Author: admin

Helen Simpson on Anton Chekhov’s “Oysters”

Helen Simpson on Anton Chekhov’s “Oysters”

Not long ago there was an exhibition of Russian portraits in London, and on the way out I bought Chekhov’s stern bespectacled image in a cardboard mount. This is now propped in my work room by the door so it’s the first thing I see when I come in.

“What time of day do you call this?”
“Ooh, ah, yes well I’m not feeling too good today.”
You’re not feeling too good!”

In fact Chekhov’s friends thought this 1898 portrait by Iosif Braz looked nothing like him, while Chekhov himself said it made him look as though he’d been sniffing grated horseradish.

It was Katherine Mansfield who put me on to Chekhov. Once I’d read her stories I turned to her diaries and letters and was moved by her lonely and increasingly desperate health struggles. At 15 I was struck by how she called on Chekhov as a friend even though he was dead. In the various lonely chambres d’hôte and camere in pensione where she stayed in pursuit of a good lung climate, she would lie awake in the night and call on her fellow tubercular and tutelary deity, not that long dead himself in 1904 at the age of 43. In her journal in 1918 she wrote, “Ach, Tchehov! why are you dead? Why can’t I talk to you, in a big darkish room, at late evening—where the light is green from the waving trees outside. I’d like to write a series of Heavens: that would be one”; in a letter from Italy in 1919 to S.S.Koteliansky (with whom she worked on the first English translation of Chekhov’s letters), “I shall try and get well here. If I do die perhaps there will be a small private heaven for consumptives only. In that case I shall see Tchehov. He will be walking down his garden path with fruit trees on either side and tulips in flower in the garden beds. His dog will be sitting on the path, panting and slightly smiling as dogs do who have been running about a great deal.” It was in fact not long afterwards, in 1923, that she did die, aged 34.

From the evidence of their letters, they used similarly self-protective strategies of playfulness to deflect concern, sharing a horror of gloom and solemnity. And both could be very funny (glancing through Mansfield’s letters just now a passage on E.M.Forster’s Howard’s End caught my eye—“I can never be perfectly certain whether Helen was got with child by Leonard Bast or by his fatal forgotten umbrella. All things considered, I think it must have been the umbrella.”)

Anyway, for the last few weeks, once I’ve shuffled past the horseradish-sniffer to my desk, I’ve been reading a couple of his letters to start the day. You’d certainly have looked forward to getting one of these in the post. Yes, here are the fruit trees and tulips mentioned by Mansfield as well as his twin dachshunds, Quinine and Bromide. He was a prolific correspondent, leaving some four-and-a-half-thousand letters. In them he complains about his piles and of the unsatisfactory mosquito-ridden privies encountered during his travels: on a visit to the steppes, “I have to sleep on a decrepit couch with hardly any upholstery left on it; it is very hard. For six miles around there is no such thing as a latrine or an ashtray or similar aids to comfortable living. If you need to renew acquaintance with Mlle Merde, you have to go down into the ravine (whatever the weather) and choose your bush. Before sitting down, however, you are well advised to satisfy yourself that the ground beneath said bush is free of vipers and suchlike creatures.”

He frequently gives acutely funny observational vignettes: “Before lunch—a long conversation with Mme Suvorina on how much she loathes the human race, followed by how she bought a jacket today for 120 roubles. After lunch we talk about migraine, and the children never take their eyes off me because they are waiting for me to say something incredibly clever.” Two of his brothers were alcoholics as well as having writing ambitions and he pulled no punches with them, giving advice which is both abruptly impatient and affectionate: “Forgive me, my dear fellow, but there’s more to being a parent than just what you say to your children. You need to teach by example. When you leave the clean linen all mixed up together with the dirty linen, the table covered in scraps of leftover food, filthy rags everywhere, your spouse going round with her tits hanging out and a bit of ribbon round her neck as filthy as Kontorskaya Street—this kind of thing can ruin a little girl from her earliest years.” He was 24 at this point of concern about his niece.

And of course Chekhov frequently says very useful and unusual things about writing fiction. This morning I started the day with this comment to Alexey Pleshcheyev, one of his editors: “Because I am so used to short stories that consist of little more than a beginning and an end, I lose interest as soon as I feel that I am writing a middle, and tend to make too much of a meal of it” (which made me remember in turn how Galsworthy objected somewhere to Chekhov’s stories being “all middle like a tortoise”).

