The Power to be Moved: Part 1

The Kiss and Other Stories
by
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.

Books within Borders: Russia

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;

Alma
And Other Stories
Dedalus
Restless Books

Remainder: Lessons at the Limits

Latin from the books of the Laws of England, which taken along with the context, means, that of all whales captured by anybody on the coast of that land, the King, as Honorary Grand Harpooner, must have the head, and the Queen be respectfully presented with the tail. A division which, in the whale, is much like having an apple; there is no intermediate remainder” – Herman Melville, Moby Dick

There was a time when it seemed that that essay by Zadie Smith – ‘Two Directions for the Novel’ – was more known and read than Remainder itself. But now, McCarthy is one of the most notable and talented British novelists writing today, and two Booker nominations go to show for it. A Booker nomination can be a mystifying accolade though, and what would this ‘avant-garde’ novelist, eschewing the reliable and persisting, lyrical realism Smith riles against , make of being nominated for such a mainstream, literary prize? Clearly his work is not antithetical nor rejecting the culture at large.

This is one of the many paradoxes central to McCarthy’s work; Remainder is a novel that plays with the redundancy of language so it becomes a novel that has plenty to say but doesn’t say anything and more directly, a novel that has had so much said about it, it is a wonder what to say next; what it is made up of, it rejects. Smith uses James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake to elucidate the issue when she says:“The received wisdom of literary history is that Finnegan’s Wake did not fundamentally disturb realism’s course as Duchamp’s urinal disturbed realism in the visual arts: the novel is made out of language, the smallest units of which still convey meaning, and so they will always carry a trace of the real”

Let’s look at how it carries this trace of the real.

~

It’s not necessary to do a point by point summary of the plot of Remainder, and instead point toward Smith’s essay and the text itself. However, what is making this task even more subservient, is that the edition that I’m using comes with an introduction by McKenzie Wark, which will be divulged later. We know however, that our nameless narrator (or Enactor as Smith calls him) is bequeathed a large amount of settlement money after an accident. About the accident he says “I can say very little” and this is no journey of discovery or reconciliation. With his money, instead of any hedonistic or philanthropic impulse (as Smith notes, both feel as inauthentic as the other), he decides to reconstruct a moment, that arrives through Deja vu, or a memory that he cannot locate in any time but feels that is inherently his. The reenactments multiply, becoming reenactments of reenactments, before culminating in a bank heist in a real, working bank.

Now, A film adaptation of McCarthy’s Remainder, directed by Omer Fast, has just been released and is coincidentally the impetus for writing about the book here. Putting it into the context of a film adaptation, Remainder shows itself to be the remarkable work that it is. This question of language that was highlighted at the start becomes even more complicated in this new context. Would Jacques Ranciere confidently have written this if he had read Remainder when he wrote in The Intervals of Cinema: “Cinema has been asked to fill the dream of a century of literature…Literature has been able to carry that dream because its discourse on things and their intensities stayed written in the double game of words, which hide from the eye the palpable richness which shimmers in the mind. Cinema just shows what it shows.” Remainder is a novel that just shows what it shows and seems to ask if we’re all anxious about what is real, and if we’re even worried that subjectivity is inauthentic, why divulge and express it with more inauthentic language?

Fundamentally it is grappling with what is real in the image culture, a very classically postmodern issue. And as we witness the narrator become obsessed with dissecting and slowing each moment in his reenactments, watching him only try to grasp at this thing we call real, all that is revealed is more space and vacuity; as Smith says Remainder “makes you preternaturally aware of space” as you read it. Look at the narrator’s continual references to cricket. Smith uses this as one of the cruxes of comparison between Remainder and the ‘other direction for the novel’ Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland. But McCarthy is not trying to wedge in any postcolonial metaphor, but is instead trying to understand the sport’s relationship with space and the image. Think of the different types of images that cricket gives to its viewer; the different types of replays; not just slow motion, but super-slow-motion, along with inventions like Hawkeye and Hotspot. These images don’t change the fundamentals of the game but they transform the viewing experience of it, and now, through a referral system, can alter decisions. A replay in effect, can now change the outcome of a game, and has become part of the game, rather than just the viewing experience.

