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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?


I’ve just finished watching the 1972 BBC Adaptation of War & Peace. Those of you who follow the blog will know that I recently read the novel. I had seen the TV series before too, on its original broadcast, presumably in 1972 or ’73!

I can remember being hooked by the series, though apart from Anthony Hopkins I couldn’t remember any of the actors in it, by name or face. In fact, when I came to watch it again I didn’t know all that many. Rupert Davies I knew, and Eric Chitty (who took a small role), but most of the rest slipped by me. I can remember that at the time of that first showing my friends and I thought it was a good watch! Several of us made a point of viewing, despite being students, and the local pub open when it was on… there were no large screen viewings in the bar-room in those days.

I enjoyed seeing it again, and took the 20 episodes over about 8 evenings, mostly two at a time. The story is substantially the same as the novel, but the what I saw was not what I remember having seen. My memory told me that the action was good – the battle scenes at Borodino and Austerlitz especially. In fact the battle scenes, compared to those we are now used to, with CGI and hand held or helmet mounted cameras, were not only tame, but quite unconvincing in many respects. Cinematography has moved on, but storytelling is still storytelling.

Tolstoy didn’t have to create a visual representation of the Napoleonic battlefield, only evoke one, by his use of words – even in translation that worked – but TV had to show it to us, and that meant working within limitations, of cameras, special effects, and casting. There were thousands of extras, well hundreds at least, and said to be of the Red Army. The movements though were not convincing, and neither were the numbers. It was one of those situations where the viewer, suspending disbelief, has to say ‘we know what you mean’, even though we’re pretty sure it’s not what you’ve said, or in this case, shown.

I had another carp too. Moscow, as Tolstoy makes plain, at some length, was a wooden city. That’s why, he says, it burnt so easily, having been abanadoned by its authorities. There was wooden furniture, true, but nary a wooden structure in sight!

Tolstoy’s book isn’t about tactics though, nor about architecture. It’s about people, and society, and the TV captured that aspect of the book remarkably well, I thought. The long philosophical authorial asides of the book were put into the mouths, or minds with voices over, of the characters. In particular, Napoleon, convincingly portrayed, spoke much of what Tolstoy had speculated about him.

Even the first Epilogue was present, showing the post-war family of Pierre, and the political discussions it was involved in. This for me was one of the notable features of both book and film which I had not recalled from my youth. Tolstoy was pointing out to his contemporaries, in what to some extent was a ‘state of the nation’ novel, that if the Russian ruling class did not effectively manage change, it would be swept away by revolution from below. Strange, that as the TV series was being made the same might be said of the Soviet regime, which fell less than twenty years later.

One aspect that caught my attention was how the needs of the different media, text and film, meant that long passages of the book could be accomplished in a few seconds of film – an internal monolgue, for example, such as goes on in Andre’s head as he lies dying – whereas a passage quickly passed over in words, might be stretched to the greater part of an entire episode in film. I’m sure this is something to do with creating the context in which the burden of a passage is carried. A few words can suggest an enduring and wholly imagined background that in film, requires an elaborate set and continuous action to represent. Which brings me to an image to finish on, that of the long column of retreating French soldiers, wagons and prisoners, plodding across a snow swept landscape, to my mind, from this second viewing, the most powerful of all the images given us by the BBC version.


Another image, not quite so stark is that of the cover of BHD’s new collection of short stories, due out at the end of the month from Pewter Rose Press. Talking To Owls, a collection of 22 short stories, flash fictions and monologues, will be in their online shop, as paperback and e-book versions, from 31st of October. Just in time for Christmas then!!


Engagement with any artform is, I suspect, like a journey. With writing I’ve found it to be a journey that takes me past many questions, and some of those questions I have passed time and again. The answers, to stretch a metaphor, are the paths I taken onwards each time, and its them that bring me back to the questions. Every now and then though, I make a different answer, and end up on a new path. I suppose that’s what I must think of as progress. One such question concerns the relationships between writers and readers – or between readers-out and audiences. This question popped up recently over the issue of ‘reading and running’ – where performers do their thing, and then vanish! I’ve seen it at various venues, and it’s not about the ‘guest reader’, but about the open mic readers, the literary equivalents of the ‘floor’ singers we used to have in folk clubs, and probably still do.

I like the sort of clubs where the readers come out of the audience, and go back into it. Carlisle’s Speakeasy, at the Source cafe, was one such. In fact, we rarely had ‘guest readers’ at all. In a situation like that, to go on early and read your own work and then to leave the auditorium is not merely arrogant, but a metaphorical slap in the face to those readers yet to perform. Of course, there are times when we have to leave early, but there’s a line to be drawn between that and ‘reading and running’. Not staying to hear your contemporaries read does carry some implications. Most obvious is that they are not worth hearing, but there are deeper inclinations beyond that. The question is raised, for example, of why you would want to be heard by people who themselves are not worth listening to.

I remember a time when I was (passing a question on my journey) very keen to believe that my work was being read and listened to by people who weren’t writers. That, perversely it seems to me now, seemed to make them a ‘proper’ audience! One can see where such ideas come from. Other practitioners are competitors, commercially speaking, for such an audience, which is, in a sense, fodder to your artistic bank account, and fame. In those days I thought of writing to be read, or heard by other writers as a sort of Baroque exercise. Now I’m not so sure; in fact I’m about as sure the other way. This is why the reader and runner, I think, may be missing a trick. An audience of fellow writers knows a thing or two about what you’re trying to do, and if you hang around they’ll perhaps tell you a bit about it. They’ll give you a lesson or two in how it’s done as well (or how it’s not – which is almost as valuable). Of course, it’s good to see non-writers too, at the events I’m talking about, and to see and hear how they react to the writers who follow you. The supreme confidence that yours is the best work, and that the rest can be safely ignored, might be shaken if you stay to listen, but then again, it might be stirred.


I finished reading Tolstoy’s War & Peace a couple of days ago, and one element has stuck in my mind since. That was to do with the two epilogues that follow the main story. In case you have skipped them, given up before them, or not given the novel a go, I can point out that the first epilogue carries on the lives of the main protagonists over the next decade or so. It’s a curious continuation, tempting me to think it almost a blue-print for how Tolstoy thinks a private, domestic life ought to be lived. The second epilogue is even stranger. Here the author presents us with a closely argued, circa thirty page long (in my edition) essay about the nature of History and its writing. The content is not what I want to comment on, so much as the placing of the essay. A while back I read, and wrote about ‘Bonfire of the Vanities’. Tom Wolfe’s novel also has an essay (in the edition I read), but his is placed at the beginning. The thought struck me that in Wolfe’s case the essay must prejudice our understanding of the story (which it precedes), whereas Tolstoy’s story prejudices our understanding of his essay (which follows it). Looking at another big novel, Melville’s Moby Dick, we see a whole series of smaller essays, about whales and whaling, running through the entire story, like the marbling in good Aberdeen Angus beef. I’m reminded, that whatever scale we are thinking of, from the phrase, through the sentence, paragraph and chapter, to the whole book, in writing, what precedes prejudices our perception of what follows, and what follows amends our perceptions of what has gone before. This fundamental quality of language, that we take it one word at a time in order (despite the attempts of the avante-garde to create alternatives), is probably the single most important element in storytelling, whether in short stories, flash fiction, or doorstop novels, and I wouldn’t be surprised to find that it holds good for non-fiction prose, and for poetry too!