Posts Tagged ‘Chekhov’
I’m still trying to tap these pieces out on my phone with one thumb so academic veracity is frankly a bit of a busk but when we talk about the birth of the modern short story, we go back to Poe and we go back to Chekhov, primarily because there we find the transition from the short tale as a succinct abridgement of the larger narrative to a specialised examination of the way life moves. The journey from one moment to the next.
Poe’s time passed by each moment creeping up on the last, magnifying unease and shrouded in trips and traps. Chekhov could see the passage of time in the way one moment withered away to form the next. The ultimate examination of withering time is Gusev, drawn from his own experience of a ship’s sick bay. There is a closing sequence, which once resembled a leap from realism to imagination but now I’m not so sure, in which Gusev, who has spent the story pinned to the ground in pain and convinced of his imminent recovery, died and is buried at sea. We follow his body floating down, inspected by a shoal of fish who then stand aside to allow Gusev his final moment with an almost disinterested shark. It is fantastically beautiful writing – the whole story – and I recommend Rosamund Bartlett’s translation.
It’s 6.11am in the High Dependency unit.
I grant you, this idea of blogging my recovery scores low on originality, and negligible on cultural significance. It’s also turning me from a model, compliant patient to a pain in the arse who can’t leave his phone alone. More weak Baubyism in the comparative hassles of winking at a speech therapist for each letter and of spigoting the thoughts I have through the single thumb and predictive text method I have to use.
Generally, Minor Writer Makes Slow Recovery isn’t going to have them rushing to the hospital gates, holding out cheese pasties and Peperamis like sacred hosts for when I’m fully back on the solids. It’s not as if I’m Chekhov, drinking the last glass of champagne, brought to the room by Raymond Carver’s sleepy bell-boy (from the story Errand; read Janet Malcolm’s charting of how Carver’s fiction crept into official Chekhov biographies in the brilliant Reading Chekhov) – well, because, it’s not as if I’m Chekhov.
But there’s a part of the problem of being a writer that makes a stretch in ICU or something similar…let’s not say appealing, let’s leave the idea hanging like a distended scrotum after hernia surgery. It’s something to do with being monitors for suffering.
One of the things I noticed about all the brilliant contributions to Beta – Life was how optimistic mine seemed in comparison with the dystopia on display in pretty much every other piece. Now, this work was human, compassionate and there wasn’t an absence of hope from writers like Lucy Caldwell, Zoe Lambert or Adam Marek. And my story’s relative neutropia came about when I asked Francesco Mondada about whether he was optimistic (optimism having been a major response in my reading of Sara Maitland’s Moss Witch). Francesco was very dubious about progress coming without more powerful strides taken by commerce and military. So for a gentle family story involving writing and robots to happen in 2070, something had to have gone right.
So there is a context for my lack of dystopic gloom but…it doesn’t make you one of the cool kids. So that’s going to sound like I’m now catching up on the horror in order to get in that way. Maybe this is just a case of: Minor Writer Finally Finds Time To Write.
And that’s all the cultural significance I need.
I’ve found that people who’ve read stories by Roberto Bolaño tend to have stories to tell about Roberto Bolaño. These stories are inevitably about ourselves, our own life stories and the stories of those in our lives.
The first time anyone ever told me about Bolaño was when I had a chance meeting with my friend K, on Bold Street, which anyone in the Liverpool art scene knows is the street on which chance meetings are inevitable, so not really chance at all, and it’s really the only place I see K these days. K is a Glaswegian former Situationist, a playwright and DJ – at the legendary Eric’s in the punk era and on Toxteth pirate radio stations in the 90s, which is when I got to know him well, though our paths had first crossed as adult literacy tutors in the back end of the 80s. He set up the annual African and Latin American music festival in Liverpool and I’m used to him recommending artists to me whose names sound like songs – Orchestre Baobab, Oumou Sangaré, Lisandro Meza, Zaiko Langa Langa – and, to be truthful, the words “Roberto Bolaño” similarly washed over me as a melodic statement rather than a name to follow up. What did stick with me was that there was a buzz about a novel by this writer, that the work was unfeasibly ambitious and certainly messy but, K told me, “some of the things he does with prose” justified the hype. Slightly closer attention to the susurrus from the literary salon told me that the novel was Bolaño’s five-part, posthumously published 2666, so I got hold of a copy. In the spring of 2009, I began reading it in the café of Liverpool’s World Museum while waiting for a meeting about the Charles Darwin-inspired Evolving Words workshops I would be facilitating there over the summer.
