“Just try new things. Don’t be afraid. Step out of your comfort zones and soar, all right?” (Michelle Obama)

A little while ago I went to see Edward St Aubyn interviewed and he was every bit as witty and compelling as I’d hoped. He mentioned that he finds dialogue the easiest part of writing, and an audience member asked him if he’d consider writing a play. St Aubyn said he didn’t really enjoy theatre (something along the lines of “I always seem to be in the middle of row M”) but that playwriting might be a bit of a holiday from novel writing, which I’m sure must have pissed off any playwrights in the audience sweating blood and ink over their drama.

Also, for any fellow Patrick Melrose series fans, and I know we are a precious bunch who don’t want to see TV mess up such novelistic perfection, he said he’d been on set to see the production that’s being made with Benedict Cumberbatch and he was very happy with it.

So, a long preamble to say that this is why I decided to look at playwrights writing prose this week.

Firstly, Samuel Beckett’s First Love and Other Novellas (1954-73, trans. Samuel Beckett and Richard Seaver) which I would argue aren’t novellas at all, they are all short stories (there are 4 stories in the collection and the 2 longest are only just over 20 pages). Pedantry aside, I would say if you like Beckett’s dramas you’ll like his short stories. It’s all here: existential crisis, bleak absurdism, humour and despair.

In The End, the first-person narrator is down on his luck, clothed in badly fitting clothes that ‘they’ have given him from a dead man, having burnt his (presumably to avoid disease). He eventually finds lodgings, but is turfed out and returns to an itinerant life:

“One day I witnessed a strange scene. Normally I didn’t see a great deal. I didn’t hear a great deal either. I didn’t pay attention. Strictly speaking I wasn’t there. Strictly speaking I believe I’ve never been anywhere. But that day I must have come back.”

Pretty Beckettian, no? I know he’s not for everyone, but what I like about Beckett is that all the absurdism and word-play is not an intellectual exercise only, but is underpinned by a great humanity and acute awareness of suffering which makes his work bleakly beautiful:

“The memory came faint and cold of the story I might have told, a story in the likeness of my life, I mean without the courage to end or the strength to go on.”

The idea of choosing the story we tell is continued in the next two stories, The Expelled where the narrator, having taken us through a day in his life concludes:

“I don’t know why I told this story. I could just as well have told another. Perhaps some other time I’ll be able to tell another. Living souls, you will see how alike they are.”

And also in The Calmative, where the narrator tells himself a story to assuage the fear of death:

“So I’ll tell myself a story. I’ll try and tell myself another story, to try and calm myself, and its there I feel I’ll be old, old, even older than the day I fell, calling for help and it came. Or is it possible that in this story I have come back to life, after my death? No, it’s not like me to come back to life, after my death.”

The final, titular story is needless to say, not a rose-tinted view of innocence and longing.

“I didn’t understand women at that period. I still don’t for that matter. Nor men either. Nor animals either. What I understand best, which is not saying much, are my pains. I think them through daily, it doesn’t take long, thought  moves so fast, but they are not only in my thought, not all.”

So, business as usual for Beckett despite the change in the form from drama 😀 If you’re not sure about Beckett but want to give him a go, you could do worse than start here; you’ll get a good flavour without having to pay extortionate theatre ticket prices only to find yourself stuck in the middle of row M.

Obligatory picture of Beckett’s amazing face:


Secondly, About Love and Other Stories by Anton Chekhov (trans. Rosamund Bartlett, OUP 2004). I’m being a bit cheeky claiming Chekhov primarily as a playwright for the purposes of this blog post, given that the back of my edition of these stories has a quote from Raymond Carver proclaiming Chekhov “the greatest short story writer who has ever lived”.

Anton Chekhov, who took up writing after One Direction split up

Having read this collection, I would say he really is a master. Beautiful writing, not a word out of place (as you’d expect given the famous ‘gun’ instruction regarding not having any superfluous detail) and he is able to take the miniature and make it epic. In The Lady with the Little Dog, Chekhov takes a well-worn story of a bounder seducing an unhappy woman and turns it into a tragedy, without it ever becoming sentimental or overblown.

“She pressed his hand and started walking down the stairs, looking back at him  all the time, and you could see from her eyes that she really was not happy. Gurov stood for a while, listening, and then when everything had gone quiet he looked for his coat-peg and left the theatre.”

It is the story not of a great love affair, but a love that sneaks up on two people who were not looking for it and how it seems to bring nothing but misery, but with an ever-present promise of unrealised happiness.

