Sunday, 4 October 2015

Margaret Atwood: 'I set myself a schedule of three to five pages a day'

The Handmaid’s Tale is set in a post-crisis US twisted by religious fervour into a totalitarian theocracy. In the MaddAddam trilogy, religion is a political tool used by hypocrites for individual gain. In The Blind Assassin, one character thinks, “Gods always come in handy, they justify almost anything.”

In the light of this running commentary on organised religion, it is ironic that Margaret Atwood delivers her Guardian Live talk in a church – an irony that is not lost on the author. As members of the audience line up to ask questions, she eyes them with her particular brand of formidable twinkliness. “Testify,” she calls to them, in her dry, Canadian drawl. “Testify and repent!”

With more than 40 works, five Man Booker nominations and a win under her belt, does she consider herself prolific? She scoffs at the word. “Joyce Carol Oates is prolific; I’m just old,” she says, drawing out the last word for laughs. At 75, she says writing hasn’t become any easier, listing her main distractions as laundry and emails. She sets herself a “schedule of pages rather than a schedule of times” aiming to write three to five pages a day. “You can cheat by increasing the type size,” she says. “Then you get really motivated and feel like you’re really speeding along.”

Atwood’s latest novel, The Heart Goes Last, is a triumphant return to what she calls “speculative fiction”; her unique twist of fiction and science fiction, dystopia uncomfortably close to reality. The main characters, married couple Charmaine and Stan, are driven by complete financial and societal collapse to take part in a social experiment run by a private prison company called Positron.

Escaping from the anarchy outside, they alternate each month between a prison and an idyllic, 1950s suburbia constructed as a sweetener for the participating inmates. It is an unnerving, dark satire full of questions about humanity; the evening’s interviewer, British author Naomi Alderman, calls the book “good fun”.

“It is a bit dark to be good fun, Naomi,” Atwood says sternly, before continuing conspiratorially, “What we think is good fun, others might not.”

Despite her fiction being termed “speculative”, Atwood says everything is inspired by reality. “There are for-profit prisons operating in the US, though they are not as superficially pleasant as this one,” she says. “It’s all real.” In prison, Stan builds robots designed for sex called Prostibots; Atwood recently tweeted a story about a robotics company pleading buyers not to have sex with their robots. “[Humans] desire robots because we can mould them to our taste, and fear them because what they could decide to do themselves,” she says.

