bible.” After reading Oleg Pavlov’s loose trilogy; Captain of the Steppe, The Matiushin Case and Requiem for a Soldier, the question of who shall lead these men and give them what they need throws Sharov’s sound-bite into a not-so non-divine light.
Pavlov is well garlanded in Russia winning the Russian Booker Prize and the Solzhenitsyn Prize. Marcel Theroux writes in the introduction to Captain of the Steppe, quoting Kurt Vonnegut,that the principle of good storytelling is that every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water. Vonnegut is right, and there are few good novels that focus on characters who are purely indifferent, but that need only has to be a simple one for the reader to be engaged in the character’s endeavour to get it. In Pavlov’s work, that need is nearly as simple as a glass of water. “A decent and conscientious officer” says Theroux of Captain Ivan Yakovlevich Khabarov, on the verge of retirement and for Theroux a“more pragmatic man would see out his final days at the camp and leave. Not so Khabarov.”
Writing is an avoidance of cliché, but maybe because it is trying to describe a cliché. In this case: an army marches on its stomach.
“Khabarov began making assumptions about a lot of things in advance. We’ll live the way we always have, he said repeatedly, in a tired voice when the regimental supply truck turned up, complaining only that once again, they’d been a bit stingy over how many potatoes they’d sent.”
The potatoes they are sent are mostly rotten and unfit for consumption, outdated much like the year-late newspapers they receive. Khabarov realises though that “The events that were transforming everything in the world did not make it as far as the steppe – they got lost on the way.” And so Khabarov then realises what others need and sets off on the course to satisfy that by growing a vegetable patch. And this is how it often starts in Pavlov’s work; that simple need to satisfy a need, plunges into farce, bureaucracy and the potential for tragedy.
It is told in such an unemphatic manner, a characteristic Pavlov maybe shares with Chekhov (and that passage from ‘Peasants’ is probably one of Chekhov’s more emphatic moments), when it is a simple and unemphatic thing to do, yet its effects are far reaching and such is its escalation. It is good-willed but not saintly, and for its sake, it is disruptive but hardly revolutionary. It might be as simple as a glass of water and as essential as one.
When asking for simple things though, it usually means that there are complicated reasons that it hasn’t been accessed in the first place. In Khabarov’s case this is food, or potatoes, but this greater notion of ‘fuel’ is perhaps where Pavlov’s greater comments are being suggested. It is easy to apply it to a commentary on the Soviet Union, and certainly it does appear to be part of it, but some of the joy is in this ambiguity of its wider significance. A humble potato is yes, a solid, starchy food, a great source of sustenance, they’re a key ingredient in the production of vodka, but as a form of ‘fuel’ ,it has that greater impotence within the idea of what ‘fuels’ a country and people. Russian oligarch’s make their money in oil and fuel, but fuel burns and wastes away, yet is essential to continuation. Here the characters are already “wasting away” as Pavlov tells us on the first page, so where are they to get the fuel?
Here is Khabarov tending to the potatoes:
“When the sun blazed, he was happy, thinking that the potatoes were absorbing its warmth. And when the rains poured, he was happy, thinking that their potatoes were drinking their fill. However the captain did not know when to dig up the potatoes, as if this had to happen on a single day, like death or birth.”
The potatoes are reminiscent of Seamus Heaney’s blackberries, that as soon as he has picked the fresh ones, they begin rotting, but “Each year I hoped they would keep, knew they would not” (from ‘Blackberry Picking’ in Death of a Naturalist). Even in knowledge of their early demise, he continues to pick them. If that is knowledge then what is that makes him pick them? Is it the same thing that makes Khabarov plant those potatoes? If it is the knowledge of death, is it the same belief that also makes us ignore it or make us believe in things like religion? Or rather is it the search for something grander, an eternal fuel that doesn’t expire? These are of course hardly answerable questions, at least succinctly, and it is up to the reader what they ask and what they think is answered, but there is something in Pavlov’s novels which keep the characters going even when they know death is likely awaiting them. And at the same time, it’s like the characters are looking for a guide or leader, not noticing that it has been bestowed on themselves, or not noticing that the act they’re undertaking is such an indebted one. Pavlov’s narrative voice, his omniscience, then feels burdensome and intrusive like the ultimate bearer of that knowledge. Even when they’re not sure what keeps them going, he is the one that punishingly is.
II In The Matiushin Case we’re made aware of something fueling and being present early in the character’s life. This time, it’s a much more localised affair, and the element of farce is removed, the caricature stripped to something rooted and inflicting. Here it focuses on two brothers, one of which dies, and the other is set to live out his legacy. You might call it a condemnation to live his brother’s legacy, and Matiushin is a very Dostoevskian character but without the internal, erratic madness.
Early on (and early on is very important here: or is it?) it’s clear to Matiushin that his more valiant brother was their parent’s pride. But baring in mind what’s been identified in Pavlov’s ‘authorial presence’, we’re given this in the first few pages:
“Matiushin had eaten up since he was a child – choking as he did it, but eating up. There was a fear in it, but a thrilling fear, contaminated with love, exactly like his jealousy of his older brother’s closeness with their father – and the love, not the dread, made them subject to their father’s will. This love could not be eradicated from their hearts. Just as their father failed to grasp that he was driving his children away and taking revenge on this alien life through his antipathy for them, so his children failed to grasp that the stronger it became – this antipathy of their father’s, their sacred, bloody revenge that he was wreaking on life through sacrificing them – the more selfless and insuperable the impulse of their love for him would become, as if it were the very impulse to live, and they couldn’t manage without each other.”
There is a lot going on here, but I think it’s necessary to quote at length. Considering how soon this is, it feels like it’s presented by Pavlov as a sort of admission, so that again, that question of what is needed and how it is attained is not so simple. We’re not sure whether it’s the consciously desired path or a more complicated inevitability, and also that sense of somebody knowing more than the character, the all-seeing and expectant viewer is very present. When Matiushin goes into the army then to fulfill, a prophecy, a journey, it’s easy to see the allusions to Dostoevsky, but with that, come those questions of faith and Christianity. Back out in the steppe, the narrator follows Matiushin with a cloistering closeness as if that strict observance from the father never left him. Is this the punishment before the crime? Perhaps it poses the question of religiosity being explored more intensely than Dostoevsky because the crime hasn’t happened yet, or at least Matiushin’s crime.