What is the real experience with the image anymore then? Let’s remind ourselves how this starts – through a moment of Deja vu – an image, or a ‘memory’, that we feel that we have already inhabited before it has happened. The narrator says that “I’d been in a space like this before, a place like this” before he recounts the moment of being in that bathroom and looking at a crack in the wall. And unlike Deja vu dissipating, it instead persists. But Deja vu is the remembrance of a thing that hasn’t happened ultimately, of the brain working before itself, or the feeling of a memory that is not located in a particular space; or is not triangulated within the schema of our linearity of past, present, or future? It is as if working on all three, suspended above them all, working on the memory – the arbiter of the past; experience – the recognition passing of the present into the future; and desire – the wish for something to occur. What makes it such a striking experience though is that it is deeply personal. And like a replay, like all the reenactments, it feels like it has happened before, within reality, like the moment a batsman watches his decision overturned and is now considered out and his innings over.

The narrator is trying to understand before experiencing. This is entirely possible: look how after the accident, the narrator receives physiotherapy and begins relearning the basic motor functions that occur automatically in a process called ‘rerouting’. Here is the essential predicament summed up when he says: “[rerouting is to]cut and lay the new circuits, what they do is make you visualise things. Simple things like lifting a carrot to your mouth…Understanding this, and picturing yourself lifting the carrot to your mouth, again and again and again, cuts circuits through your brain that will eventually allow you to perform the act itself. That’s the idea (my emphasis)”. He then goes on to detail all the minute possibilities that are encased within the act of putting a carrot to your mouth – twenty seven separate manoeuvres – and the thousands of imaginary carrots that he has successfully consumed. But when it comes to the actual physical carrot itself, he cannot get it to his mouth. It’s by repetition that he thinks he can understand it, reinforce it and in doing so, make it a real, manifested, repetitive action.

That’s the idea, that’s all it is, and the obsession of ideas permeates in all the reenactments. But the transitions from an idea to the actual, physical completion of something are in different parts of the brain, and might as well be in different worlds. His world, both inside and out, is one of metaphysics and language, and although we can accept that our inner, thinking world is a foundationless one, to accept that the outer, physical world is as well is an abysmal one. This is the crisis, and it is a novel entrenched in crisis. It is embedded both locally within the novel and globally in the postmodern world. Smith says both Remainder and Netherland are enduring similar crises but playing them out very differently. Everything in Remainder is an idea, reducible to language, and not pretty lyrical language (“even my fantasies were plastic, imperfect, unreal”), a language that, even though it is the last vestige, is still stricken with inauthenticity. The narrator however is wanting and desiring to understand, but at each occasion, he’s greeted by more space that is only filled with more lyrical units.

Most books set out to answer why, or resolve, or at least through the dialectical process of reading, allow the reader to resolve. A book’s creation starts with just that though – the desire to create – and the narrator of Remainder at his core is a creator. This is where Smith and Wark converge. Remainder is typically self-conscious for its time and is effectively a creator creating a creation, but through the guise of an affable, naïve sounding narrator (McCarthy seems to have the ability to develop these effectively neurotic narrators that are implausibly limited, but at the same time affable and likeable). Wark addresses this more directly though when he says: “Creation once had a particularly exalted range of meaning. It is what God does. Remaining has more lowly connotations. Those not chosen come Judgement Day remain behind…” before adding that they become “unwanted books sold at knockdown prices are Remainders.” He says therefore that the questions that Remainder asks are: who gets to create? And when something is created, what remains, or is left behind? Furthermore, even if it is in the real physical world, is it real?

