The Avid Reader: Helen Simpson on Anton Chekhov’s “Oysters”
Essential Reading Advice from Our Favorite Writers
Not long ago there was an exhibition of Russian portraits in London, and on the way out I bought Chekhov’s stern bespectacled image in a cardboard mount. This is now propped in my work room by the door so it’s the first thing I see when I come in.
“What time of day do you call this?”
“Ooh, ah, yes well I’m not feeling too good today.”
“You’re not feeling too good!”
In fact Chekhov’s friends thought this 1898 portrait by Iosif Braz looked nothing like him, while Chekhov himself said it made him look as though he’d been sniffing grated horseradish.
It was Katherine Mansfield who put me on to Chekhov. Once I’d read her stories I turned to her diaries and letters and was moved by her lonely and increasingly desperate health struggles. At 15 I was struck by how she called on Chekhov as a friend even though he was dead. In the various lonely chambres d’hôte and camere in pensione where she stayed in pursuit of a good lung climate, she would lie awake in the night and call on her fellow tubercular and tutelary deity, not that long dead himself in 1904 at the age of 43. In her journal in 1918 she wrote, “Ach, Tchehov! why are you dead? Why can’t I talk to you, in a big darkish room, at late evening—where the light is green from the waving trees outside. I’d like to write a series of Heavens: that would be one”; in a letter from Italy in 1919 to S.S.Koteliansky (with whom she worked on the first English translation of Chekhov’s letters), “I shall try and get well here. If I do die perhaps there will be a small private heaven for consumptives only. In that case I shall see Tchehov. He will be walking down his garden path with fruit trees on either side and tulips in flower in the garden beds. His dog will be sitting on the path, panting and slightly smiling as dogs do who have been running about a great deal.” It was in fact not long afterwards, in 1923, that she did die, aged 34.
From the evidence of their letters, they used similarly self-protective strategies of playfulness to deflect concern, sharing a horror of gloom and solemnity. And both could be very funny (glancing through Mansfield’s letters just now a passage on E.M.Forster’s Howard’s End caught my eye—“I can never be perfectly certain whether Helen was got with child by Leonard Bast or by his fatal forgotten umbrella. All things considered, I think it must have been the umbrella.”)
Anyway, for the last few weeks, once I’ve shuffled past the horseradish-sniffer to my desk, I’ve been reading a couple of his letters to start the day. You’d certainly have looked forward to getting one of these in the post. Yes, here are the fruit trees and tulips mentioned by Mansfield as well as his twin dachshunds, Quinine and Bromide. He was a prolific correspondent, leaving some four-and-a-half-thousand letters. In them he complains about his piles and of the unsatisfactory mosquito-ridden privies encountered during his travels: on a visit to the steppes, “I have to sleep on a decrepit couch with hardly any upholstery left on it; it is very hard. For six miles around there is no such thing as a latrine or an ashtray or similar aids to comfortable living. If you need to renew acquaintance with Mlle Merde, you have to go down into the ravine (whatever the weather) and choose your bush. Before sitting down, however, you are well advised to satisfy yourself that the ground beneath said bush is free of vipers and suchlike creatures.”
He frequently gives acutely funny observational vignettes: “Before lunch—a long conversation with Mme Suvorina on how much she loathes the human race, followed by how she bought a jacket today for 120 roubles. After lunch we talk about migraine, and the children never take their eyes off me because they are waiting for me to say something incredibly clever.” Two of his brothers were alcoholics as well as having writing ambitions and he pulled no punches with them, giving advice which is both abruptly impatient and affectionate: “Forgive me, my dear fellow, but there’s more to being a parent than just what you say to your children. You need to teach by example. When you leave the clean linen all mixed up together with the dirty linen, the table covered in scraps of leftover food, filthy rags everywhere, your spouse going round with her tits hanging out and a bit of ribbon round her neck as filthy as Kontorskaya Street—this kind of thing can ruin a little girl from her earliest years.” He was 24 at this point of concern about his niece.
And of course Chekhov frequently says very useful and unusual things about writing fiction. This morning I started the day with this comment to Alexey Pleshcheyev, one of his editors: “Because I am so used to short stories that consist of little more than a beginning and an end, I lose interest as soon as I feel that I am writing a middle, and tend to make too much of a meal of it” (which made me remember in turn how Galsworthy objected somewhere to Chekhov’s stories being “all middle like a tortoise”).
Take one of his very short early stories, “Oysters.” I love it because it is so—quick. In both senses of the word. Speedy and vital. It moves. Chekhov is king of the short story because he knows when to linger and elaborate—and when to keep quiet. Here, a man is begging—incompetently—on a Moscow street corner with his famished eight-year-old son at his side. Only three or four lines are given to why they are here begging. A novelist would need to describe when and where and how this is happening, but Chekhov is governed by no such gossip imperative. More than half this story is spent, well away from cause and effect, on the child-narrator’s hunger-induced surreal imaginings. (Look out for the monster toothy frogs.) It’s piercingly sad and outlandishly funny. No conclusion is reached, the story ends in the air, yet—nothing more needs to be said.
P.S. Another link between Mansfield and Chekhov which I did not know until years later was the accusation of plagiarism leveled at the former stemming from her story “The-Child-Who-Was-Tired.” This was published in her collection In a German Pension (1911), which she had apparently adapted from a German translation of “Spat’ Khochetsya” (variously translated as “Sleepy” or “Let Me Sleep”), a story written by Chekhov in Mansfield’s birth year, 1888. The story is about an exhausted babysitter who smothers a baby so she can get some sleep. Claire Tomalin speculates convincingly in her biography of Mansfield that she was blackmailed about it by a beady ex-lover, Floryan Sobieniowski.
Helen Simpson’s latest story collection, Cockfosters, is available now in paperback.