Wednesday, September 18, 2013

David Constantine's "Tea at the Midland"

British writer David Constantine has won the 2013 Frank O’Connor Short Story award, which will be presented this week at the International Short Story Festival in Cork, Ireland.  It comes with a prize of 25,000 Euros. The title story of the collection, “Tea at the Midland” won the 2010 BBC National Short Story Award, which came with a prize of 15,000 British pounds. According to my calculations, that’s 57,246 U.S. dollars. Not a bad haul for short stories.
Constantine has been around for a while, but because he writes poems, stories, essays, and translations—alas, no novels--he is not well known, especially not in America. He laments, as many short story writers have before him, that the novel is too often seen as a superior form, “as if you’re working toward graduating to a novel,” but he is hopeful that such attitudes are starting to shift. I am happy to say that, thanks to the work of several very fine short-story writers and a number of very bright and very dedicated critics and scholars, that is true in Great Britain—not so much in America.

Like many great short-story writers, Constantine says he is not partial to creating plots, adding: “The best short stories by the people I really admire are open at the end rather than closing, and the form allows that. I detest the idea of closure, in life and in writing.” With short stories, Constantine says, “you must never feel that the subject has simply been abbreviated in order to get it into 3,000 words, or 5,000 words.” Of course, what Constantine does not like about closure is that it smacks of plot—usually in the short story, a kind of “rigged” plot.
David Constantine said in a recent interview that he writes “the kind of stories that someone would write who is mainly writing poems.” He added: “I think that if you try to write poems it makes you very attentive to language.  It also makes you quite impatient of language which is merely instrumental, which is just saying this happened, then that happened, to get you from this point to the next.”  Of course, what Constantine is expressing his impatience at is language that just advances mere plot.

So what is the kind of story written by someone who mainly writes poems?  I will try to pose an answer that question by making a few comments about the title story of Tea at the Midland.
First the context for the story. The Midland is a hotel in Morecambe, once a popular bayside resort in Lancashire, on the west coast of northern England. The Midland is an art deco hotel that fell into disrepair in 1998, but was restored and reopened in 2008, complete with art works by the artist Eric Gill, including one of his best-known works, a bas-relief behind the Reception desk of the main lobby, depicting a nude Odysseus being greeted by Nausicaa and three of her handmaidens with food, drink, and clothing. The inscription on the bas-relief reads: “There is good hope that thou mayest see thy friends.” A biography of Gill in 1989 by Fiona MacCarthy revealed that the artist had sexual relations with his sisters and his daughters, not to mention his dog.

The two most basic questions we often ask about a story are: What happens in this story? And what is this story about?  The answer to the first question is, on the surface, quite simple. A man and a woman are having tea and scones and an argument in a hotel tearoom. They are having, or have been having, an affair; he is married; she is not. We don’t know how long the affair has been going on.  An unknown narrator describes the event, largely from the perspective of the woman, although at certain points he seems to know what the man is thinking also.
When the story opens, the woman is watching kite surfers on the bay, admiring them for their grace and beauty.  The couple has been having an argument about the famous bas relief in the hotel entitled “Odysseus welcomed home from the sea,” by the artist Eric Gill. The man dislikes the frieze because he knows that the artist was a paedophile who had sex with his own daughters. The woman is more interested in the subject of the frieze than the artist. She has read The Odyssey and knows the background of the artwork; the man does not. She tells him the story of how Odysseus was welcomed on the island by Nausikaa and her family and about how, after he was fed and clothed, fifty-two young men rowed him back to his home in Ithaca; on the way back they were turned by stone by Poseidon because they helped Odysseus, whom the god of the sea hated. 

Telling the story, the woman cries, and the man accuses her of never crying about him, after which he leaves. After the woman watches the surfers paddle ashore with their boards and sails, she pays the bill. On the way out, she sees a man kneeling and explaining the frieze to a little girl—telling her it is about how the people welcomed Odysseus, a stranger, because every stranger was sacred to them, concluding that the lady in the frieze would have liked to marry the stranger, but because he already had a wife they rowed him home.
That’s what happens in the story—not much in the way of plot. But then, ever since Edgar Allan Poe redefined “plot,” the short story is not about what happens, but rather what kind of artistic pattern the language, characters, action, and ideas create and what significance it has.