It is easy to look at this through the lens of postmodernity and ideology. This is a person who has an excessive amount of money and is investing it in these meaningless endeavours in an attempt to create meaning. The result is more surplus, debris, excess, indeed – remainders. But since the turn of modernity, we believe that we have the will to power, not a divine, invested power through a God. This sense of creation and being a creator is continually criticised, but what’s more, a criticism of critique is underway. The dispensation and availability of different theories to apply to the Remainder and the novel in general is further adding to this sense that all is beneath us is more theory, or more language (McCarthy takes this even further in his latest novel Satin Island). Marxist, Feminist, Poststructuralist, Freudian, or even Theologically, there is no way one to understand, but there’s only one way to do it.

What does feel real however is the sense of anxiety (you may ground this in psychoanalytic interpretation) and as Smith talks of Netherland, even though there is a real anxiety there, it eventually reminds us of our ‘beautiful plenitude’, where Remainder resolves nothing and instead aspires to be more debris, or even, junk. Here is where the naivety of the narrator comes in: if it is a novel that is self-conscious, it doesn’t understand itself as a novel, and the creator doesn’t understand himself as a creator. Yet there is a palpable anxiety, because there is a desire withheld, which we may call creation and accept all of that words umbrage, from artistic to Freudian connotations. What adds to it, is that he is not fully conscious of this anxiety, yet the reader is and feels it right till the very end and beyond. There is, as said nearer the start, no realisation or completion and although the creator produces a text, he doesn’t realise it. He is back to the problem of understanding and doing; he is doing and writing a novel, not understanding the implications of doing so, resulting in a novel that is not, by modern realist standards, necessarily a good one.

This is of course purposefully done by the real creator, Tom McCarthy. But where people like McCarthy and David Foster Wallace began diverging from the likes of Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon, is that they stop-short of there being some kind of fictive Other on which to project, regardless of the aesthetic of that Other. Think of the ‘Airborne Toxic Event’ in DeLillo’s White Noise or the Thurn und Taxis and the Trystero mail systems (one fact, one fiction) in Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49: we know that they are ironic fictions, but there is something there and somewhere to project all this anxiety onto. Whether this is the grounding or not for the obsessive reenactments, but repetition is born out of a desire and an anxiety to understand, in the same way writing a novel is born out of a desire to understand the self and the world. The anxiety acknowledged becomes intensified, even if the narrator doesn’t recognise it as so. Early modernity at least allowed there to be a private self but Remainder doesn’t; what isn’t private is unconscious.

Where it may become more a matter of ideology might be illuminated by some of the work Wark has done on the Situationists International (SI), mainly in his books ‘The Beach Beneath The Street’ (2011: a Situationist slogan, ironically used as an epitaph in Pynchon’s Inherent Vice) and ‘The Spectacle of Disintegration’ (which i’m going from here). The SI were a Marxist organisation that tried to counter the fact that capitalism had become so advanced that it had venerated not just labor and production, but every aspect of life and culture. But where Marx may have grounded his critique of society in philosophy, Guy Debord, the figurehead of the SI, ground his in culture. In his manifesto, The Society of the Spectacle (1968) Debord wrote, “the spectacle in general, as the concrete inversion of life, is the autonomous movement of the non-living”. There is clear influence from the likes of Lefebvre and consequently on people like Baudrillard, but capitalism had become so dominant and pervasive that culture had become commodified. Or rather, life, or the experience of it has. Remainder is at least aware that it is mixed up within the garble of slogans and commodification.

And yet, with all these remainders and reminders the novel is centred on the fact that there is no remainder for him after the accident and the fleeting moment he initially has in the bathroom is without substance. Watch how the final scene shows how we need no precedent for there to be experience, or for that matter, a remainder. In the rehearsal for the bank heist there is a kink in the carpet that the actor repeatedly trips over, but when it comes to the actual heist, the kink is not there, which still causes the actor to fall and ruin the heist. The narrator in his perennial naivety says:“But it was a re-enactment. That’s the beauty of it. It became real while it was going on. Thanks to the ghost kink, mainly – the kink the other kink left when we took it away”. Remainder is like a Mobius strip, and even though there’s no definitive starting point, everything has an idea and a desire, and as a result, a remainder. This is why this ‘avant-garde’ novel is so central to late, postmodern culture, because like Warhol’s Soup Cans, it is so eminently made up of it. All the stuff of it.