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Saturday, 3 October 2015

An Examined Life: Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth

Now that I’ve finished reading Testament of Youth, I am most impressed by it as a testament to Brittain’s determination to understand and give meaning to the war. Though the book is often very poignant (as in the excerpt I posted last time), it’s not, ultimately, an emotional book so much as it is an intellectual book. I like the book better for that commitment to thought over feeling, or to thought about feeling, and I admired Brittain, too, for facing up to what she felt was her responsibility to those who had died by doing something more than grieving for them. “How like we were,” she thinks at one point, “to the fighters of those old wars, trusting to the irresponsible caprices of an importuned God to deliver us from blunders and barbarisms for which we only were responsible, and from which we alone could deliver ourselves and our rocking  civilization.” Her lack of religious belief turns her away from such a passive response toward attention to the human and historical causes of the devastation she witnesses. Returning to Oxford after the Armistice, she turns from her study of literature to history, economics, and politics:
Henceforward . . . people will count only in so far as they recognize their background and help to create and change it. We should never be at the mercy of Providence if only we understood that we ourselves are Providence; our lives, and our children’s lives, will be rational, balanced, well-proportioned, to exactly the extent that we recognize this fundamental truth. . . . I don’t know yet what I can do, I concluded, to help all this to happen, but at least I can begin by trying to understand where humanity failed and civilisation went wrong. If only I and a few other people succeed in this, it may be worth while that our lives have been lived; it may even be worth that the lives of the others have been laid down.
The final section of the book chronicles her attempts to achieve this understanding and then act on what she has learned through her lectures, journalism, and political activism. How much more impressive this is than falling back on wishful platitudes about the inscrutability of God’s plan or the better place where the dead now reside. It’s appropriate that she returns a few times to her reading of George Eliot, who had very much the same insight about our relationship to what we call “Providence,” and the same sense that from it comes a duty to ourselves and others every bit as challenging and more morally elevating than obedience (under the promise of reward and the threat of punishment) to religious authority.
Brittain is similarly rational and deliberative in her approach to marriage, which seems to her not at all a desirable end in itself and, potentially, a threat to everything she works for as a feminist:
In spite of the feminine family tradition and the relentless social pressure which had placed an artificial emphasis on marriage for all women born, like myself, in the eighteen-nineties, I had always held and still believed it to be irrelevant to the main purpose of life. For a woman as for a man, marriage might enormously help or devastatingly hinder the growth of her power to contribute something impersonally valuable to the community in which she lived, but it was not that power, and could not be regarded as an end in itself. Nor, even, were children ends in themselves; it was useless to go on producing human beings merely in order that they, in their sequence, might produce others, and never turn from this business of continuous procreation to the accomplishment of some definite and lasting piece of work.
When marriage becomes a specific possibility rather than a theoretical issue (the courtship is, aptly, conducted largely by correspondence, through shared reading and writing and argumentation), she continues to worry, not just about whether it might compromise her political and professional commitments but also about whether she can marry and yet keep faith with those who died in the war. Marriage represents an emotional severance of the past from the present: “so long, I knew, as I remained unmarried I was merely a survivor from the past. . . . To marry would be to dissociate myself from that past, for marriage inevitably brought with it a future.”  Waking from a troubling dream in which her dead fiancĂ© returns, facing her with an anguished choice between him and her new love, she remembers
with a startling sense of relief, that there was no resurrection to complicate the changing relationships forced on men and women by the sheer passage of earthly time. There was only a brief interval between darkness and darkness in which to fulfil obligations, both to individuals and society, which could not be postponed to the comfortable futurity of a compensating heaven.
Repeatedly through these years of her life Brittain faces what George Eliot calls “the burden of choice.” The courage she has to find is not the same as that shown by the young men (including so many she knew and loved) who faced death in the trenches, but it has its own dignity and significance. Even her decision to marry is part of the war she is fighting. Against the expectations that marriage ends women’s participation in a wider social and political life, she hopes to demonstrate that the experience of marriage and children “rendered the woman who accepted them the more and not the less able to take the world’s pulse, to estimate its tendencies, to play some definite, hard-headed, hard-working part in furthering the constructive ends of a political civilisation.”
The demonstration would not, I was well aware, be easy; for me and my contemporaries our old enemies–the Victorian tradition of womanhood, a carefully trained conscience, a sheltered youth, an imperfect education, lost time, blasted years–were still there and always would be; we seemed to be for ever slaying them, and they to be for ever rising again. Yet even these handicaps I no longer resented, for I was ceasing at last to feel bitterness against the obstacles that had impeded for half a lifetime my fight for freedom to work and to create. Dimly I perceived that it was these very handicaps and my struggle against them which had lifted life out of mediocrity, given it glamour, made it worth while; that the individuals from whom destiny demands too much are infinitely more vital than those of whom it asks too little. In one sense I was my war; my war was I; without it I should do nothing and be nothing. if marriage made the whole fight harder, so much the better; it would become part of my war and as this I would face it, and show that, however stubborn any domestic problem, a lasting solution could be found if only men and women would seek it together.