Constantine once said that his stories often start with a single image and then from there, it is a “process of realisation, for me and hopefully for the reader.”  In what follows, I hope to articulate my own “process of realisation" in reading this story.
The story opens with a sentence that establishes the situation: “The wind blew steadily hard with frequent surges of greater ferocity that shook the vast plate glass behind which a woman and a man were having tea.” The sentence sets up a contrast between the sporadic ferocious surges of the wind behind which the man and woman are “protected” in their stasis. The voice of the story begins with a description of the outside world rather than the inside one. The sea is seen as “breaking white” in shallow water far out, then leveling out with nothing “impeding” the waves until they are “expended” on the shore. The sky “was torn and holed by the wind and a troubled golden light flung down at all angles, abiding nowhere, flashing out and vanishing.” This rhythm of ferocity contrasted with stasis, suggested by “torn,” “holed,” “flung,” “flashing,” and then, the waves coming on shore, “vanishing,” establishes the emotional rhythm of the story.

The perspective shifts to the surfers towed by kites: “And under the ceaselessly riven sky, riding the furrows and ridges of the sea, were a score or more of surfers towed on boards by kites.” The phrase “ceaselessly riven,” suggesting being torn apart, further sets up the emotional situation of the story. The sound of the language—“a score or more of surfers towed on boards by kites” insists that the language must be attended to.
At this point, a motif of motivation of gesture is introduced by the voice: “You might have said they were showing off but in truth it was a self-delighting among others doing likewise. The woman behind plate glass could not have been in their thoughts, they were not performing to impress and entertain her.” The description suggests a self-contained set of gestures, a performance only because it is being observed by a spectator separated by the heavy glass window.

What is emphasized about the surfers is their control of the ferocity of the sky and waves: “In the din of waves and wind under that ripped-open sky they were enjoying themselves, they felt the life in them to be entirely theirs, to deploy how they liked best.” Although this observation is expressed by the nameless narrator, the next sentence suggests that the perspective of the woman has shifted to the woman, confirmed by the following admiring, even envious, observation:

To the woman watching they looked like grace itself, the heart and soul of which is freedom. It pleased her particularly that they were attached by invisible strings to colourful curves of rapidly moving air. How clean and clever that was!  You throw up something like a handkerchief, you tether it and by its headlong wish to fly away, you are towed along.  And not in the straight line of its choosing, no: you tack and swerve as you please and swing out wide around at least a hemisphere of centrifugence. Beautiful, she thought. Such versatile autonomy among the strict determinants and all that co-ordination of mind and body, fitness, practice, confidence, skill and execution, all for fun!

I felt I had to quote this long passage, for it is important in setting up the contrast between the woman’s emotional situation and the man’s. The man is introduced in the next sentence, and it does not take much to know him, for he has not noticed the surfer riders and is only aware of the “crazed light” and the “shocks of wind” as “irritations.”  All he sees is the woman, and all he sees in her is that he had “no presence in her thoughts.”

The first character voice we hear in the story is the man’s voice, who repeats something he has said earlier, but which the woman is not thinking about: “A paedophile is a paedophile.  That’s all there is to it.” This startles the woman from her attention on the surfers, and the man is annoyed even more by her being startled, for it makes him aware how “intact and absent” she had been. “Her eyes seemed to have to adjust to his different world.”  She is annoyed that he is still harping on the pedophile subject and wants him just to let it be.  But he cannot let it go; he is angry that he has not been able to “force an adjustment in her thinking.”
Now we get some background context.  The woman has made the arrangements for their tea at the Midland hotel; she has brought him here because she hoped he would find it a romantic rendezvous and that they would come here some night and get a room with a big curved window and look out at the bay. However, he sees this not as an invitation but as a recrimination. They have obviously been arguing about the fact that Eric Gill did the frieze in the lobby; she has already lost interest in the specifics of the argument and has seen it as an indication of “his more general capacity for disappointing her.” Even though he sticks with the Eric Gill argument, she knows he just wants something to feed the “antagonisms that swarmed in him.”  She, “malevolently” gives him what he wants, asking him if he would have liked the bas-relief if he had not known it was by Gill or if he had not known Gill had sex with his sisters and his daughters, and, she adds, “Don’t forget the dog.”

