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The Short Story (1958)

Non-Fiction > Points of View >


1

A good many years ago the editor of a great new encyclopædia which was in preparation wrote to ask me if I would contribute the article on the short story. I was flattered by the compliment, but declined. Having been myself a writer of short stories, I did not think I could write such a piece with the impartiality it required. For a writer of short stories writes them in the way he thinks best; otherwise he would write them differently. There are several ways of writing them, and each writer uses the way that accords with his own idiosyncrasies. It seemed to me that the article on the subject would be much more adequately written by a man of letters who had never written stories himself. There would be nothing to prevent him from being an unbiased judge. Take, for instance, the stories of Henry James. He wrote many, and they are greatly admired by cultivated readers whose opinion one is bound to respect. It is impossible, I imagine, for anyone who knew Henry James in the flesh to read his stories dispassionately. He got the sound of his voice into every line he wrote, and you accept the convoluted style of so much of his work, his long-windedness and his mannerisms, because they are part and parcel of the charm, benignity and amusing pomposity of the man you remember. But, for all that, I find his stories highly unsatisfactory. I do not believe them. I do not believe that anyone who could visualise a child's agony when suffering from diphtheria could conceive that the child's mother would let him die sooner than allow him to grow up to read his father's books. That is what happens in a story called The Author of Beltraffio. I don't think Henry James ever knew how ordinary people behave. His characters have neither bowels nor sexual organs. He wrote a number of stories about men of letters, and it is told that when someone protested that literary men were not like that, he retorted, "So much the worse for them." Presumably, he did not look upon himself as a realist. Though I do not know that it is a fact, I surmise that he regarded Madame Bovary with horror. On one occasion Matisse was showing a lady a picture of his in which he had painted a naked woman, and the lady exclaimed, "But a woman isn't like that": to which he answered, "It isn't a woman, madam, it's a picture." I think, similarly, if someone had ventured to suggest that a story of James's was not like life, he would have replied, "It isn't life, it's a story."

Henry James stated his position on this matter in a preface he wrote to a collection of stories which he entitled The Lesson of the Master. It is a difficult piece and, though l have read it three times, I am not at all sure that I understand it. I think the gist is that, confronted with "the preponderant futilities and miseries of life" it is only natural that an author should seek "some fine example of the reaction, the opposition or the escape"; and since he cannot find models in real life to illustrate his intention, he must evolve them out of his inner consciousness. The difficulty, it seems to me, is that the author has to give these creatures of his invention some of the common traits of human beings, and they do not fit in with the traits he has arbitrarily ascribed to them, with the result that they fail to convince. But this is only an impression of my own, and I ask nobody to agree with me. Once, when Desmond MacCarthy was staying with me on the Riviera, we talked much of Henry James's stories. Memories are short nowadays and I may remind the reader that Desmond MacCarthy was not only a charming companion, but a very good critic. He was widely read, and he had the advantage, that not all critics have, of being a man of the world. His judgments within their limitations (he was somewhat indifferent to the plastic arts and to music) were sound, for his erudition was combined with a shrewd knowledge of life. On this particular occasion we were sitting in the drawing-room after dinner and in the course of conversation I hazarded the remark that for all their elaboration many of Henry James's stories were uncommonly trivial. To this Desmond, who had a passionate admiration for him, violently protested; so, to tease him, I invented on the spur of the moment what I claimed was a typical Henry James story. As far as I remember, it ran somewhat as follows:

Colonel and Mrs. Blimp lived in a fine house in Lowndes Square. They had spent part of the winter on the Riviera, where they had made friends with some rich Americans called–I hesitated for a name–called Bremerton Fisher. The Fishers had entertained them sumptuously, taken them on excursions to La Mortola, to Aix and Avignon, and had invariably insisted on paying the bill. When the Blimps left to return to England, they had pressed their generous hosts to let them know as soon as they came to London; and that morning Mrs. Blimp had read in the Morning Post that Mr. and Mrs. Bremerton Fisher had arrived at Brown's Hotel. It was evident that it was only decent for the Blimps to do something in return for the lavish hospitality they had received. While they were deciding what to do, a friend came in for a cup of tea. This was an expatriated American, called Howard, who had long cherished a platonic passion for Mrs. Blimp. Of course she had never thought of yielding to his advances, which in fact were never pressing; but it was a beautiful relationship. Howard was the sort of American who, after living in England for twenty years, was more English than the English. He knew everybody of consequence and, as the phrase goes, went everywhere. Mrs. Blimp acquainted him with the situation. The Colonel proposed that they should give a dinner party for the strangers. Mrs. Blimp was doubtful. She knew that people with whom you have been intimate when abroad, and found charming, may seem very different when you see them again in London. If they asked the Fishers to meet their nice friends, and all their friends were nice, their friends would find them a crashing bore and the poor Fishers would be dreadfully 'out of it'. Howard agreed with her. He knew from bitter experience that such a party was almost always a disastrous flop. "Why not ask them to dinner by themselves?" said the Colonel. Mrs. Blimp objected that this would look as though they were ashamed of them or had no nice friends. Then he suggested that they should take the Fishers to a play and to supper at the Savoy afterwards. That didn't seem adequate. "We must do something," said the Colonel. "Of course we must do something," said Mrs. Blimp. She wished he wouldn't interfere. He had all the sterling qualities you expected from a colonel of the Guards, he hadn't got his D.S.O. for nothing, but when it came to social matters he was hopeless. She felt that this was a matter that she and Howard must decide for themselves; so next morning, nothing having been arranged, she telephoned to him and asked him to drop in for a drink at six o'clock when the Colonel would be playing bridge at his Club.

He came, and from then on came every evening. Week after week Mrs. Blimp and he considered the pros and cons. They discussed the matter from every standpoint and from every angle. Every point was taken and examined with unparalleled subtlety. Who could have believed that it would be the Colonel who provided the solution? He happened to be present at one of the meetings between Mrs. Blimp and Howard while, almost desperate by now, they surveyed the difficult situation. "Why don't you leave cards?" he said. "Perfect," cried Howard. Mrs. Blimp gave a gasp of pleased surprise. She threw a proud glance at Howard. She knew that he thought the Colonel something of a pompous ass totally unworthy of her. Her glance said, "There, that's the true Englishman. He may not be very clever, he may be rather dull, but when it comes to a crisis you can depend upon him to do the right thing."

Mrs. Blimp was not the woman to hesitate when the course open to her was clear. She rang for the butler and told him to have the brougham brought round at once. To do the Fishers honour she put on her smartest dress and a new hat. With her card case in her hand, she drove to Brown's Hotel–only to be told that the Fishers had left that morning for Liverpool to take the Cunarder back to New York.

Desmond listened rather sourly to my mocking story; then he chuckled. "But what you forget, my poor Willie," he said, "is that Henry James would have given the story the classic dignity of St. Paul's Cathedral, the brooding horror of St. Pancras and–and the dusty splendour of Woburn."

At this we both burst out laughing, I gave him another whisky and soda, and in due course, well pleased with ourselves, we parted to go to our respective bedrooms.

2

Rather more than twenty years ago I wrote for American readers a long introduction to a selection I had made of short stories written during the nineteenth century. Some ten years later I used much of what I had said then in a lecture on the short story which I delivered before the members of the Royal Society of Literature. My anthology was never published in England and has been long out of print in America; and though my lecture was printed in the annual volume which the Royal Society of Literature issues of the lectures that have been delivered before it, it was available only to its members. On reading of late these two dissertations I found that on some points I had changed my mind and that certain predictions I had made had not been borne out by the event. In the following pages, though I am bound to repeat a good deal of what I have said before, more or less in the same words, since I do not know how to say what I have to say any better than I said it before, I propose to offer the reader my reflections, such as they are, on a variety of literary production which in the past I have myself somewhat assiduously practised.

It is natural for men to tell tales, and I suppose the short story was created in the night of time when the hunter, to beguile the leisure of his fellows when they had eaten and drunk their fill, narrated by the cavern fire some fantastic incident he had heard of. To this day in the cities of the East you can see the storyteller sitting in the market-place, surrounded by a circle of eager listeners, and hear him tell the tales that he has inherited from an immemorial past. But I suggest that it was not till the nineteenth century that the short story acquired a currency that made it an important feature of literary production. Of course short stories had been written before and widely read: there were the religious stories of Greek origin, there were the edifying narratives of the Middle Ages, and there were the immortal stories of The Thousand and One Nights. Throughout the Renaissance, in Italy and Spain, in France and England, there was a great vogue for brief tales. The Decameron of Boccaccio and the Exemplary Tales of Cervantes are its imperishable monuments. But with the rise of the novel the vogue dwindled. The booksellers would no longer pay good money for a collection of short stories, and the authors came to look askance on a form of fiction that brought them neither profit nor renown. When from time to time, conceiving a theme that they could adequately treat at no great length, they wrote a short story, they did not quite know what to do with it; and so, unwilling to waste it, they inserted it, sometimes, one must admit, very clumsily, into the body of their novels.

