Tea at Midland by David Constantine (2012, 235 pages)
During my Q and A Sessions for Irish Short Story Month, I asked everyone who their favorite short story writers, contemporary and all time were. From this I got an abundance of reading suggestions, I especially enjoy learning of new to me writers. Guy le Jeune, author of "Jamsey" spoke very highly of the work of David Constantine. I shortly Googled him and discovered he was the winner of the 2010 BBC Short Story Prize for "Tea at Midlands" which has been published by Comma Press in a collection short stories by that name. I discovered he was a highly regarded writer as well as an award winning translator of Goethe's Faust (a work maybe I will now feel I can read!).
I find posting on short story collections more challenging that posting on novels. Many people who do post on short story collections write a line or two on a couple of the stories then generalize about the collection. My procedure is to post at some length about enough of the stories to give a potential reader or buyer a feel for the collection and in the process I find my understanding of the collection is often increased and I am better able to recall it. For those who want the bottom line first, Guy le Jeune was totally right when he spoke of the poetic brilliance of Constantine. Each of the sixteen stories in this collection is a perfectly crafted work of art that appears to be the product of an exquisite sensibility and a drive to produce near perfect beauty.
"Tea at Midland"
"And the surfers skied like angels
enjoying the feel of the waters of the earth, they skimmed, at
times they lifted off and flew, they landed with a dash of spray.
She watched till the light began to fail and one by one the
strange black figures paddled ashore with their boards and
sails packed small and weighing next to nothing"
This story is set in the dining room of the Midlands Hotel on the coast of England. It is a place of opulence with its beauty enhanced by its view of the ocean and by a frieze done by the artist Eric Gill. (I admit I did not know who Eric Gill was or why he is a controversial figure until I Googled him.)
A man and a woman, having an affair, are having tea. The woman is fixated on the almost transcendent beauty of the vista of the ocean and the surfers. Suddenly this conversation occurs:
"So he said again, A pedophile is a
pedophile. That’s all there is to it.
She suffered a jolt, hearing him. And that itself, her
being startled, annoyed him more. She had been so intact and
I admit I am confused but that was part of the artistry of this story, to make one wait to understand what the couple isfighting about. I realize now much of the original audience for this BBC prize winning story story would have known they were talking about Eric Gill (1882 to 1940), the artist whose work famously decorated the Midlands Hotel as well as numerous other public buildings. He was given the highest possible awards for an artist. He became controversial after death when it was revealed he had sexually molested his own children and was the worst sort of serial pedophile. The man cannot respect his work, he cannot see beauty for its own sake. There is so much in this five page work. It is a coda on the nature of beauty and art and deals the liberating and escapist aspects of the pursuit of artistic perfection. The quarrel between the man and woman is perfect. At first I am tempted to think the man is just some kind of philistine but I think that is underestimating this story. In a deeper way Eric Gill is almost like Poseidon or even John Bull reincarnated as a capricious cruel God destroying anything that gets in the way of imperial pleasure. Maybe the man sees this and the woman is seduced by beauty and the need to feel clever. It would be hard to find a richer five pages than these.
"Strong Enough to Help"
"So he sat at the polished black table in the dining room,
among furnishings he had not chosen but had merely gone
on living with, and loneliness, hopelessness, deep deep sadness
possessed him utterly, froze him, the pen still in his hand, and
he seemed to be seeing the opposite wall and his father’s
copied painting of a painting of Wastwater, not just through
tears but through ice.
Then the doorbell rang.
The bell frightened him, it made no sense. In his own
house he was elsewhere, facing something he did not feel
"Strong Enough to Help" is an amazingly profound story about a very lonely 55 year old man, living with the memories of his grandmother, mother and aunt. He has always lived in his parents'i house. He works as a file clerk in a hospital. Every Saturday morning he gets up at 600 AM to write poetry for two hours. His house is full of books of poems, he has been reading them all his life. If ever a man lived the reading life it is him. This Saturday morning he finds his mind is being inundated with the sayings of the women of the house, all deceased now. Their words of wisdom and their homilies are overwhelming him. He feels compelled to write them down. Then Gladys from the Department of Culture is at his door and she wants to ask him some questions about his sports and cultural activities. She has a lovely Caribbean accent. She begins to ask him her questions. Do you do any sports? Do you go to the opera, the movies, musical shows, concerts or watch sporting events. Everything is no. Then she asks him if he uses the public library and yes he does it is central to his life. (I felt more than a little sadness in this as I live in a city of ten million with no public libraries). He loves reading poetry. His reading is really his life. You can tell he has been lonely so long he no longer even knows it. In a way it is also a story about living among barbarians, among brutal fools who have never gotten up early on their day off to read, who look upon the reading of poetry as something for homosexuals, among morons. I felt his deep pain and we know by now there is a man-child like quality to him when he told Gladys that once he liked a woman at work. He gave her a book of poetry he had written and she told him to stop bothering her and he ended up being written up by the management.
