The Nearest Thing To Life

James Wood

April 8, 2015 
The following is chapter two from James Wood’s forthcoming memoir, The Nearest Thing to Life, a blend of criticism and biography drawn from his 2013 Mandel Lectures for the Humanities. Wood’s latest collection of critical essays is The Fun Stuff: And Other Essays. He is also the author of How Fiction Works. Wood is a staff writer and book critic at The New Yorker.

Serious Noticing


For the last twenty years or so, I have returned again and again to a remarkable story, written by Anton Chekhov when he was twenty-seven. It’s called “The Kiss.” A regiment of soldiers has been billeted in a provincial town. The owner of the town’s biggest house invites the officers to tea and a ball. One of them, a naïve Staff-Captain named Ryabovich, does not find it as easy as his confident peers to dance with the women. He is “a short, round-shouldered officer in spectacles and with whiskers like a lynx’s.” He watches his fellow-officers talk easily and flirtatiously with the women. “In the whole of his life he had never once danced, nor had he ever put his arm round the waist of a respectable woman…There was a time when he envied the confidence and go of his comrades and suffered mental anguish; the awareness that he was timid, round-shouldered and drab, that he had lynx-like whiskers and no hips, hurt him profoundly, but with the passing of the years he had become inured to this, so that now, as he looked at his comrades dancing or conversing loudly, he no longer experienced envy, only a feeling of wistful admiration.”

To hide his embarrassment and boredom, he goes wandering in the large house, and gets lost, ending up in a dark room. Here, writes Chekhov, “as in the ballroom, the windows were wide open and there was a scent of poplar, lilac, and roses.” Suddenly, behind him, he hears rushed footsteps. A woman approaches and kisses him. They both gasp, and both instantly realize that she has kissed the wrong man; she quickly retreats. Ryabovich returns to the ballroom, his hands shaking. Something has happened to him. “His neck, which had just been embraced by soft fragrant arms, seemed to have been bathed with oil; at the spot on his cheek by his left moustache where the unknown woman had kissed him, there was a slight, pleasant, cold tingling, such as you get from peppermints, and the more he rubbed the spot, the more pronounced this tingling became, whilst the whole of him, from top to toe, was filled with a new, peculiar feeling that grew and grew… He felt he wanted to dance, run into the garden, laugh out loud…”

The incident grows in size and importance in the young soldier’s mind. He has never kissed a woman before. In the ballroom, he looks at each of the women in turn, and convinces himself that she was the one. That night, when he goes to bed, he has the sensation that “someone had been kind to him and made him happy, that something unusual, absurd, but extremely good and full of joy, had taken place in his life.”

The next day the regiment breaks camp, and moves on. Ryabovich cannot stop thinking about the kiss, and a few days later, at dinner, while his fellow-officers are chatting and reading the newspapers, he summons the courage to tell his story. He does tell it, and a minute later falls silent. Because it only took a minute to tell. And Ryabovich is amazed, writes Chekhov, “to find that the story had taken such a short time. He had thought he could go on talking about the kiss all night.” To add to the sense of failure, his fellow-officers seem either bored by his short tale or sceptical of its veracity. Eventually the regiment returns to the town where the event took place. Ryabovich hopes for another invitation to the big house. But it doesn’t happen, and he wanders down to a river near the house, feeling cynical and disillusioned. There are some sheets hanging over the rail of the bridge, “and for no good reason,” he touches one of the sheets. “How absurd!… How stupid it all is!” he thinks, as he gazes at the water.

There are two absolutely lancing sentences in this story: “In that minute he had told it all and was quite amazed to find that the story had taken such a short time. He had thought he could go on talking about the kiss all night.”

What a serious noticer a writer must be to write those lines. Chekhov appears to notice everything. He sees that the story we tell in our heads is the most important one, because we are internal expansionists, comic fantasists. For Ryabovich, his story has grown bigger and bigger, and has joined, in real time, the rhythm of life. Chekhov sees that Ryabovich, painfully, does and doesn’t need an audience for his story. Perhaps Chekhov is also jokily suggesting that, unlike Chekhov, the captain wasn’t much of a storyteller. For there is the inescapable irony that Chekhov’s own story, while taking a bit longer than a minute to tell, does not take all evening to read: like many of his tales, it is brisk and brief. Had Chekhov told it, people would have listened. Yet Chekhov also suggests that even the story we have just read—Chekhov’s brief story—is not the whole account of Ryabovich’s experience; that just as Ryabovich failed to tell it all, so perhaps Chekhov has failed to tell it all. There is still the enigma of what Ryabovich wanted to say.