But at the beginning of the nineteenth century a new form of publication was put before the reading public which soon acquired an immense popularity. This was the annuaL It seems to have originated in Germany. It was a miscellany of prose and verse, and in its native land provided its readers with substantial fare, for we are told that Schiller's Maid of Orleans and Goethe's Hermann and Dorothea first appeared in periodicals of this nature. But when their success led English publishers to imitate them, they relied chiefly on short stories to attract a sufficiency of readers to make the undertaking profitable.

It is fitting now that I should tell the reader something about literary composition of which, so far as I know, the critics, whose duty it doubtless is to guide and instruct him, have neglected to apprise him. The writer has in him the urge to create, but he has, besides, the desire to place before the reader the result of his labour and the desire (a harmless one with which the reader is not concerned) to earn his bread and butter. On the whole he finds it possible to direct his creative faculty into the channels that will enable him to satisfy these modest aims. At the risk of shocking the reader who thinks the writer's inspiration should be uninfluenced by practical considerations, I must further tell him that writers quite naturally find themselves impelled to write the sort of things for which there is a demand. That is not surprising, for they are not only writers, they are also readers, and, as such, members of the public subject to the prevalent climate of opinion. When plays in verse might bring an author fame, if not fortune, it would probably have been difficult to find a young man of literary bent who had not among his papers a tragedy in five acts. I think it would occur to few young men to write one now. Today they write plays in prose, novels and short stories. It is true that of recent years a number of plays in verse have been successfully produced, but it has seemed to me, on witnessing such as I have had occasion to do, that audiences have accepted the verse as something they had to put up with rather than as something they relished; and actors, for the most part feeling this, have done what they could to allay their discomfort by speaking the verse as though it were in fact prose.

The possibility of publication, the exigences of editors, that is to say their notion of what their readers want, have a great influence on the kind of work that at a particular time is produced. So, when magazines flourish which have room for stories of considerable length, stories of that length are written; when, on the other hand, newspapers publish fiction, but can give it no more than a small space, stories to fill that space are supplied. There is nothing disgraceful in this. The competent author can write a story in fifteen hundred words as easily as he can write one in ten thousand. But he chooses a different story or treats it in a different way. Guy de Maupassant wrote one of his most celebrated tales, L'Heritage, twice over, once in a few hundred words for a newspaper and the second time in several thousand for a magazine. Both are published in a collected edition of his works, and I think no one can read the two versions without admitting that in the first there is not a word too little and in the second not a word too much. The point I want to make is this: the nature of the vehicle whereby the writer approaches his public is one of the conventions he has to accept, and on the whole he finds he can do this without any violence to his own inclinations.

Now, at the beginning of the nineteenth century the annuals and keepsakes offered writers a mean of introducing themselves to the public by way of the short story, and so short stories, serving a better purpose than merely to give a fillip to the reader's interest in the course of a long novel, began to be written in greater numbers than ever before. Many hard things have been said of the annual and the lady's book, and harder things still of the magazine which succeeded them in public favour; but it can scarcely be denied that the rich abundance of short stories during the nineteenth century was directly occasioned by the opportunity which these periodicals afforded. In America they gave rise to a school of writers so brilliant and so fertile that some persons, unacquainted with the history of literature, have claimed that the short story was an American invention. That, of course, is not so; but still, it may very well be admitted that in none of the countries of Europe has this form of fiction been so assiduously cultivated as it has been in the United States; nor have its methods, technique and possibilities been elsewhere so attentively studied.

In the course of reading for my anthology a vast number of stories written in the nineteenth century I learnt a good deal about the form. Now, I should warn the reader that the author, as I have suggested on an earlier page, treating of an art he pursues, is biased. He very naturally thinks his own practice best. He writes as he can, and as he must, because he is a certain sort of man; he has his own parts and his own temperament, so that he sees things in a manner peculiar to himself, and gives his vision the form that is forced upon him by his nature. He requires a singular vigour of mind to sympathise with work that is antagonistic to his instinctive prepossessions. One should be on one's guard when one reads a novelist's criticisms of other people's novels. He is apt to find that excellent which he is aiming at himself and likely to see little merit in qualities that he himself lacks. One of the best books I have read on the novel is by an admirable writer who has never in his life been able to devise a plausible story. I was not surprised to find that he held in small esteem the novelists whose great gift is that they can lend a thrilling verisimilitude to the events they relate. I do not blame him for this. Tolerance is a very good quality in a man; if it were commoner, the world of today would be a more agreeable place to live in than it is; but I am not so sure that it is so good in a writer. For what in the long run has he to give you? Himself. It is well that he should have breadth of vision, for life in all its extent is his province; but he can only see it with his own eyes, apprehend it with his own nerves, his own heart and his own bowels: his knowledge is partial, of course, but it is distinct, because he is himself and not somebody else. His attitude is definite and characteristic. If he really feels that any other point of view is as valid as his own, he will hardly hold his own with energy and is unlikely to present it with force. It is commendable that a man should see that there are two sides to a question; but the writer, face to face with the art he practises (and his view of life is of course implicit in his art) can only attain this stand-point by an effort of ratiocination; and in his bones he feels that it is not six of one and half a dozen of the other, but twelve on his side and zero on the other. This unreasonableness would be unfortunate if writers were few, or if the influence of one were so great as to compel the rest to conformity; but there are thousands of us. Each one of us has his little communication to make, a restricted one, and from all these communications readers can choose, according to their own inclinations, what suits them.

I have said this in order to clear the ground. I like best the sort of story I can write myself. This is the sort of story that many people have written well, but no one more brilliantly than Maupassant; so, to show exactly what its nature is, I cannot do better than discuss one of his most famous productions, La Parure. One thing you will notice about it is that you can tell it over the dinner table or in a ship's smoking-room and hold the attention of your listeners. It relates a curious, but not improbable incident. The scene is set before you with brevity, as the medium requires, but with clearness; and the persons concerned, the kind of life they lead and their deterioration, are shown you with just the amount of detail that is needed to make the circumstances of the case plain. You are told everything that you need know about them. In case the reader does not remember the story, I will briefly relate it. Mathilde is the wife of a poor clerk in the Ministry of Education. The Minister asks them to an evening party and, having no jewellery of her own, she borrows a diamond necklace from a rich friend of her schooldays. She loses it. It has to be replaced and for thirty-four thousand francs, an immense sum for them, borrowed at usurious interest, the clerk and his wife buy a necklace exactly like the lost one. To pay their crushing debts they have to live in abject poverty, and when at last they have done so, at the end of ten miserable years, Mathilde tells her rich friend what had happened. "But, my dear," says her friend, "the necklace was imitation. It wasn't worth more than five hundred francs."

A pernickety critic might object that from its own standpoint La Parure is not a perfect story, for this kind of narrative should have a beginning, a middle and an end; and when the end is reached the whole story should have been told and you should neither wish nor need to ask a further question. Your crossword is filled up. But in this case Maupassant satisfied himself with an end that was ironic and effective. The practised reader can hardly fail to ask himself, what next? It is true that the unfortunate couple had lost their youth and most of what makes life pleasant in the dreary years they had passed saving money to pay for the lost necklace; but when their mistake was discovered and the necklace they had bought returned to them, they would have found themselves in possession of a small fortune. In the aridity of spirit to which their sacrifice had brought them, it might well have seemed a not unsatisfactory compensation. Moreover, if the wretched woman had been sensible enough to go to the friend and tell her of the loss–and no valid reason is given why she shouldn't have done so–there would have been no story. It is a tribute to Maupassant's skill that few readers remain so self-possessed that these objections occur to them. Such an author as Maupassant does not copy life; he arranges it in order the better to interest, excite and surprise. He does not aim at a transcription of life, but at a dramatisation of it. He is willing to sacrifice plausibility to effect, and the test is whether he can get away with it; if he has so shaped the incidents he describes and the persons concerned in them. that you are conscious of the violence he has put on them, he has failed. But that he sometimes fails is no argument against the method. At some periods readers exact a close adherence to the facts of life as they know them–it is then that realism is in fashion; at others, indifferent to this, they ask for the strange, the unusual, the marvellous; and then, so long as they are held, readers are prepared to exercise a willing suspension of disbelief. Probability is not an entity that is settled once for all; it changes with the inclinations of the time: it is what you can get your readers to swallow. In fact, in all fiction certain improbabilities are accepted without question because they are usual and often necessary to enable the author to get on with his story without delay.