It’s an intense experience. Pavlov is comfortable with repetition, barrenness, depressiveness, and the fact is that we’re out on the steppe, in the largest country in the world, in a place of sheer expanse. This is central to what Pavlov is trying to manipulate. They say you never feel lonelier when you’re stood in a crowd of people, and perhaps you never feel more confined when you’re stuck in the middle of nowhere.
“Life was shit because it was a long march to the vodka tower, there wasn’t enough space to live in…While you were content with just one square foot of land in the world, you stood on just that one square foot. But the moment you looked up at the sky, you scraped your dirty face against its vastness.”
The irony in the metaphor of that final sentence emphasises the desperation in the act, to ‘feel’ the physicality of its distance. It’s not a discovery to find that there are forces working against what we think we need, the knowledge as Heaney suggested, is already there. To return then to that idea of fuel that was prominent in Captain of the Steppe, it is burning and expiring as soon as we engage in it. Take for instance the moment when Matiushin wants a drink – “ He absolutely musn’t, although he couldn’t understand what point there was in forbidding himself a drink,” – and it does sound like a religious abstinence or an abstinence imposed by something as powerful as religion. But here is Pavlov’s power. And this is perhaps a scarier question, because we must wonder then what it is that stops us or doesn’t stop us, like Matiushin, like ourselves, in doing the things that we do? We can even use Ivan Chistyakov’s diaries as a similar example (and also why Pavlov has gained comparisons with Solzhenitsyn, not forgetting that he was also a prison guard) of where the question of choice and need doesn’t just become one of physicality. And the ingenuity of it is that, Pavlov leaves this choice open to the reader. The space that he eventually creates opens for these questions is a scary and vast one and one that we might rather foreclose again.
That image which may appear certain, or closed, yet is paradoxically a vast one is something that sustains Pavlov’s writing. His themes, motifs and images rarely change (a steppe; the military; a simple completion of a task).That great, big open space, yet the dogma and the regimental living within it, and this was the same Requiem for a Soldier. It has those similar themes to that which we’ve seen in the previous two novels, but the farcical nature from Captain of the Steppe is re-injected here to deliver what was the best work of the three. This is combined with translation from Anna Gunin which I think captures Pavlov’s syntax and language the best out of the three.
Set within the final days of the Soviet Empire, Alyosha, having just completed his army service has been promised a gift of an ‘eternal steel tooth’ by his commander (who, perhaps in a throwback to The Matiushin Case, is also deaf). Alyosha has a tooth removed to make way for it, but it never seems to arrive. In the mean time Institutov, who runs the medical infirmary and removes Aloysha’s tooth, conscripts Alyosha into completing tasks around the chaotically organised surgery. But as the tasks accumulate, one of them involves collecting the corpse of soldier from a lab and having it transported to Moscow, leading into an absurd, picaresque journey.
Again, it is incredibly bleak but it’s accompanied with equally as bleak and black humour. The ambulance for instance, that Institutov and Alyosha carry the dead soldier’s body in, isn’t saving lives – it’s already carrying the dead. The grand metaphor that immediately stands out is this idea of the corpse of history, the dead Soviet state (and that idea of avoiding a cliché to talk about it again, when the hole in the head of the soldier is revealed: “an ordinary first-aid plaster. Institutov peeled off the white backing tape and with an unfeigned look of anguish, he stuck it over the dark hole in he corpse’s forehead”). And what is to be done with that body, when it refuses to disappear and refuses to lay to rest? Freud said that unexpressed emotions never die, are only buried alive and come forth in uglier ways, and so with Pavlov writing this in 2002, but it only being translated into English in 2015, it follows a convenient parallel with modern history. Putin, Trump: there is evidence of uglier ways coming forth.
It’s a question that has concerned the history of humanity, how we come to terms with history or events and what we do with the corpse of the past. Antigone had to defy the law to give what her brother the rightful burial that she thought he deserved, and in the accordance of a different kind of law to the one imposed on her. “Leave me to my own absurdity, leave me to suffer this dreadful thing” Antigone cries, so one wonders then who’s absurdity Alyosha has inherited? Further, one wonders what absurdity we have have already inherited it in what we’re faced with now in form of a new global order? Maybe liberalism really didn’t allow us to confront anything, only contradict ourselves, make us conscious cynics of our age.
But there are two burials that Antigone and Creon battle over. She wishes to see it observed by divine, familial law and Creon thinks that it deserves to be left to rot with the parasites and the carrion. So again, we’re confronted with that question of conversion and space. What becomes of the fuel? On one of Alyosha’s earlier tasks he is charged with retrieving the bread and the water (yes, that simple thing). He takes a sledge with him and trudges in the deep winter to the village.
“Harnessing himself to the sledge, Alyosha cursed at his heavy load, perhaps the way a horse might gently curse a laden cart. If only the horse could know that the cargo was hay, and the hay was to feed his very own self, then wrath would give way to joy. As for Alyosha, he could not rein in his fiery human resentment. It was as if his whole scheme had been specially dreamt up: we’ll make him drag his burden for a good fifteen miles, only to dispose of the whole heavy load into his stomach, turning the lot into nothing.
It was here on this winter road to nowhere, loaded with something destined to turn into nothing, that Alyosha discovered life’s simple command.”
Alyosha couldn’t convert enough snow into water by melting it and that simple combination of elements was not enough to satisfy a more widespread need. In Pavlov’s narrative world it is that fear of something destined to turn into nothing, and the vacancy of it’s departure. Pavlov shows that that ‘space’ isn’t necessarily empty, it’s negated, and it is the space that confronts us all and when it is departed there are more difficult things to be comprehended. Pavlov will not give you any answers though. If Russian history is a commentary on the bible, in Pavlov’s world the passage and the ending is not so comforting, and the knowledge that we choose to either ignore or use, might not even help us anyway.
