Anton Chekhov, Book review., Books, Bourgeoisie, Charles Pooter, George Grossmith, Infidelity, It's Beginning to Hurt, James Lasdun, Literary criticism, Love, Marriage, The Lady with the Dog, The Short Story
[Tychy is nothing if not a writer and reviewer of short stories: this website to date features about eighty short stories, of varying ambitions and success; and numerous reviews of either individual stories or complete volumes by authors such as Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, E.F. Benson, and Laird Barron. “Short Story Review,” a series devoted exclusively to volumes of short stories, consolidates this website’s longstanding and ongoing critical appreciation of short fiction.]
“Excise a few technological and historical references, and It’s Beginning to Hurt could have been written a hundred years ago,” the New York Times sniffed of James Lasdun’s 2009 volume of short stories. If, on the other hand, it had been reviewed less than ten years ago, then where would it be today? Whilst received rapturously on the blogosphere, It’s Beginning to Hurt only attracted comment and criticism in passing from mainstream reviewers. The New York Times ruled that “these stories rarely spark with colloquial vigor or first-person idiosyncrasy,” whilst in the judgement of the Telegraph, “few feel like they demanded to be written.” Colin Greenland reviewed the volume warmly in The Guardian, but it turned out that he had a novel of his own to plug. In The List, Suzanne Black bestowed three stars on Ladsun’s book and complained that reading it was a “frustrating experience.”
If Lasdun had submitted a novel with as much wit and wisdom as It’s Beginning to Hurt, then we would never hear the end of it. Happily, one of the tales from the volume, “An Anxious Man,” had been already decorated by the BBC, winning its 2006 National Short Story Award. It’s Beginning may be indeed the most exhilarating contribution to the short story tradition since Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery and Other Stories (1949). But Lasdun seems to consciously identify with the most influential practitioners of the literary short story, namely Chekhov and Mansfield, in kicking this genre over the walls of our slum and into the serene gardens of the bourgeoisie. On these grounds, the NYT’s judgement that Lasdun’s stories lack “colloquial vigor” may be not untrue, even if it remains quite atrociously philistine. Lasdun’s stories are both unashamedly and unavoidably bourgeois in preoccupation; they dedicate themselves to interpreting the class consciousness of a decidedly transatlantic bourgeoisie.
Sophisticated literary references may twinkle through It’s Beginning, but two of the brightest wink over contrary poles. At the end of “An Anxious Man,” we find Joseph Nagel cutting himself a “thick slice” of watermelon and munching it “nervously while he listened,” recalling Gurov’s own snack during the crisis within Chekhov’s 1899 short story “The Lady with the Dog.” That watermelon may allude to the tragedy of being middle-class, the mysterious watery aimlessness of “this continuity, this utter indifference to the life and death of each of us” which Gurov’s ease and security will never banish. The wealthy husbands in “Totty,” on the other hand, find themselves on the receiving ends of coatings of red paint, just as the splendid Mr Pooter had woken up in his newly-painted bath to find that he had been dyed red in Grossmith’s The Diary of a Nobody (1892).
The visages of Gurov and Pooter seem to be dished out to Lasdun’s performers like the tragic/comic masks of antiquity. They provide contrary masks and destinies for the same bourgeois everyman, with his big house, forlorn mistress and amusingly frustrated life, who remains poised in suspense for some unexpected epiphany about the cruelty of his existence. Embodying the tragic and comic possibilities of the bourgeoisie, Gurov and Pooter together serve to interrogate whether bourgeois existence is tragically incomplete or amusingly worthy and decent.
Lasdun confounds our efforts to answer this question by repeatedly slipping his tragic characters the comic masks, and vice versa. Despite the prospect of some Pooterish red paint, “Totty” is otherwise at home in Chekhov’s world of stale marriages and erring husbands. “An Anxious Man” is a classically Chekhovian story about everything and nothing – nothing really happens, and yet everything is illuminated. Yet what are ultimately illuminated are Nagel’s Pooterish qualities – his bumbling anxious love, his consciousness that his wife will always be shrewder than himself, and his transfixed horror as his savings adventure on the stock market. Nagel may be an allegory of anxiety, or, as the quintessential chump, he may be merely anxious that he is so.