No one has stated the canons of the kind of story which I am now discussing with more precision than Edgar Allan Poe. But for its length I would quote in full his review of Hawthorne's Twice-Told Tales: it says everything that is to be said on the matter. I will content myself with a short extract:

"A skilful artist has constructed a tale. If wise, he has not fashioned his thoughts to accommodate his incidents; but having conceived, with deliberate care, a certain unique or single effect to be brought out, he then invents such incidents–he then contrives such effects as may best aid him in establishing this preconceived effect. If his very initial sentence tends not to the out-bringing of this effect, then he has failed in his first step. In the whole composition there should be no word written, of which the tendency, direct or indirect, is not to the pre-established design. And by such means, with such care and skill, a picture is at length painted which leaves in the mind of him who contemplates it with a kindred art, a sense of the fullest satisfaction. The idea of the tale has been presented unblemished, because undisturbed ...."

3

It is not hard to state what Poe meant by a good short story: it is a piece of fiction, dealing with a single incident, material or spiritual, that can be read at a sitting; it is original, it must sparkle, excite or impress; and it must have unity of effect or impression. It should move in an even line from its exposition to its close. To write a story on the principles he laid down is not so easy as some think. It requires intelligence, not perhaps of a very high order, but of a special kind; it requires a sense of form and no small powers of invention. No one in England has written stories on these lines better than Rudyard Kipling. Among the English writers of short stories he alone can bear comparison with the masters of France and Russia. At present he is unduly depreciated. That is natural. When an author of renown dies, obituaries are published in the papers and everyone who has had commerce with him, even if no more than to have a cup of tea in his company, writes to The Times to give an account of the occurrence. In a fortnight he is no longer news, and is quite quietly consigned to oblivion. Then, if he is fortunate, after a certain number of years, perhaps few, perhaps many, depending often on circumstances having nothing to do with literature, he will be remembered and restored to public favour . The most notable example of this is, of course, Anthony Trollope. After a generation of neglect, with the change that had come over English life, his novels gained a nostalgic charm which attracted a multitude of readers.

Though Rudyard Kipling from very early in his career captured the favour of the great public, and held it, cultivated opinion was always somewhat condescending in its appraisal of him. Certain characteristics of his style were irksome to readers of fastidious taste. He was identified with an imperialism which was obnoxious to many sensible persons and which is now a source of mortification. He was a wonderful, varied and original teller of tales. He had a fertile invention and to a supreme degree the gift of narrating incident in a surprising and dramatic fashion. He had his faults, as every writer has; in him, I think, they were due to his environment and upbringing, to traits of character and to the time he lived in. His influence was great on his fellow writers, but perhaps greater on those of his fellow men who lived in one way or another the sort of life he dealt with. When one travelled in the East, it was astonishing how often one came across men who had modelled themselves on the creatures of his invention. They say that Balzac's characters were more true of the generation that followed him than of that which he purported to describe. I know from my own experience that twenty years after Kipling wrote his first important stories there were men scattered about the outlying parts of the Empire who would never have been just what they were except for him. He not only created characters; he moulded men. They were brave, decent men who performed the tasks set to them to the best of their ability according to their lights: it is a misfortune that, for reasons which I need not go into, they should have left behind them a legacy of hatred. Rudyard Kipling is generally supposed to have rendered the British people conscious of their Empire, but that is a political achievement with which I have not here to deal; what is significant to my present purpose is that in his discovery of what is called the exotic story he opened a new and fruitful field to writers. This is the story the scene of which is set in some country little known to the majority of readers. It deals with the reactions upon the white man of his sojourn in an alien land and the effect which contact with peoples of another race and colour has upon him. Subsequent writers have treated this subject in their different ways, but Rudyard Kipling was the first to blaze the trail through this new-found region, and no one has invested it with a more romantic glamour, no one has presented it more vividly and with such a wealth of colour. The time will come when the occupation of India by the British will be ancient history and when the loss of that great dependency will arouse regret and bitter feelings no more than are aroused by the loss, centuries ago, of Normandy and Aquitaine. Then it will be realised that Rudyard Kipling in his Indian tales, in the Jungle Books, in Kim, wrote works that will honourably take a place in our great English literature.

People grow tired even of good things. They want change. To take an example from another art: domestic architecture during the Georgian era reached a rare perfection; the houses that were built then were good to look at and comfortable to live in. The rooms were spacious, airy and well-proportioned. You would have thought people would be content with such houses for ever. But no. The romantic era approached; they wanted the quaint, the fanciful, the picturesque; and architects, not unwillingly, built them what they wanted. It is hard to invent such a story as Poe wrote and, as we know, even he, in his small output, more than once repeated himself. There is a good deal of trickiness in a narrative of this kind and when, with the appearance and immediate popularity of the monthly magazine, the demand for such narratives became great, authors were not slow to learn the tricks. In order to make their stories effective they forced upon them a conventional design and presently deviated so far from plausibility in their delineation of life that their readers rebelled. They grew weary of stories written to a pattern they knew only too well. They protested that in real life things don't happen with this neatness; real life is an affair of broken threads and loose ends; to arrange them into a pattern falsifies. They demanded a greater realism. Now, to copy life has never been the artist's business. Sir Kenneth Clark in his book The Nude has made this point abundantly clear. He has shown us that the great sculptors of ancient Greece were not concerned to describe their models with exact realism, but used them as an instrument to achieve their ideal of beauty. If you look at the paintings and sculpture of the past you cannot but be surprised to see how little the great artists have occupied themselves with an exact rendering of what they saw before them. People are apt to think that the distortions the plastic artists have imposed upon their materials, best illustrated in the Cubists of yesterday, are an invention of our own times. That is not so. They only think that because they have become so used to the distortions of the past that they accept them as literal representations of fact. From the beginnings of Western painting, artists have sacrificed verisimilitude to the effects they wanted. It is the same with fiction. Not to go far back, take Poe; it is incredible that he should have thought human beings spoke in the way he made his characters speak: if he put into their mouths dialogue that seems to us so unreal, it must be because he thought it suited the kind of story he was telling and helped him to achieve the deliberate purpose which we know he had in view. Artists have only affected naturalism when it was borne in upon them that they had gone so far from life that a return was necessary, and then they have set themselves to copy it as exactly as they could, not as an end in itself, but, perhaps, as a salutary discipline.

In the short story naturalism in the nineteenth century came into fashion in reaction to a romanticism that had become tedious. One after the other, writers attempted to portray life with unflinching veracity. "I have never truckled," said Frank Norris. "I never took off the hat to fashion and held it out for pennies. By God! I told them the Truth. They liked it or they didn't like it. What had that to do with me? I told them the Truth, I knew it for the Truth then, and I know it for the Truth now." (These are brave words, but it is hard to tell what the truth is; it is not necessarily the opposite of a lie.) Writers of this school looked upon life with less partial eyes than those of the generation that had preceded them; they were less sugary and less optimistic, more violent and more direct; their dialogue was more natural, and they chose their characters from a world that since the days of Defoe writers of fiction had somewhat neglected; but they made no innovations in technique. So far as the essentials of the short story are concerned they were content with the old models. The effects they pursued were still those pursued by Edgar Allan Poe; they used the formula he had laid down. Their merit proves its value; their artificiality expresses its weakness.

4

But there was a country in which the formula had little prevailed. In Russia they had been writing for a couple of generations stories of quite another order; and when the fact forced itself upon the attention both of readers and of authors that the kind of story that had so long found favour was grown tediously mechanical, it was discovered that in that country there was a body of writers who had made of the short story something new. It is singular that it took so long for this variety of the brief narrative to reach the Western World. It is true that the stories of Turgenev were read in French translations. He was accepted by the Goncourts, Flaubert and the intellectual circles in which they moved for his stately presence, his ample means and his aristocratic origins; and his works were appreciated with the modified rapture with which the French have always regarded the productions of foreign authors. Their attitude has been like that of Dr Johnson with regard to a woman's preaching, "It is not done well, but you are surprised to find it done at all." It was not till Melchior de Vogué published his book Le Roman Russe in 1886 that Russian literature had any effect on the literary world of Paris. In due course, about 1905, I think, a number of Chekhov' s stories were translated into French and were on the whole favourably received. He remained little known in England. When he died, in 1904, he was regarded by the Russians as the foremost writer of his generation: the Encyclopædia Britannica in the eleventh edition, published in 1911, had no more to say of him than, "But A. Chekhov showed considerable power in his short stories." Cold praise. It was not till Mrs. Garnett brought out in thirteen little volumes a selection from his enormous output that English readers took an interest in him. Since then the prestige of Russian writers in general, and of Chekhov in particular, has been enormous. It has to a large extent transformed the composition and the appreciation of short stories. Critical readers turn away with indifference from the story which is technically known as 'well made', and the writers who produce it still, for the delectation of the great mass of the public, are little considered.