She pushes the argument further, ostensibly making it an issue of art for art’s sake, vs. art for social purposes, asking him to hypothesize that what if Gill had made peace in the Middle East, to which he replies, making peace is “useful,” to which she retorts, “And making beauty isn’t.” She turns to look at the waves, the light, and the surfers, but cannot do so with her previous attention. This makes her angrier, and her turning away makes him fills him with rage. “Whenever she turned away and sat in silence he desired very violently to force her to attend and continue further and further in the thing that was harming them.” This cryptic comment is a technique that Chekhov innovated and that Hemingway and Carver and William Trevor, and James Lasdun, and David Means, and Alice Munro, and…..I could go on and on with other great short story writers who use language to suggest but not explain complex human interactions and emotions.
In the next paragraph, the woman pushes the Gill argument into wider generalities about the difference between the way she sees the world and their relationship and the way he does. She says if she took his view, she would not be able to enjoy watching the surfers unless she knew that none was a rapist or a member of the British National Party (an extreme right wing organization). Or she would have to hate the sea itself because in 2004 at Morecambe Bay twenty-one Chinese workers collecting cockles were drowned when an incoming tide cut them off from the shore.  He denies this, but she says the way he thinks and the way he wants her to think is to join everything together so that she cannot concentrate on one thing without bringing in everything else. She says that when they make love and she cries out for joy and pleasure, according to his view she must keep in mind that some woman somewhere is screaming in pain.  She says he should write on his forehead the lie he told his wife to make this tea possible so that whenever he looked at her kindly, she would have to remember that lie and thus spoil the moment. When he tells her how much he risks for her, she says she risks something too, that she also has something to lose.

When he sarcastically tells her to stay and look at the clouds, for he is leaving, she talks about the background to the frieze—saying Odysseus was a horrible man,  that he did not deserve the courtesy he received from Nausikaa and her parents, for she knows the horrible things Odysseus has done and the horrible things he will do when he gets home and kills the suitors to his wife Penelope. But she says in spite of that context, at the moment Gill chose to capture him in the frieze, he is naked and helpless, asking the man, “Aren’t we allowed to contemplate such moments.”

When the man says he has not read the Odyssey, she says she must have been a fool to think that she would have read passages of the book to him if they got one of “those rooms with a view of the sea and of the mountains across the bay that would have snow on them.” At seeing the tears in her eyes, the man looks more closely at her. “He felt she might be near to appealing to him, helping him out of it, so that they could get back to somewhere earlier and go a different way.” But this time, at least for the moment, it has gone too far.
She then tells him about the fifty-two young men who row Odysseus back to Ithaca and then on the way back, Poseidon, who hated Odysseus, turned the men and their ship into stone and sent them to the bottom of the sea. The man says he has no idea why she has told him this story and upbraids her for crying about imaginary people in a book and never crying about him, to which she asserts that he never will see her cry for him and their relationship.

The penultimate paragraph needs quoting in full, for it captures a moment of metaphoric resolution that needs no explanation:
The sun was near to setting and golden light came through in floods from under the ragged cover of weltering cloud. The wind shook furiously at the glass. 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.