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Thursday, 1 October 2015

Leo Tolstoy: War and Peace: many stories, many lives

Leo Tolstoy with daughter Tatyana
Leo Tolstoy with daughter Tatyana in Gaspra on the Crimea in 1902 Sophia Tolstaya/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Henry James once said that "really, universally, human relations stop nowhere," and that the exquisite problem of the writer is to draw the circle "within which they shall happily appear to do so". James would never have nominated War and Peace – he famously thought it a "loose baggy monster" – but Tolstoy's novel is surely the greatest attempt in the history of the genre to represent and embody the branching infinity of human relations of which James spoke. And there is no better example of that challenge than the way in which Tolstoy's project kept growing. He wrote War and Peace between 1863 and 1868, and intended, at first, to write a domestic chronicle in the manner of Trollope (whom Tolstoy, with a few qualifications, admired). The novel would be set in 1856, and concern an aristocratic revolutionary and his return from exile in Siberia. It would be called, improbably, All's Well That Ends Well. But in order to explain the atmosphere of Russia just after the Crimean war, Tolstoy felt he had to go back to 1825, when the Decembrists, a group of largely upper-class rebels, were arrested, and either executed or exiled. And 1825, he later said, could not be described without going back to the momentous year of 1812, when Napoleon invaded Russia and occupied Moscow for a month. Yet 1812 obviously needed 1805 as a proper prelude – which is where War and Peace begins.

Inexorably, what began as Russianised Trollope widened and deepened, until it became nothing less than the attempt to write the history of Russia during the Napoleonic campaign – in fact, it became the quarry that Tolstoy had identified as a young man, in his journal: "To write the genuine history of present-day Europe: there is an aim for the whole of one's life." And as this originally "English" novel became more complex and ambitious, so it became singular and unconventional. Tolstoy claimed that it was "not a novel", at least in the familiar, European sense. We Russians, he said, produce strange misfits, awkward black sheep, like Gogol's unfinished picaresque, Dead Souls, and Dostoevsky's semi-fictionalised account of his time in a Siberian prison camp, The House of the Dead. Gustave Flaubert seemed to agree. Admiring and horrified, he complained that Tolstoy "repeats himself, and he philosophises": sins good formalist novelists should not commit.

Impatient with both traditional history-writing and traditional novel-writing, Tolstoy breaks into his fictional narrative with essays and lectures about free will, determinism, history and power. A superb fictional account of the battle of Borodino is followed by a slightly grumpy military history of the battle and a map of the battlefield. Throughout the novel there is authorial argument, admonishment, preaching – a clear desire to correct the "official" record and write the proper history of the Napoleonic invasion; truth, you feel, is being battled for, with whatever literary weapons come to hand.

Many readers tend to agree with Flaubert, and either skip or speed read the essayistic passages about historiography. There is a tradition, particularly in English letters, of separating "Tolstoy the artist" from "Tolstoy the preacher"; the long chapters about European history, it is sometimes thought, are prolix leavings, while the rich stories of Natasha and Pierre, Prince Andrei and Nikolai Rostov, are precious loans. Keep the great realist novelist, jettison the great irritable arguer. But Tolstoy is at once a preacherly artist and an artistic preacher, and it is as hard to divide him into two distinct selves as it is to divide DH Lawrence into sermonising high priest and storytelling layman. Moreover, there is something emphatic and pedagogical about Tolstoy's storytelling; he is teaching even when telling a tale. He is simple and direct and emphatic – sometimes he seems more practical and childlike (perhaps "innocent" is the right word) than most great novelists. He is not afraid to begin an episode with a throat-clearing "Here is how it came about" – the kind of phrase we encounter in fairytales. Tolstoy is a great creator of palpable individuals – the "little princess" with her short upper lip and faint moustache; Pierre Bezukhov, bumbling short-sightedly on to the battlefield at Borodino; the old Prince Bolkonsky, with his rages and his "small dry hands"; a shirtless Napoleon, grunting to his valet, who is brushing his fat back and hairy chest, "Do it hard, keep going" – but the Tolstoyan atmosphere often seems Homeric because these highly particular characters essentially share simple, large, universal emotions – joy, shame, love, anger, fear – that might easily be transferred from one character to another. Nikolai Rostov, for instance, has a young man's exuberance and solipsism; he goes to war "because he could not resist the wish to go galloping across a level field". But all his young male friends and fellow soldiers might feel the same way. Essentially, Nikolai is like all healthy young men. Prince Andrei and Pierre Bezukhov both have religious experiences, but their metaphysical curiosity is almost interchangeable (and essentially indistinguishable from Levin's, in Anna Karenina). There are female "types" in Tolstoy, too: young Natasha in War and Peace has some of the passionate curiosity and waywardness of young Kitty in Anna Karenina, while older, seasoned Natasha (the woman we encounter at the end of the novel, contentedly married to Pierre Bezukhov) has something in common with the wiser, seasoned Kitty who eventually marries Levin. And so on.