But there is something real that comes from this; there are real traces and remainders out there to remind us of all our creations. Wark opens his account of the legacy of the Situationists International, The Spectacle of Disintegration with a description of the Great Pacific garbage patch in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, which is nothing more than a great mass of dispensed litter. Feeling related in some ethereal way, McCarthy warns in the acknowledgements to his latest novel Satin Island (2015) that all his books are regurgitated ideas and theories. There is some fun to be had in finding the traces in Satin Island.

This is perhaps a real, reluctant lesson to be taken from Remainder. After all, there is an experience of it. Experience is unique in that it is formed by our past, present and future, and sometimes they’re like kinks in a carpet, can only happen before we understand what it means. But understanding just means more language and relativity. Experience cannot simply be transformed into words: that is a reluctant, real, transcendent matter.

Remainder directed by Omer Fast, and starring Tom Sturridge is out now. A new edition of Remainder (originally published in 2005) by Tom McCarthy, with an introduction by McKenzie Wark, has just been published by Alma.

Satin Island (2015) by Tom McCarthy is published by Vintage.

McKenzie Wark’s The Spectacle of Disintegration (2013) is published by Verso.

Review: Tom Barbash – Stay Up With Me.

Tom Barbash’s  first collection of short stories comes adorned in  the superlatives that Nathan Filer recently admonished. Not to say that no other book does, but Barbash’s jacket space are lucky to have two big David’s names on them (Eggers and Mitchell). The times we are unsatisfied by the work even with notable names endorsing them, but thankfully for Stay Up With Me, this is not the case. In all fairness, Barbash is skirting a precarious line with his characters. As Eggers states, it is a universe where all the characters might know each other as they all have some level of middle-class wealth, a degree of privilege, mostly suburbanites. As some other reviewers have noted, this could lead to instances of schadenfreude, but gratefully this doesn’t happen, although you would be forgiven for a slight joy about your own situation.

‘Balloon Night’ and ‘How To Fall’ skirt this precarious line. Whilst the world around the two central characters is alive and thriving, people wanting to be in their environmen, they two characters want nobody but themselves and a past partner. Timkin’s wife (his name seems to invite pity) in the prior story has left him on the night of their annual party in his New York apartment. Whilst everybody is convivial, Timkin can only reflect on how his party and New York ” would be a good place for a terrorist to strike, how many prosperous lives could go up in flames.”

On the back of another break up in ‘How To Fall’, the central character is conscripted into a singles, skiing weekend by her friend. Typically she is no good at skiing. Talking to two men, Roland and Kevin, with Roland taking an interest in her,she cannot stop thinking about her ex.

I couldn’t have been much fun, as I drifted more than once on our chairlift rides into a private theatre wherein I was screening a movie of me and Mitchell in Cape May, when we stared at the sky until five and then slept together in our bathing suits on a lounge chair, next to a pitcher of daquiris.

Your heart bleeds.

As a British reviewer (and psychology postgraduate student), these seem like prime candidates for the psychoanalytic scene, much more prevalent in America. You can see these Betty Draper style, bourgeois types, in the midst of an existential crisis, enjoying the riches and promises of individualism, but encountering the disillusionment that their chronic self-fulfillment has inevitably brought. All our material things have ultimately become immaterial you can hear them say. Although most of the stories feature relationships on a sexual level, there are also maternal and paternal ones which also struggle with this, as the son in ‘The Women’, watches his bereaving father now ‘back on the market’ as a singleton.

Alluded to in the quote above from ‘How To Fall’, the characters are constantly creating narratives for themselves, watching, or likening themselves to the movies. In ‘Letters From The Academy’, this takes on an extreme form. Comically appearing as a series of letters from a young tennis player, Lee Wilcox’s coach, to his father, telling him how good his son is, they slowly turn into a creepy exposition of hero-worship of Lee’s dad.

