The Power to be Moved: Part 2

At the time Chekhov was writing, Russia was enduring and beginning a tumultuous period of history by any country’s standards. The October revolution would begin just under twenty years later, but before this came the abolishment of serfdom in 1861, leaving Russia with large scales of emancipated peasant communities that was still enduring in Chekhov’s time. With this in mind, let’s look at Chekhov’s ‘Peasants’.

Nikolai Chikildeyev, becoming ill whilst in Moscow, decides that he should return ‘home’ to Zhukovo, the village that he grew up in. Although when he arrives:
“in his memories of childhood he had pictured his home as bright, snug, comfortable. Now, going into the hut, he was positively frightened.”

In the last post, we talked about this issue of blindness and occlusion that can sometimes be overtly obvious (ie.a mirage like in ‘The Black Monk’) or more subtle but personally powerful, like childhood memories. This is another occasion of expectations not being met, or of a person’s representation of something not corresponding to reality, or to a reality that occurred a long time ago (‘The Kiss’ operates the other way round – the representation becomes everything).The peasant hut is dirty, and Nikolai, back from the city cannot understand how they live in such a feudal fashion. Yet, there is something about the village, something transcendent, beyond the fact that it is a very religious village, and the passage deserves quoting and delving into extensively:

“Behind the peasants’ properties began the descent to the river, steep and precipitous, so that there were huge rocks here and there in the clay. There were paths winding down the slope close to these rocks and pits dug out by the potters, and there were whole heaps of fragments of broken crockery piled up – now brown, now red – while spread out there at the bottom was a broad, even bright-green meadow, already mown, on which the peasants’ herd was now out walking. The river meandering with wonderful curly banks, was a verst from the village, and beyond it there was, again, a broad meadow, a heard, long lines of white geese – then, just as on this side, a steep uphill climb, and at the top, on the hill, a village with a five-domed church, and a little further off, a landowner’s house.”

If that does not get you awing at Chekhov then I don’t know what will. It starts with an occlusion, a blindness, as we are ‘behind’ the peasant’s property and as a result there is a suggestion that we should see behind and beyond. One must willfully do this though as the passage subtly urges, and the overall feeling is that this will be a trying effort. And then what we’re shown is more images of fragmentation and breakage, with the broken crockery, now brown, now red as if we’re following this scene. Yet at the bottom of the image presented to us, there is a bright-green meadow. The contrast between the colours is remarkable, from suggested manufacture to natural wonder. People are working here though. This isn’t a meadow that is naturally green, somebody has had to labour to make it green, and we realise that is ‘already mown’ – the freshly cut blades are glistening and the peasant’s herd are starting to make their way across it. Then as we go further out, the scene starts to come together, the perspective allows us a cohesive picture. We can see the hill and the climb and the village on top, which notably finishes with that structure that for so long facilitated communal togetherness – the village church.

This is Chekhov is Tolstoyan mood. But where Tolstoy would suggest that this sense of naturalness is the dream, Chekhov is asking, is this unobtainable like a dream? It is a matter of perspective. Were we not in the village and were stood on that hill looking down, would we see a similar, rural pleasantness where the peasants are, like Nikolai had? And let’s not forget Nikolai started off with a desire to return here, based on his own childhood perspective, and now we’re already seeing the promise of something else. No matter how obvious the vision maybe for Chekhov, it always represents something that cannot be obtained, even when it may appear obviously real to the character. We’re in the moment though and Chekhov will leave it to the reader to answer the questions that Chekhov not only asks, but the questions the reader asks of Chekhov.

The light and the church become important motifs for the story, especially as this theme of fragmentation continues.Further on in the story “when the bluish morning light was already breaking through every crack” of the peasant’s house, and when the sister-in-law’s of the two separate families go on a walk together in the morning there “stretched a strip of light, the church was radiant and the rooks were calling furiously in the landowner’s garden.” There is the light again and there is the church. What do we make of this light? Here we have two families of different class yet are related. So we’re lucky to have all this splendour surrounding us, but are these gifts of God or of nature? This is made no more obvious when Olga recites Scripture, “pronouncing words,even ones she did not understand, her face would become compassionate, emotional and light”. She is enlightened but there are parts that she does not understand, so what are the enlightening forces?

The whole passage becomes a frantic search for that cohesiveness, or more poignantly, meaning, and so anxiety becomes the compelling mechanism. Quoting at length again:

“Laid across the river were some unsteady log planks, and right underneath them, in the clear, transparent water, swam shoals of broad-headed chub. On the green bushes that looked at themselves in the water the dew was sparkling. There came a breath of warm air and a feeling of pleasure. What a splendid morning! And what a splendid life there would doubtless be in this world, were it not for the need – the terrible, incessant need from which you cannot hide anywhere! You had only to look back at the village now for everything from yesterday to come vividly to mind, and the enchantment of happiness that seemed to be all around to disappear in an instant.”

Constant movement external and internal, but this time it has gone from the picture of serenity on the outside, to the sense of breakage on the inside. The outside again is seemingly a world of togetherness (“the shoals of chub”) and positive reflection (“how the green bushes look at themselves in the sparkling water”). The splendid morning is an objective, declarative statement – no matter one’s standing, all the criteria are met for it to be a splendid morning, but this is irrelevant, in fact, makes the subjective position worse because of that need.

What is the need? We do not know where it comes from, but one can only say that this need is something that is ‘beyond us’, yet of this world. It is transcendent but humane. Kierkegaard wrote in The Sickness Unto Death (1849) that for the Christian “sin lies in the will, not in the knowing; and this corruption of the will affects the individual’s consciousness”. Chekhov’s characters are Christian characters, but the notion of being a Christian in a Christian world, or being a person living in a Christian world without a God, was now a conundrum. Schopenhauer, thirty years before Kierkegaard had published his work, The World as Will and Representation (1819), which brought a new light on this inexpressible thing that drives us but is not necessarily divine. Nietzsche would publish then Beyond Good and Evil (1886) where he moved these explanations of impulses beyond binaries of good and bad. Following this, Freud would publish his work The Intepretation of Dreams (1899) at the turn of the century. Look at the years of those publications. Chekhov’s first notable story, ‘The Huntsman’ arrived in 1885; the formalising of Chekhov’s brilliance happens in an implausibly short space of time, and arguably as rapidly as thought was changing in a period of global modernisation.

Looking at Chekhov in this context we get some answers posed by his work: here we see perhaps, why Chekhov perhaps didn’t write anything longer – it is about that moment that this will takes over, at the moment the will begins to asks questions of the world and the self. You could argue that nothing is explained in his elusiveness, but you could also say that everything is explained by it, the answers are not there to be answered. We get a brief glimpse of the human spirit, and Chekhov, although writing in extremely political times, does not suggest that this is anything to do with the rise of capitalism by the industrialisation of peasantry or anything like that; it is instead historical, something passed down the generations, explained in different terms by different generations, yet permanent and all too human. In this light he is ahead of the philosophers who were working around him.