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The story of the friendship between Winifred Holtby and Vera Brittain

Vera Brittain

"Although we didn’t exactly grow up together,” Vera Brittain once wrote of her relationship with fellow writer Winifred Holtby, “we grew mature together and that is the next best thing.”

For 16 years, until Holtby’s untimely death, at the age of 37, from kidney failure caused by Bright’s disease, the two women had enjoyed a close companionship. As friends they had been intimates. As writers they were the most decisive influences on each other’s work. It was a relationship, above all, that made significant contributions to the writing of two bestselling masterpieces, which have stood the test of time: Brittain’s memoir of the cataclysmic effect of the First World War on her generation, Testament of Youth, and Holtby’s South Riding, her novel about a Yorkshire community struggling in the grip of the Great Depression of the Thirties.

After Holtby’s death, Brittain memorialised their friendship in a biography of Winifred which, she hoped, would remind people “of the glowing, radiant generous, golden creature whom we have lost”. This friendship has achieved iconic status, as an example of an emotionally and intellectually supportive relationship between two women, of a kind rarely recorded in literature.

It’s soon to be portrayed on the big screen, in a film adaptation of Testament of Youth, produced by BBC Films, and Heyday Films, makers of Harry Potter. The concluding scenes of Juliette Towhidi’s screenplay provide what are in essence two happy endings: Vera Brittain’s marriage to the political scientist George Catlin, and the continuation of her working partnership with Winifred Holtby, who will be no less integral to the domestic equation of husband, wife, and wife’s best friend than Catlin is.

Yet Brittain and Holtby’s initial encounters as undergraduates at Somerville, Oxford, had been marked by undisguised hostility. “We did not, to begin with, like each other at all,” Brittain later admitted. Physically and temperamentally, they were total opposites. Brittain was small, dark and moody, while Holtby was tall, blonde and gregarious. At shared tutorials, Vera felt nothing but resentment towards Winifred’s vitality. 

Vera had returned to Oxford in 1919 raw and scarred by the war, in which she had lost her fiancĂ©, Roland Leighton, and only brother in action, and witnessed death and mutilation firsthand – having four years earlier gone to nurse – in London, Malta and France. She was bitter at what she regarded as the insensitivity of her younger Somerville contemporaries towards her war experience. They were irritated by her obsessive preoccupation with the war, in which most of them had been too young to serve. At a Somerville debate, Vera was invited by Winifred, as the secretary of the society, to propose the motion that “four years’ travel are a better education than four years at a university”. Winifred then delivered a witty indictment of Vera’s superiority towards those who had not shared her experiences.

Vera’s humiliation was deeply felt. But from Winifred’s subsequent recognition of Vera’s emotional fragility emerged a relationship that was to be mutually satisfying and beneficial. Winifred’s warmth and generosity, her need to be needed, which was such a strong component of her personality, would sustain Vera as she rebuilt her life and attempted to fulfil her literary ambitions. Vera, for her part, would help to mould Winifred’s future as a writer, as well as encouraging her interest in working for women’s rights.

After leaving Oxford in 1921, they set up home together in Bloomsbury, and later in Maida Vale. From here they published their debut novels, Winifred’s Anderby Wold and Vera’s The Dark Tide, unceremoniously burned in Oxford’s Cornmarket by Somervillians offended by its portrait of college life, as well as launching themselves as journalists and lecturers.

Winifred Holtby

They saw themselves, in a sense, as part of the generation of “surplus women”, who, as a result of the deaths in the war of three-quarters of a million British men, might never find husbands. It always seemed unlikely, though, that Vera, conventionally pretty and keen to be her own test-case for her feminist theories that a woman could be married with children and have a successful career, would remain unattached for long, and in 1924 she accepted a proposal from a young academic, George Catlin. Winifred promised Catlin she would arrange “a quite neat and painless divorce” for herself from Vera. But after more than a year apart, during which Vera failed to make a satisfactory life for herself at her husband’s American university, Winifred joined the Brittain-Catlin household in London, subsequently becoming an honorary aunt to Vera’s two children.

