Archive for the ‘Stories’ Category

Seven Hanged

December 29, 2016

seven-hanged

Although Penguin’s Little Black Classics series largely selects from previously published Penguin Classics, Seven Hanged is a new translation of Leonid Andreyev’s novella by Anthony Briggs. Its title neatly summarises the events described within – originally published in 1908, it gives us insight into the cruelty and repression which would lead to the Russian Revolution. Five of those sentenced to hang are ‘terrorists’, caught in the act of attempting to assassinate a government minister – but, whereas lesser writers may have focussed only on their story, Andreyev adds two ordinary criminals to the gallows.

In fact he begins the story from an entirely different perspective, that of the targeted minister in the discovered plot. This allows Andreyev to sneak up on his theme, death (rather like an assassin) as the minister considers the repeated warnings that he was to be killed at one o’clock:

“And it’s not death that’s terrifying, only my knowing about it. And it would be totally impossible to live if a man were to know with complete certainty the date and time when he was sure to die.”

This is, of course, the situation the condemned will soon find themselves in (to a point – all those sentenced to death must wait until a certain quota is reached (this is presumably the significance of the ‘seven’) before the executions will take place). We see them briefly in court as they are sentenced, three men and two women:

“In court all five behaved calmly; they were very serious-minded and very thoughtful… Their calmness was balanced against a need to shield their souls, and the great darkness about to descend upon them in death, from the vile, intrusive gaze of outsiders.”

Then we meet a different kind of killer: Ivan Yanson, an Estonian farm worker who attacks his master, stabbing him repeatedly in the back, and attempts to rape his mistress (she is too strong for him) only to be caught within the hour having had no escape (or indeed any) plan. Our seventh condemned man is ‘Gypsy Mike’, who might be described as a career criminal whose luck has finally run out:

“There were vague rumours of his implication in any number of other robberies and murders, and he had left behind him in his wake much blood and drunken depravity.”

Andreyev goes on to describe each prisoner’s reactions as they await their death alone, taking a chapter for each one. His approach throughout is to humanise his characters, making the impending executions seem more and more barbaric. On the way to be hanged he demonstrates their kindness to each other, for example, Werner, one of the ‘terrorists’, takes Yanson’s hand:

“It lay there, lifeless and stiff as a bit of board, and Yanson no longer tried to withdraw it.”

Another, Musya, agrees to be hanged with Gypsy Mike as they go up in pairs. By the end it’s difficult not to agree

“…it was barbarous to think that such a degree of routine human effort and efficiency should be applied to the hanging of people, and that the craziest deed on earth was being done in such a simple and rational manner.”

Seven Hanged in a tense, moving story which is strangely uplifting in moments. It suggests that Andreyev, a writer greatly neglected in English translation, deserves far more attention. It’s to be hoped that this might be the beginning of more of his work becoming available once again.

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Bartleby

December 23, 2016

bartleby

Herman Melville’s Bartleby exists in a long gone world of scriveners and copyists, and yet there us something urgently contemporary in its scrutiny of the world of work. Before Bartleby joins the Wall Street offices of the narrator, a lawyer, we are introduced to the current staffing complement, Turkey, Nippers and Ginger Nut: “In truth they were nicknames, mutually conferred upon each other by my three clerks and were deemed expressive of their respective person or characters.” Encapsulated by nickname, the narrator is able to describe their particular, unchanging characteristics; while they are presented as completely known, Bartleby enters as the unknown.

Best of all, he leaves the story equally unknown. Initially he seems the ideal worker: first to arrive at the office and last to leave, writing diligently behind his screen:

“At first, Bartleby did an extraordinary quantity of writing. As if long famished for something to copy, he seemed to gorge himself on my documents.”

Problems occur when Bartleby is asked to proof-read his work with the other clerks. “I would prefer not to,” Bartleby replies, a standard response to any request which would take him outside the comfort of his screen.

“His face was leanly composed, his gray eye dimly calm. Not a wrinkle of agitation rippled him.”

Bartleby’s passive resistance worsens when he refuses to even write, but the narrator finds himself helpless in the face of his indifferent refusals.

The story’s genius lies in Melville’s own refusal to offer any explanation for Bartleby’s behaviour (one can just imagine him telling his editor that he ‘prefers not to’). It can, of course, be read as Melville himself grappling with his writing, but I prefer to see it as resistance to the futility of work, the realisation that pointless copying is almost all we ever do, and also the liberation of that five-word phrase that frees us from the obligation.