Chekhov's life has been written by David Magarshack. It is a record of achievement effected notwithstanding terrific difficulties–poverty, onerous duties, harassing surroundings and wretched health. It is from this interesting and well-documented book that I have learnt the following facts. Chekhov was born in 1860. His grandfather was a serf who had saved enough money to buy his freedom and that of his three sons. One of them, Pavel by name, in due course opened a grocer's shop at Taganrog on the Sea of Azov, married and had five sons and one daughter. Anton Chekhov was his third son. Pavel was uneducated and foolish, vain, selfish, brutal and deeply religious. Many years later, Chekhov wrote of him, "I remember father began to teach me when I was five, or, to put it plainly, whip me when I was only five years old. He whipped me, boxed my ears, hit me over the head, and the first question I asked on waking in the morning was, shall I be whipped again today? I was forbidden to play games or romp. I had to attend the morning and evening church services, kiss the hands of priests and monks, read psalms at home. . . . When I was eight years old, I had to mind the shop, I worked as an ordinary errand boy, and that affected my health, for I was beaten almost every day. Afterwards, when I was sent to a secondary school, I studied till dinner, but from dinner till the evening I had to sit in the shop."

When Anton Chekhov was sixteen, his father, crippled with debts and fearful of arrest, fled to Moscow, where his two elder sons, Alexander and Nicholas, were at the university. Anton was left at Taganrog to continue his schooling and support himself as best he could by tutoring backward boys. When, after three years, he matriculated and was granted a scholarship of twenty-five roubles a month, he joined his parents in Moscow. Having decided to become a doctor, he entered the medical school. He was then a tall young man, just over six feet, with light brown hair, brown eyes and a full, firm mouth. He found his family living in a basement in a slum largely given over to brothels. Anton brought with him two school friends and fellow students to board with the family. They paid forty roubles a month, a third lodger paid another twenty and this, with Chekhov's twenty-five, came to eighty-five roubles on which to provide food for nine people and pay the rent. They soon moved to a larger flat in the same squalid street. Two of the boarders shared one room, the third had a small one to himself, Anton and two of his brothers occupied a third room, his mother and sister a fourth, and the fifth room, which served as dining- and sitting-room, was the bedroom of his brothers Alexander and Nicholas. Pavel, their father, had at last got a job at a warehouse for thirty roubles a month, and he had to live in, so for a while they were rid of the stupid, despotic man who had made their lives a burden.

Anton had the gift of improvising funny stories which, we are told, kept his friends in fits of laughter. In his family's desperate situation he thought he might try his hand at writing them. He wrote one and sent it to a Petersburg weekly called The Dragon Fly. One January afternoon, on his way back from the medical school, he bought a copy and found that his story was accepted. He was to be paid five copecks a line. I may remind the reader that the rouble was worth two shillings and there were a hundred copecks to the rouble, so the payment offered was about a penny a line. From then Chekhov sent The Dragon Fly a story almost every week, but few were accepted; he placed them, however, with the Moscow papers, but they could afford to pay little; they were run on a shoe-string, and sometimes contributors, to receive their pittance, had to wait at the office till the newsboys brought in the copecks they had collected from the sale of copies in the street. It was a Petersburg editor, Leykin by name, who gave Chekhov his first chance. He conducted a journal called Fragments, and he gave Chekhov a commission to write a weekly story of one hundred lines at eight copecks a line. It was a humorous paper, and when Chekhov now and then sent in a serious story, Leykin complained that this was not what his readers wanted. Though the stories he wrote were well-liked and gained him some reputation, the limitations imposed upon him, both with regard to the length and matter of his contributions, irked him, so, to satisfy him, Leykin, who seems to have been a reasonable and kindly man, got him an offer from the Petersburg Gazette to write a weekly story, longer and of a different kind, at the same price of eight copecks a line. From 1880 to 1885 Chekhov wrote three hundred stories!

They were potboilers. The Oxford Dictionary tells us that this is a word applied depreciatingly to a work of literature or art executed for the purpose of gaining a livelihood. It is a term that might well be dropped from the vocabulary of the literary journalists. I should say that the young author who discovers that he has a creative urge to write (and how he should have it is a mystery as impenetrable as the origin of sex) may think that it may bring him renown, but surely very seldom thinks that it may bring him money; and there he is well-advised, for in his beginnings it is most unlikely to do so. But when he decides to become a professional writer with the purpose of gaining his livelihood, he cannot be indifferent to the money his talent will procure him. The motive from which he writes is no business of his readers.

While Chekhov was writing this stupendous number of stories, he was working at the medical school to get his diploma. He could only write at night after his hard day's work at the hospital. The conditions under which he wrote were difficult. The lodgers had been got rid of and the Chekhovs moved into a smaller flat, but "In the next room", he wrote to Leykin, "the child of a relation of mine [his brother Alexander] is crying, in the other room father is reading aloud a Leskor story to mother, someone has wound up our musical box and I can hear Fair Helen.... My bed is occupied by my visiting relation, who comes up to me every minute and starts talking about medicine . . . The child is bawling! I have just made the resolution never to have children. I expect the French have so few children because they are a literary people ..." A year later, in a letter to his young brother Ivan, he wrote, "I am earning more money than any of your army lieutenants, but I have no money, no decent food, no room of my own where I could do my work. . . . At this moment I haven't a penny, and I'm waiting anxiously for the first of the month when I shall receive sixty roubles from Petersburg, which I shall spend immediately."

In 1884 Chekhov had a hæmorrhage. Tuberculosis was in the family, and he could not but have known what this betokened, but from a fear that his suspicions would be confirmed he would not have himself examined by a specialist. To calm his anxious mother, he told her that the hæemorrhage was due only to a burst blood-vessel in the throat and had nothing to do with consumption. Towards the end of that year he passed his final examinations and became a qualified doctor. A few months later, he scraped together enough money to go for the first time to Petersburg. He had never attached any importance to his stories; they were written for money and he said that not one of them had taken him more than a day to write. On arriving in Petersburg he discovered to his amazement that he was famous. Slight as his stories were, intelligent persons in Petersburg, then the centre of culture in Russia, found in them freshness, liveliness and an original point of view. They made much of him. It was borne in upon him that he was looked upon as one of the most gifted writers of his day. Editors invited him to contribute to their journals at better prices than he had ever received before. One of Russia's most distinguished authors urged him to have done with the sort of stories he had been writing and set himself to write stories of serious interest.

Chekhov was impressed, but he had never intended to become a professional writer. "Medicine", he said, "is my lawful wife and literature only my mistress," and when he went back to Moscow it was with the intention of earning his living as a doctor. It must be admitted that he did little to establish a flourishing practice. He made a host of friends and they sent him patients, but they seldom paid him for his visits. He was gay and charming and, with his ringing, infectious laugh, an asset in the bohemian circles he frequented. He loved going to parties and giving parties. He drank freely, but, except at weddings, name days (the Russian equivalent of birthdays) and festivals of the Church, seldom got drunk. Women found him attractive, and he had a number of love affairs. But they were not important. As time went on he made frequent visits to Petersburg and went on journeys here and there in Russia. Every spring, leaving such patients as he had to look after themselves, he carted his whole family into the country and stayed there till autumn. As soon as it became known that he was a doctor, patients came in droves to consult him and, of course, paid him nothing. To make money he was obliged to write stories. They were more and more successful and he was well-paid for them, but he found it impossible to live within his means. In one of his letters to Leykin he wrote, "You ask me what I am doing with my money. I don't lead a dissipated life, I don't walk about dressed like a dandy, I have no debts, and I don't even have to keep a mistress (love I get gratis), but nevertheless I have only forty roubles left from the three hundred I received from you and Suvorin before Easter, out of which I shall have to pay forty tomorrow. Goodness only knows where my money goes." He moved into a new flat, where at last he had a room of his own, but he had to beg Leykin for an advance to pay the rent. In 1886 he had another hæmorrhage. He knew he should go to the Crimea, where at that time consumptives went for the warmer climate, as in Western Europe they went to the French Riviera and to Portugal–and died like flies; but he hadn't a rouble to go on. In 1889 his brother Nicholas, a painter of some talent, died of tuberculosis. It was a shock and a warning. By 1892 his own health was so bad that he was afraid to spend another winter in Moscow. On borrowed money he bought a small estate near a village called Melikhovo fifty miles from Moscow and as usual took his family with him, his difficult father, his mother, his sister and his brother Michael. He brought a cartload of medicaments and, as ever, patients flocked to see him. He treated them as best he could and never charged them a copeck.