Some of Winifred’s friends remained resentful of Vera’s dominant place in her life and the demands she made upon her. To the novelist Stella Benson, Vera was Winifred’s “bloodsucking friend”, while the critic St John Ervine advised Winifred to divorce Vera “citing Catlin as co-respondent”.

However, the working partnership remained firm. In 1933, when Vera was close to breakdown in the final stages of writing Testament of Youth, it was Winifred who acted as conciliator, stepping in to appease Catlin, who had raised stringent objections to his appearance in his wife’s autobiography. Vera played a similar role in the months following Winifred’s death in 1935, ensuring that South Riding was published to universal acclaim, in the face of opposition from Winifred’s mother, who feared the consequences of the book’s local government theme for her own position as an East Riding county councillor.

It was perhaps inevitable in the wake of Winifred’s early death that Vera should decide to write a biography of her. Testament of Friendship was published in 1940 and remains a vibrant portrait of Winifred by the person who probably knew her best, as well as a moving record of a literary friendship.

In one important respect, however, the book fails to do Winifred justice. She had always been a proud defender of the right of single women to lead fruitful, independent lives. Yet, Vera, always defensive about the question of Winifred’s sexuality and unsubstantiated rumours that the two women had had a lesbian relationship, created an unconvincing heterosexual love story for Testament of Friendship, uniting Winifred with Harry Pearson, her childhood sweetheart, in a deathbed happy ending.

In some ways, a truer testament to the Brittain-Holtby friendship is contained in their correspondence, housed at the new History Centre in Hull (the city which appears, thinly disguised, in Winifred’s fiction). In these letters, domestic trivia – the perennial middle-class problem of finding space in a tiny flat for a maid – jostle alongside more profound pronouncements. 

Assessing the relative importance of husband and best friend, Vera assures Winifred that “You are more necessary to me because you further my work, whereas he merely makes me happy.” In lighter vein she remarks that “Much as I love my husband, I would not sacrifice one published article for a night of sexual passion.” Commenting on the obscenity charge brought against Radclyffe Hall in 1928 for The Well of Loneliness, Winifred remarks: “To love other women deeply is not pathological. To be unable to control one’s passions is.” 

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Wednesday, 30 September 2015

A life in writing: Helen Dunmore

The entire back wall of Helen Dunmore's tiny studio-cum-office – eight floors up in a neat block of flats on Bristol's northern slopes – is given over to a glass door, leading on to a strip of balcony. Underneath, the city's streets, parks and houses roll out all the way to the feet of the hills on the skyline. It is, Dunmore says, "a lovely place to write. I know authors who say they can't work unless they're facing a blank wall; they find the external world too distracting. But I like the reminder that it's all out there."

The analogy of the all-seeing novelist is hard to resist: Dunmore perched on high, peering down into the lives playing out below. But such aesthetic distance has no place in her novels. The worlds she creates are urgent and intimate; she talks about her characters as if they were close friends, constantly steering the conversation back to them, like a proud parent, or a lover. "History leaves so much out," said the novelist JG Farrell, when asked why he liked to write books about the past. "It leaves out the most important thing: the detail of what being alive is like." It's in this detail, above all, that Dunmore revels.