If there is an answer  we’ll examine it by sticking with that notion introduced above by Kierkegaard – the sin lies in the desire, not the knowledge of it. Although philosophers like Nietzsche were aiming to philosophise without concepts such as good and bad, there is still sin in Chekhov’s world, as there still is now. Whether or not we ascribe the term guilt to that ravishing anxiety we can sometimes feel at the expense of the will, it does suggest that guilt is unavoidable. It is interesting that Paul Virno in his recent publication – Deja Vu and the End of History (2015) – described in the blurb as a ‘radical new theory of historical temporality’ uses St. Augustine’s Confessions for some support. He cites a passage from the Confessions to make his point:

“But even now it is manifest and clear that there are neither times future nor times past. Thus it is not properly said that there are three times, past, present, and future. Perhaps it might be said rightly that there are three times: a time present of things past; a time present of things present; and a time present of things future. For these three do coexist somehow in the soul, for otherwise I could not see them. The time present of things past is memory; the time present of things present is direct experience; the time present of things future is expectation.”

Confessions was a work obviously propelled by guilt, and whatever your understanding of guilt is, it arises out of the feeling of not knowing where something is located, or where something arises out of history to make itself known to be felt more urgently felt in the now, whether that be a feeling or a memory.

A lot of Chekhov’s characters we have determined, are always moving; forward, back, their physical manner usually antagonising their psychological desires. Chekhov often focuses on the males, but there is always a strong female presence. They both have their needs (they need each other), and they’re aware that they have them, but not all that clever on knowing how these desires manifest and operate. In ‘The Lady with the Little Dog’, which really is as good as it gets, the lady in the title, finally comes to terms with the liaison that she is embarking on with the man:

“But here still was the same diffidence, the gaucheness of inexperienced youth and an awkward feeling; and there was an impression of bewilderment, as if someone had suddenly knocked at the door. Anna Sergeyevna, this “lady with the little dog”, regarded what had happened in a special sort of way, very seriously, as though it were her fall – so it seemed, and it was strange and inappropriate. Her features had drooped and faded, her long hair hung sadly down the sides of her face, and she had fallen into though in a doleful pose, like a sinner in an old painting.”

Perhaps it could be argued that Chekhov missed a note with his use of the adverb ‘sadly’ (translations though), but the terminus of that inner will has never looked so futilely affecting as now. You can pick out Augustine’s classifications of ‘time-presents’ from that passage, but look how the passage ends. She has gone from a feeling of movement, the resurfacing of her inexperienced youth at the start, but has been pushed too far – she feels like she has fallen. It almost feels as if Hitchcock stole that closing moment for the impetus of Vertigo, but that image is extremely powerful. We are aware of her, not just as a woman, but now as a piece of art; whilst she may feel the sin in the will, all we have left of her, in that moment, is the static rendering of her as a sinner. In this case, she has been rendered immovable.

 

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From Hitchcocks’s Vertigo (1958)

Chekhov’s works, like his life, were short. Most of them are elegiac in tone, and the one thing that does feel tangible is a descent into delusion or death. We could argue then that it is death, or the knowledge of it that is driving the pieces, that is driving the character’s self-awareness. But death is always in combat with something else.

Carver was heavily influenced by Chekhov and even wrote a story about Chekhov in his final hours, but Carver’s most famous collection and story was What we talk about, when we talk about love. Chekhov’s characters are always finding ways to deal with their fickle emotions and fragile existence, are always finding that whatever lies beyond death, there is only one way to get there, through living and trying to love. There can’t be any love the Huntsman said but all too often there is. I think even when they’re not talking about love, they’re talking about it.

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The Power to be Moved: Part 1

The Kiss and Other Stories
by
Anton Chekhov (translated by Hugh Alpin)
Alma Classics: 256 pp.: £7.99 rrp.

There is a story in another edition of Chekhov’s stories that I have – About Love and Other Stories (2004) – published by the Oxford University Press, and the first story of which is called ‘The Huntsman’. It is four and a half pages long and it features a man called Yegor Vlasych,who is merely known as the Huntsman, until he is called by somebody as he passes through the village. This woman is his wife, Pelageya. On one page, happiness is ‘raditating’ from her face at seeing the man, but by the next she is sobbing: “It is a sin Yegor Vlasych! You could at least have the heart to spend one day with me. It’s twelve years since I got married to you, and…there hasn’t been love between us once! I’m…I’m not crying…” she says.

The Huntsman, rather than spend his days in the village with his wife, is employed as a huntsman, at a presumably rich man’s estate, where he brings game to to the rich man’s plate. There he is fed and bathed as well as being employed and cannot stand the village life that he has left behind any more. On his wife’s above denouncement of their love he replies:  “Love…There can’t be any love. We might officially be man and wife, but is that what we really are? To you I’m someone wild, and for me you’re just a simple woman who doesn’t understand anything. Do you really think we are a couple? I’m an idler, I’m spoilt and free to roam, but you’re a labourer, a peasant; you live in filth and you’re always bent over double…” It turns out they were married off drunk, and because of the man’s other intoxication with his free spirit, he then heads off again out of the village and the story is over.

One could go on for pages about this story alone, but ‘The Huntsman’ provides a brief, yet lucid portrait of what to expect when reading Chekhov. As one of his first published ‘serious’ stories at the age of 25, there is that male figure, the sense of a drifting presence, and the fickle, but powerful emotions people experience at the fate of elusive, powerful desires. Yet even though Chekhov’s stories focus on the individual male, the female has a strong presence and not just as a conduit for the male character. Here we have a writer, writing in a time of modernisation, but not necessarily grappling with it; a sense that things are changing but Chekhov is not necessarily going to be the great chronicler of it. What we have then in his work, is a feeling; he is a writer concerned with what moves us, and when it moves us.

Chekhov has a solid standing in the pantheon. There are his critics such as Nabokov (more a begrudging admiration: after all, who did Nabokov actually like?) and where one sees Chekhov’s main admirers like Hemingway and Carver you can see why there might be a difference in opinion. Indeed it shows the problem that can be at first presented when reading Chekhov by the person who might be averse to the more pyrotechnic of sentence writers, because Chekhov’s sentences present themselves with a deceptive simplicity. He is often labelled as ‘elusive’ (cf. Virginia Woolf). Epiphanies can pass you by, and the affects can slowly accumulate but then be gone, missed or enduring in the instant. As a result its simplicity is deceptive, like his reliance on the blindness motif, because there is a timeless maturity to Chekhov’s works that can only be gained by re-reading, a form of a maturity in itself.

This is a lesson I had to undertake. On presented with a new translation of Chekhov’s works, I’m not going to sit here and propound the critical benefits and lessons to be taken from Chekhov (I am not qualified to do that and people have been doing that for a hundred years now), so instead I am going to show what I have learnt from Chekhov and what Chekhov means to me, through Alma’s new translation.