The story of how I came by Bolaño now becomes a different story, not really a story about friendship and meetings and work and time, but a story about writing; it’s about reading and it’s about being a writer; it’s about being this writer and not being that writer. That’s why I am using these stories as a preamble – in case you were losing faith in my remembering the title of this post – to talking about Bolaño’s short story, A Literary Adventure from the similarly posthumous 2008 collection, Last Evenings On Earth: because any story I tell about Bolaño should rightfully mention the story about when I was reading 2666 and my head spun round in a complete circle.
I began reading with thoughts of K’s paean about the quality of ideas in the prose. For eight-and-a-half pages, I was conscious of the lack of spectacle. The writing was fluid, engaging, and the story was interesting. I don’t know what exactly I was looking for – I had the experience built up as something akin to a first hearing of a musical revolutionary like Sun Ra or Ornette Coleman, but what might that be like in prose fiction, with words on the mortuary slab of a page? If a work of prose is like a building, then in these early few pages I was still in the hallway of the prose, able to admire only the basic masonry and door hinges of the text. Then, on page 9, a character called Liz Norton, an English academic in an Oxford college, began reading a novel by an obscure German writer, Benno von Archimboldi:
She read it, liked it, went to her college library to look for more books by the German with the Italian name, and found two: one was the book she had already read in Berlin, and the other was Bitzius. Reading the latter really did make her go running out. It was raining in the quadrangle, and the quadrangular sky looked like the grimace of a robot or a god made in our own likeness. The oblique drops of rain slid down the blades of grass in the park, but it would have made no difference if they had slid up. Then the oblique (drops) turned round (drops), swallowed by the earth underpinning the grass, and the grass and the earth seemed to talk, no, not talk, argue, their incomprehensible words like crystallized spiderwebs, or the briefest crystallized vomitings, a barely audible rustling, as if instead of drinking tea that afternoon, Norton had drunk a steaming cup of peyote.
[translation by Natasha Wimmer]
And that was when my head performed a 360.
The willingness to perform prosal trapeze acts is the facet of Bolaño that first grabbed me but even the rococo stylings of the above passage give indications of some of the staple concerns in his writing. There, creeping in at the last in the reference to peyote, is the Latin American sensibility, one that is dropped – here via the Englishwoman reading the “German with an Italian name” – into a European setting where such identities drift, maybe disappear, maybe re-settle, often co-ordinate themselves in a foreign place around a sense of artistic belonging, yet are always in the grip of home. Bolaño was 20 when, on September 11th 1973, General Augusto Pinochet’s CIA-backed coup deposed the government of Salvador Allende and proceeded to brutalise the Chilean people for the next seventeen years. As one of the exiled, Bolaño carried into his writing the certainty of impermanence – endings rarely provide closure – and the sense that somehow life is a thing that’s already been lost. As liver failure led towards his early death, aged 50, this must have darkened the shadows under each tender observation of the artistic existence.The disposition towards melancholia related to exile and to illness but it was there in Bolaño’s essential literary condition, that of the lesser known poet. From the passage quoted, you can see that poetry underpins his prose. Fiction was also the strategy he turned to in order to achieve a modicum of financial success – to support a young family – of the kind poetry had never been able to provide him. Key to the first story you are told about Bolaño is his intended structuring of 2666 as a series of separate books to be released as posthumous publications over successive years, ensuring a regular dribble of revenue. When the time came, the decision instead to polish up the working draft of the fifth book and publish them all in a single volume was vindicated by the subsequent Bolaño fever, which in turn made his previous writing viable again. He even started to be recognised as a poet. As a commentary on this writing life, it was a very Bolaño-like plot development. Wry observations on literary fortunes, bordering bitterness, run through much of his writing. How could he have had success as a poet? He was a Chilean poet in exile and the world had already placed Pablo Neruda in the single occupancy vehicle that was Chilean poetry in exile. Bolaño’s own idol was Nicanor Parra, a pricklier presence in Chilean poetry, in whose lines (as below) we can get a sense of Bolaño’s own poetic disposition:
I Take Back Everything I’ve Said
Before I go
I’m supposed to get a last wish:
burn this book
It’s not at all what I wanted to say
Though it was written in blood
It’s not what I wanted to say.
No lot could be sadder than mine
I was defeated by my own shadow:
My words took vengeance on me.
Forgive me, reader, good reader
If I cannot leave you
With a warm embrace, I leave you
With a forced and sad smile.