Fyodor Dostoevsky (translated by Dora O’Brien)
Alma Classics: £8.99 rrp.: 654pp.
The adolescent holds a precarious position in western culture, perhaps because of the precariousness of its subjects. It’s a time when a person’s values from political, to relational, to sexual are never so intensely questioned by a person. Teen movies and sitcoms have probably done the demographic a disservice, and the idea of rebellion doesn’t necessarily have to be a loud and an anarchic affair but there is some truth in it – at some point in one’s life, you must try and understand the world in your own terms. The time for realising that you can’t understand everything comes later. The Bildungsroman is affectively the novel of adolescence and becoming. But every novel is arguably a process of realisation, a multitude of anxieties in figuring out what works and makes sense for the times that it is being written in whilst also figuring how it relates to the past and future. It is no surprise then how much cultural interest there is in the adolescent or the person ‘coming of age’.
Dostoevsky’s characters were not all adolescents, but a lot of them seemed to be in a similar position to one; discovering this new consciousness and in a situation of trying to understand how that conscious really influenced their world and in turn influenced them. Ironically, The Adolescent is not held as in high regard as his other works, and has not just been neglected but maligned by some critics, so is a new translation justified? Dostoevsky is eternally interesting even when he’s ‘bad’. You could argue that The Adolescent resembles an adolescent; unruly, rejecting form, concealing information, and trying to understand and comprehend ideas beyond comprehension. And like an adolescent trying to find a moniker, a sign of individuality, the novel has had many names and titles; ‘The Raw Youth’, ‘An Accidental Family’ and ‘Discord’, but Alma have chosen to settle on The Adolescent, which I think was the wisest choice.
In the 19th century bildungsroman there was an important trait: the protagonist of one was usually fatherless or parentless. Dickens of course provided many examples of this, but the young man or woman (as it unfortunately was most often a male), needs to educate oneself and has to find their own way of life away from the home. Arkady then is the illegitmate son of Versilov who married beneath his class in his serf Mother. He is fatherless in the biological sense and his ‘real’ father is absent. Ironically Arkady shares his surname with the founder of Moscow, Prince Dolguruky and is repeatedly mistaken as an heir of. He is in name but not in person: this is something that novel continually questions the philosophical implications of.
But to consider the times in which we’re in, here is Arkady at an auction:
“There were those who got excited and those who remained silent and waited, and there were those who bought and then regretted it. I didn’t have any sympathy for a certain gentleman who hadn’t listened carefully ad had by mistake bought a milk jug made of German silver instead of sterling silver, paying five roubles instead of two for it.”
This illuminates the tension that is central to the novel and the jugs represent this idea of similarities being completely different. So what is the difference? Like the jugs, Arkady is stumped in battling and raging against Versilov, a man who isn’t really his father, only something that resembles and represents him. The novel was published in 1875; around that time Marx was reconfiguring the way people understood what money was, or for that matter wasn’t, and this question of what the essence of a thing is, was transcending culture western culture. Dominant Kantian thought for a long time had posited that essence was elusive and unobtainable, but for Hegel who was influential on the thought of Marx, there was a difference between something’s Being and its Essence, or what lies behind the thing that looks like the thing it’s supposed to look like. For Hegel, “the truth of being is essence.” In Logic Hegel went on to write: “In the sphere of Being, when somewhat becomes another, the somewhat has vanished. Not so in Essence: here there is no real other, but only diversity, reference of the one to its other.” (Author’s emphasis)
I’m not saying that The Adolescent is imbued in Hegelian philosophy (it might be, but I don’t know enough about Hegel, or philosophy for that matter), but I think that the passage above provides some of the backdrop, and the important way in which Dostoevsky is using the Bildungsroman form: there is no real other for Arkady, only a man representing himself as the other. It is the opposite of when Stephen Dedalus would try and leave both the family and the strict Catholic environment he had grown up in (Arkady recounts in the first few pages what it is like at school that both invokes Madame Bovary and the school days of Stephen Dedalus),but Arkady is instead returning to his surroundings that would otherwise prevent or obscure the journey of self-education.
The Adolescent is arguably paradoxical then in its approach to the form. If anything, it’s the opposite of self-discovery or education, or is at least mostly an unconscious process, because Arkady already has, what he calls his “idea” of living. Part of the problem for Arkady is to get over this “idea”, but as the novel goes on, it becomes apparent that this idea is not as enlightening or constant as it seems:
“The most frenzied dreams escorted me right up till the discovery of the “idea”, when all the those foolish fantasies turned sensible and went from the dreamy realm of fiction to a rational form of reality.”
The idea is elusive as the portrait he is painting of himself, but although the novel may be a form of self-discovery for Arkady, it is up to us to see through him whilst also being enveloped in his viewpoint. This after all is Dostoevsky writing this novel and Arkady like most of Dostoevsky’s characters has been thrust into a world where he is making choices and decisions that he does not necessarily understand the implications of, even when he thinks he does. And so the adolescent is the perfect medium for Dostoevsky, because who else represents the world better than an age group that is stereotypically thought to know more than it already does?
What’s remarkable about the The Adolescent is how a lot of it appears to be caught in a direct tension conscious and unconscious. Arkady knows that he has to discover something but he does not know what he will become as a result. Something is truly compelling Arkady to write this; you lose count of the times Arkady refers to feelings and urges that can’t be ‘controlled’ or are not comprehensible. The opening words for instance are “Unable to hold back…”. What then is the reason for him not being able to do so any more, even though he knows to write an autobiography “a man must be all too miserably enamoured with his own self to write about himself without shame”?
Is it Arkady’s idea? As you read on, you’ll see it become an occlusion, but also does represent part of Arkady’s journey at hand, knowing that it must be broken down or parsed to see the deeper meaning of. Look for instance around the constant references to ‘seemliness’. It is a novel about seemliness after all; people seem like his father but are not; people seem to be princes but are not; ideas seem to represent things but they don’t; instead, it is a constant case of abstraction, resembling and mirroring reality. And in a way, it is a novel that seems to be a novel yet takes from fictional memoir or at times drama, never fully whole and rounded, like the adolescent who sometimes seems to be an adult and sometimes seems to be the youth.