Alma’s new collection, translated by Hugh Alpin, is a good place to start. Here are seven stories, arguably the most well known, including ‘Ward Six’ and ‘The Lady With a Little Dog’. They’re presented in chronological order so you can see the trajectory of Chekhov’s writing and the development of the society that he was living in. In ‘The Kiss’ , the first story, there are the familiar Chekhovian elements of grand houses in rural settings, but by the end we have telegraph wires in ‘The Bishop’ and the more cosmopolitan lovers of ‘The Lady With a Little Dog’ toward the turn of the century. Intersecting these is the longer story ‘Ward Six’ which sees somebody battling with the seemingly outdated methods and principles of institutionalization; or the peasants in ‘Peasants’, who’s village has a feeling of been left behind, or the differing views of the Landscape artist in ‘The House with a Mezzanine’.

By the time Chekhov was gaining maturity, the greater works of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky were already published. Tolstoy was turning to the shorter stuff and Dostoyevsky had died. Chekhov is arguably the last great name of the Golden Age, and his works capture this sense of change and development in the society he was living in. He doesn’t necessarily capture the changing patina of society, advancement in technologies or anything like that, instead he captures the consciousness of these changes. There is a great sense of society dealing with new ideas and new professions and new discourses as a result.

Ultimately, you’ll see Chekhov is concerned with movement. In essence, there is a constant sense of movement and transition in Chekhov, a subjective kind of emotive change which can contradict the physical state. People can be rooted to the spot, but still be at the whim of their emotions, which I don’t think any other writer so subtly captured at the time. There is a persistent sense of something driving, a kind of will, but with the dilution of God, this will is not so simply explained any more.

So let’s start with the first story – ‘The Kiss’. A tired Artillery Brigade stop in the village of Mestechki. A man on a strange looking horse arrives telling them that the local landowner and Lieutenant, General von Rabbek, wishes them to visit his house for tea. They’re tired and they’re all reminded of a time last year, when in a similar situation, their host had kept them up all night and as a result they were not able to get any sleep (which indicates fortunes were greater for the army last year).Raising the spirits however, is the prospect of women being at the house.

Eventually the focus goes to Staff Captain Ryabovich who recognises himself to be the most timid man there. On our introduction to him we are told that he has a ‘psychic blindness’, where he sees but cannot comprehend what is in front of him (something that recurs through Chekhov’s stories, this sense of visual occlusion as both a metaphor and device). When Ryabovich leaves the men watching billiards – bored – he gets lost in the large house, and as he his stood trying to determine where he is, somebody grabs him and kisses him, who then steps back in disgust when she realizes that it was not the person she was looking for.

‘The Kiss’ is a good place to start and indeed, it is the start of this collection. It’s a fine example of showing how Chekhov likes his characters to be ‘moved’ physically but also mentally. Chekhov does not necessarily show the results of the moments people experience like in The Huntsman, but it is as if the act of the short story, that elusiveness that is often admired and criticized, is ideal for him to catch that moment somebody is ‘moving’. The near past is always in reach as if trying to impress now and we only get clues to the greater history of what has happened to the characters and ultimately the society they live in and how it is affecting their internal world.

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Rodin’s The Kiss (1889)

 

Ryabovich at first is described as, before following the men to the billiard room:“With nothing else to do, and wanting to take some part in the general movement, Ryabovich wandered after them.” His boredom is already apparent and when he wanders away again he becomes lost and is “stopped in thought”. After this he is mistakenly kissed and at first he is “tormented by shame and fear that the entire hall knew about his having just been embraced and kissed by a woman,” but moments later he becomes “the whole of him, from head to toe, was filled with a new feeling, which kept growing and growing…”

Strange new feeling indeed – all this happens in a page – and all just because of some kiss that was not meant for him? Let’s not forget Chekhov’s often true masterpieces are cited as the plays, and like Shakespeare did with his characters, we do not know what has proceeded and we do not know what will follow: we only see the rise or the fall. This isn’t just a virginal man who has had his first sexual experience, and nor is this kiss itself a euphemism for something greater; instead we have seen the moment. Ryabovich now becomes “absorbed in his pleasant new thoughts” and as he continues with his brigade, in what seems like a very long and boring journey, with no hint of battle, it is conducive to his meandering, wishful thoughts:

“On 31st August he was returning from camp – not with the whole brigade now, though, but with the two batteries. All the way he was daydreaming and agitated, as though he were going back to his birthplace. He had a passionate desire to see once again the strange horse, the church, the insincere Rabbek family, the dark room; the “inner voice” that so often deceives those in love was for some reason whispering to him that he was sure to see her…At the very worst he thought, even if he were not to meet with her, the mere fact of walking through the dark room and remembering would be pleasant for him…”

There is a whole host of details in there that could be swept over, but look how much movement there is within movement. He is agitated but is this inspired by the boredom of the journey or his own intense desire to experience the kiss again? Where has this ‘inner voice’ come from that Ryabovich did not seem equipped with before? And finally who is ‘her’? Ryabovich slowly becomes more concerned with the kiss than the woman who potentially kissed him. Is the ‘passionate desire’ commensurate with the fact we believe the ‘inner voice that so often deceives us’?

Something has awakened in Ryabovich, but Chekhov subtly does not let us believe that it is a life-changing course inspired by an unexpected event. He has had an epiphany of sorts, but the way forward is not necessarily clear. The inner voice was already there it seems, but has become louder because of the kiss, and there is the detail that it felt as if he “were going back to his birthplace”, rather than him going forward in any particular way. What’s past is prologue said Antonio to Sebastian in The Tempest and although they were committing murder, there is a sense here that love is as bound upon strong desires as the forces they were experiencing.

The characters are at the expense of some kind of greater force, but the questionableness of that greater force has never been so intense. It is not so simply a matter of faith any more, or if it is faith, it’s not necessarily faith in a discernible, all-powerful big Other like God. This is then is what I will with deal with more directly in the second half of this piece as we take a closer examination of how Chekov’s characters are moved.

 

Review: A Game of Chess and Other Stories by Stefan Zweig

A Game of Chess and Other Stories
by Stefan Zweig (translated by Peter James Bowman)
Alma Classics: 320pp.: £4.99

Mihail Sebastian’s For Two Thousand Years, which was discussed recently, proved that there is no estimating the if and when an artist will receive their due recognition, considering that Sebastian has been translated into English 82 years after original publication. This discussion continues to an extent here with Stefan Zweig.

One must be wary though of being ethno-centric, and it points to the problem of ‘generalising’ and measuring success; even though the world’s languages may be homogenising, with several languages becoming universal mediators, we’re becoming inclined to think that anything outside of that linguistic sphere is not worthy. For instance, although we might think Hollywood as the pinnacle of the film industry, its takings are eclipsed by India’s Bollywood, yet it doesn’t have much of a market over here. Language, as Wittgenstein said, really is the limits of our world.

Zweig’s fate was arguably completely opposite to that of Sebastian’s. Zweig parallels somebody like Dickens, in that he was enormously successful in his lifetime, and was reportedly one of the first ‘star authors’. Zweig’s death was treated with the attention and opprobrium that our celebrities and stars receive today. The man was globally known and traveled, fleeing his homeland of Austria, once the Nazis invaded.