The comic and tragic converge in the title story “It’s Beginning to Hurt,” until mockery aligns with sympathy. Mr Bryar is as unfaithful as Gurov and his otherwise Pooterish storyline about a buffoon who proves to a “complete bloody fool” will be summarised with the ultimately Chekhovian epitaph, “I’m in love with you… and it’s beginning to hurt.” This may indeed recall Anna’s resolve in “The Lady with the Dog” that, “We are parting forever, it must be so, because we ought never to have met.” Gurov and Anna will not in fact successfully part (although one cannot imagine any relationship enduring for very long in Chekhov’s world) but Mr Bryar allows himself to leave Marie “behind,” just as his salmon, perhaps a rich old Christian symbol of the soul, will spend the weekend rotting in a filing cabinet in a Pooterish echo of the story’s otherwise Chekhovian tragedy.
Whilst Pooter dabbled unhappily in spiritualism, his entire social class – contently well-to-do Londoners – are reunited with the spirit of Chekhov, perhaps in both senses of the term, in “The Annals of the Honorary Secretary.” The medium Lucille Thomas, whom we may at first assume is some sort of performance poet, will inspire “depression, listlessness and apathy” in her audiences. At the spiritualists’ annual get together, Lucille will unleash an indiscriminate antithesis of triumphant suburbia – a housewife’s disaster of mould, insects, rotting meat, and decomposition. Having established a scientific mission to investigate reality, the spiritualists are not comforted by faith or fortified against death, but mesmerised by their own annihilation.
“The Incalculable Life Gesture” is unexpectedly rendered even more Pooterish by its deceptively tragic premise. Richard Timmerman enters a period of crisis, his life thrown into perspective by the shadow of lymphoma, but his imagination runs away with him and that tiny little lump ends up blocking out the sun. Timmerman is so unanchored in reality that the slightest wind propels him from an empty satisfaction to the direst of terrors. Yet we are invited to compare Timmerman with his sister, a liberated Baby-Boomer who has hilariously matured into an embittered shrew. The worthy stay-at-home, who has devoted his life to others by becoming a teacher, will inherit the Earth, or at least suburbia.
Are these characters bourgeois because they are decent or decent only because they are bourgeois? The suspicion that it may be the latter, or rather the fear that mere decency may be an inadequate moral response to a deterministic world, raises the spectre of betrayal, the brother or sister who is unavoidably betrayed. In “The Old Man,” Conrad’s almost perfect happiness is troubled by a vague distorted reflection of himself: the old Czech Mirek who seems to be crushed by life’s carelessness. At the end of the story, Conrad stands poised over his new life fumbling with the champagne bottle, recalling something of those old superstitions about ineptly Christened ships.
With its cards-on-the-table title, “A Bourgeois Story” surveys two unsatisfactory destinies from a perspective of immaculate equilibrium. The fossilised Trotskyite Dimitri has failed in everything, but his whole world would be destroyed if he admitted that he was wrong. Dimitri is a shrivelled up old Sybil who may still speak pure truth, but unfortunately his life is now “unutterably wretched.” Or it could be that Paul is rendered uneasy by his old friend because his own world is itself bereft of any moral conviction. His life is so empty that it can be filled with a cherry tree and his wife’s captivating lips. The story is, however, consumed in itself, intoxicated with its own tragedy. Both men still have the power to reinvent themselves or equip themselves anew to fight again over the world.