“The Kiss” is a story about a story, and reminds us that one definition of a story might be that it always produces more of them. A story is story-producing. There is Chekhov’s tale; there is the discrete incident that befalls Ryabovich; and there is the untold, bottomless story that Ryabovich makes, and fails to make, of that incident. No single story can ever explain itself: this enigma at the heart of story is itself a story. Stories produce offspring, genetic splinters of themselves, hapless embodiments of their original inability to tell the whole tale.

One might say that stories are dynamic combinations of surplus and disappointment; in a way, the surplus is the exquisite disappointment. A story is endless, begun and ended not by its own logic but by the coercive form of the storyteller; the pure surplus of life trying to get beyond the death which authorial form imposes. The story Ryabovich would ideally tell, the one that would take all evening and not a mere minute, might be the whole story of his life—something like the tale Chekhov has been telling us, though doubtless much longer and less shapely. It would not just recount the incident in the dark room, but might tell us about Ryabovich’s shyness, his innocence of women, his sloping shoulders and lynx-like whiskers. It might recount things not mentioned by Chekhov, the kinds of episodes that a novel might find room for—his parents (how his father bullied him, and his mother indulged him); how his decision to become a soldier was undertaken partly to please his father, and was never something Ryabovich wanted to do; how he dislikes and rather envies his fellow-officers; how he writes poetry in his spare time, but has never shared a single line with anyone; how he dislikes his lynx-like whiskers, but needs them because they obscure an area of pitted skin.

But just as Ryabovich’s one-minute story is not really worth telling, is not really a story, so the shapeless story that would take all evening is too shapeless, is not enough of a story. Ryabovich, one suspects, needs a Chekhovian eye for detail, the ability to notice well and seriously, the genius for selection. Do you think that Ryabovich mentioned, when he told his tale to his fellow-soldiers, that the darkened room smelt of lilacs, poplar, and roses? Do you think that Ryabovich mentioned that when the woman kissed him, his cheek glowed, as if brushed with peppermint? I doubt it. But if the life of a story is in its excess, in its surplus, in the riot of things beyond order and form, then it can also be said that the life-surplus of a story lies in its details. The detail about the peppermint, like the tingle felt by Ryabovich on his cheek, lingers for us: all we have to do is rub the spot.

It is details that make a story personal. Stories are made of details; we snag on them. Details are the what, or maybe we should say the whatness of stories. Henry James has a wonderful phrase in one of his letters. Chiding Sarah Orne Jewett for writing an historical novel, he says that novels should deal with “the palpable present-intimate.” Detail provides that “palpable intimacy.” Henry Green’s novel, Loving (1945), is set in an Anglo-Irish country house, and deals largely with the lives of its Cockney servants. There is a moment in that book not unlike Chekhov’s “The Kiss” (and Green was a keen student of Chekhov), when the young housemaid, Edith, enters the room of her mistress, Mrs. Jack, to open the curtains and bring the morning tea. Edith gets a shock, because Mrs. Jack is in bed with Captain Davenport, who is not her husband. As Captain Davenport quickly disappears under the sheets, Mrs. Jack sits upright, naked, and Edith runs from the room. She had seen, writes Green in a memorable phrase, “that great brilliant upper part of” Mrs. Jack, “on which, wayward, were two dark upraised dry wounds shaking on her.” Edith is shocked but secretly thrilled—partly because it happened to her and not anyone else; partly because, as an innocent young woman, the witnessing of this scene is an initiation, at one remove, into the glamour of adult sexual relations (though Green doesn’t tell us this explicitly); partly because it’s something to wield in her encounters with Charley Raunce, the butler, with whom she has been increasingly flirtatious.