Maybe that’s all I am
But listen to my last word:
I take back everything I’ve said.
With the greatest bitterness in the world
I take back everything I’ve said.
[Nicanor Parra; translated by Miller Williams]
It’s possible that a story like A Literary Adventure, translated by Chris Andrews, might seem a meandering tale of obsession, a more loosely-structured take on Edgar Allen Poe’s seminal shadow-chaser, The Man Of The Crowd but without the pay-off of Poe’s final, frustrated confrontation. This is more than a case of Bolaño spinning a shaggy dog story: the marginalised writer moves with a shambling gait through most of Bolaño’s stories, whether as stand-ins for the writer himself, or personified by the almost mythic figure of Archimboldo, or emerging from the pages of forgotten literary journals picked up in thrift shops by the characters in the short stories. It’s not difficult, as a writer, to relate to such figures because we all have our sense of marginalisation; of being overlooked in favour of other lesser, or if not lesser then luckier, or if not luckier then simply younger talents; or of – whatever level of satisfaction we may have with our own relative status – griping that there is insufficient regard for what we do because the public is misdirected as to why, how and what to read. For the most part, these miseries can be absorbed, comfortably and productively, into a world-view laced with a generous and genial scepticism but Bolaño provides catharsis because he never absorbed that stuff: it bounced straight onto the page.Benjamin Samuel, blogging about literary feuds, cites Bolaño’s pronouncement on the Argentinian writer, Osvaldo Soriano: “You have to have a brain full of fecal matter to see him as someone around whom a literary movement can be built.”
It’s in this context of affronted ego mixed with wounded self-doubt that A Literary Adventure takes shape. As elsewhere in his short stories, Bolaño’s protagonist is simply identified as B. There is an antagonist, as unwitting a nemesis as the suspicious-looking old man trailed by Poe’s narrator, referred to as A. These may well be substitutes for Bolaño and a specific contemporary, but they are archetypes as well. A is:
a writer of about B’s age, but who, unlike B, is famous, well-off and has a large readership; in other words he has achieved the three highest goals (in that order) to which a man of letters can aspire. B is not famous, he has no money and his poems are published in little magazines.
I know I’m a B; to my friends and acquaintances and Facetwitter whatever whatevers, if I’m more in the A category to you, then I beg your forgiveness but, you know, you should get out more because there are some real As out there and each of them considers his or herself a B in relation to someone else again. The details that inject this story with the pain of a chord played by Victor Jara are phrases like the “in that order” ranking of writerly aspirations, or the heartbreaking diminuitive “little magazines”. So personal disappointment is fused with a righteous sense that success is lavished on the undeserving, or that it corrupts. B notices “a sanctimonious tone” appearing in A’s writing as his recognition grows and it’s this pomposity he attacks when creating Medina Mena, a thinly-veiled representation of A, for one chapter of a novel he is writing (presumably because poetry isn’t paying). The novel is picked up for publication and sent out for reviews. A is a reviewer – an influential one, at that – and he loves B’s book. While singing its praises, he appears not to recognise, or at least publicly to acknowledge, the satirical version of himself B has written.
The story revolves around the moral crisis A’s enthusiastic review triggers in B’s conscience and imagination. The layering of speculation upon assumption here is an utterly believable depiction of B’s mounting paranoia:
He’s praising my book to the skies, thinks B, so he can let it drop back to earth later on. Or he’s praising my book to make sure no one will identify him with Medina Mena. Or he hasn’t even realised, and it was a case of genuine appreciation, a simple meeting of minds. None of these possibilities seems to bode well.
Neurosis makes for great, bleak comedy and there’s a Picaresque feel – B as a hapless Gulliver in the land of Spanish literature – to the way the plot spools through B’s efforts to get to know A and thereby get to the truth of exactly what he felt about the Medina Mena character. There is the publication of B’s second novel and A’s equally warm, though suspiciously swift, review of that. There is a party in which a meeting with A seems about to take place in a dark recess of a garden which Chekhov might have fashioned to represent a soul in torment. And there are phonecalls made at inappropriate times, visits planned, voices overheard, all of which seem to be inching us towards a resolution.
But B’s identity as a writer must leave agonies like this unresolved. This story isn’t what matters anyway: what matters are the stories that happen in the corner of your eye while you’re keeping watch on something you should ignore. When following A but deliberating on whether to try to speak to him, B goes to a restaurant and, for a few minutes as he eats, we sense a respite from the literary frustration that’s eating away at him. Could the story have been here instead?
