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.
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.
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.
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.