The Steel Flea

December 22, 2016

steel-flea

Nikolay (or Nikolai) Leskov’s The Steel Flea (an abbreviated form of its Russian title, ‘The Tale of Cross-eyed Lefty from Tula and the Steel Flea’) is sometimes regarded as his most typical work. It certainly showcases a wild-eyed, anything-goes story-telling with a sly sense of humour. The story begins with Emperor Alexander the First in London, marvelling at the technology of the English, much to the chagrin of his accompanying Cossack, Platov:

“…if Platov noticed the Emperor getting interested in something foreign, then just as soon as all the guides stopped talking for a minute, Platov would pop up and say this, that and the other, telling them ours at home were just as good…”

Most marvellous of all is a steel flea they gift to the Emperor, so small it appear only as speck, with a key to wind up its clockwork parts that can only be seen through a ‘nitroscope’. (Though the English gift the flea to Alexander, they charge him for the case to carry it in – Leskov aims his satirical barbs at whatever nation comes within range).

Alexander returns to Russia with the flea, Platov, still fuming (literally from his pipe) retires to his “bed of ire”, and the flea is forgotten about until it is rediscovered years later by Nicholas the First. Platov is also rediscovered (with the ‘nitroscope’ he pocketed on the day they received the flea) and so it is once again wound up and made to dance. Platov suggests it be taken to Tula “to see whether our craftsmen can’t outdo it, so that the Englishmen won’t keep lording it over us Russians.” And so the flea ends up in the hands of Lefty and his fellow metal-workers who promise:

“…by the time you come back you will have something worthy to be shown to his Imperial Splendour.
But exactly what it was they just wouldn’t say.”

In the story’s second half Lefty returns the flea to England to show off his work allowing Leskov to poke more fun at the cultural differences of the two nations. In fact, the whole story is genuinely amusing – and if that wasn’t enough Leskov indulges in some witty wordplay: military equipment such as “nautical whether-meters, gamble-hair coast for the infantry waterproof rein coats for the cavalry”; “prejudunce” instead of prejudice, and, my personal favourite, a “calumnist” from the “Daily Telegraft”. (Kudos to translator William Edgerton for ensuring that all remain amusing and are never intrusive).

The Steel Flea is a wonderful introduction to Leskov (it reminded me a little of another writer I have come to love this year, Stanislaw Lem) and is highly recommended to anyone looking for some 19th century Russian humour – surely the bets kind?

Note: this translation does not come from the Penguin Classics Lady Macbeth of Mtsenk and Other Stories or the Vintage Classics The Enchanted Wanderer and Other Stories but seems to originate from the 1969 Satirical Stories of Nikolai Leskov.

The Lesson of the Master

December 21, 2016

lesson-of-the-master

Although out-dated in its implication that only men can ever hope to attain the perfection of genius, Henry James’ The Lesson of the Master explores the still relevant tension between artistic achievement and ordinary life. As Cyril Connelly famously put it, “There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hallway.” (Though as James’ work consists largely of people talking, one might think the greatest enemy was chat).

It brings together two writers, the young Paul Overt whose “fresh fiction had caught the eye of real criticism,” and the older, established Henry St George, whom Paul admires with the caveat that his recent work has not matched his best:

“His private conviction was that, admirably as Henry St George wrote, he had written for the last ten years, and especially for the last five, only too much…”

They are brought together by mutual respect, but also by Miss Fancourt, a young woman who is a great admirer of the arts (as a woman, it seems, she has little option but to watch: “Women are so hampered”). She tells Overt that St George is well aware his latest work is inferior to what he once wrote:

“…at any rate that they’re not what they should be. He told me he didn’t esteem them.”

Later, St George discusses this with Overt in his ‘practical’ writing room (no window, no seat – all, as arranged by his wife, for greater efficiency). He claims marriage has led him to prioritise income – and therefore production – over quality, saying “I’ve got everything but the great thing…”

“The sense of having done the best – the sense of which is the real life of the artists and the absence of which is his death, of having drawn from his intellectual instrument the finest music that nature had hidden in it, of having played it as it should be played.”

By this point Overt has fallen in love with Miss Fancourt but St George convinces him that marriage will prevent him from achieving the perfection of his art that should be his aim. The story apparently has a twist at the end (look away now if you don’t want to know) though I feel it’s fairly easy to foresee: Overt leaves England to pursue his writing; St George’s wife dies and, when Overt returns, it is to discover St George and Miss Fancourt are engaged.

It is this which makes the story rather light-hearted (for James) as there have been plenty of indications of St George’s attraction to Miss Fancourt which the naïve Overt has chosen to disregard. The first time Overt sees them together General Fancourt comments (asked to point out St George):

“The fellow talking to my girl. By Jove, he is making up to her – they’re going off for another walk.”