B sits down next to the window, in a corner away from the fireplace, which is feebly warming the room. A girl asks him what he would like. B says he would like to have dinner. The girl is very pretty. Her hair is long and messy, as if she just got out of bed. B orders soup, and a meat and vegetable dish to follow.
The next sentence – “While he is waiting he reads the review again.” – sucks him back into his grim quest but in that sliver of life in the restaurant, that moment of survival and possible hope for more than mere survival, we glimpse the beauty of Bolaño’s storytelling. We get that his stories and our own swim around one another, with beginnings that are impossible to trace and no resolution in the endings, just these moments that happen on the way to the end.
My good friend O, a songwriter, guitarist and drummer, was another Chilean who left the country after youthful struggles against Pinochet. Before he arrived in Liverpool, he spent some time in Spain, where A Literary Adventure and other Bolaño stories are set. He hasn’t read Bolaño but he has a story he wants to tell about the beautiful Madrileña daughter who recently stepped out of his past. I want him to read Last Evenings On Earth as he sets about writing down his stories. Because he’s in Bolaño’s stories and because Roberto Bolaño is in his. Because that’s the way Bolaño’s writing works: it’s intravenous. I read Bolaño and I glimpse beauty in small moments of survival but I read Bolaño and I feel the volume of self-doubt that’s in all writers’ libraries easing itself off the shelf and dropping onto my lap. And that’s too overwrought a metaphor, isn’t it, making the process sound like The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. And I’ve made this blog too long so readers will probably cut out after they click on the Sun Ra link I inserted earlier, so then that’ll be yet another thing to add to the list of all the other things.
Morecambe’s restored art deco hotel, The Midland, offers its white screen to capture your projections. You sit in the tea room, below the vast whorls of the spiral staircase, and amidst the livery, potted palms, friezes and curved walls, and the pianist is playing These Foolish Things, you smell the “gardenia perfume lingering on a pillow”, dab the corner of your eye with a lace handkerchief or clench a pipe in your jaw and let the contents of the telegram held in your other hand wash over you…
David Constantine, fresh from a reading the previous night at Lancaster’s Litfest, checked out of his hotel and, before hitting the motorway, took a detour to Lancaster’s coastal neighbour. He ordered a pot of tea and sat by the plate glass windows overlooking the epic wilds of Morecambe Bay, notorious since 2004 and the tragic deaths of eighteen Chinese migrant workers picking cockles in the “furrows and ridges” of the tide. The tea took an age to come and he might have given up in order to get back on the road to his home in Oxford but, from his little corner table, he was able to eavesdrop a couple whose romantic afternoon tea was being soured by their contrasting reactions to the relief in the entrance lounge, “Odysseus welcomed from the sea by Nausicaa” by the artist Eric Gill.Constantine was reminded of the tea room meeting between a man and a woman, no doubt in brand new art deco surroundings, observed by Katherine Mansfield and reproduced as A Dill Pickle, and he carried the incident away with him in his notebook. The result was Tea at the Midland, published by Comma Press, and it made him the predecessor to D.W. Wilson when he won the 2010 BBC National Short Story Award.
Much of this is a lie, a fiction I’ve projected onto Constantine’s and indeed Mansfield’s processes – about either of which I know precisely nothing – based on elements of my own experience of taking tea at the Midland, where the order did indeed take an age to arrive and the water was indeed furrowed and ridged in the bay. There were no surfers, though, such as those watched by the woman in the story, behind the plate glass, projecting her ideals of grace and freedom onto their bobbing shapes:
In the din of waves and wind under that ripped-open sky they were enjoying themselves, they felt the life in them to be entirely theirs, to deploy how they liked best. To the woman watching they looked like grace itself, the
heart and soul of which is freedom. It pleased her particularly that they were attached by invisible strings to colourful curves of rapidly moving air.
How clean and clever that was!
Janet Malcolm, in her sublime study, Reading Chekhov – A Critical Journey [Granta, 2003], puts together a fascinating account of how the author’s death scene, in a German hotel room, has been re-created by a number of his biographers. To elements drawn from the eyewitness accounts, chiefly that of his widow Olga, of Chekhov’s final hours, other ‘facts’ have been added, most notably a sleepy young porter summoned in the middle of the night to bring champagne, a death-bed treat, to the room. The champagne was real, Malcolm tells us, but the porter was an invention by Raymond Carver in a story, Errand, written towards the end of his own life and published in 1988, which spun a fictional web around the events leading to Chekhov’s death. The manner in which the porter has come to be projected onto the ‘real’ story (albeit one easily disproved by less lazy researchers) suggests that Carver’s story has been read less as a fiction than as a preferred truth.
