OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMy progress through ‘The World’s Thousand Best Stories’ has been like the exploration of a multi-veined mine. I was going to write multi-seamed, but seamed is one of those words that might lead us astray, like a vein of fool’s gold.

The ore I’ve just struck is that of the Russian short story writers. I read a couple of Schedrin’s, and then some Tolstoys. Elsewhere I’d been working my way through a four volume Chekhov – all these in translation I must add, which must surely throw a pennyweight or two in favour of content over form.

What struck me, and something always strikes me before I sit down at the computer and turn it into a blog-post, was that whereas I have found the Chekhov stories to be quite European, even when set on the Steppes, or in a Russian city, the two writers I mentioned previously had, to me, a distinctly non-European quality to them: perhaps, a quality of Russian-ness that I had not noticed so strongly in Chekhov. Of course, what we see reveals where we are….What can you see? is what you ask someone when they phone to tell you they are lost!

I can remember a reference years ago – I can’t tell you in what – to the ‘Slavic soul.’ This, applying to Russians, as far as I could see, came with a deep sense of gloom and sorrow, borne out of an understanding of, and an intimate connection to, not merely the land and its cycles of re-birth and decay, but the recognition of mortality, an ownership of it.

Perhaps it was the stories I had stumbled upon, the stories that a predominantly western European panel of editors had chosen to represent their Russians, but that sense was strongly present in my pair of writers. The Schedrin tales were Two Little Moujiks, and The Self-Sacrificing Rabbit. The first is an almost unbearable contemplation of suicide by two serving boys who can see no way out of their harsh lives, save death. They contemplate too a confrontation with God, who will demand an explanation, and having heard it, punish the wicked mistress whose cruelty has driven them to this sin. Schedrin is a political writer, a harsh satirist upon the harsh conditions endured by the pre-revolutionary peasants in their medieval lives. The second story is a no less trenchant allegory in which the peasants are represented by the rabbit, and the ruling class by a family of wolves to whom they are in thrall.

The Tolstoy stories, A Candle, and The Long Exile, whilst dealing with the same injustices, take a more overtly religious, and philosophical tack, the former ending with an assertion that ‘the power of God works by goodness and not by sin’. The eponymous candle is borne upon the handle of a plough, as a peasant ploughman is forced to work upon a Holy Day: miraculously, despite the movement of the plough, even on its turnings, the candle does not blow out, and the man prays as he works.

The other story is a bitter tale of injustice overcome, but not righted, and of a guilt that once acknowledged becomes a greater burden to the criminal than the injustice to the man he framed (an SAHB reference there, for the cognoscenti).

Reading these stories I could feel my scalp prickle (and will be taking the treatment). There is an awe-fulness about them, a sense of that huge grinding stone of time and fate that crushes us all, and which must be borne, and not evaded. I was reminded of that reference to the Slavic soul.

I also read some Turgeniev: The Singers, and Visions-A Phantasy.

Russian enough, but these Turgeniev tales did not have quite the heavy grandeur of the others. In fact, The Singers, a story of peasants in a pub, singing for the prize of a bucket of ale, reminded me of a Coppard story which has a similar theme. Visions-A Phantasy could have been French: the ghostly visitation of a woman in white. I don’t know why ghostly women always wear long white nighties, but I rather like them that way! This one takes the protagonist in her arms and carries him about the upper and lower atmosphere during the hours of darkness. Whatever lights your candle -and perhaps blows it out! There is a harder edge to the story, but I’ll leave that for you to discover, if you don’t already know it.

E.M.Forster, in Aspects of the Novel, raised the spectre of all writers, of all times, writing together in a single room. He was making the point that they were not necessarily conscious of working in their various schools, of technique, subject, nation or approach, but were merely – if that is the right word – writing. I’ve not found Forster having much to say on the short story – perhaps I haven’t looked hard enough – perhaps, he was one of those who dismissed the form as being lesser, but his idea is worth considering in relation to them. Of course, writers in the same room would be aware of each other, even if they were not aware of the groups that posterity would shoehorn them into. Time, along which axis we must travel at our own pace, and for our own distances, but undoubtedly all in the same direction, allows us to look back, but not to look forward, except in imagination. The writers of the future are not in our room, though they will, one day, be in the same room as our shades (nightied or otherwise).

Looking back at these Russian writers I can see them in relation to my own time more fully than I can to the time in which they wrote, and their indignation, their gloom and sorrow at the way of their world – a way which both the Tolstoys and the Schedrins believed was, in our response to it, a chosen way – could equally be applied to ours. And if writers remind us of each other, in their forms or contents, might it not be because they are dealing with similar issues, and from similar standpoints, rather than because they are Russian, or English, or whatever? Or might it be because we apply these group terms in specific situations because of the wrong thing that they have in common?

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