But all this is well known; one only has to do a quick Google search to find this out. It’s worth mentioning however, because where his home may have been decimated, the world eventually became his home, finally ending up in Brazil before his death by suicide. Like Dickens though, the equation of fame and artistry does not necessarily mean quality is discounted. Popular can still be artful. And like Dickens Zweig almost disappeared, left in the annals along with many authors who were victim to the rapid modernisation that the second world war brought, quickly becoming outdated and out of tune.

The problem and accusation levelled at Zweig seemed to be that he didn’t really ‘have anything to say’. Nicolas Lezard in the Guardian has written about how when Zweig came to London he wouldn’t comment on the Third Reich, saying that constant denunciations wore themselves out by repetition. Any maybe they do, but as a man from Vienna, Zweig will have known that not having anything to say is not the same as not wanting to say anything.

Of course the advent of film means that books and authors can suddenly see their name subject to guerrilla marketing, being branded across film posters and bus-sides, and recently Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) drew from Zweig’s life and works. Anderson was unashamed in his admiration of Zweig, claiming to have plagiarised him, and certainly Zweig’s presence is felt throughout, both physically and spectrally, appearing at first as a bronze monument, and then a potential character in what had become a drab hotel, relaying the glory years to another writer.

Different levels and stories within stories is certainly Zweig’s influence even though Anderson’s film probably says more about film than it does about Zweig (as film always does, closer to Nolan’s Inception maybe?). Zweig never published a novel (Beware of Pity comes closest), but Zweig was concerned with the story. Alma have republished four of them, including his final one before his death. All of these effectively involve a narrative framed within another narrative.

There is reason to see why Zweig might have faded out of critical quarters. The most apocryphal a stories’ title gets is ‘The Invisible Collection’, and almost seem purposefully dull and suggest they’re catering for a particular audience at a particular time. A world that has witnessed its second war and one of the worst humanity crimes in history might not be so hooked by something like this:

“Two stations beyond Dresden, an elderly gentleman entered out compartment, made a polite general greeting and then, raising his eyes, nodded to me in particular as if to a firm acquaintance”

Pre-war, diminishing Victorian social mores would likely to, and did respond to this, but it looks quickly antiquated.

Quality and commercialism are not necessarily polar opposites. George Orwell began a resurgence of Dickens and he hasn’t been forgotten since. To understand the importance of Zweig is again, is to understanding the idea of having and resisting to say something. Zweig was in tune with his world ; he traveled, conversed and was from one of the great cultural hotspots of its time, where as already mentioned, Freud, and the likes of Mann were working, liaising and arguing.

And so beneath this tempered prose, his embellishment is perhaps a kind of repression threatening to break through: Zweig is an adept psychologist as much as he is a writer. Take “24 Hours in a Woman’s Life”. It’s reportage like, first person account, a clinical, yet casual mise-en-scéne of a well-ordered society (as they usually are). In a guest-house on the Italian Riveria, the narrator who could be Zweig (who could always be Zweig), is witnessing a discussion almost boil over into an argument. There are several different nationalities and types of people in the guest-house, but there is at least one thing that unites them all:

“Thus it was the day in our thoroughly bourgeois group of regular diners, who otherwise stuck to innocuous small talk and mild little pleasantries and usually went their separate ways after the meal was over: the German couple to their excursions and amateur photography, the portly Dane to his tedious angling, the refined English lady to her books, the Italian couple to their escapades in Monte Carlo, and I lolling in the garden chair or to my work.”

These are not stories about stories, and even though it does tell us many things about the guest-house, it inadvertently tells us something about the narrator. It is ironic, yet not self-conscious, and the author is unconscious of themselves if anything. It’s a mine of details. Look at those telling Jamesian modifiers; ‘thoroughly bourgeois‘; tedious angling’; ‘refined English lady’. . All this is blown apart when one of the wives runs away with a mysterious Frenchman that had just been staying at the guest-house. But it is the refined English lady that becomes the focal point. The lid is lifted, and whatever desires those people have been suppressing in order to maintain the society are unscrewed and dispersed.

Zweig is able to observe it acutely from that bourgeois position- “The testiness began, I think, with both of the married men instinctively wanting to dismiss the possibility that such perils and abasement might befall their own wives”– naturally. Harlot and wanton most of them describe the woman’s infidelity, but the English lady supports the woman’s actions and in turn, relays her repressed secret. It takes one to know one.

The narrator though describes the husband’s meltdown as “it’s natural that all this, striking like lightning before our very eyes…” and this image of lightning recurs throughout the stories, as both a physical and metaphysical phenomenon. But note the use of ‘natural’ as well. There is a constant feeling that, although on the surface life may be natural and normal, but either beneath or beyond, there always something supernatural, superhuman threatening to break through.

Although a story is not literally re-told in ‘Incident on Lake Geneva’, it is effectively a failure of this, when language is a barrier rather than a bridge. And again, it has that less than emphatic title and opening, yet there is something threatening to disturb the normal order; in this case a “a curious object on the surface of the water”. This object transpires to be a Russian man, and again we have the image of somebody fleeing, pertinently adding to the contemporaneity.

The man has left his war-stricken homeland, but has no recourse to language. Here is also where Zweig deploys his ability to evoke the swift, fickle changes in human emotion and perception:

“Without moving, the fugitive gazed after him, and the farther off the one person who knew his language went, the more the brightness that had entered his countenance faded away”.

Hope then despair in a breath.

It is about perception though, literal becoming metaphoric as is the case with the ‘curious object’ above. The gaze attaches to something and inadvertently transforms and becomes transformed in itself. This is why Zweig is a thoroughly modern writer and perhaps indicates why there was an academic abandonment of him at the turn of postmodernity, narratives and meta-narratives, rather than the humble story itself.

‘The Invisible Collection’ has a melancholic feel as an antiquarian art dealer in search of more stock goes through the list of his old customers and visits one he knows to have prints of Rembrandt and Duras. Following his trail he arrives at another provincial, rich setting “full of petty-bourgeoise junk”. The collector is blind, and believing that he still has these prints, his daughters actually sold them during the war to generate some income, but replaced them with blank sheets of paper. Obviously he cannot buy these prints now, so he becomes complicit in the deception. Upon meeting the man however, he states:

“Ever since childhood I have always felt ill at ease in the presence of the sightless. I can never get over a sort of shame and embarrassment at perceiving a living person in front of me and knowing that he cannot perceive me in the same way.”

Perception doesn’t happen in the eyes but in the brain, and they don’t just happen, they are constructed with more than just visual stimuli. Look how the man on the surface was at first an object. What goes on beneath visual perception? Is the mind that feeds it sanctity or sanatorium? Noble in a quest for truth or just another layer of deception? The stories seem to culminate in suggesting the latter to those questions, in the long, final story ‘A Game of Chess’.