Off and on he spent five years at Melikhovo and on the whole they were happy years. He wrote a number of his best stories there and was handsomely paid for them, forty copecks a line, which was nearly a shilling. He concerned himself with local affairs, got a new road made, and built schools for the peasantry at his own expense. His brother Alexander, a confirmed drunkard, came to stay, with his wife and children; friends came on visits that sometimes lasted for days, and though he complained that they interfered with his work, he could not live without them. Though constantly ill, he remained gay, friendly, amusing and cheerful. Now and then he went on a jaunt to Moscow. On one of these occasions, in 1897, he had so severe a hæmorrhage that he had to be taken to a clinique, and for some days he was at death's door. He had always refused to believe that he had tuberculosis, but now the doctors told him that the upper part of his lungs was affected and that, if he wanted to live, he must change his mode of life. He returned to Melikhovo, but knew that he could not spend another winter there. He realised that he must give up his medical practice. He went abroad, to Biarritz and Nice, and finally settled at Yalta in the Crimea. The doctors had advised him to live there permanently and, on an advance from Suvorin, his friend and editor, he built himself a house there. He was as usual in dire financial difficulties.

That he could no longer practise medicine was a bitter blow to him. I don't know what sort of a doctor he was. After being qualified, he had never done more than three months, clinical work in a hospital and I surmise that his treatment of patients was somewhat rough and ready. But he had common sense and sympathy, and if he left nature to take its course, he probably did his patients as much good as a man with greater knowledge would have done. The varied experiences he thus gained served him well. I have reasons for believing that the training a medical student has to go through is to a writer's benefit. He acquires a knowledge of human nature which is invaluable. He sees it at its best and at its worst. When people are ill, when they are afraid, they discard the mask which they wear in health. The doctor sees them as they really are, selfish, hard, grasping, cowardly; but brave too, generous, kindly and good. He is tolerant of their frailties, awed by their virtues.

At Yalta, though he was bored there, Chekhov' s health for a while improved. I have not had occasion till now to mention that, besides his vast number of stories, Chekhov by this time had written, without much success, two or three plays. Through them he came to know a young actress called Olga Knipper. He fell in love with her and in 1901, to the bitter resentment of his family, whom he had never ceased to support, he married her. It was arranged that she should continue to act and so they were together only when he went up to Moscow to see her or she, resting, as they say in theatrical circles, came down to Yalta. His letters to her have been preserved. They are tender and touching. The improvement in his health did not last and he became very ill. He coughed a great deal and could not sleep. To his great distress Olga Knipper had a miscarriage. She had long urged Chekhov to write a light comedy, which was what the public wanted, and presently, chiefly, I think, to please her, he set to work. It was to be called The Cherry Orchard and he promised Olga to write a good part for her. "I am writing four lines a day," he wrote to a friend, "and even that gives me unbearable pain." He finished it and it was produced in Moscow early in 1904. In the following June, on his doctor's advice, he went to the German spa of Badenweiler. A young Russian man of letters wrote an account of his meeting with Chekhov on the eve of his departure. I quote the following lines from Magarshack's Life:

"On a sofa, propped up by cushions, wearing an overcoat or dressing-gown and with a rug over his legs, sat a very thin and apparently small man, with narrow shoulders and a narrow bloodless face–so emaciated and unrecognisable had Chekhov become. I would never have thought a man could change so much.

"He stretched out his weak, waxen hand, which I was afraid to look at, and gazed at me with his gentle but no longer smiling eyes. .

" 'I'm leaving tomorrow,' he said. 'I'm going away to die.' "He used a different word, a more cruel word than 'to die', which I should not like to repeat now."

" 'I'm going away to die,' he repeated emphatically. 'Say good-bye for me to your friends. . . . Tell them that I remember them and that I am very fond of some of them. Wish them success and happiness from me. We shall never meet again.' "

At first he grew so much better at Badenweiler that he began to make plans to go to Italy. One evening, when he had gone to bed, as Olga had spent the whole day with him, he insisted that she should go for a walk in the park. When she came back he asked her to go down and have her dinner, but she told him the gong had not yet sounded. To pass the time, he started to tell her a story of a holiday resort packed with fashionable visitors, fat bankers, Americans and healthy Britons. "One evening they all returned to their hotel to find that the cook had run off and there was no dinner waiting for them. Chekhov went on to describe how the blow affected each of these pampered people." He made a very funny story of it and Olga Knipper laughed uproariously. She rejoined him after dinner. Chekhov was resting quietly. But suddenly he took a turn for the worse and the doctor was sent for. He did what he could, but it was of no avail. Chekhov died. His last words were in German, Ich Sterbe. He was forty-four.

Alexander Kuprin in his reminiscences of Chekhov wrote as follows, "I think he did not open or give his heart completely to anyone. But he regarded everybody kindly, indifferently so far as friendship is concerned–and at the same time with a great, perhaps unconscious interest." This is strangely revealing. It tells us more about Chekhov than any of the facts that in my brief account of his life I have had occasion to relate.

5

Chekhov' s early stories were for the most part humorous. He wrote them very easily; he wrote, he said, as a bird sings, and attached no importance to them. It was not till after his first visit to Petersburg, when he discovered that he was accepted as a promising and talented author, that he began to take himself seriously. He set himself then to acquire proficiency in his craft. One day a friend found him copying a story of Tolstoy's and when asked what he was doing, he replied, "I'm re-writing it." His friend was shocked that he should take such a liberty with the master's work, whereupon Chekhov explained that he was doing it as an exercise; he had conceived the idea (for all I know, a good one) that by doing this he could learn the methods of the writers he admired and so evolve a manner of his own. It is evident that his labour was not wasted. He learnt to compose his stories with consummate skill: The Peasants, for instance, is as elegantly constructed as Flaubert's Madame Bovary. Chekhov trained himself to write simply, clearly and concisely, and we are told that he achieved a style of great beauty. That, we who read him in translation must take on trust, for even in the most accurate translation the tang, the feeling, the euphony of the author's words are lost.

Chekhov was very much concerned with the technique of the short story and he had some uncommonly interesting things to say about it. He claimed that a story should contain nothing that was superfluous. "Everything that has no relation to it must be ruthlessly thrown away," he wrote. "If in the first chapter you say that a gun hung on a wall, in the second or third chapter it must without fail be discharged." That seems sound enough, and sound too is his claim that descriptions of nature should be brief and to the point. He was himself able in a word or two to give the reader a vivid impression of a summer night when the nightingales were singing their heads off or of the cold brilliance of the boundless steppes under the snows of winter. It was a priceless gift. I am more doubtful about his condemnation of anthropomorphisms. "The sea laughs," he wrote in a letter, "you are of course in raptures over it. But it's crude and cheap . . . . The sea doesn't laugh or cry, it roars, flashes, glistens. Just look how Tolstoy does it: 'The sun rises and sets, the birds sing.' No one laughs or sobs. And that's the chief thing–simplicity." That is true enough, but, when all's said and done, we have been personifying nature since the beginning of time and it comes so naturally to us that it is only by an effort that we can avoid it. Chekhov himself did not always do so; and in his story, The Duel, he tells us that "a star peeped out and timidly blinked its one eye". I see nothing objectionable in that; in fact I like it. To his brother Alexander, also a short story writer, but a poor one, he said that an author must never describe emotions that he has not felt himself. That is a hard saying. Surely it is unnecessary to commit a murder in order to describe convincingly enough the emotions that a murderer may feel when he has done so. After all, the writer has imagination and if he is a good writer he has the power of empathy which enables him to feel the feelings of the characters of his invention. But the most drastic demand that Chekhov made was that an author should strike out both the beginning and the end of his stories. That was what he did himself, and so rigorously that his friends used to say that his manuscripts should be snatched away before he had a chance to mutilate them, "otherwise he will reduce his stories only to this, that they were young, fell in love, married and were unhappy." When this was told to Chekhov, he replied, "But look here, so it does happen in fact."

