Imagine yourself back in Vienna in the early years of the twentieth century. This is a city with historical Celtic migration and which suffered a plague in 1679 which wiped out a third of its population. It has been known for its composers – Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven. The BBC has reported that in 1913, Adolf Hitler, Leon Trotsky, Josip Broz Tito, Sigmund Freud and Joseph Stalin all lived within a few miles of each other in central Vienna, some of them becoming regulars at the same coffeehouses.
Walter Benjamin is best known for his philosophical history writing which is favoured by intellectual left-wingers. No syllabus seriously aiming to analyse culture is complete without his essay ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’. This German Jewish writer committed suicide in 1940 while on the French-Spanish border and trying to escape the advancing Wehrmacht. The rooting of this short fragment in Vienna cannot be random. This was both “Red Vienna” known for its socialist agitation and also the home of the “Austrian School” of liberal capitalist economists, the most famous of whom was Friedrich August von Hayek. They saw economics, jobs and money, being governed by the motivations and actions of individuals and they saw a regulatory state as oppressive. This story consists of two individuals. How do they choose to spend their time? Are they part of a society?
Broadcast on YouTube on Tuesday 14 July 2020 here:
More detailed analysis and thoughts on this story will appear here later.
This story was written in 1941 by a great and not well known enough German artist, Kurt Schwitters. Schwitters was born in 1887 in Hanover, West Saxony, in North Germany. I first learned of him via an exhibition of his work at Tate Britain, London, in April 2013. I borrowed a friend’s membership card so got in free! Schwitters’s art is a wonderfully everyday surreal art, collaging advertising slogans and material objects from the consumer capitalist society he far preferred to totalitarianism. Lots of sources call him non-political, like Piet Mondrian, but really this his work does embody a worldly liberalism historically embodied from the 12th to 19th centuries by the Hanseatic League. Hanover was a part of the Hansa, a trade confederation of merchant guilds in cities and market towns clustered around the Baltic.
Schwitters’s art work had been publicly ridiculed in the now Nazi Germany of 1935. His close friends the Spengemanns had been arrested by the Gestapo in 1936 and Schwitters fled Germany in January 1937, joining his son Ernst in Norway. Schwitters died in Kendal in 1948, after his experiences in 1940-41 as an ‘enemy alien’ internee in the Hutchinson Camp on the Isle of Man during the Second World War. His most famous work the Merz Barn was airlifted in the 1960s from the stone cottage in the Lake District it was made in to Newcastle upon Tyne where it now resides. I’ve seen it – it’s in the Hatton Gallery. It’s a towering, odd assemblage that has been well restored in recent years. Visit it yourself if you happen to be in Newcastle under non-lockdown conditions…
This is a powerful, very simple, folk tale-like short story from Schwitters which I’m sure you’ll enjoy:
On their island, the fisherman and his wife – ‘a god-fearing couple’ – live well enough, depending on nature: ‘excellent fish and lobster’. The nearby townspeople – the fish merchants – are also ‘as innocent as a well-trained house cat, at least to outward appearances’.
The fisherman’s unnamed wife comes up with a scheme to make money – understandable as ‘everything is so expensive’. This involves employing an idiot to assist them with catching and selling the fish; who will also benefit them in that ‘The government will give us money to feed him’.
The idiot, however, shows more cunning than his nomenclature would suggest, selling the same lobster on from one merchant to another; he put the lobster into each pot, but then removed it, finally selling it at a lower price to the communal kitchen. The second merchant wanted the lobster to sell to the ‘big hotel’ that ‘needed’ it for the tourists.
In the saloon bar, the idiot ‘drank so much that he thought it was the best day of his life’. He enjoys the company of Rosa here, but she takes the remainder of his money when he was drunk. The idiot gets thrown out. Then come ‘regret’ and thoughts of the ‘future of his soul’ as a lady from the Salvation Army appears. He does regret, and thus gets coffee and cake and engages in religious singing. He takes the Panglossian view, as satirised by Voltaire in Candide (1759) that everything is as it should be on earth and that things will get better.
When the idiot then returns to the story’s original island, ‘feeling quite depressed’ and expecting to be ‘severely punished’ for his enterprising he also gets coffee and cake from the fisherman, for he was a very good man, or at least he appeared to be.’ (my emphasis) The fisherman heartily and gladly welcomes the idiot for his enterprising plan, as it accorded with his own dislike of the fish merchants.