As a result, nobody knows. Things only ‘seem’, or as Hegel stated, “there is only the diversity and reference to an other”. Arkady doesn’t even know what his “idea” is that he persistently reminds us of. He is aware of these new different codes of reference like dreams, and knows that what he is not entirely aware of is a powerful thing:
“Let the reader remember my dream! If there was such a dream, if it could burst out of my heart and express itself that way, it means that I not so much knew as had a premonition of an awful lot of what I’ve just explained, though I only actually truly discovered it “after it was all over”. There was no knowledge as such, but my heart was throbbing with premonitions and evil spirits had taken over my dreams.” (Author’s emphasis)
The passage shows how many different levels and directions of thought Arkady is trying to comprehend. There’s the references to the dream and its symbolic powers which would of course be taken upon by Freud, but the narrator describes it as been taking over with ‘evil spirits’ which would signify a much more religious inclination. Yet it is his heart that throbs like a romantic, and then he seems to also rail against ‘true’ knowledge. It’s ironic because it appears that the Arkady is fully aware that he is writing for the audience, yet we as the reader not entirely sure who that the audience is us.
We’re frequently reminded of Hamlet in The Adolescent (as we are in most bildungsroman’s: think of Stephen Dedalus and his ‘Hamlet hat’); the sense of a father being replaced by somebody who isn’t the father, but having to live, not only domestically, but politically under him as well (Versilov and Arkady regularly exchange political ideas, but it’s that sense of abstraction in who Versilov represents, or for that matter, doesn’t represent and in the sense an element of King Lear; the constant sense occlusion and particularly the recurring motif of a letter). Arkady and Hamlet both wanted to conscientise themselves to become that person who was in their father’s place and Hamlet showed the tragedies that can occur in trying to do so. But Arkady is constantly aware of his excess unlike Hamlet was. He is aware of the excess of knowledge that is to be had about the self, but not sure what the knowledge is (he is “unable to hold back” remember). There are frequent references to ‘blushing’ and ‘crying’, these excessive displays of emotion that signify more for the observer than for the person in question. Perhaps that is all that matters, the act that represents it. In Robert Brownings ‘My Last Duchess’ (1842: a dramatic monologue which The Adolescent verges on at times) the Duke in question constantly refers to the blush of his Duchesss even when he doesn’t appear to be describing her as ‘blushing’ (“She had/ A heart – how shall I say? – too soon made glad”): obviously what we perceive the blushing to be, may different to the Duke’s perception, but arguably the Duke is effectively blushing to the reader – revealing more than he intended to.
The TLS suggested that the reason for the novel’s failure was that it had similarities or elements to most, if not all, of Dostoevsky’s novels. Unfortunately this is a lesson learnt in adolescence; nothing is original and there are too many influences on us to ever be original. But there are lessons to be taken from that; the new edition of this novel comes at a time when the world we’re in appears to be clinging onto old ideas of how the world should work from economics to ecology. In the same way that we ignore the lessons of youth, we ignore Dostoevsky at our peril.
Oleg Kashin (Translated by Will Evans)
Restless Books (Simon Schuster UK):220pp.:£10.99rrp
The title of Oleg Kashin’s new book is based on the moment when Dmitry Medvedev, President of Russia, made a typo when he signed up him and his country to Twitter; and so instead of the account being called @KremlinRussia, he instead titled it @Kermlin Russia. Ironically, the cognitive mechanism of you still being able to read the word even when it is incorrect, occurs, and it can still be read as Kremlin. This does not happen with ‘Fardwor’ because the first and last letters are changed; these two errors provide an interesting framework for what Kashin is trying to do with Fardwor Russia!
Prior to the novel, Oleg Kashin has received international coverage for the attack that happened to him, rumoured to have been instigated by Russian government heavies as a result of his journalism. It shows signs and evidence of autocratic ways in Russia, coverage of which has sharpened in recent years. Here in the West, we’ve witnessed Russia’s increasingly belligerent foreign policy in the Crimea and Syria; whether or not this transfers to domestic living or not, we don’t know. We can only understand through accounts like Kashin’s. These are books within borders.
The way Putin appears is important for him and for outside interpreters. He can only appear to people not in Russia, and appearance to him seems a very important property. Internally he seems to have orchestrated a new conservative Russian image alongside a brutally, domineering, global one, predicated in his foreign policy. Andrea Merkel said that he “lives in another world” and he certainly is nowhere near the cosy, neoliberal mechanism of the European Union. No, this is a more belligerent, masochistic kind where if corruption is exposed, he doesn’t care. He is as Forbes said, “so powerful he does what he wants and gets away with it”. Athletes were banned from this year’s Olympic Games after it was revealed that state-sponsored doping has been conducted; Russia’s military campaigns have been, as we’ve mentioned, brutal in Ukraine and Syria, and the way that Russia appears to be engineering its way into the global game has been a individualistic and belligerent one. The incumbent American President Donald Trump is reportedly close to Putin; one can see him wanting to adopt a similar approach.
There are more than the glorifying reasons Donald Trump would want to pursue this Putinist path though. Indeed people like Trump and Putin seem to thrive on fear and crucially, this appears to be some of their own fear. Trump certainly in his first few appearances since winning the American Presidential election looks the polar opposite to his brash persona he orchestrated in his campaign, so it’s no wonder that he’s claiming to be so close to Putin, because he’s probably very afraid of him. In fact, he’s probably seen the images of Putin riding topless on horseback – which is frightening in more ways than apparently obvious – because the selfie-lover on social media will probably not be the vain, over-confident person you believe them to be and they are probably racked with self-consciousness, constantly seeking affirmation from others.
So where Putin has been bullish in diplomatic/governmental/military ie. Real terms, he has also been in image as well. We’ve already mentioned his renowned, slightly homoerotic photoshoots, but there are reports that propaganda has been an important medium of communicating domestically and abroad. The use of propaganda in the Soviet Union has almost taken on hipster quality, but in Putin’s occupation of the Crimea he has apparently re-used the power of propaganda to aid a physical occupation with a psychological one. Propaganda at its most effective, adds to and channels fear away from the nation state and helps build the fiction of nationalism.