The stories are ambitious in theme and they are truly profound, but that doesn’t mean they are without humour. Rothschild’s Violin begins:

The town was very small – worse than a village really – and the people who lived in it were mostly old folk who died so rarely it was quite annoying.”

Yakov is the unfortunate coffin maker in this healthy town and he is grumpy and horrible to his wife. When his wife dies, he expresses his unexpected feelings through his violin playing, to great effect:

“Rothschild listened intently, standing to one side, his arms folded on his chest. The frightened, confused expression on his face gradually changed to one of grief and suffering. He rolled his eyes, as if experiencing exquisite pain”

A story about the universality of pain and the expression of feeling beyond words is explored with a lightness of touch that almost borders magic realism. Chekhov writes with such subtlety and never patronises the reader.

It’s really hard to write about Chekhov’s short stories. They are so rich, so full of telling detail and so beautifully evoked that I have not done any justice to them here. I only hope that I’ve convinced you to pick up one of his short story collections and read the treasures for yourself.

To end, following my last post’s comment by Lucy, a festive video of 2 men stepping out of their comfort zones and looking slightly baffled about it all (“I’m David Bowie, I live down the road” 😀 ):

19 thoughts on ““Just try new things. Don’t be afraid. Step out of your comfort zones and soar, all right?” (Michelle Obama)

  1. I’m still a relative novice as far as Chekhov goes, but everything I’ve read so far has been very impressive. As you say, they are full of richness an a strong sense of humanity – minor masterpieces in their own right. He really was a master of the form.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I’m a great fan of novels by poets but had never thought of searching out fiction by playwrights. Chekov sounds like a good place to start. And that’s my second viewing of the Bowie/Crosby clip this week. I’ve been catching up with Gregory Porter’s excellent BBC4 series on the voice.The second one on crooning featured this surprising duo.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Madame Bibi, you are a delight. Your mixture of the serious and the frivol, sometimes only a hair’s breadth apart, is a deep delight.Young Chekhov and One Direction is bloody marvellous , though the whole post is a gem, start to finish

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Your title quote couldn’t be more fitting tonight – I’ve just come from my son’s Grade 6 graduation. He’s off to high school next year and he knows no one. Not a single buddy at his new school. He’s stressed. I’ll be quoting Michelle.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. If Beckett’s narrator says “I don’t know why I told this story,” I counter with “I don’t know why I read this story.” Despite his amazing face, we don’t get on with each other. I will stick with Chekhov. (I didn’t know he was part of One Direction! 🙂 )

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  6. That video is a little piece of perfection! It’s years since I last saw it – I’d forgotten all about it. Thank you (even though you did make me cry – but in a good way. 😪😃)

    Coincidentally I have a collection of Chekhov’s stories called The Beauties coming up soon. I’ve always enjoyed his plays but this will be my first real venture into his non-theatre writing. You’ve got me really looking forward to it now. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m glad you enjoyed it, even though it made you cry! That opening conversation is just wonderful 😀

      I really hope you enjoy the Chekhov stories – I think you will, I know we share a taste for concise writing & he doesn’t waste a word. I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Wow, existential crisis, bleak absurdism, humour and despair – and now available in your own home, you say? The Beckett will be mine! I don’t know why, but by the time I got to your Chekhov review I started to feel fury at not one, but two dramatists who can dash off short stories with dazzling flare. Not content to merely stir audiences from the stage with their observations of the human condition, but they’re also knocking out short stories for fun during the intermission, while waiting for the barman to pour out a large G&T or two, no doubt. Once I am over my fit of jealousy at the unfair allocation of skills and talent I shall head for the library and get ordering!

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  8. I want to like Beckett more than actually I do, largely based on his face and attitude. I have read compilations of his letters and found that more entertaining and frankly, accessible. There’s lots of volumes of the letters and they aren’t cheap, and would be first on my list if I ever win the lottery.

    And yes that’s exactly it!! They are such an odd pairing, and it’s so strange that in this world I can see footage of Bowie speaking about his son at the time of his childhood, and now I can read Duncan Jones’ tweets and watch his films, knowing DUDE, IT WAS YOU THAT YOUR DAD WAS TALKING TO BING ABOUT!

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’ve not read his letters, I’ll look out for them. I’d love to read his thoughts written in that way.

      I went to a film presented by Duncan James once and that was basically my inner monologue “Your Dad’s David Bowie! Little Drummer Boy’s your favourite!!” To this day I’ve no idea what he was saying. He seemed very nice though 😉

      Liked by 1 person

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