I wrote a short piece about why Caterina Pascual Söderbaum’s The Oblique Place (trans. Frank Perry: MacLehose Press) was my book of the year, in 2018. Read what I wrote about it, and some selections by other reviewers, here.
I wrote a short piece about why Caterina Pascual Söderbaum’s The Oblique Place (trans. Frank Perry: MacLehose Press) was my book of the year, in 2018. Read what I wrote about it, and some selections by other reviewers, here.
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.
I wrote about Donal Ryan’s Man Booker-longlisted novel, From a Low and Quiet Sea, on Bookmunch
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.
The South in Winter
Alma: 250pp.: £8.99rrp.
In an interview with the Independent, Peter Benson wondered why the majority of writers are urban. There are probably some interesting literary, not to mention sociological, answers to this, but Benson chooses to situate his fiction in the sparser populated dwellings of Somerset (his debut The Levels for instance, which won the Guardian First Book Prize). The associations with the country might be vintage and quaint, yet an early reader of Benson’s, John Fowles, might have offset something a bit more unexpected in his work. It is not just the sense of place, but the absence of place that is as important as well.
It is the latter of those which is of concern here. Benson’s protagonist, Matthew Baxter, is a travel writer for the Tread Lightly Travel Guides. He’s been sent on an assignment to the South of Italy in February to bring an “out of season slant”. When he gets out there, he realises that most of the work could have been done from his office with some careful editing and a touch of the imagination, but the finished guide needed “the authenticity of a winter visit”. You could argue that the emptiness of the West Country has carried out to the south of Italy where it’s vacant for the miserable winter months. It’s clear though, that the emptiness here is allowing his loneliness to ferment, and as a result, his feelings for his boss, Cora, percolate as well. When the person is out there and stranded though, sometimes the desperation can lead to the result that was originally feared in the first place, which is what appears to happening with Cora.
This is perhaps to overstate it and make Matthew sound desperate, but there is an anxiety that underpins the novel, that might not at first be accounted for. On the surface, Matthew is laconic, yet an existential worry is subtle but tangible. And perhaps the fact that it appears as the middle-aged male identity crisis conceals it that bit further, because this isn’t all the mid-life crisis escape that you’d be led to believe. There is certainly a male with male problems, a crisis of authenticity and sexuality (does not the ‘South in Winter’ sound like a euphemism for downstairs potency), but that would be a disservice if it was to turn readers away which, the book’s marketing unfortunately is in danger of.
Matthew tours the Italian cities, from Palermo to Naples among others, and then a brief visit to Rome to meet his colleague covering the North. Here, they speculate on the restructuring of the publisher happening whilst they’re out of the country. Clearly, there is a distance for Matthew engendered in his life (is he adding authenticity to the guides? or his loneliness?), and as if to emphasise that, the early parts seem replete with chiasmus like, interrogative constructions: “I see myself in the order I create, and my creation is a type of order” reads one. But he’s setting up the distance (there’s a reason chiasmus sounds like chasm), the words don’t change, they’re only restructured in the chiasmus, and this almost what it feels physically, and linguistically, is happening to Matthew’s existence.
Reading the novel, inside Matthew’s mind, I continually found myself asking whether I liked Matthew, as we often do of the characters we read, even though the dependability of it is overstated. I had though, never found this such a difficult experience with Matthew and it felt like the distance was potentially extending to the reader; sometimes he wants you close, sometimes he’s guarded and wants you afar. That sense of existential crisis though is perhaps emphasised by Benson’s use of those emotionless sentences that accumulate, almost imparting a noirish quality to the work like Camus and Fowles often did:
“Some people say ‘Never Go Back’, but some people don’t know what they’re talking about.”
Because Matthew, whether he likes it or not, is on a journey, even if he tries to plod along and guide us through it with simple deducing sentences as verbs and prepositions take on a double-edge quality. And here, in the South of Italy, there’s also the sense that the world’s turn is trying be kept out of his consciousness. Matthew’s job is to make the place appeal, in a time when it effectively isn’t appealing, which means he can’t rely on the old clichés, but he does need some element of the cliché. This is where I think part of Matthew’s fear resides and where a drive for the novel comes from – a fear of the cliché he has become:
“Sometimes I like to trot out a personal cliché, but I’ve always told myself I’m not the jealous type.”