But there is one final paragraph, a kind of coda that sums up the woman’s sense of loss.  A tall man is kneeling in the lobby by the frieze explaining to a little girl, probably his daughter, what the sculpture depicts. He tells her it is about welcome, for every stranger was sacred to the people of the island, concluding, the lady admitted she would have liked to marry him but he already had a wife at home. So they rowed him home.”
What is the story about?  I think it is about a couple who have reached a point of divergence. There is no specific cause that has brought them to this point; it is certainly not that they disagree about what to think of Eric Gill and his bas relief. And now that they have reached this point, there is nothing that can be said or done to bring back what they perhaps once had.

The basic difference between the woman and the man is that the woman is still trying to hold on to the romantic sense of the moment set apart from the everyday world, a moment of beauty, of freedom, or art for art’s sake, love for love’s sake; there is nothing “useful” about being in love; it just is. She watches the surfers and longs for their detachment, their control of their own transcendent moment. She admires Gill’s bas-relief because Gill has caught Odysseus at just the moment when he is vulnerable and helpless and the young woman reaches out to him and he is saved. And that moment has nothing to do with what Odysseus has done in the past or will do in the future. 
Similarly, Eric Gill’s private life has nothing to do with his capturing of that transcendent moment. And you cannot hold the sea accountable for the death of the cockle pickers; it is nonetheless beautiful for all that. The story is about the loss of love, about the difference between the romantic and the realistic. At the end, the woman watches the father explain the frieze to the little girl, knowing that, like Odysseus, the man she was with has gone home to his wife, and she is left alone, with no husband, with no child--with only the image of the strange black figures like angels weighing next to nothing paddling ashore. It is a Keatsean moment of beauty and the only truth that one can have—the truth of the much desired, but always evasive, transcendent moment elevated out of space and time—all you know and all you need to know.

A story very similar to this is Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” which I have discussed in a July 4, 2011 blog entitled “Haunted by Hemingway.” Another story similar in its poetic economy is James Lasdun’s “It’s Beginning to Hurt,” on which I posted a blog September 28, 2010. I invite you to read those two stories and compare their technique to David Constantine’s subtle and complex “Tea at the Midlands.”
I congratulate David Constantine for his two prizes. Good short stories should be rewarded. I only hope I have proved to be the kind of reader that this story deserves.


Richard L. Pangburn said...

What I see in the story is the divide between control and unlimited possibilities. Between the finite and the infinite.

All of the art and much of the life narratives in the story are subject to interpretation. These can be divided into glass-half-full or glass-half-empty narratives.

People are about as happy as they make up their minds to be. The man in the story needs to possess rather than to simply love.

Anonymous said...

An excellent review - thank you.

You might enjoy Tim Liardet's 'Priest Skear' a poetry chapbook about the death of the cockle pickers.

Martin said...

Great review.

I'm from Morecambe myself and wonder if its appearance in creative writing inherently carries the theme of loss due to, as you say, being a once popular resort.

For what it's worth I don't think Constantine could hope for a better reader - you're eloquent, perceptive and a pleasure to read.

Charles E. May said...

Thanks to Richard, Anonymous, and Martin for responding to my post on David Constantine's story "Tea at the Midland." I much appreciate your taking the time to read my comments and to write to me.

Dorothy Johnston said...

Another insightful discussion. It's interesting that David Constantine brings up the connection between short stories and poems once again.

Charles E. May said...

Hi, Dorothy, always good to hear from you. I think Poe said it first: "Were we called designate that class of composition which, next to...a poem, should best fulfill the demands of high genius...we should unhesitatingly speak of the prose tale..."

Charles E. May said...

Always good to hear from Richard Pangburn, who reads stories so well. Although I agree the man in Contantine's story would rather possess than love, I am not sure I can agree that "people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be."

DP said...

Thank you for reviewing David Constantine. I was immediately pulled in to his story, oddly enough, by the mood.

And while he's not a big fan of "plot" per say, I never felt disappointed by his stories. (Maybe confused slightly, but not disappointed.)

You walk away with a strange intense feeling that you have experienced a very human moment, if that makes any sense.

Charles E. May said...

It makes a great deal of sense to me, DP. Thanks for reading and for writing. I appreciate it.

dish cruise said...