Overt’s naivety continues to the end when he wonders: “Are you marrying Miss Fancourt to save me?” James’ concern that domesticity is antithetical to art is real, however, and behind the comedy lie some of the choices that any artist has to make.

Flypaper

December 20, 2016

flypaper

I have long desired to read Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, but picking up such a long book often feels like moving in with someone you have yet to meet, so let’s look on Flypaper as a first date. (Should things get more serious I have a copy of The Confusions of Young Torless to hand). The pieces in Flypaper come from The Posthumous Papers of a Living Author, translated by Peter Wortman, and published by Archipelago Books rather than Penguin. Most are short pieces – two to six pages – with the exception of ‘The Blackbird’ which runs to almost thirty.

The title essay, ‘Flypaper’, immediately demonstrates Musil’s powers of observation in his description of the flies stuck to the paper:

“Here they stand all stiffly erect, like cripples pretending to be normal, or like decrepit old soldiers.”

But he can also be empathetic, reading his own experience into that of the flies:

“…it gets stuck at first by only the outermost joints of all its legs. A very quiet, disconcerting sensation, as through while walking in the dark we were to step on something with our naked soles.”

Most of the other pieces are also occasioned by something Musil has seen: ‘Fishermen on the Baltic’ is simply a description of fisherman putting bait on their hooks; ‘Sarcophagus Cover’ tells of a chance discovery in the Italian countryside:

“One sees many such sarcophagus covers in Rome; but in no museum and in no church do they make an impression as here, under the trees, where as though on a picnic the figures stretch themselves out and just seem to have awakened from a little sleep that lasted two thousand years.”

A couple, however, are more ruminative essays, one on monuments and the way in which, built to be noticed, they lie instead in a background to which we are largely oblivious; another on what he calls paintspreaders, who he claims to bear the same relation to painters was penpushers do to poets.

The final piece, ‘The Blackbird’, was the least satisfying to me. Partly told as a dialogue between two friends – rather bizarrely named Aone and Atwo – it presents some interesting ideas on friendship and also a wonderful scene set during war, but the puzzled reaction of one friend at the end – “But aren’t you implying…that all this is supposed to have a common thread?” – very much echoed my own.

Overall, though, enough to meet again!

The Reckoning

December 19, 2016

reckoning

“The marriage law of the new dispensation will be: Thou shalt not be unfaithful – to thyself.”

So begins Edith Wharton’s The Reckoning, a story which goes on to gleefully disabuse ‘the new dispensation’ which, I suppose, is largely how marriage is viewed now. In 1902, however, the idea that you might leave your wife or – God forbid! – your husband because you were tired of them is likely to have been little short of free love. (In fact when I began this story my initial impression was that the Westalls, Clement and Julia, did have an open marriage, when their radicalism only consists of allowing for divorce).

Julia is the initial proposer of this ideology having left her previous husband:

“Her husband’s personality seemed to be closing gradually in on her, obscuring the sky and cutting off the air, till she felt herself shut up among the decaying bodies of her starved hopes. A sense of having been decoyed by some world-old conspiracy into the bondage of body and soul filled her with despair.”

She finds Clement sympathetic to her ideas and they marry, each promising the other to offer no obstacle should separation be proposed. As the story opens, however, Julia seems to be having second thoughts about her doctrine seeing a young girl, Una Van Sideren (not that young – twenty-six), listen to her husband’s talk on the topic:

“It was ‘horrid’ – Mrs Westall found herself slipping back into the old feminine vocabulary – simply ‘horrid’ to think of a young girl’s being allowed to listen to such talk.”

When she asks her husband to stop giving such talks, something she has very much encouraged previously, she is unable to explain why. It becomes apparent that her distress at Una’s exposure to Clement’s oration has more to do with Una’s fascination with her husband than her youth. Matters are not helped when Clement declares, “She interests me.”

As the title suggests, this story is the very definition of ‘hoist by your own petard’. The ideology that once liberated Julia now threatens her. Wharton might not have much sympathy for Julia’s situation but that doesn’t stop her expressing her feelings with some brilliance, for example her unease that the physical world remains unchanged even as she feels her own world falling into chaos:

“This visual continuity was intolerable. Within, a gaping chasm; without, the same untroubled and familiar surface.”

It is Wharton’s skilful dissection of emotions throughout that gives the story depth. The same is true of the other story here, ‘Mrs Manstey’s View’, a slighter piece (apparently her first published story) but still able to convince in its portrayal of the last days of an elderly widow.