Chekhov took Maupassant as his model. If he had not told us that himself I would never have believed it, for their aims and methods seem to me entirely different. In general, Maupassant sought to make his stories dramatic and in order to do this, as I have before said, he was prepared if necessary to sacrifice probability. I am inclined to think that Chekhov deliberately eschewed the dramatic. He dealt with ordinary people leading ordinary lives: "People don't go to the North Pole to fall off icebergs," he wrote in one of his letters. "They go to offices, quarrel with their wives and eat cabbage soup." One may fairly object to this that people do go to the North Pole, and if they don't fall off icebergs they undergo adventures as perilous and there is no reason in the world why an author shouldn't write very good stories about them. Obviously it is not enough that people should go to their offices and eat cabbage soup, and I don't believe that Chekhov ever thought it was: in order to make a story, surely they must steal the petty cash at the office or accept bribes, beat or deceive their wives, and when they eat cabbage soup it must be with significance. It then becomes a symbol of a happy domestic life or of the anguish of a frustrated one.

Chekhov's medical practice, desultory though it was, brought him into contact with all manner of persons, the peasants and the factory workers, the owners of factories, the merchants and the more or less minor officials who played a devastating part in the lives of the people, the landowners who by the liberation of the serfs were reduced to penury. He does not seem ever to have been in touch with the aristocracy, and I know only one story, the bitter story called The Princess, in which he was concerned with it. He wrote with ruthless candour of the fecklessness of the landowners who let their properties go to rack and ruin; of the wretched lot of the factory workers who lived on the verge of starvation, toiling twelve hours a day so that their employers might add estate to estate; of the vulgarity and greed of the merchant class; of the filth, drunkenness, brutality, ignorance, laziness of the ill paid, ever hungry peasants and the stinking, verminous hovels in which they lived.

Chekhov could give an extraordinary reality to the events he described. You accept what is told you as you would the account of an event described by a trustworthy reporter. But, of course, Chekhov was not merely a reporter; he observed, selected, guessed and combined. As Koteliansky has put it, "In his wonderful objectivity, standing above personal sorrows and joys, Chekhov knew and saw everything. He could be kind and generous without loving; tender and sympathetic without attachment, a benefactor without expecting gratitude."

But this impassivity of Chekhov's was an outrage to many of his fellow writers and he was savagely attacked. The charge against him was his apparent indifference to the events and social conditions of the time. The demand of the intelligentsia was that a Russian writer was under an obligation to deal with them. Chekhov's reply was that the author's business was to narrate the facts and leave it to his readers to decide what should be done about them. He insisted that the artist should not be called upon to solve narrowly specialised problems. "For special problems," he said, "we have specialists; it is their business to judge the community, the fate of capitalism, the evil of drunkenness . . . '' That seems reasonable. But since this is a point of view which just now appears to be somewhat widely discussed in the world of letters, I shall venture to quote some remarks I made several years ago in the course of a lecture I delivered to the National Book League. One day I read, as was my habit, the page which one of the best of our English weeklies devotes to the consideration of current literature. On this occasion the reviewer began his article on a work of fiction recently published with the words, "Mr. So and So is not a mere story teller." The word 'mere' stuck in my throat and on that day, like Paolo and Francesca on another occasion, I read no further. This particular reviewer is himself a well-known novelist and, though I have not been fortunate enough to have read any of his works, I have no doubt that they are admirable. But from this remark of his I can but conclude that in his opinion a novelist should be something more than a novelist. It is obvious that, though perhaps with some misgiving, he accepts the notion, prevalent among many writers today, that in the troubled state of the world we live in it is frivolous for an author to write novels designed only to enable the reader to pass a few pleasant hours. Such works are, as we know, disparagingly dismissed as escapist. That, like 'potboiler', is a word that might well be discarded from the critic's vocabulary. All art is escapist, Mozart's symphonies as well as Constable's landscapes; and do we read Shakespeare's sonnets or the odes of Keats for anything but the delight they give us? Why should we ask more from the novelist than we ask of the poet, the composer, the painter? In point of fact there is no such thing as a 'mere' story. When he writes a story, the author, sometimes without any more intention than to make it readable, willy-nilly offers a criticism of life. When Rudyard Kipling in his Plain Tales of the Hills wrote of the Indian civilians, the polo-playing officers and their wives, he wrote with the naïve admiration of a young journalist of modest extraction dazzled by what he took for glamour. It is amazing that no one at the time saw what a damning indictment of the Paramount Power these stories were. You cannot read them now without realising how inevitable it was that the British sooner or later would be forced to surrender their hold on India. So with Chekhov. Objective as he tried to be, intent only on describing life with truth, you cannot read his stories without its being borne in upon you that the brutality and ignorance he wrote of, the corruption, the miserable poverty of the poor and the insouciance of the rich, must inevitably result in a bloody revolution.

I suppose most people read works of fiction because they have nothing much else to do. They read for pleasure, which is what they should do, but different people look in their reading for different kinds of pleasure. One is the pleasure of recognition. The contemporary readers of Trollope's Barchester Chronicles read them with an intimate satisfaction because he portrayed the sort of lives they led themselves. For the most part his readers belonged to the upper-middle class and they felt at home with the upper-middle class he dealt with. They felt the same pleasant glow of self complacency as they felt when dear Mr. Browning told them that "God's in his heaven–All's right with the world". Time has given these novels the attractiveness of genre. We find them amusing, and rather touching (how nice it was to live in a world in which life for the well-to-do was so easy and everything came out all right in the end!) and they have the same sort of charm as those anecdotic pictures of the mid-nineteenth century, with their bearded gentlemen in frock-coats and top-hats, and their pretty ladies in poke-bonnets and crinolines. Other readers seek in their novels strangeness and novelty. The exotic story has always had its votaries. Most people lead prodigiously dull lives, and it is a release from the monotony of existence to be absorbed for a while in a world of hazard and perilous adventure. I suspect that the Russian readers of Chekhov' s stories found in them a very different pleasure from that found by readers of the Western World. They knew only too well the conditions of the people he so vividly described. English readers found in his stories something new and strange, horrible often and depressing, but presented with a truth that was impressive, fascinating and even romantic.

Only the very ingenuous can suppose that a work of fiction can give us reliable information on the topics which it is important to us for the conduct of our lives to be apprised of. By the very nature of his creative gifts the novelist is incompetent to deal with such matters; his not to reason why, but to feel, to imagine and to invent. He is biased. The subjects the writer chooses, the characters he creates and his attitude towards them are conditioned by his bias. What he writes is the expression of his personality and the manifestation of his instincts, his emotions, his intuitions and his experience. He loads his dice, sometimes not knowing what he is up to, but sometimes knowing very well; and then he uses such skill as he has to prevent the reader from finding him out. Henry James insisted that the writer of fiction should dramatise. That is a telling, though perhaps not very lucid, way of saying that he must so arrange his facts as to capture and hold his reader's attention. This, as everyone knows, is what Henry James consistently did, but, of course, it is not the way a work of scientific or informative value is written. If readers are concerned with the pressing problems of the day, they will do well to read, as Chekhov advised them to do, not novels or short stories, but the works that specifically deal with them. The proper aim of the writer of fiction is not to instruct, but to please.

Authors lead obscure lives. They are not bidden to the Lord Mayor's Banquet. The freedom of great cities is not conferred upon them. Not for them is the honour of breaking a bottle of champagne against the hull of an ocean-going liner soon to set out on her maiden voyage. Crowds do not assemble, as they do with film stars, to see them emerge from their hotel to leap into a Rolls-Royce. They are not invited to open bazaars in aid of distressed gentlewomen, nor, in the presence of a cheering crowd, to hand a silver cup to the winner of the singles at Wimbledon. But they have their compensations. From prehistoric times men blessed with a creative gift have arisen who have by artistic production added adornment to the grim business of living. As anyone can see for himself by going to Crete, cups, bowls, pitchers have been decorated with patterns–not because it made them more serviceable, but because it made them more pleasing to the eye. Throughout the ages artists have found their complete satisfaction in producing works of art. If the writer of fiction can do that, he has done all that can reasonably be asked of him. It is an abuse to use the novel as a pulpit or a platform.