I have just touched the surface of this amazing story. It is a classic reading life short story. This is the kind of story that keeps me blogging and reading on hoping to discover one more story that far transcends my ability to explain why it is so wonderful. The ending of the story opens up some hope for the man. I hope it happens for him. As I read what his neighbors did to him when he asked them to just close their door as the noise they were making was making it hard for them to read, I wanted to get a bulldozer and flatten their house for their attack on a man I do feel a deep kinship for. He is 55, he will always read and maybe as the story ends he will enter another phase of his life.
"Lewis and Ellis"
"Then in half an hour, hurrying,
he assembled again the works he could not live without:
good editions of Homer, Virgil, Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare,
the King James Bible, and so on, to the Four Quartets. This last
he took with him and the rest, on his account, he had
delivered before sunset to 473 East Arboretum Street, and
arranged them chronologically around him. A week or so
later, sickened to the point of vomiting, he binned them all."
"Lewis and Ellis" is another brilliant story. This one is about two old men, Lewis and Ellis who both are residents in a cancer ward of some sort, waiting to die with no hope of a cure. They are not really friends, neither is the kind of man to make friends easily. Long ago I discovered that Samuel Johnson was right when he said the older you get, the harder it is to make friends. The men keep each other company and they play chess. They do not really have a lot in common. One of them, Ellis, has always been totally into the reading life, we can see in the quote I used above the kind of works he loved, maybe loved is (OK it is) the wrong word but these books are a part of him. This story is very much about the end of the reading life. Only those not really into it will think the reading life is all about uplifting yourself with the great classics, it also can be a force that can overpower you, make you feel little else really matters. I understand exactly why he threw out his beloved books. I have thrown out books I loved for reasons that would make no sense to most people. There is much more to this story than what I have said but I am not really wanting to explicate the plot. This is a great story. It is about deep loneliness, about how a life of reading the best there is impacts some people, I do not think it hits everyone as it did Ellis and if you do not understand why he threw out his books, it does not mean you lack knowledge, you were just impacted differently. One of the themes this story and "Strong Enough to Help" have in common is how the reading life can produce a deep sense of being alone. If you do not understand what I am talking about, just ignore me.
As the story opens Mr. Carlton is in his house in the company of his two adult daughters. They have just returned from the cremation of his wife, their mother. He tells them he is OK and they can go home. Shortly after that he packs up his car, he notices a neighbor woman has seen him and he thinks "only one witness". He send his daughters text messages, one at a time as he does not know how to send a group message saying he will be out of touch for a few days and not to worry. That he did not know how to send a group message is a wonderful detail of a man trying to cope with a new world. This is a strange and mysterious story. On his road trip, on a major highway, traffic is blocked in both directions and it looks like it is going to be a long time. He decides to go for a walk. Now this is for sure odd behavior for this very cautious man. He comes upon an old house, he meets a pregnant woman and a heavy man. He observes the garden like setting of the house and the old couple who live there. He tries to reassure the pregnant woman. Then it looks like traffic is moving again. I like this story and am a bit baffled by the close so I will resist any facile conclusions other than to say this is a wonderful story about a lonely old man trying to deal with his fate.
"Ev's Garden" is another very interesting story that focuses on an isolated person. Ev has been alone so long she does not even known she is lonely as she has never really experienced an alternative. There maybe something wrong with her learning capacity or maybe because of the way she was moved around from one foster home to another she never received any real education. When we first meet her she is working in a slaughter house. Then the slaughterhouse closes down but in time a vegetable and fruit coop set up shop there and Ev goes to work for them. From there she moves on to running a garden with the help of people required to work for the government in projects because of petty crimes they have committed. So we go from slaughter house to vegetable coop to a garden, in a cemetery with law breakers helping Ev produce a beautiful garden. She is expelled from the garden. The symbolism of the story is very powerful. It is another case where a marginal figure in a story appears in a role that echoes the a central character of history, Eve. There are many wonderful details in this story, what we learn about the people who help Ev in the garden is truly masterful. This also is a great short story.