Take one of his very short early stories, “Oysters.” I love it because it is so—quick. In both senses of the word. Speedy and vital. It moves. Chekhov is king of the short story because he knows when to linger and elaborate—and when to keep quiet. Here, a man is begging—incompetently—on a Moscow street corner with his famished eight-year-old son at his side. Only three or four lines are given to why they are here begging. A novelist would need to describe when and where and how this is happening, but Chekhov is governed by no such gossip imperative. More than half this story is spent, well away from cause and effect, on the child-narrator’s hunger-induced surreal imaginings. (Look out for the monster toothy frogs.)  It’s piercingly sad and outlandishly funny. No conclusion is reached, the story ends in the air, yet—nothing more needs to be said.

Click here to read “Oysters” by Anton Chekhov, translated by Constance Garnett.

P.S. Another link between Mansfield and Chekhov which I did not know until years later was the accusation of plagiarism leveled at the former stemming from her story “The-Child-Who-Was-Tired.” This was published in her collection In a German Pension(1911), which she had apparently adapted from a German translation of “Spat’ Khochetsya” (variously translated as “Sleepy” or “Let Me Sleep”), a story written by Chekhov in Mansfield’s birth year, 1888. The story is about an exhausted babysitter who smothers a baby so she can get some sleep. Claire Tomalin speculates convincingly in her biography of Mansfield that she was blackmailed about it by a beady ex-lover, Floryan Sobieniowski.


This piece was originally posted by LitHub on October 4th, 2018

Cockfosters, Vintage Paperback

Cockfosters, Vintage Paperback

COCKFOSTERS: new US Vintage paperback out on 4 September 2018.

“Deeply funny…unpredictably tender” The New York Times Book Review

“England’s best living short story writer” The Boston Globe

“Witty, incandescent. . . . Invigorating and inspiring.” — New York Journal of Books 

“Far-reaching and timeless, addressing matters of loyalty and mortality that are universal and deeply human. Simpson’s stories pack a quiet emotional power that extends beyond their pages.” — Kirkus Reviews (starred)

Available on Amazon

 

 

 

 

Dickens at Christmas – Vintage Books Podcast

Dickens at Christmas – Vintage Books Podcast

Season’s Greetings—Helen Simpson and Robert Douglas-Fairhurst mull over Dickens at Christmas with Alex Clark

Where would we be without Charles Dickens? The biographer and academic Robert Douglas-Fairhurst and short story writer Helen Simpson join Alex Clark for a very festive edition of the Vintage Podcast.

Cockfosters in Red, White & Blue

Cockfosters in Red, White & Blue

Red, white and blue jacket for Knopf’s 2017 edition of Cockfosters.

If it were easy to explain what Helen Simpson can do with a story, more writers would be fashioning such jewels…What more does one want in a short story besides memorable characters, comic timing, originality, economy and poignancy? And heart.  All there.”  Elinor Lipman, New York Times Book Review

 

British Museum Reading Room

British Museum Reading Room

If the heart of Bloomsbury is the British Museum, then the British Museum Reading Room was until recently at the very heart of its heart. I used to go there in the 1980s, when this central domed chamber (only 2ft less in diameter than the Roman Pantheon) still housed the British Library.

Walking over from Hanover Square after work, I would be seated by 6.30pm, bracing myself against the Reading Room’s drowsy embrace: I had quotations to check! I don’t remember any overhead lighting except from the 20 windows around the dome (papier-mâché, painted sky blue) and the glazed area at its apex. As daylight faded and the ranks of readers began to thin out, only the lamps of those still at their desks remained lit, individual yellow pools in this toasty twilight.

Of course, when the Reading Room first opened in 1857, this evening shift would have been impossible. Then, there could be no artificial light at all, neither gas nor candlelight, because of the fire risk. Then, as soon as dusk fell, or even before that if there was a peasouper outside, the readers were all packed off home.

Read the full article here.

Guardian Interview, Sarah Crown

Guardian Interview, Sarah Crown

Halfway through our interview, Helen Simpson begins to worry about the time. We’d frittered the first few minutes on general civilities, and squandered several more fiddling with books and bags and glasses of water. Now the clock is ticking, and we’re paying for our profligacy. “We’ve only got an hour,” she frowns. “How far in are we?” She unclasps her watch and lays it on the table between us. “There. We’re all right. We can see how long we’ve got left.”