Kashin’s work oozes this sense of dominance. Although Fardwor Russia! is told in a satirical and ironic way, there is a latent sense of physicality and brutality in the work. Let’s look at the central premise of the book – a scientist, Karpov, invents a growth serum. People can grow beyond normal proportions. Vasya, a circus midget, who rides a horse and plays a violin for public entertainment is first subjected to the serum. People and his audiences do not realise at first that he is no longer a midget and the narrator likens it to a pregnant woman who you suddenly realise is pregnant. The message is overt, the message is constantly overt, only guised by fiction, but this sometimes you don’t see it happening, like the pregnant woman..like propaganda?
Vasya is booed off of the stage and fired and Karpov worries that Vasya does not understand the implications of ‘growing’:
“His [Karpov] only concern was whether or not Vasya understood that if clown (midget) was written on his professional resume, then he needed to remain a midget, and if he didn’t want to remain a midget, then why the hell was he still working in a circus?…Of course the news wasn’t front page material (or as they say “a cover story”), and no one had claimed that it would be; it was just a funny little blurb: midget sues circus that fired him for growing taller”.
It’s a snowball effect. He is, as it is later remarked, an adult midget. It’s a formulation akin to Orwell’s “two-plus-two-is-five” from 1984, an illusion that you are forced to believe in but the anger and fear needs catharsis and direction. As the midget grows so do the reverberations through the Russian Government and as Karpov works his way into the circles of the government, it really does become a case of if you can’t beat them, join them.
Before you’ve even divulged into the narrative though, the book comes with an introduction by Max Seddon which would appear to be included to help readers less knowledgeable of the context of Oleg Kashin’s work both in the novel and as a journalist. Seddon isn’t convalescing and even is admissary for Kashin’s writing style (indeed, fast, furious, angry as you’d expect). It helps identify who Kashin’s absurd caricatures and Seddon states:
“By changing the setting but leaving the essential details of the plot untouched, Kashin turns a didactic Soviet warning of the evils of capitalism into a comic indictment of Russian culture – where the Soviet Union itself was the greatest science fiction project of all – and the rapacious greed undercutting it. Medvedev’s concept of “modernising” Russia in top down- Soviet-style fashion without touching the country’s entrenched, retrograde bureaucracy is mocked through the concept of a “modernizational majority”, a play on “Putin’s majority”.”
We need not repeat the principles of communism to show how ‘wrong’ and far this is from Marxism’s original tenets – which would be an incredibly fashionable and liberal thing to do – but two words stand out from that passage – “top down”. Kashin’s world in Fardwor…effectively shows the merciless nature of living and working in a society as an individual against a brutal state. The unbreakable bureaucracy led by Mevedev and the untouchable Putin figure above it all? Sounds more like Roman Catholicism than any form of ‘communism’, and indeed, whatever the Cold War represented, it at least allowed a feasible excuse for the West to say that this is what happens when you try and do Communism; remember Vladimir Sharov’s statement that “the history of Russia is just commentary on the bible”? Well Before and During’s message is pertaining here. Truth: ‘true’ communism preaches from the bottom-up, and Kashin is not preaching any kind of communism, but he is turning the world in his fiction bottom-up to reveal a truth, and attempting to redirect the message:
“the girls could draw pretty well for their age – to design a poster for the dining room: a flag with the slogan, “Forward Russia!” They drew it, and the poster was like a grown-up had done it, but the slogan came out as, “Fardwor Russia!”
The clue is in the title, it only takes a few letters to change the meaning. If Putin is spreading fear through message and language, then Kashin is showing how it can easily be ruptured and become comic. Yet Kashin’s work encloses much more than this. Orwell’s 1984, I don’t believe, in terms of political depictions, has been surpassed, because it manages to invoke a fear that is not simply one of image and atmosphere, but it is one of transcendent truth; something lived and experienced and not just fictionalised. It generates a fear both justified and frightening. Kashin, I believe, like Orwell, has experienced his own and both Putin’s abstracted fear that we see in images of Putin but exerted in places like the Crimea, but he has experienced it individually and physically.
As old political systems become harder to maintain, and the friendly face of neoliberalism is stripped away to show the mercantile system it is, we’re left with leaders like Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump, people who share, like you and me, human emotions such as fear. When you’re at the top though, this runnels down, so Vladimir Sharov’s statement becomes more pertinent still – Putin’s image is one built of image and remove and endless power. If there is a message in all of Kashin’s work it might be this: although the forces may promote themselves as demigods, and statesmanlike leaders of men, they’re never a block too far away to remind you of their physical power as well.
At the time Chekhov was writing, Russia was enduring and beginning a tumultuous period of history by any country’s standards. The October revolution would begin just under twenty years later, but before this came the abolishment of serfdom in 1861, leaving Russia with large scales of emancipated peasant communities that was still enduring in Chekhov’s time. With this in mind, let’s look at Chekhov’s ‘Peasants’.
Nikolai Chikildeyev, becoming ill whilst in Moscow, decides that he should return ‘home’ to Zhukovo, the village that he grew up in. Although when he arrives:
“in his memories of childhood he had pictured his home as bright, snug, comfortable. Now, going into the hut, he was positively frightened.”
In the last post, we talked about this issue of blindness and occlusion that can sometimes be overtly obvious (ie.a mirage like in ‘The Black Monk’) or more subtle but personally powerful, like childhood memories. This is another occasion of expectations not being met, or of a person’s representation of something not corresponding to reality, or to a reality that occurred a long time ago (‘The Kiss’ operates the other way round – the representation becomes everything).The peasant hut is dirty, and Nikolai, back from the city cannot understand how they live in such a feudal fashion. Yet, there is something about the village, something transcendent, beyond the fact that it is a very religious village, and the passage deserves quoting and delving into extensively:
“Behind the peasants’ properties began the descent to the river, steep and precipitous, so that there were huge rocks here and there in the clay. There were paths winding down the slope close to these rocks and pits dug out by the potters, and there were whole heaps of fragments of broken crockery piled up – now brown, now red – while spread out there at the bottom was a broad, even bright-green meadow, already mown, on which the peasants’ herd was now out walking. The river meandering with wonderful curly banks, was a verst from the village, and beyond it there was, again, a broad meadow, a heard, long lines of white geese – then, just as on this side, a steep uphill climb, and at the top, on the hill, a village with a five-domed church, and a little further off, a landowner’s house.”