Back on the water, a cruise-ship bound for Buenos Aires. The narrator sees a frenzy of photographers and media frenzy around the world chess champion Mirko Czentovic. Ironically, while the inner workings has been something of intrigue, and knowing that Chess Grand-masters are usually highly intelligent people with an ability to process and anticipate many moves ahead in advance, Czentovic “cannot even write a single, properly spelt sentence in any language”.

The language barriers means that the narrator cannot approach the Grand-master for a game, but attracted by his enigma, he lures him into a game by setting up a chess table, a ‘primitive trap’. He observes that Chess, “as in love, a partner is indispensable”. There it is again, the unacknowledged begging to be acknowledged, much like love but also like war, no? This is what makes Zweig’s writings  modern and important; the internal battle beneath the external one, the dialectic of mind and madness, and what can and cannot be suppressed. Are these really the stories of characters Zweig meets or just his need to expel a story, tell a lie with a lie and choosing what not to say?

In ‘Chess’ the importance of within probably presides and why it takes a darker, ulterior tone, and more obviously. What happens externally though is that the narrator teams up with a Scottish man also travelling on the boat, who, thanks to his insatiable competitive desire, they continue to play him, and eventually, with the help of a mercurial stranger, earn a draw. As a result they want to set-up a game with the Austrian stranger and Czentovic, but when the man refuses claiming not to have sat at a chess-board in twenty-five years, it takes another therapeutic offloading before he will sit for a game.

He reveals that when the German’s swept through Austria he was tortured for information by being left in a room that was completely bare, and nothing to stimulate the mind. As a way of combatting the solitude, the man, after stealing one of the guard’s books (a collection of one hundred championship matches moves and results), recreates in his mind, games of chess. He does it to alleviate the torture but it becomes a form of torture in itself, as he states that it is a ‘logical absurdity’ to play chess against oneself, to split and deceive ones own mind:

“If black and white are one and the same person, a preposterous situation is produced in which a single mind is supposed both to know something and not to know it, so that its white self should, by self-command, forget all the aims and intentions of its black self a minute earlier.”

Whether it is actually impossible or not to deceive your self would require a life-work mediation, but even though we constantly tell lies to ourselves a part of us knows the truths. This is Zweig at his best. Constantly, cognitive scientists tell us how the mind is like a computer, but a computer lacks the essential part and essence – consciousness – it’s exceptional mystery but also its folly. Why is the brain the only part of the human anatomy that is said to work like something else rather than the other way round? Regardless, the black and the white are of the same body, the dark underside to existence.

Like the denouement of Anderson’s film suggest, beneath all the beauty, artistry and wonder, there is the dark-side that even the greatest minds don’t want to acknowledge at times, yet even when they don’t, it leaks through. Zweig’s compatriot and friend, Freud, understood this. You can see the global tragedy behind the veneer of fiction, and when Zweig  finally acknowledged it, he embraced it tragically.

Thank you to Alma for providing a review copy. 

Review: Tom Barbash – Stay Up With Me.

Tom Barbash’s  first collection of short stories comes adorned in  the superlatives that Nathan Filer recently admonished. Not to say that no other book does, but Barbash’s jacket space are lucky to have two big David’s names on them (Eggers and Mitchell). The times we are unsatisfied by the work even with notable names endorsing them, but thankfully for Stay Up With Me, this is not the case. In all fairness, Barbash is skirting a precarious line with his characters. As Eggers states, it is a universe where all the characters might know each other as they all have some level of middle-class wealth, a degree of privilege, mostly suburbanites. As some other reviewers have noted, this could lead to instances of schadenfreude, but gratefully this doesn’t happen, although you would be forgiven for a slight joy about your own situation.

‘Balloon Night’ and ‘How To Fall’ skirt this precarious line. Whilst the world around the two central characters is alive and thriving, people wanting to be in their environmen, they two characters want nobody but themselves and a past partner. Timkin’s wife (his name seems to invite pity) in the prior story has left him on the night of their annual party in his New York apartment. Whilst everybody is convivial, Timkin can only reflect on how his party and New York ” would be a good place for a terrorist to strike, how many prosperous lives could go up in flames.”

On the back of another break up in ‘How To Fall’, the central character is conscripted into a singles, skiing weekend by her friend. Typically she is no good at skiing. Talking to two men, Roland and Kevin, with Roland taking an interest in her,she cannot stop thinking about her ex.

I couldn’t have been much fun, as I drifted more than once on our chairlift rides into a private theatre wherein I was screening a movie of me and Mitchell in Cape May, when we stared at the sky until five and then slept together in our bathing suits on a lounge chair, next to a pitcher of daquiris.

Your heart bleeds.

As a British reviewer (and psychology postgraduate student), these seem like prime candidates for the psychoanalytic scene, much more prevalent in America. You can see these Betty Draper style, bourgeois types, in the midst of an existential crisis, enjoying the riches and promises of individualism, but encountering the disillusionment that their chronic self-fulfillment has inevitably brought. All our material things have ultimately become immaterial you can hear them say. Although most of the stories feature relationships on a sexual level, there are also maternal and paternal ones which also struggle with this, as the son in ‘The Women’, watches his bereaving father now ‘back on the market’ as a singleton.

Alluded to in the quote above from ‘How To Fall’, the characters are constantly creating narratives for themselves, watching, or likening themselves to the movies. In ‘Letters From The Academy’, this takes on an extreme form. Comically appearing as a series of letters from a young tennis player, Lee Wilcox’s coach, to his father, telling him how good his son is, they slowly turn into a creepy exposition of hero-worship of Lee’s dad.

I wonder how much of you is in Lee, and whether in your early days with the All-City Orchestra and later with Stan Kenton and Lionel Hampton you were equally intense and abstracted. I must say i’ve always loved your work.

The devotion to improving Lee, give way to a jealousy as the letters become obsessive, and are then intruded by an account of Pete Sampras as he takes Lee under his wing from his stalking coach (“I do not know if it is in your wishes for your son to be the hitting partner of a washed up balding husband of a second-rate Hollywood starlet”). It almost becomes Lolita-esque with the crude name of the coach, Maximillian Gross (more grotesque sounding than Humbert Humbert), when his new young, female pupil Vivi makes a move to kiss him (according to Maximillian).

This sinister darkness presides over the stories, and is perhaps something we should expect when in the first story, ‘The Break’; a mother watches her son returning home for the Christmas break talk about the people in his class.

He was talking about someone in school who had lost her mind, a pale, pretty girl, who’d been institutionalised and who sent a scrawled-over copy of The Great Gatsby to a friend of the boy’s. In the margins, she had pointed out all the similarities between the character’s situation and what she believed to be hers and that of the boy’s friend. She had earmarked pages and scrawled messages. YOU ARE GATSBY, she wrote on the back of the book. I AM DAISY.

Just look what happened to those poor blighters. Like the book that charted the dawn of the modern age, there’s that continual feeling of being a witness, and despite being part of them, we are unable to stop them reaching a fateful conclusion, like Nick Carraway was in Gatsby. There’s the foreboding and Thanatos overriding the stories, which really comes out in ‘Spectator’,  a second person account of a car crash. Lacking that self-conscious irony, they have the modern feel, which is why they invite the joy and the pity, and nearly the schadenfreude.

