12 September 2014

The wellsprings of fiction

In 1946 George Orwell published an essay entitled “Why I Write”.

Putting aside the need to earn a living, I think there are four great motives for writing, at any rate for writing prose. They exist in different degrees in every writer, and in any one writer the proportions will vary from time to time, according to the atmosphere in which he is living. They are:

(i) Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc. It is humbug to pretend this is not a motive, and a strong one. Writers share this characteristic with scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful businessmen – in short, with the whole top crust of humanity. The great mass of human beings are not acutely selfish. After the age of about thirty they almost abandon the sense of being individuals at all – and live chiefly for others, or are simply smothered under drudgery. But there is also the minority of gifted, wilful people who are determined to live their own lives to the end, and writers belong in this class. Serious writers, I should say, are on the whole more vain and self-centred than journalists, though less interested in money.

(ii) Aesthetic enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story. Desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed. The aesthetic motive is very feeble in a lot of writers, but even a pamphleteer or writer of textbooks will have pet words and phrases which appeal to him for non-utilitarian reasons; or he may feel strongly about typography, width of margins, etc. Above the level of a railway guide, no book is quite free from aesthetic considerations.

(iii) Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.

(iv) Political purpose. – Using the word “political” in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.
He also says:
What I have most wanted to do throughout the past ten years is to make political writing into an art. My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice. When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, “I am going to produce a work of art”. I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing. But I could not do the work of writing a book, or even a long magazine article, if it were not also an aesthetic experience. Anyone who cares to examine my work will see that even when it is downright propaganda it contains much that a full-time politician would consider irrelevant. I am not able, and do not want, completely to abandon the world view that I acquired in childhood. So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take a pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information. It is no use trying to suppress that side of myself. The job is to reconcile my ingrained likes and dislikes with the essentially public, non-individual activities that this age forces on all of us.
In my view an overt political agenda can be toxic to the relationship between the reader and the story, particularly if the reader’s beliefs are at odds with the author’s. Samuel Goldwyn is said to have declared, “If you have a message, call Western Union”. That Orwell succeeds so well with Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four is down to his gifts as a storyteller.

Vladimir Nabokov had no time for political fiction. He is scathing about Dostoevsky:
My position in regard to Dostoevsky is a curious and difficult one. In all my courses I approach literature from the only point of view that literature interests me – namely the point of view of enduring art and individual genius. From this point of view Dostoevsky is not a great writer, but a rather mediocre one – with flashes of excellent humor, but, alas, with wastelands of literary platitudes in between.
This is belied by evidence that Nabokov had read, closely, most if not all of Dostoevsky’s work. Dostoevsky was a polemicist, for sure, but he was a greater artist than Orwell, with a deep interest in and sympathy with the human condition. He also had a better sense of humour than Nabokov gives him credit for. Some Dostoevsky is laugh-out-loud funny (e.g. when Nikolai seizes Pyotr Pavlovitch Gaganov by the nose in Demons; that whole book can be taken as a monstrous joke). Nabokov’s jokes are just as good, though quite different (e.g. the entire character of Charles Kinbote in Pale Fire, the portrait of Lolita’s all-American mother, and of course entertaining felicities and plays on words throughout).

So Nabokov put poetry above polemic. Yet he adored Dickens:
All we have to do when reading Bleak House is to relax and let our spines take over. Although we read with our minds, the seat of artistic delight is between the shoulder blades. That little shiver behind is quite certainly the highest form of emotion that humanity has attained when evolving pure art and pure science. Let us worship the spine and its tingle.
If Dickens’s novels aren’t polemical then I don’t know whose are.

Towards the end of his essay, Orwell informs us that:
All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.
Unfortunately he goes on to say:
For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one's own personality. Good prose is like a windowpane. I cannot say with certainty which of my motives are the strongest, but I know which of them deserve to be followed. And looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.
Trying to define “good prose” (for fiction, at any rate) is a waste of time. Orwell’s writing is so transparent that it is dead to the subtlety and music found on every page of Nabokov. Then again, Nabokov is perhaps too much the stylist. When reading him we are never far from a suspicion that he is showing off: that the subject-matter interests him less than the language with which it is expressed. In Nabokov the second of Orwell’s “great motives” (aesthetic enthusiasm) predominates.

Orwell says he wanted “to reconcile [his] ingrained likes and dislikes with the essentially public, non-individual activities that this age forces on all of us”. If he was a public writer, Nabokov was essentially a private one; and it is in the territory between the public and the private that we find the fifth and most interesting motive for writing fiction.

Apparently without fully realizing what he is saying, Orwell mentions the “desire to see things as they are”. He goes on to say that “at the very bottom of [authors’] motives there lies a mystery. … [One is] driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand”.