In her latest novel, The Betrayal (a sequel to 2001's The Siege), she transports us to another port city, Leningrad, and sinks us deep into the oppressive heart of it. The novel opens in 1952 in the months leading up to Stalin's death; while the atmosphere in the city is fractionally less paranoid than during the purges and executions of the Great Terror, its citizenry remains watchful, overwound. In The Siege, set 10 years earlier during the deadly Leningrad blockade, Dunmore set out a world of shrinking horizons. The frontiers of the characters' lives were pulled back and back: to the city's limits, the walls of an apartment, a single, icy room, a spoonful of honey measured on to a five-year-old's tongue. Fear pulses from the pages, but while cold and hunger slaughtered Leningraders in their thousands, these dangers were at least clearly visible: a decade on, the adversaries are just as terrifying, but harder to pin down. Andrei, a paediatrician, lives with his teacher-wife Anna (Dunmore herself trained as a teacher) and Anna's younger brother, Kolya – the five-year-old of The Siege, now a bumptious teenager. Together, they've constructed a life of more-or-less blameless obscurity, but their peace is shattered when Andrei is called on to treat the son of Volkov, a senior secret police operative. Andrei and Anna find themselves plunged into a tenebrous zone in which logic and truth have no currency, and where their fate depends on the progress of disease in a young boy's body. While the world appears to have opened out from the narrow limits imposed by the blockade, Dunmore reveals that in many ways it remains just as constrained: there is no safety except within the walls of one's own apartment, and even there, the enemy can enter if he chooses.

Dunmore's great skill as a novelist is to swoop down from the historian's eyrie from which everything looks ordered, familiar, sanitised by the passage of time, and plunge into the interior of daily lives. In one of The Betrayal's most effective and affecting scenes, we see Anna after a brutal encounter with the secret police, leaning over her sink in despair, but at the same time noting that "the tap has a crust of dirt around the bottom. You can't see it from above . . . she must clean more thoroughly." "That to me is what people are really like," Dunmore says. "We're never thinking a dreadful or exalted thought without a more mundane one coupled to it. Our essential everyday identity is still humming along."

Her style isn't to everyone's taste. While Stevie Davies called The Siege a masterpiece, and Antony Beevor, writing in the Times, labelled it "a world-class novel", the Observer's reviewer, Michael Williams, wasn't sold, dismissing the domestic arena through which she parses the agonies of the blockade as a "mum's-eye view", "less Tolstoyan than suburban". Dunmore refuses to apologise. "The wars of the 20th century engulfed millions of civilians," she says, briskly. "There's no superior legitimacy in writing about them from a military point of view. Look at Sarajevo; look at the Iraqi children, dead because of inadequate medical supplies: it's on their pulses war is fought. I wanted to write a novel where people would feel an engagement with the subject – not that this was something strange and far off, which could only ever have happened in another country. I feel very passionately that it is not only legitimate to write about these people, but absolutely vital."

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On Lionel Trilling

I first met Lionel Trilling at the artists’ colony at Yaddo, in Saratoga Springs, in the summer of 1931 (or maybe 1932; I was at Yaddo for two or three years). I was impressed by a certain gentleness of outlook. He had just come to terms with the fact that he was Jewish, though his own longing would have been to have been born into an English literary family. He was then engaged in writing a dissertation on Matthew Arnold. That summer I believe I won him over to a kind of revolutionary Marxist position—it was the climate of the times, the depths of the Depression, and the general movement of intellectuals toward the left. For a period of six weeks, I saw him daily. We would walk and talk together about many things. I was impressed by his sensitivity to modern literature. I still recall his attempts to make James Joyce’s Ulysses intelligible to me. 

After we left Yaddo, we were in touch by phone quite often, and on many occasions he would call me to sound me out, mostly on political questions of the time. In general he would talk about political affairs and complain bitterly about the factionalism of the Marxist groups. Diana Trilling, his wife, was, I think, more interested in politics than Lionel.1 She contributed to his political development. Before long, he and Diana Trilling were regarded as Trotskyites by virtue of their association with Herbert Solow2 and with me—though actually they never had any organizational connection with the Trotskyist groups and were not very clear about the importance of the division among the warring factions of the left.

We discussed the factions within the non-Communist Marxist groups and also the outrageous behavior and actions of the American Stalinists. Even during those halcyon days of fellow-traveling, we constituted a rather special group. Our fundamental orientation, I think, was civil-libertarian and even traditionally liberal. We believed that the transformation of the social order would be one way of furthering these liberal values, which we didn’t question. We knew very little about the Soviet Union, and since Hitler was already on the scene, we tended to discount some of the adverse reports that came from critics and some pilgrims to the USSR, on the ground that the main enemy was Fascism and the threat of a victory by Hitler would plunge the world into war.