As in Ryabovich’s case, Edith’s story is intensely valuable to her, a treasure to be both hoarded and haplessly given away. “Well isn’t this a knock out,” she crows to Charley Raunce. “An’ it happened to me…after all these years.” Charley, always cautious when Edith seems to be one erotic step ahead of him, is not as happy as she is. “Well, aren’t you glad?” she asks, insistently. “You’re going to try and take that from me?”

Why [she continues] there’s all those stories you’ve had, openin’ this door and seeing that when you were in a place in Dorset and lookin’ through the bathroom window in Wales an’ suchlike…and now it’s come to me. Right a’bed they was next to one another. Stuff that in your old smelly pipe and smoke it.

When Raunce tries to dismiss the singularity of Edith’s experience, by claiming that the former butler, Mr. Eldon, also caught Mrs. Jack and her lover in bed, Edith bursts out in splendid indignation: “D’you stand there an’ tell me Mr. Eldon had come upon them some time? Just as I did? That she sat up in bed with her fronts bobblin’ at him like a pair of geese the way she did to me?” It’s a beautiful outburst: you don’t easily forget that brilliant, almost Shakespearean neologism, “fronts,” or the idea of breasts bobbling like a pair of geese.

Detail is always someone’s detail. Henry Green’s own diction is eloquent, lyrical, and sharply particular. As the literary author, as the modernist author in third-person, he describes Mrs. Jack’s breasts as “dry upraised wounds.” I think he means nothing sinister by this. Like a good painter, he is getting us to look harder than we usually do at a nipple—the way the darker skin around it can look like tender scar tissue (hence “wounds”). But Edith makes the story her own by seeing her details, using her words and similes. Isn’t there a moving quality of desperation about Edith’s need to keep the story hers? She fears that Raunce will take it away from her, she wants her story to be the equal of Mr. Raunce’s stories from Dorset and Wales; and the very force of her language seems an attempt to ensure that whatever Mr. Eldon saw, he did not see what she saw, because he did not see it as vividly and pungently as she did.

Like Ryabovich and Edith, we are the sum of our details. (Or rather, we exceed the sum of our details; we fail to compute.) The details are the stories; stories in miniature. As we get older, some of those details fade, and others, paradoxically, become more vivid. We are, in a way, all internal fiction writers and poets, re-writing our memories.

I find that my memory is always yeasting up, turning one-minute moments into loafing, ten-minute reveries. Displacement also adds its own difficulties. I sometimes feel, for instance, that I grew up not in the 1970s and 80s but in the 1870s and 80s. I doubt I would feel this if I still lived in Britain, but the vanishing of certain habits and traditions, along with my leaving that country for the United States in 1995, combine to make my childhood seem ridiculously remote. Often, in conversation in the States, I’m about to start a story about some aspect of my childhood, some memory, and I stop, aware that I can’t quite heave into narrative the incommunicable mass of obscure and distant detail. I would have to explain too much—and then I would not have a story, would not have details, but explication; or my story would have to begin too early and end too late: it would take all evening to tell.

I was born in 1965, and grew up in a northern English town, Durham, home to a university, a majestic Romanesque cathedral, and surrounded by coalfields, many of them now abandoned. Every house had a hearth and fire, and coal, rather than wood, was used as domestic fuel. Every few weeks, a lorry arrived, piled with lumpy burlap sacks; the coal was then poured down a chute into the house’s cellar—I vividly remember the volcanic sound, as it tumbled into the cellar, and the drifting, blueish coal-dust, and the dark, small men who carried those sacks on their backs, with tough leather pads on their shoulders.