Although the big themes are hinted toward (‘Paris’ perhaps the story that tackles these the most, and very enjoyably escapes the neurotic nature of the others) they are not divulged. We are aware that they are living in a capitalist, materialist society, but that is as they are, and these stories are merely within it. To explicate the big themes would be to take away the simplicity of the stories characters just trying to navigate this world and their self, rather than change it. Because at the heart of these meticulously crafted stories is a potent, yet simple, but often forgotten truth: stop thinking about yourself all the time.

If anything, we’re still looking at a society that still looks to those modern authors,  like Fitzgerald nearly a century ago, to teach us how to write, and more importantly, how to live.

Stay Up With Me  (212pp) by Tom Barbash is released on 14/08/2014 published by Simon & Schuster. Thank you to them for providing a review copy.

Review: Graham Swift – England and Other Stories

With the surge in the short story’s popularity, a current trend is for all the stories to be embedded in a unifying theme. Graham Swift, as the title suggests is tackling one big old subject. As we emerge out of the postmodern age, conceptions of British society, affected by more wars, multiculturalism, capitalism, nostalgic notions Blighty have never looked so fractured, yet so enforced. Swift, instead of trying to answer any questions is, if anything, admitting that he doesn’t know himself, after watching the England he has written about over the years change and alter irrevocably.

The works span the length and breadth of England from Yorkshire to Yeovil. But it’s not the glorious England, nor is it necessarily the ugly England, it’s just the unexceptional England. Most of the characters are older, approaching retirement, with a consciousness of their declining years, but the idea of ‘not getting anywhere’ works as something of a pun throughout Swift’s work. They’re also usually confronting death or trauma, something that has carried on from his recent novels Last Orders and Wish You Were Here.

In under 300 pages,  there are 21 stories, which leaves them inconclusive and unresolved. Opening with ‘Going Up In The World’ , mundane England, or at least the mundane middle class lives of England that Swift wishes to capture, is laid out here. It’s an account imbued with irony as ‘going up in the world’ doesn’t refer to the meteoric success of the capitalist years in Britain but rather a window cleaning empire of the new skyscraper buildings that have left the ‘ordinary’ people behind.  Charlie is reminiscing the development of his relationship with Don, and how they ended up going up in the world physically and metaphorically, and as window cleaning business might allude to, they are looking from the outside in on this new world.

But to say it’s about the mundane lives of ordinary people, it’s not on the back of mundane events, because British history is hardly mundane. War existentially hangs over the stories; like Wish You Were Here which prominently addressed grief in the Iraq war and had that element of both the fascination in the celebration of war and imperialism, but it was also ultimately about it’s futile and mortal effects on ordinary lives. Lives like in ‘Fusili’, as a man shops in Waitrose after the death of his son in Afghanistan.

If there’s one thing the British do generally, unequivocally celebrate, it’s the monarchy. In ‘Haematology’ William Harvey, Doctor of Physic writes to his cousin Colonel Edward Francis, The Council of Officers in the year 1649. William is exiled, and although the reasons are not made clear, it’s due to some kind of heresy against the King, in the name of science “there is heresy and heresy, there is dogma and dogma.” ‘Haematology’ is not there as a wildcard, or an experimentation of form; as all the stories hint toward being written recently under the agenda of ‘England’,  it’s not there to make us aware of how England has developed, and become more liberal – it’s the opposite. This isn’t realism or a chronicle of British history, “We have no civility but a confusion of godliness and war. Such our new world,” says the exiled physician.

This slight disdain to authority permeates the stories.  It’s like a rejection of their older selves, that the young people didn’t want to become, but ultimately did, when their youth had no boundaries, no preconceptions . In ‘Ajax’, the naivete of a young person, it is assumed leads him into an almost deathly, juvenile trap because of the ‘weirdo’ next door. “”I was the undoing” the narrator said.” Mr Wilkinson does unconventional activities in his underpants, unconventional for a middle class suburb in the seventies at least.

It seems the small act of communication that the protagonist tries to instigate in ‘Ajax’, which he is restricted from doing, carrying it out through his fence, an obvious symbol, is something that Swift is trying to urge throughout. Communication breaks down borders, which England certainly has a problem in coming to terms with Swift’s grand message appears to be. Weather features often, highlighting this subject; obviously England’s cliche obsession with it, but captures Britain’s ‘small-island syndrome’, and its xenophobic fear of its shores been flooded. But then what is the weather but the most banal of conversation starters in England?

It’s as if all this comes to a head in ‘Tragedy, Tragedy’, this loss of meaning in modern day society. Two blokes (that is what they simply are – blokes- no other term seems fitting) discuss the way papers always relate everything to tragedy – “Ever feel there’s too much tragedy about” Mick says in their blokeish, everyman wisdom, which Swift is so adept at conveying,

“Tragedy’s about acting too. It’s about stuff that’s happening on stage. Shakespeare and stuff. That’s the thing about it. It’s not real life.”

What is this real life? What is ‘stuff’? That word ‘stuff’ so perfect. The two blokes don’t know the answer, and nor does Swift. And tragedy is everywhere in apparently ‘real life’ these days. But if the novelists art is about language, and ultimately the communication of this language to his reader, Mick reflects on how he used to read the Beano as a child “Biff! Bam! Kerrzang! How I laughed” he says. This is not just another case of the kind of regression we see in other stories from the adult characters, but rather an example of how those onomatopoeic words are exactly that – words without meaning, yet they are the only ones that can or rather could invoke a genuine reaction in Mick, where words like ‘tragedy’ cannot.

Where his prose is not the overly figurative kind seen in his contemporaries, he constantly seems to be trying to understand the limits of language in the text; there are the accents, the double entrendre’s and Freudian slips , and playing with the sounds of words (the futility of war in ‘Fusili’, or is it the Fusility of war?). The pun might be the cheapest form of a joke, but it’s has the ability to immediately change the meaning of one word into another, and Swift is at home with it. Swift’s attempts at regional  accents do (maybe a slight Yorkshire bias here) sometimes descend into that Dickensian mawkishness. But again, this could just be playing with limits of language, because the stories are not just stories as shown in ‘Haematology’, or the pure dialogue of ‘Mrs Kaminski’.

But one only needs to read the epitaph from Laurence Sterne at the start (Lord, still, appropriately censored out); indeed, what is all about? Swift doesn’t deliver answers and doesn’t expect to. Instead all we can do is reflect and remember, and ultimately fictionalise like the person says at the end of ‘England’ – “He really knew, he thought, as brought his car to a halt again, nothing about it all.”

England And Other Stories  (274pp) by Graham Swift is out now, published by Simon & Schuster (Hardback: £16.99 ). Thank you to them for providing a review copy.