I wonder how much of you is in Lee, and whether in your early days with the All-City Orchestra and later with Stan Kenton and Lionel Hampton you were equally intense and abstracted. I must say i’ve always loved your work.

The devotion to improving Lee, give way to a jealousy as the letters become obsessive, and are then intruded by an account of Pete Sampras as he takes Lee under his wing from his stalking coach (“I do not know if it is in your wishes for your son to be the hitting partner of a washed up balding husband of a second-rate Hollywood starlet”). It almost becomes Lolita-esque with the crude name of the coach, Maximillian Gross (more grotesque sounding than Humbert Humbert), when his new young, female pupil Vivi makes a move to kiss him (according to Maximillian).

This sinister darkness presides over the stories, and is perhaps something we should expect when in the first story, ‘The Break’; a mother watches her son returning home for the Christmas break talk about the people in his class.

He was talking about someone in school who had lost her mind, a pale, pretty girl, who’d been institutionalised and who sent a scrawled-over copy of The Great Gatsby to a friend of the boy’s. In the margins, she had pointed out all the similarities between the character’s situation and what she believed to be hers and that of the boy’s friend. She had earmarked pages and scrawled messages. YOU ARE GATSBY, she wrote on the back of the book. I AM DAISY.

Just look what happened to those poor blighters. Like the book that charted the dawn of the modern age, there’s that continual feeling of being a witness, and despite being part of them, we are unable to stop them reaching a fateful conclusion, like Nick Carraway was in Gatsby. There’s the foreboding and Thanatos overriding the stories, which really comes out in ‘Spectator’,  a second person account of a car crash. Lacking that self-conscious irony, they have the modern feel, which is why they invite the joy and the pity, and nearly the schadenfreude.

Although the big themes are hinted toward (‘Paris’ perhaps the story that tackles these the most, and very enjoyably escapes the neurotic nature of the others) they are not divulged. We are aware that they are living in a capitalist, materialist society, but that is as they are, and these stories are merely within it. To explicate the big themes would be to take away the simplicity of the stories characters just trying to navigate this world and their self, rather than change it. Because at the heart of these meticulously crafted stories is a potent, yet simple, but often forgotten truth: stop thinking about yourself all the time.

If anything, we’re still looking at a society that still looks to those modern authors,  like Fitzgerald nearly a century ago, to teach us how to write, and more importantly, how to live.

Stay Up With Me  (212pp) by Tom Barbash is released on 14/08/2014 published by Simon & Schuster. Thank you to them for providing a review copy.

Review: Graham Swift – England and Other Stories

With the surge in the short story’s popularity, a current trend is for all the stories to be embedded in a unifying theme. Graham Swift, as the title suggests is tackling one big old subject. As we emerge out of the postmodern age, conceptions of British society, affected by more wars, multiculturalism, capitalism, nostalgic notions Blighty have never looked so fractured, yet so enforced. Swift, then tries to chart this chaotic sprawl and capture this land he has written about over the years.

The stories span the length and breadth of England from Yorkshire to Yeovil. But it’s not the glorious England, nor is it necessarily the ugly England, it’s the unexceptional England. Most of the characters are older, approaching retirement, with a consciousness of their declining years. They’re also usually confronting death or trauma, something that has carried on from his recent novels Last Orders and Wish You Were Here.

In under 300 pages, there are 21 stories, which renders them mostly unresolved and elusive Opening with ‘Going Up In The World’ , mundane England, or at least the mundane lives of England, are laid out here. The title is ironic though as ‘going up in the world’ doesn’t refer to the meteoric success of the capitalist years in Britain, but rather a window cleaning business. Charlie and Don discuss how they ended up going up in the world physically, watching those who have actually ‘gone up in the world’, cleaning their windows for them, and looking from the outside-in.