I went to school in Durham, an ecclesiastical institution strong in subjects like Latin, history, and music. I sang in the cathedral choir, a kind of glorious indentured servitude—we performed evensong every day, and three services on Sundays. Every afternoon, we lined up in two equal columns, to walk from the school to the cathedral—dressed in thick black capes that were clasped at the neck, and black mortar boards with frondy purple tassels. The dormitories were so cold in the morning that we learned how to dress in bed. The school’s headmaster, The Reverend Canon John Grove, was probably only in his early fifties, but seemed to us a fantastically antique figure. He was a bachelor and a clergyman, and wore the uniform of his calling: a black suit, a black buttonless shirt, a thick white clerical collar. (In a poem by the Scottish poet Robin Robertson, whose father was a minister, there is the wonderful detail that his father’s clerical collar was a strip of white plastic cut from a bottle of washing-up liquid.) Except for the band of white starch round his neck, Canon Grove was entirely colourless—his ancient Oxford shoes were black, his thick spectacles were black, the pipe he smoked was black. He seemed to have been carbonized centuries ago, turned into ash, and when he lit his pipe, it seemed as if he was lighting himself. Like all children, we were fascinated by the match held over the pipe-bowl, by the flame steadily journeying along the flimsy match, entranced by the sucking noises of the smoker, and the way the flame halted its horizontal passage at these moments and then briefly disappeared vertically into the bowl. And always there was the question: how can he hold the match alight for so long, with such reptilian imperviousness?

This headmaster was quite a kind soul, in his way, but he stuck to the codes of punishment he understood. Boys guilty of major sins were given “six of the best,” six hard, stinging smacks on the arse, with the back of a large, flat, wooden hairbrush. By the time I left this school, at the age of thirteen, I was pretty triumphant about how many “whacks” of the hairbrush I had accumulated—106, to be precise. It seems a measure of this pastness that when I announced this enormous sum to my parents, they had no impulse to complain about the school and merely enquired, mildly, “Whatever have you been up to?”

Sometimes, at home, I found a tramp sitting in a chair in the kitchen, drinking a cup of tea and eating a sandwich my mother had made for him. Tom came every so often for a bite to eat before hitting the road again. He was epileptic, and once had a fit while in our kitchen, rocking back and forth, his eyes tightly closed, his hands twisting the dirty cloth of his trousers. Many years later, poor man, he fell into a fire while having a fit, and died. Tom had never been on a train, a fact that riveted me when I was a little boy. He had almost no concept of London, or even of the south of England. When I eventually went away down south, to university, Tom, who liked stamps, asked me to bring back any I might acquire, as if the south of England were a foreign country.

The cathedral is still there—massive, grey, long, solemn—but much of the rest of that world has disappeared. The coal-fields were already in serious decline when I was growing up, and most of the collieries had already closed. Coal is no longer as potent or as popular—or as native—as it once was in England. Of course, this also means that fewer men go underground to hack at coal-seams in dangerous conditions, as Orwell described so vividly in The Road to Wigan Pier. Fortunately, striking a child’s bottom with a hard object is no longer considered an appropriate punishment; there probably isn’t a school in Britain where systematic corporal punishment is still allowed, an astonishingly rapid development that began almost as soon as I entered my teens. And one doubts that tramps come round for sandwiches and tea—though they certainly still go somewhere for sandwiches and tea. When I describe this world to my twelve-year-old daughter and ten-year-old son, I seem to grow whiskers and a frock-coat: they stare with amused eyes at a father now absurdly prehistoric. They live in a much gentler but oddly sanitized world, in which the only discipline at school seems to be a murmured “time out” from the teacher, and illnesses like epilepsy happen out of sight. No one smokes much, certainly not teachers, and pipes are known only from old movies and photographs.

Of course, I don’t want my children to have exactly the same childhood as I did: that would almost be a definition of conservatism. But I would like them to be assaulted by the pungency, by the vivid strength and strangeness of detail, as I was as a child; and I want them to notice and remember. (I’m also aware that worrying about lack of pungency is a peculiarly middle-class, Western affliction; much of the world is full of people suffering from a surfeit of bloody pungency.) The carbonized clergyman; dressing in bed; Tom sitting by the kitchen drinking his sweet tea; the coal men with their leather jackets—you have your equivalent details, the whatness or thisness of your own stories.

Here is a paragraph from the Bosnian-American writer Aleksandar Hemon. It is from his story, “Exchange of Pleasant Words,” about a drunken and exuberant family reunion—what the family calls a Hemoniad—in rural Bosnia. The viewpoint is that of a teenager, close to the ground, and drunk:

The noxious, sour manure stench coming from the pigsty; the howling of the only piglet left alive; the fluttering of fleeting chickens; pungent smoke coming from moribund pig-roast fires; relentless shuffling and rustling of the gravel on which many feet danced; my aunts and other auntly women trodding the kolomiyka on the gravel, their ankles universally swollen, and their skin-hued stockings descending slowly down their varicose calves; the scent of a pine plank and then prickly coarseness of its surface, as I laid my head on it and everything spun, as if I were a washing machine; my cousin Ivan’s sandaled left foot tap-tapping on the stage, headed by its rotund big toe; the vast fields of cakes and pastries arrayed on the bed (on which my grandmother had expired), meticulously sorted in chocolate and non-chocolate phalanxes.