The woman, watching the surfers and constructing a fictional version of what she would like to be true about their moods and motivations, has been dealing in a preferred truth about the man with whom she is having tea, while his wife is at home, but projected, presumably in the act of cooking his dinner, onto the Midland’s curved white walls. She prefers, too, the truth she finds in the beauty of Gill’s frieze, in the gracious, graceful act of welcome he depicts, to the truth about Gill, whose diary accounts of his incest, paedophilia and bestiality were detailed in his biography, half a century after his death. The man can’t see other than with the hindsight these crimes have provided. He prefers his truth to come with moral certainties. When this isn’t the case – as when the woman asks whether “I should even have to learn to hate the sea because just out there, where that beautiful golden light is, those poor cockle-pickers drowned when the tide came in on them faster than they could run” – he wants no truck with it.
Constantine’s portrait of the man’s furious, controlling bluster, ostensibly intended for Gill but very much trained on his lover, skewers the hypocrisy of the hawkers of moral outrage. The undercurrent of menace is allowed to drift into the reader’s line of vision, never waved in front of our faces. We listen more closely to the woman, as she tries to contextualise her feelings about the Gill frieze by talking about the questionable moral character of Odysseus:
Odysseus was a horrible man. He didn’t deserve the courtesy he received from Nausikaa and her mother and father. I don’t forget that when I see
him coming out of hiding with the olive branch. I know what he has done already in the twenty years away. And I know the foul things he will do when he gets home. But at that moment, the one that Gill chose for his frieze, he is naked and helpless and the young woman is courteous to him and she knows for certain that her mother and father will welcome him at their hearth. Aren’t we allowed to contemplate such moments? – I haven’t read it, he said.
Those four words he speaks could be a backhand crashing into the side of her face, so brutal and disdainful is his attempt to sweep aside her point of view. That he doesn’t is a recognition of how the café environment allows a writer to construct surface and submerged narratives. Confined by the fact that “they were sitting at a table over afternoon tea in a place that had pretensions to style and decorum” only their wilting verbal communication is able to reflect the submerged frustration and rage. Outside, on the other side of the plate glass, the wind is ferocious, the waters wild, and there is beauty and uncomplicated joy in the surf. Inside, even the beauty comes with an overbearing moral shadow. The confined space generates the discord in the first place: the moral division over Gill’s artwork, represented in the couple’s views, is likely to be waged within any viewer who knows the back-story; anyone looking out from this swanky outpost cannot avoid projecting the fate of the cockle-pickers – their conditions of labour in the first place – onto the view of the tides. As with A Dill Pickle, the matter of the bill signals the end of the narrative. The restricted narrative space afforded by the Midland’s tea rooms allows the writer to project his fiction onto it, and re-align the truths held therein.
S is for Shut Up and Deal
[also for Spoiler if you’ve never the seen the film, so beware…]
Writer/director Billy Wilder, co-writer I.A.L. Diamond, and star Jack Lemmon had combined two years earlier (with Joe E. Brown delivering the killer line) to create the immortal “Nobody’s perfect” dialogue at the end of Some Like It Hot. In 1960’s The Apartment, there’s something approaching perfection in the stuttering path Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine take, through endless work and love-based misdirections, to the romcom moment of epiphany depicted at the start of this closing sequence. But from the moment MacLaine enquires after the deck of cards, the brief remainder of the film becomes an outstanding example of letting the action speak for itself, that any writer would do well to heed. Yes, Lemmon attempts a gushing declaration of love but he’s cut short and handed the deck: “Shut up and deal.” Note MacLaine’s expert shuffle, a story in a few hand movements, and then, as the end credit appears, the way Lemmon follws that instruction, cards flying everywhere and bliss taking hold:
T is for Twist…Bust
Shirley’s just dumped Fred McMurray to see in the 1960s with you, she’s got the pixie haircut and she’s wearing that dress…those cards aren’t getting picked up anytime soon – it’s not as if you’re playing Felix in The Odd Couple for another eight years. Should Jack and Shirl eventually return to their game, they might get round to playing some blackjack, and they’ll know that, when you’re aiming for 21, if you twist too many times, you could end up bust. T could be for Tortuous Analogy because, as in card games, so it is in the short story: twist if you need to, but exercise caution. Writers approaching the short story via a Tales of the Unexpected, Guy de Maupassant or, indeed, Scooby Doo route, might believe that a twist in the tail is essential to a short story’s DNA.