To engage and connect with the world has become troublesome and difficult. Is it a thing we do any more? How do we engage and relate ourselves to a place? Matthew’s crisis of authenticity (which Benson, I think is aware, is overdone) is authentic, but the existential element of it, comes from the anxiety of engagement with the world, nature, people, truth:
“The train was late arriving in Salerno. I stood in the twilight and cold outside the station, and waited for a bus. I waited three quarters of an hour. I saw drunks, whores, three frightened children and a pair of broed policemen. Orange clouds bled into the west; the sky darkened and, as I watched, a cloud of starlings appeared….Clouds of smoke, pillars of dust, tumbles of water. People took out their phones to film the birds and screamed as they came close and headed back the way they’d come.”
It’s a panoply of ways in which people are trying engage and connect with the phenomena, and how they mediate their experience. The drunks, the whores, the frightened children, the bored policemen; the range of emotions and experiences, followed by the natural phenomena of the bird flying. Is it overdone? Have we tread too much (doesn’t the name of the travel guides – Tread Lightly – sound slightly Kunderan)? Instead, the only way that Matthew stays engaged is through Cora. Comedy and pathos are provided as he debates whether to text her, buy her gifts, choose not to text and then do it anyway when he is drunk, and then write her a poem. “I had to text Cora,” he says, but the operative word here is ‘text’. And we could call her the muse, but I think Cora would be enough – the Greek Goddess Persephone was also called Cora. The pun on ‘phone’ is striking, but as the goddess of fertility, perhaps Matthew is seeing something deeper in the ‘texting’ of Cora.
“I was a detective, or a priest, or a doctor, looking for a case”
Or a writer looking for his text, his impetus, his fertile bed of inspiration.
The text itself though does sometimes appear to need another round of editing. The additions of some pronouns in some exchanges of dialogue would have made it a smoother read and we’ve mentioned the odd marketing. In the past, Benson has been praised for his imagery, but sometimes here, the metaphors are just confusing, and you sometimes wonder if they’re serious (“I poured my troubles into a sack and tossed them into a lake”).
But as Matthew says, as he travels Italy, clearly avoiding something, that he “doesn’t like nature: but that’s another story.” Perhaps it is; one that we’re all avoiding.
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.
They say that reading opens boundaries, horizons and borders, but sometimes it seems that where you cross one border, another awaits. As much as we love to pretend that literature is a benign and noble endeavour, it is surrounded by market forces and an illusion of choice. Market forces obviously dictate what we have available to read and buy, and only recently does there seem to have been an awareness of this. Now people are campaigning against what they deem a culturally homogenous industry, with campaigns for more women, more ethnicities, and more independent publishers to be given coverage, and there does seem to be some kind of response.
We can only read what there is read. We find ourselves, like most other consuming habits, going down similar paths, tracks, indeed brands, and sticking with what we know and what we’re familiar with and ultimately what we know we enjoy. But when we want something, we should ask for it. Politics and ideology infiltrate our lives, but the mind should be free of ideology when it reads (as much as it can be). One can make ideological assumptions to fit a certain theory, as I have done, sometimes not for the best, but these are different to agendas and nobody should feel that they have to read something. This is dogma.
Why am I doing this and why am I sharing it? Egotism said Orwell and there is some if that like all writing endeavours. But of course, the aim to is to shed light on potentially new writers and publishers. But also old writers in renewed editions of old classics or perhaps undiscovered classics from well-known writers and writers who didn’t perhaps get the coverage they should have done, either because they were suppressed or just because they were not ready for the time in which they were writing. The Russian canon is one of the most famous and formidable in history, so where does it stand now? What are writers writing about now and why? And who are publishing these writers?
This is of course a personal odyssey, and it would be cynical to suggest that I’m doing any kind of duty by doing this. Classics may emerge that you have never had the opportunity to tackle, but now want to and feel that you can. Struggled with a 600 page Dostoyevsky? Maybe now is the time to tackle it. But new writers may emerge, not to mention translators. New themes and issues may come to the fore. It would be great to see a diaspora of different writers from different backgrounds, but the least we can hope for is something unexpected. It may hark back to the oldest books in the history of the literature, but good literature, whether it’s a writer you know well or not at all, should give us a fresh experience and a different perspective.
To set a mood, here is a photo gallery from the Guardian showing a handful of archived images in Russian history.
Thanks for contributions so far from;