Hemon, who left his native Sarajevo in 1992 and now lives in Chicago, loves lists—and when he has such good inherited material, why wouldn’t he? Notice, in particular, “the howling of the only piglet left alive,” and the phalanxes of cakes and pastries arrayed on the same bed that the grandmother has expired on.

In ordinary life, we don’t spend very long looking at things or at the natural world or at people, but writers do. It is what literature has in common with painting, drawing, photography. You could say, following John Berger, that civilians merely see, while artists look. In an essay on drawing, Berger writes that, “To draw is to look, examining the structure of experiences. A drawing of a tree shows, not a tree, but a tree being looked at. Whereas the sight of a tree is registered almost instantaneously, the examination of the sight of a tree (a tree being looked at) not only takes minutes of hours instead of a fraction of a second, it also involves, derives from, and refers back to, much previous experience of looking.” Berger is saying two things, at least. First, that just as the artist takes pains—and many hours—to examine that tree, so the person who looks hard at the drawing, or reads a description of a tree on the page, learns how to take pains, too; learns how to change seeing into looking. Second, Berger seems to argue that every great drawing of a tree has a relation to every previous great drawing of a tree, since artists learn by both looking at the world and by looking at what other artists have done with the world. Our looking is always mediated by other representations of looking.

Berger doesn’t mention literary examples. But in the novel, think of the famous tree in War and Peace, which Prince Andrei rides past first in early spring, and then, a month later, in late spring. On his second journey, Andrei doesn’t recognize the tree, because it is so changed. Before, it had been leafless and wintry. Now, it is in full bloom, surrounded by other trees similarly alive: “Juicy green leaves without branches broke through the stiff, hundred-year old bark, and it was impossible to believe that this old fellow had issued them.” Prince Andrei notices the tree in part because he too has changed: its healthy blossoming is related to his own.

Seventy or so years later, in his novel Nausea, Jean-Paul Sartre surely has in mind Tolstoy’s two tree descriptions when he has his protagonist, Antoine Roquentin, experience the pivotal epiphany of the novel while looking at and thinking about a tree. When Roquentin looks at his tree, he brings to it his own speculative habits. He looks very hard at this chestnut, and especially at its roots: the bark, black and blistered, looks like boiled leather, he feels. He sees its “compact sea-lion skin…that oily, horny, stubborn look,” and he likens the curve of the root as it enters the ground to a “big, rugged paw.” The epiphany that Roquentin has is an early version of Sartrean existentialism: he feels that the tree, like everything in the park, including himself, is absolutely superfluous, and has no necessity.

What is more interesting, perhaps, than his philosophy, is his revelation: that what exists is simply there—what exists “lets itself be encountered, but you can never deduce it.” (Sartre’s italics.) As long as he has this revelation, “I was the root of the chestnut tree. Or rather I was all consciousness of its existence. Still detached from it—since I was conscious of it—and yet lost in it, nothing but it.” And when, later, he tries to formulate the philosophical conclusion from this visionary moment, he notices that he is struggling with words, whereas when he stood under the tree “he touched the thing… That root… existed in so far that I could not explain it.” If the drawing of a tree is not a tree but a tree being looked at, then the verbal description of a tree is not a tree but a tree being looked at being described. The description of the looking-at is part of the surplus I am trying to define; part of both the life of fiction and part of its difficulty; part of the way that stories produce stories. This, I suspect, is what dismays the thoughtful, wordy, philosophical Roquentin (as it would not bother the less philosophical Prince Andrei). Language enables and obstructs; language keeps on putting out fresh shoots, new branches.


From THE NEAREST THING TO LIFE. Used with the permission of the publisher, University Press New England. Copyright © 2015 by James Wood.

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