Clearly, the fact that the idiot finally sells the lobster to a communal kitchen at a low price suggests a more socialist reading of the story. However, the idiot’s is clearly an individual agency; his act of generosity is the result of having money in the first place to paraphrase our not-so-glorious Prime Minister of 1979-1990. Schwitters shows generous largesse as bound up with personal gain.
The idiot does not invest his money, but he has a good time in the saloon: implying the carpe diem attitude within European working-class culture. However, he does ultimately benefit as he has inadvertently picked a side in the turf wars between the apparently ‘good’ lone fisherman and the fish merchants who are also associated with the ‘big hotel’. Surviving within the economic system requires aligning in power formations to rival what already exists – these have historically included guilds, trade alliances like the Hanseatic League, or, indeed, trade unions. It is implied that the idiot’s clever trickery might lead to a profitable arrangement with the fisherman and his wife in future, or, even… a beautiful friendship?
Now I’ve been nowhere near Barnard Castle, County Durham. Ouseburn Park, about 10 minutes legwork away, is the furthest I’ve been since the 11th of March!
Now, welcome especially to this the very first episode of the first, surely only, series of… MAY’S MINIATURES! Basically, this is a daily weekly reading of a short story that I like, prefaced by a wry introduction a bit like that Anglo-Norwegian gadgie who presented ITV’s late 1970s and 1980s anthology series Tales of the Unexpected from some sort of ornate, drawing room type set… I have no fancy sets, and possibly a bit more chin-stroking earnestness in my arsenal.
Each of these episodes – to be broadcast for the next ten Tuesdays on YouTube – will be accompanied by a blog-post with the text of my introductions, the embedded episode and which gives my further thoughts about the story in question.
Now I don’t do Kindle too often, folks… You’d just have to look at my many double-stacked bookshelves to see why… But I do have a Kindle edition of old Anton Chekhov’s complete works, and in this no-doubt un-scholarly edition this one I have selected is chronologically his very first short story. I must admit I have read very little Chekhov. Studying Literature via the National Curriculum at school and College in Sunderland and the English Tripos at Cambridge uni doesn’t force you to read any literature by the greats of European, American, Asian or African literature… I admit to my reading insurality.
Chekhov was born in 1860 in Taganrog, a port city in South West Russia, today close to the border with Ukraine. Along with the Scandinavians Ibsen and Strindberg, he is credited as a major innovator in Modernist theatre. Difficult to imagine Beckett, Joyce and others writing in quite the same way without these various forerunners… This early Chekhovian story critiques traditional social mores, with a deft, light touch.
CRITIQUE (best to read this once you’ve watched the episode!):
Chekhov depicts Russian society very much in the grip of traditionally moralistic social values. This is all in the context of late spring and summertime. Chekhov’s opening, presumably set in late May, paints the setting as idyllic, “a lovely spot” with fish and daddy-long-legs traversing the water. There is a paradox in that the lovers Anna and Lapkin’s greatest bliss occurs in their vengeful unity against Anna’s malicious brother Kolya. Yet, right from the off, they are “armed” with fishing rods… Which implies the wider context of aggressive power games.
This story reflects something of the growth in secrecy and spying in European culture. In UK terms, what was a relatively disorganised, piecemeal system became the significantly enlarged ‘Secret State’ of Whitehall that Bernard Porter and Ian Cobain have detailed. I know less about Tsarist Russia, but am assuming that the secret state was more widely organised than in the Chekhov makes the point that children can act as self-interested agents; Kolya might be seen as “enterprising” by some.
Lapkin’s idolising of Anna is courtly work; his frilly, if seemingly heartfelt discourses to his lover are the corollary of what he describes as his “honourable, industrious life”. Once he is able to propose to Anna in late August, the power Kolya has over them dissipates and they, finally, gain the upper hand. An honourable, industrious life clearly depends on social conventions and finding the right words at the right time.
This is no fable with a clear moralistic message to be discerned; instead, it suggests the subjective and objective truth that some people are motivated by pecuniary gain and that power and secret “knowledge” can, in certain circumstances, be more of an aphrodisiac than idyllic summer and courtly words.
For anyone aspiring to “pull” in the lockdown, well, I’m sorry to say it, but lips won’t easily meet accidentally. I feel ever luckier to have been able to enjoy our wonderful marriage day with Rachel and our friends and family back at Tullie House in Carlisle on 6 July 2019.