The afterparty: Black Vodka, a review

‘Every book is the wreck of a perfect idea’ is one of Iris Murdoch’s pseudo-philosophising quotes, and at the moment we are emerging from the commercial wreckage of HMS Man Booker. Older works and future works will be updated so that bookshop shelves will be interspersed with by the Man Booker shortlisted author…, to which Deborah Levy’s next work is no exception. Her new work Black Vodka, follows up the middle class holiday gone wrong Swimming Home, with a collection of short stories that carries the themes of her earlier works. And to return to that Murdoch quip, the wreck of future works as well.

Who was the joke on at the Booker prize. A prize that reeks of middle class values, shortlisting a very middle class novel in Swimming Home, which was in itself swiping at the flooding in the market of the middle class novel. I propose that we use the word Mantellian to refer to any novel that is so middle of the road and middle class.

No need to be so cynical thought because Black Vodka is superlatively good. It is a collection of 10 stories packed into 126 pages, that have all featured In various publications over the years. This doesn’t allow for much narrative, instead they are like postmodern remnants of ideas, ‘sketches’, with a narrative overture. Levy’s earlier works were reminiscent of Margaret Atwood, and Ali Smith, not as activist as the first and not as steady as the latter. With her short stories though, there is some Angela Carter style mixing of the fable and contemporary and a sly reference to a cavalier of the short story, John Cheever, for those who can spot it.

In Black Vodka, Levy’s primary concern is with the male and female. Black Vodka is a mediation of what these terms mean, because psychology particularly, has essentially reduced itself to a modern day Cartesian philosophy. Levy is a progressive, as it is best to understand this by rightly splitting the terms gender and sex. Sex is the biology. Gender is a much more complicated construction through the discourse of the society’s inhabitants, a melting pot of cultures and ideals. For this reason, we are constantly observing the man and woman playing opposite each other as they must battle the physical restrictions of their sex and also the physical restrictions of their location. It is “Vienna” the third, and the most triumphant that does this, which she tried to explain in her novel Billy & Girl. Levy thrives on the ambiguity and unease it creates for her readers constantly challenging our stereotypes. As it opens Marget is testing her new microwave in front of her husband (the all too simple, generic husband wife situation) as her husband “nods as if he is a secretary taking notes from an inscrutable Executive Director who wears purple lipstick to frighten the more timid of staff”. roles reversed, because stereotyping like our physical location is something we can become stuck in as the next passage shows as her husband considers his wife “She is middle europe he thinks. She is Vienna. She is Austria”, showing the machinations of the mind from the definitive security of this to the what his could mean “She is someone else’s property. He holds out his arms, inviting her back to her own bed, inviting europe to share her wealth, to let him steal some of her silver, to let him make footprints across her snow and drink her schnapps”. This defines the collection. The gender dichotomy is most powerfully challenged in the ironically titled Cave Girl, the 6th story,when Cass tells her brother she wants a sex change, not into a man, but into a new woman. It is the woman that all the men want including her brother, the one that the advertisers create and make us desire, psychological plastic surgery.

In “Pillow Talk” Ella and Pavel embrace each other in a hazy, dreamy Barcelona. Here, the characters must also battle, not just with the physical and metaphysical aspects of gender, but also their cultures. Pavel has to leave Ella to go to Dublin for a job interview, where he succumbs to the desires of another woman (a recurring male trait). Dublin becomes taboo, and Pavel with his two passports and Ella, born in Jamaica with a British passport are restricted by the physical boundaries of love ‘Surname. Given names. Nationality. Date of Birth. Sex. Place of birth. Date of issue. Date of Expiry’ The soulless questions andlegal requirements, read like questions of compatability on a dating website . Like in “Roma” the penultimate tale, they, like most of the other characters, they are tourists, but at what costs? The husband and wife in this story rarely interact instead they are cultural tourists and tourists of their own marriage,
“She stares into the salt lagoon. A stork stands in the mud. And another. Her husband takes a photograph of the two stalks”.
It is emphatic in saying that we have the desire to travel but we can easily become tourists of our own lives watching our downfalls enacting roles that we think we have to play. In the second story “Shining a Light” the protagonist is thrown in to familiar Levy disorientation when she loses her baggage in Prague airport where the baggage carousel is a ‘grey river’. Alice in a Carter-esque self discovery loses her western burdens.

The question of the physical and the metaphysical is most ironically employed in Simon Tegala’s Heart in 12 Parts, which is told in twelve numbered aphorisitic like sections. Its emphasis is on the cliché of the heart and its association with love, as Simon gives into his ‘hearts’ desires all too easily In a mocking of the arbitrary organ that we associate love with “Simon’s heart has two chambers: the upper and the lower chambers. Blood flows between these chambers. Simon Tegala’s heart is the size of a fist” as Levy reduces the heart of all its benign metaphysical associations.

“Placing a call” is her most experimental in style, which doesn’t add much apart from some poetic muscle flexing. And then Stardust Nation, pretentiously titled, and it stands out on its own too much, too political. Its an indictment on the advertising industry again and a slight criticism on mental health treatment and psychoanalysis. Nikos gets an unsettling phone call from his colleague Tom,sSlowly, it emerges that they are very similar, both beaten as children by their fathers, and the inevitable becomes obvious quickly as the Nikos ‘guard dog sister’ makes it a Freudian triumvirate. There is still some rewards to be taken from it though but to pack something as strong into 15 pages diminishes its impact.

The title piece Black Vodka is another one of those that can stand alone in its own right, but this time with more success. It is slightly unusual to open with the ‘main piece’, but it works. It culminates everything in the collection in a fairly linear narrative, as Ali working in an advertising agency trying to promote Vodka Noir. It is very European, in scope and style. Ali is introduced as having a hump on his back, alluding to Victor Hugo’s most famous creation. When Ali is doing a sales pitch he notices a woman in the crowd studying him intently drawing “A picture of a naked hunchbacked man, with every single organ of his body labelled. Underneath her rather too accurate portrait should I be flattered she imagined me naked) she’d scribbled two words: Homo Sapiens”. It encapsulates Levy’s main gripe about the western, consumerist world, so obsessed with perfection This is what makes us human, the trying and failing to be perfect.

In a revolving way, the first story could easily be the last, if it wasn’t for its title, “A better way to live”. Joe is contemplating life, life In the broadest of terms the life of the 20th century. When he lost his mother the loving role was taken over by Elisa, both of them united by orphanage. Joe is allowed to see history through his mother’s stories “Benito Mussolini smiling in a hat with an eagle on it, the wall street crash…Rosa Parks on a Montgomery bus in the USA the day the buses were no longer separated”. When you think you have lost that love, you find it in the most unlikely of places. The orphanage is a refuge of lost love. Two are orphans of the 20th century, two humans, too human dealing with the hangover of a binge by others by before them.

This is the Booker after party, the hangover after the award and Christmas sales, and now is not the easiest time to be selling books. It is all about hardcore sales now. Good reads out of the window to some extent. They want your money, which is why the Booker prize is such bountiful enterprise as the publishers with Booker writers in their roster look to capitalise on the popularity. Which is nice that Black Vodka isn’t diluted Levy, it is a strong cocktail conjured by Levy, and an addictive one.This is the wreckage

The poison is strong.