That demon is surely the quest for self-knowledge. It is the religious need to find evidence that our lives are not meaningless.

The tyro writer is usually unaware of any such demon – or angel. His motives are those listed by Orwell. His personality is such that he likes embroidering personal anecdotes: my Irish grandfather, when accused of exaggeration or outright untruth, would reply that he was merely an author whose books had never been published. Our tyro progresses from these petty lies to more elaborate ones, on paper, and is likely to tap into the primeval need to tell and to hear stories. The storyteller’s vanity looms large, together with unrealistic expectations, but he has withal a poetic impulse and this needs to be satisfied. Depending on the quality of that impulse, his early work will be more or less readable. As his career advances and his technique improves, he will begin (assuming he is not a complete dolt) to be gripped by the possibilities of language and the opportunities that fictioneering gives him for exploring the grand puzzle of his existence.

Pablo Picasso is credited with saying “Art is the lie that tells the truth”. A novel can be inherently more truthful than any history or biography, but a novel written with an agenda, whether commercial or political, cannot be a faithful reflection of the unique experiences and inner world of its author.

One measure of the truthfulness of a book is its longevity. Most if not all of the books we regard as classics are truthful, which is why we still read them. They may also be admirable in some other way, but it is to their truth that we chiefly respond.

If writing a novel is an exercise in self-exploration, why should its author – besides hoping for payment – want to see it published? Sometimes, in fact, he doesn’t, but usually he does, because he wants validation, praise, and possibly fame. These will all feed his vanity, especially in the early stages of his career, but unless he offers his work to the world and gets some feedback he will never know whether he has struck a chord with anyone else. He will not “connect”, to use E M Forster’s word: recognition that others feel as you do is the prime motor of both the storyteller and his listener, and I contend that the urge to find it is the deepest source of literary art.

To Orwell’s four motives, then, I’d like to add this fifth. In conclusion I would also like to say that for all his superficial insouciance, Nabokov was a serious artist. I feel I know the Russia of his childhood, the nostalgia of the émigré, what it is like to be a foreigner living in America. He has risked sharing these and a multitude of other confidences; he opens our eyes to the beauty of his synaesthetic world; and in a profoundly polemical fashion he upholds whatever is courageous, noble and virtuous. That is my little tribute to a great writer at the furthest end of the spectrum. His fiction deserves to endure.

30 August 2014

Some superb fonts

If you spend much time staring at computer text, you ought to consider very carefully which fonts you use.

Philipp H Poll and his team have provided us with the elegant and readable Linux Libertine. It out-classes Times New Roman by a country mile. The package includes Linux Biolinium, which is an open-source replacement for Linotype’s Optima.

Click to enlarge

Linux Libertine looks great when printed, and if you want serifs on your display font then Libertine is your man. However, I’m coming to prefer a sanserif face, and a monospaced one at that, and Ralph Levien’s crisp and humane Inconsolata is now my first choice for the screen.

18 August 2014

Whither Hither and Thither?

These three words, for a long time merely literary, have gone out of fashion altogether except in compound use (“hitherto”, “hither and thither”) or when the writer or speaker wishes to introduce a whimsical note (“whither Obama now?”). It is a shame, because their loss also deprives us of shades of meaning.

The modern replacement for “hither” is simply “here”, doing away with the sense of movement. Consider these quotations from the dictionary: “Come hither unto me” (1550, and by the way “come hither” is still, just about, used adjectivally to describe a coy, arch, or seductive look bestowed by a woman); “hyther tendeth al prudence and pollycy” (1538). I believe that “hither” is the intensive form of “here”. The command “bring him hither!” implies “from that place to this” more imperiously than “bring him here!”

Likewise, “thither” intensifies “there” and “whither” intensifies “where”.

“Here”, “there” and “where” are ancient words, as one might expect of such important tokens of meaning. “Here” and “there” are closely related: the latter probably grew out of the former, a pleasing idea since we always start from “here”, unless of course we are Irish and giving directional advice (“I wouldn’t be starting from here”). “Where”, however, comes to us through the interrogative Anglo Saxon form “hwár?”, which is a relative of “hwā?”, “who?”

“When”, “what”, “where”, “who”, “why”, “which” and “how” all begin with aspirants. This somehow suggests, to me at any rate, the state of ignorance. When we are puzzled or confounded by something we often exhale through partially pursed lips. Might the initial aspirant have arisen, in the very deepest past, from association with this? After all, words have to begin somewhere. If they are onomatopoeic (e.g. “crow”, “crash”, “whip”) their etymology is easy to explain, but the expression of abstract ideas is so subtle that there must originally have been some common ground, however tenuous.