The characters in Cockfosters, Simpson’s latest short story collection, are checking their watches, too. The men and women who pick their way through its pages are deep into middle-age, and more or less relaxed about it: after the heads-down grind of the baby years, they have finally begun “to crawl up out of their burrows … and emerge blinking into the sunlight”. Identities have been re-established; relationships have regained a degree of equilibrium: there’s a sense of expansiveness, of room for reflection. But as the characters’ gazes lift, at last, to the horizon, they notice that it’s closer than it used to be. The stories are filled with markers of time’s passage: a birthday cake baked year-in year-out for a daughter who’s now fully grown; the rigid itinerary of a retirement package tour; the “lime-green digits” of a bedside clock counting down the minutes until morning. “‘It’s annoying not knowing how long we’ve got left, don’t you think?’” says Julie in the collection’s title story, as she and a schoolfriend, now in their 50s, track down her misplaced bifocals to the last stop on the Piccadilly line. “‘Thirty years,’ said Philippa. ‘Forty!’ ‘Or ten,’ said Julie. ‘Or two.’”


To read the full interview please click here.

Helen Simpson on ‘In-Flight Entertainment’, The Paris Review

Helen Simpson on ‘In-Flight Entertainment’, The Paris Review

By Jonathan Gharraie

I met Helen Simpson for a genial pub lunch near Dartmouth Park in North London on the day she received the American edition of In-Flight Entertainment: Stories. She was evidently quite pleased by the book’s spare but elegant design, which looks through an airplane window onto a locket of cerulean sky. I’m tempted to draw comparisons to her stories, many of which peek at other people’s blitheness, or cruelty, or dreams of escape. But nothing in Simpson’s fiction is quite as peaceful as that glimpse of blue. She is perhaps best known for the characterization of contemporary motherhood in her collections, but many of the stories in In-Flight Entertainment confront the prospect of climate change.

Your collections are never quite themed, but they do feel very painstakingly designed. Was that true for In-Flight Entertainment?

In-Flight Entertainment is my little climate-change suite, I suppose. But there are fifteen stories in it, and only five are about climate change. My only rule is to write about what’s interesting to me at the time. It’s a great subject, but it’s very hard to dramatize or to make particular, and not to hector, not to moralize.


To read the full interview please click here.

Helen Simpson by K. J. Orr

Helen Simpson by K. J. Orr

Helen Simpson by K. J. Orr
Short Fiction in Theory and Practice, Vol 1, Issue 1, March 2011 (ISSN 20430701)


EXCERPT

SFTP: When did you start writing stories?

HS: At university.  I entered a short story competition in Isis.  That’s how I heard about Angela Carter.  Brian Aldiss was judging, and he said something like, This reminds me of the young Angela Carter, and I thought, Who’s Angela Carter?  Then I read her and admired her, particularly her stories.  Much later, once I’d come to London, I went to a reading she did in Strawberry Hill and I thought she was wonderful.  I collared her in the car park and said, Would you like a lift?  I’d just passed my driving test, so all the way back I was saying, What do you think of the short story?  What do you think of Katherine Mansfield?  And she was saying things like, Look out! That’s a red light!….”


To read the full interview, please click here.

Guardian Interview, Lisa Allardice

Guardian Interview, Lisa Allardice

Helen Simpson’s new year’s resolution is to read one short story before she gets out of bed every morning. “I like the idea of something complete, one short story with a cup of tea – you’d have stolen a march on the day. If people can meditate or do yoga or whatever, I don’t see why I can’t read for 15 minutes each morning.” She is one of only a few writers to have built a reputation exclusively on short stories. There is Alice Munro, still writing – and getting “better and better” in Simpson’s view, and Katherine Mansfield, to whom she is often compared. In 1993 she was voted one of the Best Young British Novelists in Granta’s 20 writers under 40 on the strength of just one collection. “I thought, ‘Oh good, that gives me a bit more time with the short story. But whenever people mention it now, they still say, ‘Well, she hasn’t actually written a novel!’ I’ll do a novel if I feel like it. Up until now, everything I’ve wanted to say, I’ve been able to say in stories. I like to find an image. I like to cut things down.”


To read the full interview please click here.