If that does not get you awing at Chekhov then I don’t know what will. It starts with an occlusion, a blindness, as we are ‘behind’ the peasant’s property and as a result there is a suggestion that we shouldsee behind and beyond. One must willfully do this though as the passage subtly urges, and the overall feeling is that this will be a trying effort. And then what we’re shown is more images of fragmentation and breakage, with the broken crockery, now brown, now red as if we’re following this scene. Yet at the bottom of the image presented to us, there is a bright-green meadow. The contrast between the colours is remarkable, from suggested manufacture to natural wonder. People are working here though. This isn’t a meadow that is naturally green, somebody has had to labour to make it green, and we realise that is ‘already mown’ – the freshly cut blades are glistening and the peasant’s herd are starting to make their way across it. Then as we go further out, the scene starts to come together, the perspective allows us a cohesive picture. We can see the hill and the climb and the village on top, which notably finishes with that structure that for so long facilitated communal togetherness – the village church.
This is Chekhov in Tolstoyan mood. But where Tolstoy would suggest that this sense of naturalness is the dream, Chekhov is asking, is this unobtainable like a dream? It is a matter of perspective. Were we not in the village and were stood on that hill looking down, would we see a similar, rural pleasantness where the peasants are, like Nikolai had? And let’s not forget Nikolai started off with a desire to return here, based on his own childhood perspective, and now we’re already seeing the promise of something else. No matter how obvious the vision maybe for Chekhov, it always represents something that cannot be obtained, even when it may appear obviously real to the character. We’re in the moment though and Chekhov will leave it to the reader to answer the questions that Chekhov not only asks, but the questions the reader asks of Chekhov.
The light and the church become important motifs for the story, especially as this theme of fragmentation continues.Further on in the story “when the bluish morning light was already breaking through every crack” of the peasant’s house, and when the sister-in-law’s of the two separate families go on a walk together in the morning there “stretched a strip of light, the church was radiant and the rooks were calling furiously in the landowner’s garden.” There is the light again and there is the church. What do we make of this light? Here we have two families of different class yet are related. So we’re lucky to have all this splendour surrounding us, but are these gifts of God or of nature? This is made no more obvious when Olga recites Scripture, “pronouncing words,even ones she did not understand, her face would become compassionate, emotional and light”. She is enlightened but there are parts that she does not understand, so what are the enlightening forces?
The whole passage becomes a frantic search for that cohesiveness, or more poignantly, meaning, and so anxiety becomes the compelling mechanism. Quoting at length again:
“Laid across the river were some unsteady log planks, and right underneath them, in the clear, transparent water, swam shoals of broad-headed chub. On the green bushes that looked at themselves in the water the dew was sparkling. There came a breath of warm air and a feeling of pleasure. What a splendid morning! And what a splendid life there would doubtless be in this world, were it not for the need – the terrible, incessant need from which you cannot hide anywhere! You had only to look back at the village now for everything from yesterday to come vividly to mind, and the enchantment of happiness that seemed to be all around to disappear in an instant.”
Constant movement external and internal, but this time it has gone from the picture of serenity on the outside, to the sense of breakage on the inside. The outside again is seemingly a world of togetherness (“the shoals of chub”) and positive reflection (“how the green bushes look at themselves in the sparkling water”). The splendid morning is an objective, declarative statement – no matter one’s standing, all the criteria are met for it to be a splendid morning, but this is irrelevant, in fact, makes the subjective position worse because of that need.
What is the need? We do not know where it comes from, but one can only say that this need is something that is ‘beyond us’, yet of this world. It is transcendent but humane. Kierkegaard wrote in The Sickness Unto Death (1849) that for the Christian “sin lies in the will, not in the knowing; and this corruption of the will affects the individual’s consciousness”. Chekhov’s characters are Christian characters, but the notion of being a Christian in a Christian world, or being a person living in a Christian world without a God, was now a conundrum. Schopenhauer, thirty years before Kierkegaard had published his work, The World as Will and Representation (1819), which brought a new light on this inexpressible thing that drives us but is not necessarily divine. Nietzsche would publish then Beyond Good and Evil (1886) where he moved these explanations of impulses beyond binaries of good and bad. Following this, Freud would publish his work The Intepretation of Dreams (1899)at the turn of the century. Look at the years of those publications. Chekhov’s first notable story, ‘The Huntsman’ arrived in 1885; the formalising of Chekhov’s brilliance happens in an implausibly short space of time, and arguably as rapidly as thought was changing in a period of global modernisation.
Looking at Chekhov in this context we get some answers posed by his work: here we see perhaps, why Chekhov perhaps didn’t write anything longer – it isabout that moment that this will takes over, at the moment the will begins to asks questions of the world and the self. You could argue that nothing is explained in his elusiveness, but you could also say that everything is explained by it, the answers are not there to be answered. We get a brief glimpse of the human spirit, and Chekhov, although writing in extremely political times, does not suggest that this is anything to do with the rise of capitalism by the industrialisation of peasantry or anything like that; it is instead historical, something passed down the generations, explained in different terms by different generations, yet permanent and all too human. In this light he is ahead of the philosophers who were working around him.
If there is an answer we’ll examine it by sticking with that notion introduced above by Kierkegaard – the sin lies in the desire, not the knowledge of it. Although philosophers like Nietzsche were aiming to philosophise without concepts such as good and bad, there is still sin in Chekhov’s world, as there still is now. Whether or not we ascribe the term guilt to that ravishing anxiety we can sometimes feel at the expense of the will, it does suggest that guilt is unavoidable. It is interesting that Paul Virno in his recent publication – Deja Vu and the End of History (2015) – described in the blurb as a ‘radical new theory of historical temporality’ uses St. Augustine’s Confessions for some support. He cites a passage from the Confessions to make his point:
“But even now it is manifest and clear that there are neither times future nor times past. Thus it is not properly said that there are three times, past, present, and future. Perhaps it might be said rightly that there are three times: a time present of things past; a time present of things present; and a time present of things future. For these three do coexist somehow in the soul, for otherwise I could not see them. The time present of things past is memory; the time present of things present is direct experience; the time present of things future is expectation.”