Maupassant’s influence, as one of the 19th century architects of what we now understand as the short story and the leading pioneer of the twist (and you thought it was Chubby Checker!), is powerful. Yes, he may wrong-foot the reader, but his characters aren’t constructs purely for the purpose of concealing the surprise at the ending: these are people living real lives. In The Necklace, the unfortunate, impoverished Mathilde, having borrowed a glittering diamond necklace to mask her poverty when attending a function related to her husband’s work, loses the necklace and she and her husband spend ten years raising the funds to buy a replacement to give back to the owner. The twist is that, when the owner has the dreadful secret explained to her, she tells Mathilde that the original necklace was a cheap fake. It’s a shock to the character, definitely, but the story isn’t about that shock: they’ve crippled themselves with debt and worked hard for ten years to pay for something they could have replaced for less than 500 francs – that’s a story about how crap life is when you’re skint. It’s not a twist at all: it’s a boorish, droning inevitability. Get the reader to understand your story, and the ending may momentarily startle but it won’t seem to have come from nowhere. Set out at every turn to fox and confuse your reader and it won’t just be the disgruntled old retainer in a phantom mask who’s plotting your downfall.
U is for “Uno, Dos…Uno, Dos, Tres, Cuatro…”
Gil Scott-Heron’s spoken count-in to The Bottle; Little Richard’s “A Wop-bop-a-loo-mop alop-bam-boom” into Tutti Frutti; George Harrison’s double-tracked guitar intro to I Wanna Hold Your Hand: if they were short stories and not songs, they’d read something like –
And then, after six years, she saw him again.
[Katherine Mansfield, A Dill Pickle]
Your father picks you up from prison in a stolen Dodge Neon, with an 8-ball of coke in the glove compartment and a hooker named Mandy in the back seat.
[Dennis Lehane, Until Gwen]
Miss Cicely Rodgers strapped her cock and balls into the Miracle Deluxe Vagina, which was made from skin-like flesh-coloured latex and came with fully adjustable straps to ensure a perfect fit and to hide any last sign of maleness.
[Alexei Sayle, Who Died And Left You In Charge?]
V is for Velázquez
It wasn’t just that he’d paint a dwarf as well as a Pope. It was that the depictions of the Dwarf Francisco Lezcano or the beggars and lowly workers, in the grounds around the royal or papal palaces, were proper portraits, investing the subjects with dignity unattainable in everyday society. It was also that Pope Innocent X could be portrayed in such a storytelling way, the terse, malevolent executive overflowing with human power but without too much divine grace in evidence. Stories can work like paintings in as many ways as there have been artistic movements, but the humanity in a Velázquez should be high on the list of aspirations.
W is for Watermelon
Thank you, the sex was lovely and, as you know, I’ve been very keen for it to happen for some time. And how delightful that the hotel puts watermelons in the room – so refreshing! I’m going to cut myself a slice. Would you like one?. I tell you what – this is lovely, but those black pips get on my nerves.
In Chekhov’s The Lady With The Dog, none of this is spoken by the male protagonist, Gurov, to his titular sexual conquest. He does cut himself a slice of the watermelon, which he eats slowly. And then Chekhov creates an image so excruciating, it’s enough to put you off the fruit for life: “At least half an hour passed in silence.” Girls, if he’s not at the very least asking you whether he’s got any pips stuck in his teeth within the first ten minutes, (a) get the message and get out of there, but not before (b) you shove the rest of the watermelon into him, not sliced up, and not necessarily via his mouth either.
X is for X-Ray Spex
Acknowledging the passing of Poly Styrene and celebrating the concise characterisation displayed in Warrior in Woolworth’s:
Y is for Yeast
That idea you’ve got, that you think would work in a story but you’ve not got a plot yet, or characters, or a setting or a way to begin or end it. It’s still there, still at work, and it’ll grow, so give it time.
Z is for Zelda Fitzgerald
The epitome of the writer’s muse. The ethics of drawing from your own life, and thereby the lives and personalities of those who share that life, are in a constant state of push-me-pull-me within each writer. You use your non-writing hand to wipe away the tears shed at the worst moments of your life because the other hand’s twitching for the nearest pen. Zelda was not simply a muse but an incisive writer herself. Scott knew this, of course, but does the selfishness required by a writer instinctively seek to overshadow this apparent equity in their relationship? Is there room for a second writer in your house? I’m only asking because I write short stories for a living, and I think my landlord might have got wind of this….