"Asylum" is another great story about isolates, people who somehow lack capacity to live in what some like to call the real world. As the story opens Mr Kramer is visiting Madeleine in a confinement ward of a mental hospital. She has been judged a possible danger to herself and others and a nurse is always present when they visit. We never learn who Mr. Kramer is to her-if he is an attorney, a social worker or there for his own reasons. I have written quite a bit about the previous stories so I will just endorse this story as very high level work as are all the others. Madeleine is somehow supposed to write as part of her therapy. About half the story is taken up with a story she is writing about pirates that is a comment on her life and the nature of asylums. When is an asylum a haven and when is it a prison?
A number of the stories in Tea at Midland are about older people, left alone by death or institutionalization. In "Alphonse" a man has been placed in an old people's home. We feel his anxiety and his hatred of the place, to lose his life time of autonomy is a terrible end game. He cannot act or talk as a rational adult, he is forced back into the role of child. Something fabulous and wonderful happens in this story. If you want to experience it, then read this story.
"Always in the short story there is a sense of outlawed figures wandering about the fringes of society, superimposed on symbolic figures whom they caricature and echo-Christ, Socrates, Moses"-Frank O'Connor
"Goat" is a simply amazing story, incredibly creative. The plot can be told in a few lines. A Canon (a vicar) is on his way to distribute free soup to a homeless man living in an abandoned, soon to be demolished school. The man is called "Goat" because he has two bumps on his head that look like they might be the start of horns. The canon meets a woman named Fay and takes her with him to meet Goat. When they arrive, he has taken up residence in the headmaster's old room, Goat screams out not to come in unless it is Fay. Goat is filthy dirty, his feet are black.
Constantine is his magnificent prose makes us feel we are entering the underworld.
"But so too was the river under its casing of ice, he felt
the sluggish flood still moving underneath over the ooze, the
mud and all the deposits of bikes and trolleys, bottles, knives,
angry women’s rings and bombs from the last war. All that
and more, but not just that, also the gnarled streams in the
frozen hills to the west, hardened, silenced, clamped into
inertia, set there waiting under the sheer ice of the milky way
and billions of sharp points of unimaginable cold".
There are at least six myths and religious overtures one can easily find here and I am sure others could find many more. The structure of the story is the creation of a master of the art. I really want you to read this incredibly powerful story. It will stay in my mind for a very long time, I hope forever.
Obviously I greatly admire this collection of short stories. These stories are finely crafted works of art of the highest quality, they are exquisite. I know nothing of the work or writing habits of the author but if these stories took twenty years to write, they are a very noble use of that time.
I urge anyone who loves the short story to read this collection. There are sixteen stories in all in the collection. I read all of them. If I must pick favorites I would say "Goat" for its perfect structure, its amazing recreation of old myths, its account of the forces that push people over the edge. I also very much loved, and I admit it is because but for the grace of God I could see myself in the central character in "Strong Enough to Help".
Born in Salford in 1944, David Constantine worked for thirty years as a university teacher of German language and literature. He has published several volumes of poetry, most recently, Nine Fathom Deep (2009). He is a translator of Hölderlin, Brecht, Goethe, Kleist, Michaux and Jaccottet. In 2003 his translation of Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s Lighter than Air won the Corneliu M Popescu Prize for European Poetry Translation. His translation of Goethe’s Faust, Part I was published by Penguin in 2005; Part II in April 2009. He is also author of one novel, Davies, and Fields of Fire: A Life of Sir William Hamilton. His three short story collections are Back at the Spike, the highly acclaimed Under the Dam (Comma, 2005), and The Shieling (Comma, 2009), which was shortlisted for the 2010 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. Constantine’s story ‘Tea at the Midland’ won the BBC National Short Story Award 2010. He lives in Oxford, where he edits Modern Poetry in Translation with his wife Helen.
Tea at Midlands is published by Comma Press. I spend quite a bit of time on their webpage and was very impressed by their books.