Confessions was a work obviously propelled by guilt, and whatever your understanding of guilt is, it arises out of the feeling of not knowing where something is located, or where something arises out of history to make itself known to be felt more urgently felt in the now, whether that be a feeling or a memory.
A lot of Chekhov’s characters we have determined, are always moving; forward, back, their physical manner usually antagonising their psychological desires. Chekhov often focuses on the males, but there is always a strong female presence. They both have their needs (they need each other), and they’re aware that they have them, but not all that clever on knowing how these desires manifest and operate. In ‘The Lady with the Little Dog’, which really is as good as it gets, the lady in the title, finally comes to terms with the liaison that she is embarking on with the man:
“But here still was the same diffidence, the gaucheness of inexperienced youth and an awkward feeling; and there was an impression of bewilderment, as if someone had suddenly knocked at the door. Anna Sergeyevna, this “lady with the little dog”, regarded what had happened in a special sort of way, very seriously, as though it were her fall – so it seemed, and it was strange and inappropriate. Her features had drooped and faded, her long hair hung sadly down the sides of her face, and she had fallen into though in a doleful pose, like a sinner in an old painting.”
Perhaps it could be argued that Chekhov missed a note with his use of the adverb ‘sadly’ (translations though), but the terminus of that inner will has never looked so futilely affecting as now. You can pick out Augustine’s classifications of ‘time-presents’ from that passage, but look how the passage ends. She has gone from a feeling of movement, the resurfacing of her inexperienced youth at the start, but has been pushed too far – she feels like she has fallen. It almost feels as if Hitchcock stole that closing moment for the impetus of Vertigo, but that image is extremely powerful. We are aware of her, not just as a woman, but now as a piece of art; whilst she may feel the sin in the will, all we have left of her, in that moment, is the static rendering of her as a sinner. In this case, she has been rendered immovable.
Chekhov’s works, like his life, were short. Most of them are elegiac in tone, and the one thing that does feel tangible is a descent into delusion or death. We could argue then that it is death, or the knowledge of it that is driving the pieces, that is driving the character’s self-awareness. But death is always in combat with something else.
Carver was heavily influenced by Chekhov and even wrote a story about Chekhov in his final hours, but Carver’s most famous collection and story was What we talk about, when we talk about love. Chekhov’s characters are always finding ways to deal with their fickle emotions and fragile existence, are always finding that whatever lies beyond death, there is only one way to get there, through living and trying to love. There can’t be any love the Huntsman said but all too often there is. I think even when they’re not talking about love, they’re talking about it.
The Kiss and Other Stories
Anton Chekhov (translated by Hugh Alpin)
Alma Classics: 256 pp.: £7.99 rrp.
There is a story in another edition of Chekhov’s stories that I have – About Love and Other Stories (2004) – published by the Oxford University Press, and the first story of which is called ‘The Huntsman’. It is four and a half pages long and it features a man called Yegor Vlasych,who is merely known as the Huntsman, until he is called by somebody as he passes through the village. This woman is his wife, Pelageya. On one page, happiness is ‘raditating’ from her face at seeing the man, but by the next she is sobbing: “It is a sin Yegor Vlasych! You could at least have the heart to spend one day with me. It’s twelve years since I got married to you, and…there hasn’t been love between us once! I’m…I’m not crying…” she says.
The Huntsman, rather than spend his days in the village with his wife, is employed as a huntsman, at a presumably rich man’s estate, where he brings game to to the rich man’s plate. There he is fed and bathed as well as being employed and cannot stand the village life that he has left behind any more. On his wife’s above denouncement of their love he replies: “Love…There can’t be any love. We might officially be man and wife, but is that what we really are? To you I’m someone wild, and for me you’re just a simple woman who doesn’t understand anything. Do you really think we are a couple? I’m an idler, I’m spoilt and free to roam, but you’re a labourer, a peasant; you live in filth and you’re always bent over double…” It turns out they were married off drunk, and because of the man’s other intoxication with his free spirit, he then heads off again out of the village and the story is over.
One could go on for pages about this story alone, but ‘The Huntsman’ provides a brief, yet lucid portrait of what to expect when reading Chekhov. As one of his first published ‘serious’ stories at the age of 25, there is that male figure, the sense of a drifting presence, and the fickle, but powerful emotions people experience at the fate of elusive, powerful desires. Yet even though Chekhov’s stories focus on the individual male, the female has a strong presence and not just as a conduit for the male character. Here we have a writer, writing in a time of modernisation, but not necessarily grappling with it; a sense that things are changing but Chekhov is not necessarily going to be the great chronicler of it. What we have then in his work, is a feeling; he is a writer concerned with what moves us, and when it moves us.
Chekhov has a solid standing in the pantheon. There are his critics such as Nabokov (more a begrudging admiration: after all, who did Nabokov actually like?) and where one sees Chekhov’s main admirers like Hemingway and Carver you can see why there might be a difference in opinion. Indeed it shows the problem that can be at first presented when reading Chekhov by the person who might be averse to the more pyrotechnic of sentence writers, because Chekhov’s sentences present themselves with a deceptive simplicity. He is often labelled as ‘elusive’ (cf. Virginia Woolf). Epiphanies can pass you by, and the affects can slowly accumulate but then be gone, missed or enduring in the instant. As a result its simplicity is deceptive, like his reliance on the blindness motif, because there is a timeless maturity to Chekhov’s works that can only be gained by re-reading, a form of a maturity in itself.
This is a lesson I had to undertake. On presented with a new translation of Chekhov’s works, I’m not going to sit here and propound the critical benefits and lessons to be taken from Chekhov (I am not qualified to do that and people have been doing that for a hundred years now), so instead I am going to show what I have learnt from Chekhov and what Chekhov means to me, through Alma’s new translation.