One of our vital abilities is to take things for granted. Without it we would never get anything done. Yet sometimes it is instructive to stop and consider an aspect – any aspect – of life to which we have never before given much thought. These three words, passing from use, remind us of the mutability and great age of our language, that gigantic construction built from nothing but a need to understand the other fellow and in turn tell him what we think. English is more than a means of communication: it is a teeming city, continually being redeveloped, partially demolished, rebuilt, the product of millions of minds and sensibilities.

Below the ground, slowly becoming buried by new layers of construction, the archaeology is there for anyone who cares to dig.

11 August 2014


I think I have found the perfect software for writers – for this writer, at least.

My ideal features are:

1. Distraction-free mode.

2. Choice of any installed display font, colours and spacing, plus automatic indentation of first line of paragraph.

3. Ability to load and save plain text, with normal access to the filing system. This is most important to me, since plain text can easily be loaded into a tablet or e-reader, or converted (for example with jEdit) into html; or simply edited with another app.

4. Find-and-replace (with regular expressions if possible).

5. Word-count.

FocusWriter by Graeme Gott provides all this and much more. It has the following extra advantages for me:

1. Cross-platform. It runs under Linux, Windows and Apple’s OS X. I have a Linux desktop and a Mac laptop.

2. You can define any number of “themes” (i.e. customizations of the display) and easily switch between them.

3. If you move the mouse pointer to the right of the screen, a scroll-bar appears.

4. If you move the mouse pointer to the left of the screen, you can access a navigation bar which shows the first line or two of every “scene” in your text, the start of a scene being definable by any string you choose. The current scene is highlighted. Keystrokes allow you to move a scene up or down in the navigator and hence in the text.

5. A single keystroke will select a whole scene: useful when counting words.

6. The line currently being edited can be highlighted; or rather, the other lines can be dimmed. You can also highlight the three current lines, or the entire current paragraph. These settings are switchable using keystrokes, so you can quickly turn highlighting off when you move from editing to reviewing.

7. FocusWriter supports smart quotes (including global replace of straight with curly quotes) and allows for easy insertion of special characters.

8. FocusWriter is Open Source software. It is free to download and use, though I strongly recommend “tipping” Mr Gott because he has put a great deal of thought and effort into this program over the last six years and is still developing it.

There are other features which for me are not so important but you might value:

1. A decent spelling checker with the option to check as you write.

2. A motivation tool that lets you set a daily work-target (time spent or words written).

3. Besides plain text, FocusWriter will load and save in rich text (.rtf) and Open Document (.odt) formats, so you can preserve italics, bold, superscript, etc.

4. You can have multiple files open at once, selectable via a tab-bar that appears when you move the mouse pointer to the bottom of the screen. A status bar also becomes visible then, showing you statistics. These are configurable and can display word-count, number of pages, number of paragraphs, and/or number of characters. The way the program counts words and the nominal number of words to a page are also configurable.

Until recently I used PyRoom as a distraction-free editor (see here), but bemoaned the lack of a search function and devised a clunky workaround. FocusWriter is infinitely better.

On a sidenote, I also use AutoKey (Linux) and Keyboard Maestro (Mac). These allow one to define, among other things, customized keystrokes. Thus if I press Alt-S (Linux) or Ctrl-S (Mac), the word “said” appears at the cursor; keys Z, X and C are reserved for the names of the three principal characters in any story, etc. Pretty much anything you can do with the keyboard or mouse can be assigned to a hot-key. AutoHotkey does the same for Windows users.

To keep track of character-names, locations, chronology and whatnot I use a LibreOffice Calc spreadsheet running in another workspace. Combined with FocusWriter, this gives me all the features I shall probably ever need.

3 August 2014

Opinion piece

There is a line I encountered at school, and have always remembered, from the Roman playwright known as Terence: nihil ad me attinet, “it does not concern me at all”.

The Latin has a pleasing concinnity and the idea it expresses is worthy of reflection. In an increasingly opinionated world, having no opinion on a tendentious subject is a difficult position to maintain. It is the only honest position if you have no direct knowledge of the subject in question. A corollary is that you should be wary of what you read and hear (even when editorial bias is not obvious). Ask first “cui bono?” and then wonder where the money leads.

But what if you do have direct knowledge and that knowledge is so detailed that you can speak with authority? This, the obverse of happy ignorance, is, for a thinker, even more lethal to a firm opinion. Dostoyevsky says (Notes from Underground, 1.5) “ ... the direct, immediate, legitimate fruit of heightened consciousness is inertia, that is, the deliberate refusal to do anything.” The French proverb “to understand all is to forgive all” implies much the same thing. The more you know about something, the less you realize you are entitled to adopt a stance on it.