6

I think it would be an injustice to bring this desultory essay to an end without taking into consideration a talented author whose stories during the interval between the two wars were very much admired. This is Katherine Mansfield. If the technique of our English short-story writers of today differs from that of the masters of the nineteenth century it is, I believe, to some extent at least, owing to her influence. This is no place to tell the story of Miss Mansfield's life, but since her stories are for the most part intensely personal, I must give some slight account of it. She was born in 1888 in New Zealand. At an early age she had written a number of little pieces which showed promise and she had set her heart on being a writer. She found life in New Zealand dull and narrow, and she urged her father to let her go back to England, where, with her sisters, she had been at school for two years. Her respectable parents were shocked when they discovered that she had had a brief adventure with a young man she had met at a ball, and this apparently led them to agree to let her go. Her father made her an allowance of a hundred pounds a year, which at that time was enough, with economy, for a girl to live on. In London she renewed acquaintance with some New Zealand friends. One was Arnold Trowell, who had already made a name for himself as a cellist. In New Zealand she had been madly in love with him, but in London she transferred her affections to his younger brother, who was a violinist. They became lovers. Her board and lodging in a sort of home for unmarried women cost her twenty-five shillings a week and that left her only fifteen shillings for her clothes and her amusements. It irked her to live in these straitened circumstances and, when a teacher of singing, George Bowden by name, ten years older than herself, asked her to marry him, she accepted. She was married in a black dress with a girl friend as the only witness. They went to a hotel for the night. She refused to allow him to exercise what he looked upon as his marital rights, and left him next day. Later, she wrote a savage story about him called Mr. Reginald Peacock's Day. She joined her lover who was playing the fiddle at Liverpool in the orchestra of a travelling comic-opera company, and it is said that for a short period she joined it as a member of the chorus. She was pregnant but whether she knew it before her marriage, or only a little later, is not known. Katherine had sent a cable to her parents in New Zealand to announce her approaching marriage and another to say that she had left her husband. Her mother came to England to see for herself what the situation was, and it must have been a shock to her to find her daughter was what in Victorian days they called 'in an interesting condition'. Arrangements were made for her to go to Wörishofen in Bavaria till he child was born. There she read Chekhov's stories, presumably in a German translation, and wrote the stories which were later published in a book called In a German Pension. Owing to an accident she was prematurely confined and the child was born dead. On her recovery she returned to England.

Her first stories were published in Orage's New Age and brought her some recognition. She came to know a number of her fellow writers. In 1911 she met Middleton Murry. While still an undergraduate he had founded a magazine called Rhythm and he accepted a story which, at his request, she had sent him. This was The Woman in the Store. Middleton Murry was born in the lower-middle class, but by a happy combination of intelligence and application he was able to go from a board school to a Higher Grade school, from there, on a scholarship, to Christ's Hospital and finally, again with a scholarship, to Oxford. He had charm and looks. He was, indeed, so beautiful according to Francis Carco, a French man of letters whose acquaintance he had made on one of his vacations in Paris, that the whores of Montmartre vied with one another to have him go to bed with them free of charge. Murry fell in love with Katherine. This decided him to take a step which he had been contemplating; it was to leave Oxford without taking the First that was expected of him and, since he had no particular aptitude for anything but passing examinations, to earn his living as a writer. Oxford had disappointed him and he felt it had given him all that he could expect to get from it. Fox, his former tutor, introduced him to Spender, the editor of The Westminster Gazette, who agreed to give him a trial. He was looking for somewhere to live in London and, one day, when he was dining in company with Katherine, she offered him, for seven and sixpence a week, a room in a flat that had been lent her. He moved in. Since both of them were busy all day, she with her stories, he with his work for The Westminster Gazette, they met only in the evenings. Then they would talk to one another, chiefly as young things will, I suppose, about themselves till two in the morning. On one such evening, after a pause in the conversation, she asked him, "Why don't you make me your mistress?" "Oh, no," he answered, "that would spoil it all. Don't you think so?" "I do," she replied. He was surprised some time later to learn that his answer to her suggestion had bitterly affronted her. Shortly afterwards, however, they did have sexual relations and, according to Murry's autobiography, Between Two Worlds, they would have got married at once had she been free. George Bowden, possibly from pique, refused to give her a divorce. By way of a honeymoon they went to Paris, in part because Murry wanted her to know his great friend Francis Carco. On their return to England they lived sometimes in London, sometimes in the country. No sooner were they settled in a place than Katherine took a dislike to it and they moved. In two years they moved thirteen times. Finally they decided to settle down for good in Paris. By this time Murry had made good as a journalist, and had been able to save part of his earnings; he now arranged with Spender and with Richmond, editor of The Times Literary Supplement, to write articles on current French literature. With his savings, with what he expected to earn in this way and with Katherine's allowance, they had no doubt that they would have enough to live on.

Once in Paris, they took a flat and at considerable expense brought over from England the furniture they had collected. They saw a great deal of Francis Carco. Katherine enjoyed his company; he was lively and amusing; and it may be that he made her what the French call un petit brin de cour. But Murry's articles were refused both by The Westminster Gazette and by The Times Literary Supplement and their money ran out. Carco could not help them: on the contrary he had been throughout something of an expense. They were at their wits' end. Then Murry received a letter from Spender to tell him that the post of art critic on The Westminster Gazette would shortly be vacant and if he came back he could have it. They returned unwillingly to England. This was in March 1914. As usual they lived here and there. In August war broke out and Murry's job as an art critic came to an end. They moved into a cottage at Cholesbury, in Buckinghamshire, to be near D. H. Lawrence and his wife, with whom they had made friends. It was not a success. Katherine wanted city life, Murry disliked it. She was suffering from arthritis and could not write. They were hard up. She complained that Murry didn't want money and wouldn't earn money. He had little chance of doing so. They so got on one another's nerves that by Christmas it was understood that they were about to part. Katherine and Francis had been corresponding ever since Murry and she had left Paris. It may be that she took his letters more seriously than he intended, for it looks as though she thought he was in love with her. Whether she loved him is anybody's guess. He was attractive and she wanted to get away from Murry. She thought that Francis Carco could give her the happiness that Murry no longer could. Murry, who knew him better than she did, was certain that she was deceiving herself, but made no attempt to disabuse her. Katherine's brother, Leslie Heron Beauchamp, arrived in England to enlist and gave her the money to go to France and join Francis Carco. On Monday, 15th February, Murry went with her to London, and two or three days later she left for Paris.

Carco had been called up and was stationed at a place called Gray. It was in a zone forbidden to women, and Katherine had difficulty in getting there. Carco met her at the station and took her to the little house in which he was billeted. She stayed with him for three days and then went back to Paris–bitterly disillusioned. Why, one can only surmise. Suddenly Murry received a telegram from her to say that she was returning and would be at Victoria at 8 a.m. on the following day. On arrival she told him (it must be admitted somewhat ungraciously) that she was not returning to him, and had come simply because she had nowhere else to go. They proceeded to live together once more in what Murry called "a sort of weary truce". Katherine's escapade gave her the material for a story called Je ne Parle pas Français. In it she drew a scathing, but not quite fair, portrait of Francis Carco and a vicious one of Murry. She gave it to him to read in typescript, and he was deeply hurt–which, doubtless, is what she intended him to be.

I can pass over the remaining years of Katherine's short life very briefly. Some time in 1918, George Bowden having at last divorced her, Katherine and Murry were able to marry. She was in very bad health. During the previous years she had had various illnesses and at least one serious operation. She was now suffering from tuberculosis of the lungs. After she had been treated by various doctors, Murry persuaded her to let herself be examined by a specialist. He came. Katherine was in bed and Murry waited downstairs to hear the result of the examination. The specialist, on joining him, told him that there was only one chance for her, to go into a sanatorium at once. If she didn't, she had no more than two or three years to live–four at the outside. I will quote now from Murry's autobiography: "I thanked him (the doctor), showed him out and went up to Katherine.

" 'He says I must go into a sanatorium,' she said. 'A sanatorium would kill me.' Then she darted a quick, fearful glance at me. 'Do you want me to go?'

" 'No,' I said dully. 'What's the good?'

" 'You do believe it would kill me?'

" 'Yes, I do,' I said.

" 'You do believe I shall get well?'

" 'Yes,' I said."

It seems strange that neither the doctor nor Murry had the sense to suggest that she might go to a sanatorium for a month and see how she liked it. There was a good one at Banchory in Scotland; I think she would have found life there pleasant enough, and I have no doubt that she would have got material for a story. The patients were of all kinds. There were some who had been there for years because they could only live if they lived there. Others were cured and left. Some died, and they died peacefully and, I think, without regret. I speak of what I know, for it so happened that I was at Banchory just at the time Katherine might have gone there. I should have met her. She would certainly have taken an immediate dislike to me, but that is neither here nor there.