I met with some writers yesterday. There is probably a dubious statistic – much like the one I heard when on a coach passing through Luxemburg in the 80s, that there was one restaurant for every four Luxemburgers and one brothel for every five; you wonder if the dishes ever get done – about the number of novels-in-progress per capita across the population of Liverpool. It’s a city of storytellers and the Windows Project monthly Writing Advice Desk in Larkhill Library gives some of them the opportunity to tell the story of the book they’re writing to a professional and gain some guidance. Also, as one gentleman pointed out, writing can be a lonely business so it’s good to have the chance to get out and make some human contact.
Yes, but if it’s lonely for you, sitting there in your café, wishing you’d gone for something more substantial than a macchiato, or at your computer with the world’s dramas playing out beneath your fingertips – – with a cast of characters of such oddball diversity it makes Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 look like an episode of Button Moon, think for a moment about the characters for whom you have responsibility and over whom you have authorial control. There they are, straining every unobserved sinew to act out the fabulous ideas you’ve constructed, to break free from the overbearing influence of the friend or former acquaintance who inspired them in the first place, to throw off the burden of expectation placed on them by that high-powered first chapter or opening paragraph – and what do they get back from you? Plot, plot, and more plot. They get angry, they get sad, they get tough and they get going but, increasingly, it seems you don’t get them. Writers will often find themselves with – or fail to notice they’ve created – a pivotal character who just carries out the necessary functions of the current scene in order to get to the next one, without ever seeming to come alive. Your character needs downtime, space to breathe. You need to give this character a tea-break.
The Cup of Tea Exercise is one I give to students ostensibly to drill them in the skills of 3rd person objective narrative. If you click on the link to the Wikipedia entry on this narrative voice, you’ll see mention of it as a “camera lens” approach. It’s therefore relevant as we start to consider the synergy between short stories and film. In either medium, it’s the principle of show-don’t-tell writ large. If you can describe a scene and track the action, allowing the narrative to be experienced mimetically – as it’s happening to the character(s) – you can tell any story with intensity, clarity and coherence. The exercise is flagged up as a way for students to appreciate detail (an element touched upon here). Notice, for example, how unadorned with character motivation is this line from Chekhov’s The Lady With The Dog:
On the table was a watermelon. Gurov cut himself a slice from it and began slowly eating it. At least half an hour passed in silence.
Yet this could be the most celebrated moment in the last 200 years of short story writing. This is the anti-“Reader, I married him.” This is, “Reader, he shagged her, cut himself a slice of fruit and then realised he’d lost interest in both.” The line tells us all this without spelling out any of it. Understanding why this precise piece of imagery works is easy: understanding how to make your characters so real to the reader that their unconscious gestures and acts will be interpreted as contributory factors in the narrative is, as many of my students discover, not so easy. It’s essential in a short story to get this type of detail right but it’s important to consider when working on your novel as well. Simply this – listen to your reader: If I don’t care about the character when he or she is making a cup of tea, I’m not going to care when s/he’s saving the world.
It’s this aspect of characterisation that is the true source of the Cup of Tea exercise and here, in the most concise terms possible, is what it involves:
Your task is to get to know your character better by having him or her make a cup of tea. The action starts with filling the kettle (or equivalent) and ends with taking the first sip. What happens in between is governed by the following –
– We must never read the character’s thoughts. We can only view his or her actions.
– No back-story is allowed in the form of narrative that addresses the reader. You must not directly explain the context for anything you present in the passage. This includes not giving a separate introduction to your passage to explain who your character is meant to be. It should all come out in the process of making the tea.
– No speech or dialogue is permitted that deals with anything that is happening outside the making of the tea. So, if there is another character present, comments or action between the two can only relate to the process of making the tea. Ideally, the character should be alone or any other characters should be very much in the background.
– The character should not do anything that reveals his/her back-story that takes place away from the making of the tea. The information we receive about your character should be gleaned entirely from the manner in which the tea is made. So the character can’t, say, leave the tea to brew and pick up a letter/gun/gift that will tell us more about his/her life. But if a gun is moved to get to the sugar, for example, you’re fine.