But to say it’s about the mundane lives of ordinary people, it’s not on the back of mundane events, because British history is hardly mundane. As a result war existentially hangs over the stories; like Wish You Were Here, which prominently addressed the Iraq war, it had that element of both the fascination and national celebration of war, but also it’s futile and mortal effects on ordinary lives. Lives like in ‘Fusili’, as a man shops in Waitrose after the death of his son in Afghanistan.

If there’s one thing the British do generally, unequivocally celebrate, it’s the monarchy. In ‘Haematology’ William Harvey, Doctor of Physic, writes to his cousin Colonel Edward Francis, The Council of Officers in the year 1649. William is exiled, and although the reasons are not made clear, it’s due to some kind of heresy against the King in the name of science: “there is heresy and heresy, there is dogma and dogma” he remarks. ‘Haematology’ is not there as a wildcard, or an experimentation of form though. It is paradoxically for the now because these stories are hardly ‘real’, instead there’s a trepidation about the world Swift battles with in a meta-way, “We have no civility but a confusion of godliness and war. Such is our new world,” says the exiled physician.

This slight disdain to authority permeates the stories. It’s like a rejection of their older selves, that the young people didn’t want to become, but ultimately did, when their youth had no boundaries, no preconceptions . In ‘Ajax’, the naivete of a young person, it is assumed, leads him into an almost deathly, juvenile trap because of the ‘weirdo’ next door. “I was the undoing” the narrator says of himself, stopping Mr Wilkinson doing unconventional activities in his underpants – unconventional for a middle class suburb in the seventies at least.

But it seems the small act of communication that the protagonist tries to instigate in ‘Ajax’, which he is restricted from doing, carrying it out through his fence (an obvious symbol) is something that Swift is trying to urge. Communication breaks down borders, which England certainly has a problem in coming to terms with is Swift’s take-home message. Weather features often, highlighting this subject; obviously England’s cliche obsession with it, but it also captures a sense ofBritain’s ‘small-island syndrome’. But then what is the weather but the most banal of conversation starters in England?

As sardonic as Swift’s voice is through the stories, there is a sense of serious that he captures in ‘Tragedy, Tragedy’. Two men discuss the way papers always relate everything to tragedy – “Ever feel there’s too much tragedy about” Mick says in their blokeish, everyman wisdom, which Swift is so adept at conveying:

“Tragedy’s about acting too. It’s about stuff that’s happening on stage. Shakespeare and stuff. That’s the thing about it. It’s not real life.”

What is this real life? What is ‘stuff’? That word ‘stuff’ is so perfect. The two blokes don’t know the answer, and nor does Swift. And tragedy is everywhere in apparently ‘real life’ these days, but if the novelists art is about language, and ultimately the communication of this language to his reader what would Mick’s reflection the Beano suggest? “Biff! Bam! Kerrzang! How I laughed” he says. This is not just another case of the kind of regression we see in other stories , but rather an example of how those onomatopoeic words are exactly that – words without meaning, yet they are the only ones that can or rather could, invoke a genuine reaction in Mick, where words like ‘tragedy’ cannot. it bears repeating.

Swift’s prose is not the most figurative, but he is deeply concerned with its possibilities, limits and barriers. There are the accents (although sometimes descending into Dickensian mawkishness), the double entrendre’s, Freudian slips , and playing with the sounds of words (the futility of war in ‘Fusili’, or is it the Fusili of war?). The pun might be the cheapest form of a joke, but it has the ability to immediately change the meaning of one word into another, and Swift is at home with it.

But one only needs to read the epitaph from Laurence Sterne at the start (Lord, still, appropriately censored out): indeed, what is all about? Swift doesn’t deliver answers and doesn’t expect to. Instead all we can do is reflect and remember, and ultimately fictionalise like the person says at the end of ‘England’ – “He really knew, he thought, as brought his car to a halt again, nothing about it all.”

England And Other Stories (274pp) by Graham Swift is out now, published by Simon & Schuster (Hardback: £16.99 ). Thank you to them for providing a review copy.