Black Vodka by Deborah Levy is out now published by And Other Stories in paperback.  This review copy was provided by Necessary Fiction.

Suitcase Philosophy: Once in Golders Green, a review.

There are many people trying to find an identity in London, and there is no shortage of writers tackling this. Rohan Kriwackek is the next in series of short stories, and adding to this diverse range, Kriwaczek boasts, quite literally, being Jewish. These stories could be in any realm of time in any city because there are few allusions to London. It is more, matter of factly, what it means to be Jewish in contemporary society.

In the sampler sent out by Duckworth Publishing, there are two, narrative driven tales, interceded by a more nuanced, mediation of Jewish life and ritual. Once in Golders Green… the title of the collection is also the opening story, which follows Rohan Krizaczek in either semi-autobiographical mode or displaying another manifestation of himself as he struggles with lucid dreams and his understanding of being Jewish. It struck a note of the most recently acclaimed Jewish writer Howard Jacobson, The Finkler Question, as they struggle to, not understand what Judaism is, but how to be Jewish and how to act Jewish. The story opens with Rohan in a consultation with his doctor, who dies promptly, and is replaced by a female one ‘Dr Andrews, a waspish, sharp-nosed, middle aged woman with short reddish hair and the manner of a TV prison governess’. Things turn slightly Freudian, and should have perhaps been originally been set in a therapy, as Rohan delves into his dreams, and reveals his life as a pseudo-sexual zombie horror writer.

Rohan then doesn’t see the Doctors explanation as sufficient and seeks the  help of an elderly Rabbi who is reluctant to speak to him. After speaking to him, all the of the Rabbi’s existence mysteriously disappears, and in turn seeks the help of another Rabbi to find the meaning of The Story of the Slave. The narrative almost appears if its going down the route of an old fashioned gothic horror tale with added Jewish that ultimately prevents it from turning into a gimmick of conventional plot twists. It opens with.
“Dr, Dr, I keep dreaming i’m Jewish'”
This deadpan, Groucho, Jewish humour is prevalent throughout. When Rohan leaves the Rabbi a ghost tale that he asked him to write, and its ironic ending, it epitomises this humour.

We don’t know the author of Rohan in the opening story but it would make sense if we was in the emerging 20’s, because the dreams indicate the turbulent youth and influences of popular culture and the identity strife. The Rabbi that Rohan meets is stereotypically Jewish, ‘The sight that greeted me did not disappoint. Rabbi Kraven looked every bit the part: the long grey beard and twisted sidelocks, the small round skull-cap, the ill fitting black suit in a strangely old fashioned cut, the white tassels  hanging out under his jacket; it was all there, even the slightly oversized nosed’. It can only be assumed this is not derogatory, or Kriwaczek feels its O.K to say this because he would class himself as jewish, but for Rohan this is what he fears he might become in being jewish.

These stereotypes that Kriwaczek are constantly in combat as the Rabbi questions his writing influence on his dreams, ‘These dreams that you fear so much, the way you decribe them, they are all fragments of stories, and you, you claim to be a writer….’
“”But I’m not that kind of writer, I write horror, schlock-horror’
“Surely it’s all the same thing really. The same skills and techniques apply”
“I tried to restrain my irritation at the ignorance of this comment…”
Take that stereotype. The permanent instersitials of Rohan’s dreams leave us wondering whether the Rabbi Kraven really was real, or a figment of a repressed subconscious like his dreams, a dialectic conflict between Jewish and non-jewish identity. The first story begs the question of why did Kriwaczek use himself as the main character. He could have evaded using himself and been a nameless first person narrator, and this idea of identity struggle could have been more effective and less hinged on the narrative.

In the third story The Miraculous Rabbi Feldman one could be excused for thinking there’s an overlap from the first story, and we are in the same society, Rabbi Kraven, could be Rabbi Feldman.  This time though, the Rabbi  is the focal as his integrity is threatened both physically and symbolically when his synagogue comes under attack from thugs. Kriwaczek makes the thugs completely uncompromising, nonchalant, utterly devoid of any compassion,
“I’m going to fucking kill you, you mental motherfucker”
Standard, which later turns to,
“Hold on a minute mate, the fucking things jammed”
and when the gun fails to work again,
“I’m real sorry about this mate”.
But is thuggery inhumane? Or is it a by product of human nature. For Kriwaczek it seems, thuggery is inhumane that does not deserved to be discussed on a humane level.

Rabbi Feldman’s miraculous escape then becomes subject to tabloid press and exploitation. Everybody wants a piece of the miracle, but Feldman struggles with indignity of defacating himself.
‘The story made page six of the Sun, with the headline Would Jew Believe It’.  However Krizaczek does little to distance his stereotyping of thuggery and tabloid press. As disdainful as journalism and particularly tabloid journalism, he ought to tackle the subject with more deftness.  The symbolism of Rabbi Feldman’s tallis is worked well, as this is subject of the fabrications by the media, and investors. It boils down to the value offered by money and religion. But there seems to be no sanctuary from these two which is why the thuggery seems out of place, as there is no realm for them to fit in, they, unlike the characters of the other stories, there is no therapy for them, only for those stuck in the dogma of religion.

Kriwaczek’s acute mediations on philosophy are let down though by his undercutting, ill-judged stereotypes, ‘it was a young thug’s voice, sarcastic, theatening, distinctly working class, and it was coming from above them.  They all looked up to see the gun pointed at them from the gallery in the hands of a tall young man with a skin-head haircut…’. Kriwaczek may has well had said ‘all working class are skin head thugs’. There is also a lot of dreaming and self-defecating; psychodynamic therapists would have their biggest field day since a Philip Roth novel.

These two set pieces sandwich a small, understated work, The Suitcase by the Door. Here, we have lonely, elderly man, Aaron reflecting on the day of Pulkhan haTik. He is surrounded by relics of jewish and family history,
‘They looked awkward and out of place in such grand surroundings, but this evening was Pulkhan haTik, the ritual of the suitcase, an evening that had always been lit by those candlesticks; they had been his mother’s, and his grandmother’s before her, possibly going all the way back to Rabbi Levshin, his Great-Great-Great Grandfather’. The sense of an old fashioned way of life is overwhelming and the sense of being trapped in this construct, this dogma, and this stereotype prevails. Like Howard Jacobson in the Finkler Question as Julian Treslove tries to manufacture his identity only travels in a circle of unfulfilled shame,
‘there was much that he wasn’t proud of ; that he might have done differently if Mama had lived’.

Kriwaczek’s collection does has a lot to offer, there is a confused philosophy embedded within it. It doesn’t convey itself as characters in an identity crisis, or even the writer in an identity crisis, more so characters stuck in an old-fashioned religion and way of life that has been battered senseless over the years. Kriwaczeks apparent intelligence is sometimes let down by his style, verging on the colloquial, ‘Oh and nobody ever saw or heard of the man in a broad-brimmed hat again’ to the offensive, but he has wit and irony to combat this.

Once in Golders Green… is published by Duckworth Overlook and is released in February 2013.