Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Gooseberries, Blackberries and Other Plotless Stories...

It's the summer holidays so routines have been splattered all over the place and my writing has suffered. I've started several stories but finished none of them. Part of the problem is that I've been trying to write the kind of stories people advise you to write. The kind with punchy openings that grip the reader and force them to press on. The kind of stories that sketch a character in a few lines who is so real you feel they could be a centre point for an entire novel. Trouble is that as the years go by I am less and less interested in plot. To make matters worse I've never been that interested in characters that seem real either. 

Then I read a couple of connected Chekhov stories - Gooseberries and About Love. This passage in Gooseberries stopped me dead. I read it twice. 

It's the correct thing to say that a man needs no more than six feet of earth. But six feet is what a corpse needs, not a man. And they say, too, now, that if our intellectual classes are attracted to the land and yearn for a farm, it's a good thing. But these farms are just the same as six feet of earth. To retreat from town, from the struggle, from the bustle of life, to retreat and bury oneself in one's farm - it's not life, it's egoism, laziness, it's monasticism of a sort, but monasticism without good works. A man does not need six feet of earth or a farm, but the whole globe, all nature, where he can have room to display all the qualities and peculiarities of his free spirit.

It was Tolstoy who suggested a man needed only six feet of land. 

Have not I retreated from the city? Have not I escaped the riots and looting of my beloved birthplace to make blackberry jam beside the sea? I finished the story and in a sign of it's quality continued thinking about it all day. The man who utters the passage above is the same man who takes great sensual delight in swimming in a mill pond earlier in the tale. He also greatly enjoys the hospitality of his country host. With great subtlety Chekhov is showing how it is possible to say one thing and do another without even realising you are contradicting yourself. He achieves this effect by paining vivid word-pictures for the reader then allowing  his characters to speak. The contrast between their words and actions leads the reader towards a fuzzy truth that is never clearly expressed. Having recently moved out of the city that passage resonated and seemed like an attack on the bourgeois complacency of my new life. And yet the story the man tells about his brother (who describes his home grown gooseberries as "delicious" where he finds them "sour and unripe") is unsatisfying to those listening. Why? Probably because on some level they appreciate the hypocrisy of his words though he is unaware of this himself. 

My point? Ah yes. I don't care if my stories have no easily graspable plot or message. I'm going to carry on writing the fuzzy stuff. Goodbye plot! Hello word-painting, poetry and confusion...

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