– Description is therefore paramount. The approach to making the tea and the tea-making facilities; the physical appearance of the character; the room in which the action takes place; even sounds and smells if they can be put across via the outward demeanour and behaviour of the character – all these are acceptable as details to include. But remember not to tell too much: if you character has a scar, then s/he has a scar – leave it to us to interpret where this scar might have come from.
– Coffee/cocoa are allowed, but the act of making the drink has to be a process involving a number of different stages. No opening of Coke tins.
What often shocks students is how much subjectivity there is in their writing voices. And why shouldn’t that be the case, since most of us come to the idea of writing as a means of expressing our personal intellectual, emotional and imaginative thoughts? Yet it’s exactly this part of the process that should help you understand that writing isn’t that lonely after all. There are others involved – and they in turn depend on you. Just try to give them a break from time to time.
This isn’t an invitation to bombard me with passages of writing, but if you do have a go at the Cup of Tea exercise, let us know how you got on. And don’t forget to keep checking the Twitter feed in the sidebar for Real Time miniatures, news and random witterings.
After the emotion of the weekend and the discussion of the incendiary lyricism and revolutionary influence of Gil Scott-Heron, stepping back into the park bench and coffee shop world of the short story might feel like being doused with freshly-squeezed whimsy. In a publishing culture that regards the short story as the Huggies Pull-Up to the novel’s Calvin Klein boxers, it would appear an unlikely detour. Moreover, if we’re taking the Gil Scott-Heron suggestion, from Delta Man (Where I’m Coming From, to “put a little revolution in your life,” surely our first thought should be for the kinetic energy of the spoken word?
Here is the short answer: no art form, genre of art form or single work of art ever changed the world. Art has influenced consciousness, educated and agitated; it has provided rallying points, anthems and eloquent critiques, and sometimes it’s said things like “a change is gonna come” that, when those changes did come, seemed like the argument that had finally won the day. But we know that the process of change is more gradual and complex than that. Let’s be honest: if everybody knew that you could create a work of art, any art, that was guaranteed to make a radical change to the world you’re living in, Hitler would have stuck to the painting and Margaret Thatcher would have learned to play the banjo.
And yet…when our warm breath hits the cold air, there is a change. Whether we regard Sheherazade as the poster girl for the performative act or the short story, her bedtime tales fulfilled an agitprop function of keeping her alive, which is as radical a change as you need to make when there’s an axe being sharpened on the other side of sunrise. Incrementally, the bigger change – calling off the threat of execution – was achieved. When I first began performing poetry, the attainability of these incremental changes was a large part of the appeal. It was self-evident that more could be achieved in fifteen minutes in front of an audience of 50 than over several months of attempting to have one piece of work accepted by a publishing outlet. That my perspective has changed over the last twenty years can be attributed to any number of personal and historical factors, but the point I wish to tease out from this sketch of my personal development is one of technique and it’s relevant now while our thoughts are on a giant of spoken word.
The question is whether there is an area of short story technique that can give a printed story the kinetic properties of the performative moment that are routine within the spoken word format, and it’s one I’ll be contemplating as the blog continues to develop. What I’m interested in is the idea that there is something peculiar to short fiction that can work performatively. I’m inclined to discount first person narrative because, while this bears obvious characteristics of performance, being located in the oral storytelling tradition, it’s as suited to the novel as the shorter form.
Where we may begin to detect a technique that’s both a crucial strength of short fiction and a parallel to the molten energy of the live performance is in this blog’s regular fixation: the rendering of life in a sort of real time, whereby we can see, in the emotional choreography of the characters, a performance of what it is to be human. This is mimesis, whereby we experience the narrative, rather than having it relayed to us. When the topical issues have rolled on by and the world has not changed, other than in minor increments, we still need to deal with forces that act to reduce or refuse our common humanity, so the ability to place your reader within the emotional and sensory world of the characters is not just good writing, it’s an act of radicalism. The reason we keep going back to Chekhov is because he understood this. His writing captured snowflakes. It held in place for our inspection the moments of inspiration or heartbreak, and it lifted out of the fleeting the lives of the ordinary, the unconventional and the disappointed. So a story, in which love realises far too late that it ever had the potential to be requited, gives us a depiction of what it means to let life happen without taking action and it’s as political as a clenched fist salute:
Ilovaiskaya did not say anything. When the sleigh started moving and was going round a large snowdrift, she glanced back at Likharyov, looking as if she wanted to say something to him. He ran after her but she did not say a word, and just looked at him through long eyelashes, on which hung snowflakes…
[Anton Chekhov, On The Road]