From then on, in her desperate search for health, Katherine lived abroad with a friend, Ida Baker, to look after her. Ida Baker, a young woman of her own age, devoted years of her life to her service. Katherine treated her as she wouldn't have treated a dog, bullied her, railed at her, hated her, sometimes could have killed her, but made unscrupulous use of her; and Ida Baker remained her faithful, loving slave. Katherine was immensely self-centred, apt to have sudden fits of violent temper, fiercely intolerant, exacting, harsh, selfish, arrogant and domineering. That does not suggest a pleasing personality, but in fact she was extremely attractive. Clive Bell, who knew her, tells me that she was fascinating. She had a caustic wit and when she chose could be very amusing. Murry's work kept him in London and he could join her only at intervals. They wrote a vast number of letters to one another. After Katherine's death Murry published her letters to him, but naturally enough, I suppose, did not add his, so that you can only guess what their relations at this time were. For the most part her letters were very affectionate, but when he annoyed her they were virulent. Katherine's father had gradually increased her allowance, and it now amounted to two hundred and fifty pounds a year, but she was often in straits and when on one occasion she had written telling Murry that she had been put to unexpected expenses she wrote him a fiercely angry letter because he had not immediately sent her money, but had put her to the indignity of having to ask him for it. He had paid the doctors' bills and the expense of her illness. He was heavily in debt. "If money is tight," she asked him, "why did you buy yourself a mirror?" The poor brute had to shave. When Murry was appointed editor of The Athenæeum with a salary of eight hundred a year Katherine made a peremptory demand that he should send her ten pounds a month. It would have been graceful on his part if he had offered to do so. Perhaps he was rather mean with his money. It is significant that when Katherine sent him a story to be typed she told him expressly that it was to be at her expense. It was deliberately offensive.

The fact is that from the beginning they were ill suited to one another. Murry, though more considerate, was as self-centred as Katherine. He seems to have had little sense of humour, but he was kindly, placid, tolerant and wonderfully patient. Jealousy, as we know, may torture when love is dead, and though Murry was no longer in love with Katherine it must have been a humiliation when she left him for another man; and when, after her disappointing experience with Francis Carco, he took her back it was generous on his part and even magnanimous. There is no sign that she was grateful to him. She took whatever he did for her as her due. Though Murry was (in the current idiom) rather 'wet', he was not a negligible creature. He became a very good critic and his criticism of Katherine's stories was valuable to her. In later life he wrote a Life of Swift which, it is generally agreed, is the best that has ever been written on that sinister character but consummate stylist.

The English specialist's prognosis was correct. He had given Katherine four years at the outside to live. After spending some time on the Italian Riviera, then on the French, and later in Switzerland, she entered, as a last chance, the Gurdjieff Institute at Fontainebleau. She died there early in 1923. She was thirty-four.

It has been generally accepted that Katherine was greatly influenced by Chekhov. Middleton Murry denied this. He claimed that she would have written her stories exactly as she did if she had never read one of Chekhov's. There, I think, he was wrong. Of course she would have written stories, to do so was in her blood; but I believe that save for Chekhov they would have been very different. Katherine Mansfield's stories are the outpourings of a lonely, sensitive, neurotic, sick woman who never felt quite at home in the Europe she had chosen to live in. This was their content. Their form she owed to Chekhov. The pattern of the short story as it was written in the past is simple. It consists of A, the setting, B, the introduction of the characters, C, what they do and what is done to them, and D, the outcome. This was a leisurely way of telling a story and the author could make it as long as he liked; but when newspapers began to publish stories their length was rigidly determined. In order to satisfy this requirement the author had to adopt a suitable technique; he had to leave out of his story everything that was not essential. The use of A, the setting, is to put the reader in a suitable state of mind to enjoy the story or to add verisimilitude to it; it can conveniently be omitted, and today generally is. To leave D, the outcome, to the imagination of the reader is a risk. He has been interested in the circumstances described, and if he is not told what they result in he may feel cheated, but when it is evident, to omit it is intriguing and effective. Chekhov' s The Lady with the Dog is a perfect example. B and C are essential, for without them there is no story. It is obvious that a story which takes the reader at once into the midst of things gives it a dramatic quality which wins and holds the reader. Chekhov wrote several hundred stories on these lines and when, with increased popularity, he was able to write stories of some length to be published in magazines, he used, very often, the pattern he had become used to.

This pattern well suited the nature of Katherine Mansfield's temperament and capacity. She had a small but delicate talent. I think her extravagant admirers have done her a disservice in making claims for her which her work scarcely justifies. She had little power of invention. Invention is a curious faculty. It is an attribute of youth and with age is lost. That is natural, for it is an upshot of experience and with advancing years the events of life cease to have the novelty, the excitement, the stimulation that they had in youth and so no longer incite the author to expression. Katherine had no great experience of life. She knew she needed it. Murry, somewhat disapprovingly, says that "she wanted money, luxury, adventure, the life of cities"; of course she did, for only then could she get material for her stories. The writer of fiction, in order to tell the truth as he sees it, must play his part in the hurly-burly of life. If what the dictionary tells us is correct, that a story is a narrative of events that have happened or might have happened, it must be admitted that Katherine Mansfield had no outstanding gifts for telling one. Her gifts lay elsewhere. She could take a situation and wring from it all the irony, bitterness, pathos and unhappiness that were inherent in it. An example of this is the narrative which she called Psychology. She wrote a few stories which are objective, such stories as The Daughters of the Late Colonel and Pictures; they are good stories, but they might have been written by any competent writer; her most characteristic stories are those that are commonly known as stories of atmosphere. I have asked various of my literary friends what in this connection is the meaning of the word 'atmosphere'; but they either could not, or would not, give me an answer that quite satisfied me. The Oxford Dictionary does not help. After the obvious definition it gives, "figuratively, surrounding mental or moral element, environment." In practice it seems to mean the trimmings with which you decorate a story so thin that without them it would not exist. This, Katherine Mansfield was able to do with skill and charm. She had a truly remarkable gift of observation and could describe effects of nature, scents of the country, wind and rain, sea and sky, trees, fruit and flowers with rare delicacy. Not the least of her gifts was that which enabled her to give you the heartbreak that lay behind what to all appearances was a casual conversation over, say, a cup of tea; and heaven knows, that is not an easy thing to do. She wrote in a style that is pleasantly conversational and you can read even her slightest stories with pleasure. They do not stick in your memory as, for instance, does Maupassant's Boule de Suif or Chekhov's Ward No. 10; that is, perhaps, because it is easier to remember a fact than an emotion. You can remember falling down stairs and spraining your ankle, but not what it felt like to be in love. But whether it is a merit in a story that you should remember it after you have read it is something on which I would not venture to offer an opinion.

Katherine Mansfield found little to please her in New Zealand when she lived there, but later, when England had not given her what she expected, when her health failed, her thoughts went back to the early years she had spent there. There were moments when she wished she had never come away. In retrospect the life she had led then seemed full and varied and delightful. She could not but write about it. The first story she wrote was called Prelude. She wrote it when she and Murry were spending three months at Bandol on the French Riviera, and when they were happier together than they had ever been before or would ever be again. She intended to call it The Aloe and it was Murry who suggested that she should call it Prelude. I suppose he felt that rather than a story it was the setting for one. She began it, as we know, with the idea of writing a novel, and on that account, perhaps, it is somewhat shapeless. Later, she wrote, among other stories with the same background, The Voyage, At the Bay and The Garden Party. The Voyage describes a night's journey that a little girl, with her grandmother to take care of her, takes by sea from one port in New Zealand to another. It could not be more tender or more charming. The other stories are about her father, her mother, her brother, her sisters, her cousins and neighbours. They are fresh, lively and natural. We know that she put a lot of work into them, but they have an engaging air of spontaneity. They have none of the bitterness, the disillusionment, the pathos, of so many of her stories. They are to my mind the best things she ever wrote.

I am told that Katherine Mansfield's stories are not so highly thought of as they were during the 'twenties. It would be a pity if she were forgotten. I don't think she will be. After all, it is the personality of the author that gives his work its special interest. It does not matter if it is a slightly absurd one, as with Henry James, a somewhat vulgar one, as with Maupassant, a brash, tawdry one, as with Kipling–so long as the author can present it, distinct and idiosyncratic, his work has life. That surely is what Katherine Mansfield succeeded in doing.
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