Lionel was also very much interested in Freudian analysis. It was one subject on which we did not see eye to eye. I made no bones about my critical attitude toward Sigmund Freud, and Lionel was in no position to counter the methodological objections I raised to the superstructure of Freudianism. In fact, I was much better read in the literature of Freud and psychoanalysis than were he and Diana.

At that time, although I didn’t know about it until much later, Diana had become a fanatical believer in psychoanalysis and in the great vision and psychological insight of D.H. Lawrence. Many years later, after the political wars were over, so to speak, at a party at the home of Irving and Bea Kristol,3 I asked Lionel about the rumor I had heard that Diana Trilling regarded Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover as a great work of art. I had examined a few pages, and it had left me cold. I said to Lionel, “Well, I am rather critical of Lawrence, particularly of his social views. What do you think? Shall I discuss my critical attitude towards Lawrence with Diana?” And I still recall him saying to me, “If you do, she’ll scratch your eyes out.” I don’t think she would have. Anyhow, she really was a very intelligent woman.

Diana was a very aggressive believer in Freudianism and very much annoyed with people like me who, whenever the question arose, raised critical objections. I still remember with amusement an incident. One evening she turned on me and said, “Well, I don’t see why you’re a critic of psychoanalysis since it gives such an obvious explanation of your career and behavior.”

I asked her what she meant. She said, “Well, you’re very aggressive, you’re very analytical, and you’re very argumentative, so it’s obvious this is compensatory.” I said, “What is it compensatory for?”

“A small penis,” she said!

I laughed, and I said, “How do you know? It’s purely a priori!” It’s part of Freudian theory, I suppose.

Lionel’s interest in Freud developed before that in Marx, and persisted afterwards. He had an astonishingly profound interest in sexuality. But the extraordinary thing about Lionel and Diana is that they were exceedingly proper in their manner. I remember the first time that Ann Zinkin and I, before we married, had dinner at their home. Ann, in her typical uninhibited way, expressed some dismay, if not disdain, for the elaborate appointments of the apartment and the refinements of the service, to a degree that was almost impolite on her part. She felt that people who claimed to be revolutionists ought not to live either on that level or be so mindful of the proprieties.

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Tuesday, 29 September 2015

The young Chekhov: a comedian in spite of himself

There are, at the very least, three Anton Chekhovs: the doctor, the playwright and the short-story writer. In each field, great achievements sprang from undistinguished beginnings. Chekhov was an average medical student, yet he had numerous triumphs as a doctor, including manning the village clinic when a cholera epidemic struck the area around his estate and his 1890 journey to investigate the prison island of Sakhalin: an ambitious humanitarian mission to make the realities of Siberia manifest to the Russian people. As a playwright, he faltered initially, failing to find anyone willing to produce the turgid melodrama Platonov. Ivanov proved his dramatic talent but The Wood Demon, staged two years later, was savaged and half a decade elapsed before he wrote another play. His final four, however, persist as centrepieces of world theatre.

As a prose writer, too, the young Chekhov gave little indication that, within a decade, he would produce work that came to define the modern short story. “The Kiss”, “A Dreary Story”, “Gusev”, “About Love”, “The Lady with the Dog”, “The Bishop” – these are some of the greatest stories ever written about disappointment, death, long­ing, passion and loneliness. Yet before Chekhov became a master of atmosphere and psychology, he was a different kind of writer: a newspaperman dashing off copy to feed the booming culture of weekly comic magazines in St Petersburg and Moscow. Small enough to operate largely beneath the censors’ attention, magazines such as the Spectator, Dragonfly and Alarm Clock rewarded topicality, brevity, irreverence and the ability to produce work at speed.

Chekhov obliged. When, in 1886, he received a letter of praise from Dmitry Grigorovich, an elder statesman of Russian letters, he replied, “In the course of the five years that I have been knocking about from one newspaper office to another . . . I don’t remember a single story over which I have spent more than 24 hours.” He was exaggerating but not greatly. By the spring of 1888, he had amassed an unbelievable 528 stories.