A Simple Heart

December 18, 2016

simple-heart

Gustave Flaubert’s A Simple Heart (translated by Robert Baldick in 1995) is the story of Felicite – only fifty pages take us from her youth to her death – most of her life spent as maidservant to Madame Aubain:

“Every day Felicite got up at dawn, so as not to miss Mass, and worked until evening without stopping…Nobody could be more stubborn when it came to haggling over prices, and as for cleanliness, the shine on her sauce-pans was the despair of all the other servants.”

Her brief backstory involves a disappointing love affair which ended when her sweetheart, Theodore, “to make sure of avoiding conscription…married a very rich old woman.” It is after this that she leaves the farm where she has been working for the town and finds herself (rather fortuitously) employed by Mme Aubain. Mme Aubain has lost her husband (and much of her fortune) and has two children, Virginie and Paul, to bring up. The two women, both abandoned, though in different ways, co-exist on companionable though never friendly terms.

Their difference in station (and loyalty to each other) is demonstrated when Mme Aubain worries about having had no news of Virginie, who is, at this point, in a convent, for four days. Seeking to show solidarity, Felicite mentions that she has not heard from her nephew in six months:

“Oh, your nephew!… Who cares about a young, good-for-nothing cabin-boy? Whereas my daughter – why just think!”

Felicite’s love for Paul and Virginie, however, is genuine.

The story, as its title suggests, has echoes of recent bestseller, Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life. Felicite leads a simple life, one in which she becomes increasingly solitary, yet is never shown to regret it. One difference is that Flaubert’s relationship with the character is clearer (again, as the title indicates) – there is no question that Felicite’s life is limited by her simplicity. Flaubert demonstrates this in her attitude to a parrot she acquires as a pet (and later has stuffed), which she comes to confuse with then Holy Spirit:

“In church she was forever gazing at the Holy Ghost, and one day she noticed it had something of the parrot about it. This resemblance struck her as even more obvious in a colour-print depicting the baptism of our Lord. With its red wings and emerald green body, it was the very image of Loulou.”

The parrot provides the story with its bathetic ending, one which suggests that Flaubert’s sympathy may be with Felicite but he has no wish to imitate her simplicity.

Wailing Ghosts

December 17, 2016

wailing-ghosts

One of the many positives of my daily stories this Christmas has been the (admittedly small) inroad it has made into my ignorance of Chinese literature. Having already had glimpses into the 19th and early 20th centuries, I now find myself in the 17th with a collection from Pu Songling’s Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio (in a 2006 translation by John Minford). As the title suggests these are short stories around three to five pages long, frequently featuring some aspect of the supernatural.

In one of my favourites, ‘Stealing a Peach’, a man who claims “I can make the seasons go backwards and turn the order of nature upside down” is asked to produce a peach in winter. In order to do so he sends his son up a rope into heaven to steal one. The peach drops down from the sky but soon after the rope is cut and then the boy’s head falls to earth followed by the various parts of his dismembered body (lest we think these stories were for children). In the end it is a trick to dupe the watching mandarins out of money, but the man’s magic is never in question.

In ‘Growing Pears’ (not all the stories are about fruit) there is also a moral lesson as a pear vendor refuses a request from a Taoist monk. Eventually a waiter buys a pear and gives it to the monk. “Meanness,” says the monk,

“…is something we monks find impossible to understand. I have some very fine pears of my own, which I should like to give you.”

He then proceeds to eat the pear, keeping only a seed which he immediately plants. Before the gathering crowd’s eyes it grows into a pear tree which the monk climbs in order to distribute the fruit. When the tree is empty he chops it down. Only the does the vendor notice his cart is empty:

“Then he knew that the pears the monk had just been handing out had all been from his cart. And he noticed that his cart was missing one of its handles; it had been newly hacked away.”

While magic might raise my hackles in a contemporary novel, I found these tales, with their assumption that the natural and supernatural exist side by side, a liberating release from the strait-jacket of verisimilitude. There are fourteen in total in this brief volume, but, as Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio is over six hundred pages long, clearly many more exist to be enjoyed.

A Pair of Silk Stockings

December 16, 2016

pair-of-silk-stockings

In a moment of weakness (perhaps because Kate Chopin is a writer entirely new to me) I decided to seek out other interpretations of the short story A Pair of Silk Stockings only to encounter the idea that it is a critique of consumerism (which, if nothing else, would seem a little ahead of its time in 1896, although amusing considering it was published in the highly commercial Vogue magazine). In the story Mrs Sommers “one day found herself unexpectedly possessor of fifteen dollars,” and foregoing the items she originally intends to buy for her children, manages in the course of an afternoon to spend the sum entirely on herself. Is this symbolic of our desire for instant gratification as opposed to long-term responsibility? Perhaps, but a reading of the story which portrays Mrs Sommers as either a victim of seductive capitalism, or as a selfish and irresponsible mother seems deeply unsympathetic to me.