Alma’s new collection, translated by Hugh Alpin, is a good place to start. Here are seven stories, arguably the most well known, including ‘Ward Six’ and ‘The Lady With a Little Dog’. They’re presented in chronological order so you can see the trajectory of Chekhov’s writing and the development of the society that he was living in. In ‘The Kiss’ , the first story, there are the familiar Chekhovian elements of grand houses in rural settings, but by the end we have telegraph wires in ‘The Bishop’ and the more cosmopolitan lovers of ‘The Lady With a Little Dog’ toward the turn of the century. Intersecting these is the longer story ‘Ward Six’ which sees somebody battling with the seemingly outdated methods and principles of institutionalization; or the peasants in ‘Peasants’, who’s village has a feeling of been left behind, or the differing views of the Landscape artist in ‘The House with a Mezzanine’.
By the time Chekhov was gaining maturity, the greater works of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky were already published. Tolstoy was turning to the shorter stuff and Dostoyevsky had died. Chekhov is arguably the last great name of the Golden Age, and his works capture this sense of change and development in the society he was living in. He doesn’t necessarily capture the changing patina of society, advancement in technologies or anything like that, instead he captures the consciousness of these changes. There is a great sense of society dealing with new ideas and new professions and new discourses as a result.
Ultimately, you’ll see Chekhov is concerned with movement. In essence, there is a constant sense of movement and transition in Chekhov, a subjective kind of emotive change which can contradict the physical state. People can be rooted to the spot, but still be at the whim of their emotions, which I don’t think any other writer so subtly captured at the time. There is a persistent sense of something driving, a kind of will, but with the dilution of God, this will is not so simply explained any more.
So let’s start with the first story – ‘The Kiss’. A tired Artillery Brigade stop in the village of Mestechki. A man on a strange looking horse arrives telling them that the local landowner and Lieutenant, General von Rabbek, wishes them to visit his house for tea. They’re tired and they’re all reminded of a time last year, when in a similar situation, their host had kept them up all night and as a result they were not able to get any sleep (which indicates fortunes were greater for the army last year).Raising the spirits however, is the prospect of women being at the house.
Eventually the focus goes to Staff Captain Ryabovich who recognises himself to be the most timid man there. On our introduction to him we are told that he has a ‘psychic blindness’, where he sees but cannot comprehend what is in front of him (something that recurs through Chekhov’s stories, this sense of visual occlusion as both a metaphor and device). When Ryabovich leaves the men watching billiards – bored – he gets lost in the large house, and as he his stood trying to determine where he is, somebody grabs him and kisses him, who then steps back in disgust when she realizes that it was not the person she was looking for.
‘The Kiss’ is a good place to start and indeed, it is the start of this collection. It’s a fine example of showing how Chekhov likes his characters to be ‘moved’ physically but also mentally. Chekhov does not necessarily show the results of the moments people experience like in The Huntsman, but it is as if the act of the short story, that elusiveness that is often admired and criticized, is ideal for him to catch that moment somebody is ‘moving’. The near past is always in reach as if trying to impress now and we only get clues to the greater history of what has happened to the characters and ultimately the society they live in and how it is affecting their internal world.
Ryabovich at first is described as, before following the men to the billiard room:“With nothing else to do, and wanting to take some part in the general movement, Ryabovich wandered after them.” His boredom is already apparent and when he wanders away again he becomes lost and is “stopped in thought”. After this he is mistakenly kissed and at first he is “tormented by shame and fear that the entire hall knew about his having just been embraced and kissed by a woman,” but moments later he becomes “the whole of him, from head to toe, was filled with a new feeling, which kept growing and growing…”
Strange new feeling indeed – all this happens in a page – and all just because of some kiss that was not meant for him? Let’s not forget Chekhov’s often true masterpieces are cited as the plays, and like Shakespeare did with his characters, we do not know what has proceeded and we do not know what will follow: we only see the rise or the fall. This isn’t just a virginal man who has had his first sexual experience, and nor is this kiss itself a euphemism for something greater; instead we have seen the moment. Ryabovich now becomes “absorbed in his pleasant new thoughts” and as he continues with his brigade, in what seems like a very long and boring journey, with no hint of battle, it is conducive to his meandering, wishful thoughts:
“On 31st August he was returning from camp – not with the whole brigade now, though, but with the two batteries. All the way he was daydreaming and agitated, as though he were going back to his birthplace. He had a passionate desire to see once again the strange horse, the church, the insincere Rabbek family, the dark room; the “inner voice” that so often deceives those in love was for some reason whispering to him that he was sure to see her…At the very worst he thought, even if he were not to meet with her, the mere fact of walking through the dark room and remembering would be pleasant for him…”
There is a whole host of details in there that could be swept over, but look how much movement there is within movement. He is agitated but is this inspired by the boredom of the journey or his own intense desire to experience the kiss again? Where has this ‘inner voice’ come from that Ryabovich did not seem equipped with before? And finally who is ‘her’? Ryabovich slowly becomes more concerned with the kiss than the woman who potentially kissed him. Is the ‘passionate desire’ commensurate with the fact we believe the ‘inner voice that so often deceives us’?
Something has awakened in Ryabovich, but Chekhov subtly does not let us believe that it is a life-changing course inspired by an unexpected event. He has had an epiphany of sorts, but the way forward is not necessarily clear. The inner voice was already there it seems, but has become louder because of the kiss, and there is the detail that it felt as if he “were going back to his birthplace”, rather than him going forward in any particular way. What’s past is prologue said Antonio to Sebastian in The Tempest and although they were committing murder, there is a sense here that love is as bound upon strong desires as the forces they were experiencing.
The characters are at the expense of some kind of greater force, but the questionableness of that greater force has never been so intense. It is not so simply a matter of faith any more, or if it is faith, it’s not necessarily faith in a discernible, all-powerful big Other like God. This is then is what I will with deal with more directly in the second half of this piece as we take a closer examination of how Chekov’s characters are moved.