This fecundity began in the late 1870s, when Chekhov began submitting his work through contacts established by his eldest brother, Alexander. Insolvency had forced Chekhov’s parents and his five siblings to flee to Moscow from their home in Taganrog, on the Sea of Azov, leaving Anton alone to complete his schooling and settle his family’s affairs. He joined them in Moscow in 1879 and had two pieces accepted by the St Petersburg weekly Dragonfly in 1880. He was 20. In the next two years, on top of his student workload, he published more than 60 pieces in St Petersburg and Moscow magazines under a variety of names. It is his selection of these, made in 1882 for a book that never appeared because of tightened censorship after the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, which appears in The Prank.

The book’s translator, Maria Bloshteyn, spiritedly argues in her introduction: “The same problems, themes, characters and behaviours occupy Chekhov at the end of his literary career as they do at its earliest beginnings.” But she isn’t able to provide many supporting examples, as in truth these stories offer few of the pleasures found in Chekhov’s mature work. They are, however, entertaining and often very funny, especially when the humour tends towards the absurd as opposed to the broad (“comic” names such as Ivan Ivanovichichichich or Save-Yourselves-If-You-Can train station give an idea of just how broad Chekhov can get). Two literary parodies feature, one mocking Jules Verne (“Here follows an extremely lengthy and extremely dull description of the observatory, which the translator has decided to omit in order to save time and space”) and the other – one of two stories making their English-language debut – the simile-heavy, Gothic style of Victor Hugo:
A sky as dark as typographer’s ink. It was as dark outside as it is inside a hat pulled down low. A dark night – like a day shut up in a nutshell. Cloaks wrapped tight, we set off, the wind gusting, chilling us to the bone. Rain and snow – those two sodden brothers – battered our faces with terrible force.
This is fun stuff and decently put to­gether: the joke-to-line ratio of “Artists’ Wives” would impress the writers’ room of a US sitcom. But these are mostly throwaway pieces. The exception is “St Peter’s Day”, an account of an amusingly calamitous hunting trip that is something more than pure knockabout. For one thing, we get a first glimpse of Chekhov’s skill (inherited from Turgenev) for evoking landscape:
The stars grew pale and misty. Voices rang out here and there. Acrid blue-grey smoke billowed from the village chimneys . . . The drowsy sexton climbed into the grey belfry and rang the bell for Matins. Snoring issued from the night watchman lying sprawled under a tree. The finches woke up and started a ruckus, flying from one side of the garden to the other, breaking out with their tiresome, insufferable chirping. In the blackthorn shrubs, an oriole began to sing. Above the servants’ kitchen, starlings and hoopoes raised a fuss.
Here, Chekhov the author holds up the by turns comedic and tragic events of the day (an old man is abandoned in the countryside, probably to die, a foreshadowing of the servant shut up in the house at the end of The Cherry Orchard) for our entertainment but a distance is maintained between himself and the story. One of the main advances that Chekhov subsequently made as a writer was to dissolve this distance entirely. Consider this passage from the late story “In the Ravine”, describing two peasants returning to their home village:
On the opposite slope one could see rye – stacked up, or in sheaves here and there, as if scattered by a storm, or in just-cut rows; the oats, too, were ripe and gleamed in the sun now, like mother-of-pearl. It was harvest time. Today was a feast day, tomorrow, a Saturday, they had to gather the rye and get the hay in, then Sunday was a feast day again; every day distant thunder rumbled; the weather was sultry, it felt like rain, and, looking at the fields now, each one hoped that God would grant them to finish the harvest in time, and was merry, and joyful, and uneasy at heart.
As an authorial presence Chekhov is almost completely gone. He “absents himself”, in V S Pritchett’s description. He no longer presents his characters but inhabits them. The young Chekhov’s work is all surface. As his ability grew, he packed more and more meaning into the depths beneath that surface, creating stories that, to paraphrase one of Italo Calvino’s 14 definitions of a classic, have never exhausted all they have to say to their readers.

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