She does not, for example, immediately rush to spend this unusual sum:

“For a day or two she walked about apparently in a dreamy state, but really absorbed in speculation and calculation. She did not wish to act hastily, to do anything she might afterwards regret.”

The pair of silk stockings she buys for herself first are not an impulsive indulgence but a calculated cost (“And still there would be enough left for silk stockings”). After buying the stockings, however, she goes immediately to a fitting room and puts them on – “How good was the touch of the raw silk to her flesh!” – and only then her spending spree begins: new shoes, gloves, a meal in a restaurant and a visit to the theatre.

To condemn or pity this behaviour is, of course, easy if you have never been poor: budgeting is a skill greatly admired by those who only have to save up for luxuries. Mrs Sommers may turn spendthrift for a day, but I was cheering her on. This is a woman, we are told, who can never relax:

“The needs of the present absorbed her every faculty. A vision of the future like some dim, gaunt monster sometimes appalled her, but luckily tomorrow never comes.”

Her purchases are more about momentarily relieving the tension caused by financial anxiety than rampant consumerism:

“She was not thinking at all. She seemed for the time to be taking a rest from that fatiguing and laborious function and to have abandoned herself to some mechanical impulse that directed her actions and freed her of responsibility.”

When she wishes at the end that the “cable car wold never stop anywhere, but go on and on with her forever” it is because she knows her escape is ephemeral and she must return to the life she led before.

‘A Pair of Silk Stockings’ comes with another four stories, all of which are excellent, and Chopin has been duly added to my list of writers to explore further.

The Dreaming Child

December 14, 2016

dreaming-child

I first read Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa many years ago shortly before travelling to Kenya to live for a year. As I was reading it specifically as a book about the country (along with a number of others) this did not lead me to explore her fiction any further. The Dreaming Child (and the other two stories included here, ‘The Sailor-boy’s Tale’ and ‘Peter and Rosa’) come from the collection she wrote after Out of Africa, Winter’s Tales, which was published in 1942 at the height of the Second World War under the pen-name Isak Dinesen. All three stories have a curiously old-fashioned feel to them – all are set in the 19th century and read as if written a hundred years earlier.

The Dreaming Child begins with the history of an unlucky family which culminates in the life of one child:

“In the course of her short, tragic life, she was washed from the country to the town of Copenhagen, and here, before she was twenty, she died in dire misery, leaving a small son behind her.”

The boy, Jens, is placed in the care of Madame Mahler, “within the slums of old Copenhagen, in a dark back yard like a well, a labyrinth of filth, decay and foul smell.” There he is befriended by Mamzel Ane, an elderly woman who has known life (as a servant) within the great houses of the wealthy but has now fallen on hard times. She convinces Jens that this is where he belongs:

“The idea of this majestic, radiant world, in the mind of little Jens, merged with that of his own inexplicable isolation in life into a great dream or fantasy.”

The story then changes focus to Emilie Vandamm, a young woman who seems destined to marry her older cousin, Jakob, until she falls in love with a naval officer, Charlie Dreyer. Despite a warning from a friend that he “makes love to all the pretty girls in Copenhagen”, she continues with the relationship until he suggests they sleep together and she (literally) closes the door on him, returning to plan A. (This detour is relevant to the story’s conclusion) It will come as no surprise that Jakob and Emilie fail to have children and, via a chance encounter, adopt Jens. Jens, however, sees things differently:

“His mama and papa… were coming on the morrow, in great state, to fetch him home.”

He becomes “the dreamer whose dreams come true” and everyone in the household immediately takes to him apart for Emilie who remains inexplicably wary, feeling “afraid to be alone with him.”

The Dreaming Child remains enigmatic (i.e. vague) through to its conclusion, and, to be honest, it was my least favourite of the three tales included here. ‘The Sailor-boy’s Tale’ is a story which might have been written at almost any time, perhaps without the emotional resonance of the other two but neatly done. ‘Peter and Rosa’, however, succeeds on all levels, with both emotional depth and thrilling tension all the way to its desperate conclusion. Strangest of all, the stories do not read as ‘knowing’ or pastiche, even as, for example, Stevenson’s New Arabian Nights do, but as if Dinesen had written them a hundred years before.