“Oh, Death” is a bumptious frontier tale, featuring two tenuously connected neighbours rather than brothers. Perhaps like Conrad and Mirek in “The Old Man,” Rick and the narrator “were able to make up for the sometimes awkward fact of their being barely able to understand a word each other said, by an ongoing pantomime of commiserative gestures.” Yet with a smart twist in both the tale and the title, Rick’s story may be only cited as a convoluted set up for the narrator’s own death.
The Abel and his designated Cain in “The Natural Order” not only fail as each other’s keepers, but they travel together within their own separate worlds. With Abel questioning the “icon of his wife and child,” perhaps his dimly Christian guilt is out of place in Stewart’s bright Arcadia. The triumph of “The Natural Order” is that a story which happened in the corner of a life, an inconsequential holiday episode, is invested with the power and significance of great tragedy. The subject may be comic, even satirical – a Pooterish softness, a bourgeois over-consciousness – but Abel’s tragedy, as with so many of these Chekhovians, is that he is unable to transcend the comedy of his life.
Something of the Pooterish haunts the story “Lime Pickle” in the ghostly form of the jovial Mr Hamilton and his ridiculous mistress. To his daughter, perhaps Mr Hamilton’s antics are as dismaying as if Mr Pooter really had turned up with a whore on his arm. This story is pointedly not a bildungsroman, because the two kids seem to know about life from the beginning, but it is otherwise an excruciatingly vicious tale about the impossibility of aspiring to innocence. The greatest night of these kids’ lives is an anti-climax. Mr Hamilton’s decline is more epic than that of ancient Greece. This story seems to traverse centuries, leaping from an age of golden mythology into an inevitably un-Pooterish modernity.
The bourgeoisie have seized the world from Nature and made it clean and civilised. Yet rather like the spiritualists who are confounded by Lucille, they are helpless before the decline and decomposition which pull the world back again. In “Cleanliness,” Roland believes that there is a “secret symbiosis between his father’s vigour and his mother’s steady decline,” even though his mother seems to accept or possibly fuel her own destruction. He likens his father to a plant which flourishes in the soil of his mother’s failure. Roland will be sucked inexorably into barnyard “slime,” whilst his mother’s replacement, whose name “Rosemary” recalls the father’s own plantlike energy, seems to better reconcile fragrant life with malodorous decline.
In “Caterpillars,” the environmentalist bigot Craig, whom Lasdun’s satire dispatches with the efficiency of a sniper, regards human beings as “disgusting.” Craig appears to mistake Nature for an unspoiled state – an absence of humans, in other words – but he is taught that Nature consists of cruelty, surprises, perversity, and a spirit which defeats the best laid schemes of men. Perhaps, however, this defeat is merely a matter of perception. “Cranley Meadows” is an apparently apocalyptic tale about the destruction of a university. Yet whilst the resilient physicist Lev may be consigned to the gutter, his eye remains on the stars: “a sight to put our little problems in perspective.” There may be a few letters astray, but Lev’s wife Bryony is driven to despair and murder because the stars of the university have gone out, whilst Lev is captivated, with an almost childlike awe, by the enduring vision of the universe.
Lasdun inevitably experiments with the structure of the short story, and he proves a master of both the sharp observational writing that can make a plain tale hum like a garden, and a sprightly storytelling that leads you up the garden path and plants surprises around the corners. The first two stories exemplify the former approach. The prose in “An Anxious Man” is as crisp and bracing as the salty air around the Nagels’ holiday villa. In “The Natural Order” the writing is as fresh and dazzling as the Arcadian sunshine, we are more lucidly intimate with Abel than is his own conscience. More straightforward affairs, such as “The Woman in the Window” and “Annals of the Honorary Secretary” seem to be smaller and less substantial than these earlier tales, although they are merely different and should be judged on their own merits. We may put down It’s Beginning to Hurt feeling like lucky anthropologists, privileged to have observed Lasdun’s bourgeoisie and witnessed the tragic antics of their garden world.
[Tychy previously reviewed The Essential Tales of Chekhov. Ed.]