Violent opinions are expressed either by the unthinking or by those with an axe to grind. Somebody living one of Socrates’s unexamined lives looks no further than the opinions he has absorbed ready-made. In discourse with others with a similar background, his opinions are reinforced and gradually assume the properties of prejudice, so that if evidence contrary to his beliefs is adduced he will reject it. He wants you to believe as he does because your agreement helps confirm that he is right.

The unthinking are manipulated and reprogrammed by more informed and crafty people, people with an agenda (usually political or financial, or both). The intellectuals of the Frankfurt School are one such group, and they have had spectacular success in moulding opinion. Or we may cite the way Edward Bernays harnessed Freudian theory to pioneer the techniques of public relations to which so much of our commerce and polity has become thrall.

This post too expresses an opinion. Am I grinding an axe? Perhaps. Clearly, I want your agreement or constructive disagreement. Then there is the effect that the piece might have on your opinion of me. With luck you will think me a clever fellow; equally my references to Terence, Socrates and Dostovevsky might not flatter you at all, but make you decide I am nothing but an elitist and a show-off.

Or it may simply be that the idea for this piece has been long gestating and I was suddenly taken by the impulse to give it form.

18 July 2014

A nice new word

Quote of the week, with the bonus of a new word for me!
"Obviously Amazon has a very definitive point of view on what should be done in the publishing business. Those in the publishing world are not totally copacetic with it," Moonves said.

2 July 2014

The Widow Peterson

    Image: Jeff Dahl 

On Tuesdays Bilkin and I meet for chess. During our game one evening last October, I sensed the onset of a curious triangularity that now characterizes and enhances our friendship. More than curious: hence this account.
     Bilkin is a physician, one of the few intelligent men in this town and a splendid person in every respect. His wife died six years before the evening in question. She too was exceptional. Were I ever to contemplate matrimony, it would be with someone like her.
     After her death Bilkin and I grew closer. I dealt with probate for him and did what little I could to succour him in his bereavement.
     It was at this period that our weekly chess-evenings became a fixture. We use alternately his house and mine. Having taken a light supper, we bring the whisky decanter to the board and get down to play.
     This particular evening we were at my place. During supper he had mentioned his niece, which was not unusual, saying that he had bought her rather an extravagant birthday present – again, not an especially unusual statement, for he is fond of the girl and has helped her and her husband with the purchase of a flat. When I asked what he had chosen, he said, “a big bottle of Chanel No. 5,” and glanced at me in what I can only describe as a peculiar way.
     Now there are various shops in this town that sell perfume, but there is only one dedicated perfumery and it is owned and run by Mrs Clarice Peterson, the widow of the founder. Just as on Tuesdays I meet Bilkin for chess, so on Thursday evenings do I meet Clarice for diversion of another kind. Unfortunately she has no wish to speak of marriage; and, like me, she has no wish for our arrangement to become public.
     I had of course never breathed a word of this to Bilkin. As far as I knew he was, like everyone else in our little town, ignorant of the liaison. His glance, possibly, suggested otherwise; but I dared not pursue the matter.
     Once we were at the chess-table and had poured our first whiskies, I concealed a white pawn in one fist, a black in the other. He drew white. Outdoors the air was cold and fog had formed, but in my sitting-room everything was cosy. The time was a little before nine.
     Bilkin is a strong and knowledgeable player. He once lent me his copy of Das Buch vom Opfer by Vukovic, which in its English translation is entitled The Chess Sacrifice. As you are no doubt aware, this is one of the classics of the middle game, a masterly account of the psychology of wrong-footing your opponent by making what seems to be a mistake. A piece is left at his mercy: he seizes it, only to find himself horribly disadvantaged a few moves later.
     Until that evening in October, our chess had been little more than an excuse for two unattached, middle-aged men to spend an agreeable evening together, given our respective obligations not to discuss our daily work and our scant supply of other conversational topics, for we avoid religion and politics. Our play had produced only occasional flashes of aggression, and these were always followed by such questions as “do you want to put your rook back where it was?”
     The offer was invariably declined, for we played, and still play, by the rules.
     Before going on, I should perhaps explain, in parenthesis as it were, my relations with Clarice Peterson.
     I have always admired her; indeed for several years I was senselessly in love with the lady whose pretty laugh was a redeeming feature of the gatherings – drinks parties and the like – one is obliged to attend in a provincial town and with a job like mine. To these gatherings Dr and Mrs Bilkin were also often invited.
     Just after Mr Peterson’s death his widow sought my advice on a legal matter to do with the perfumery. I confess that her presence in my office, seated at the other side of my desk, had an effect on me such that I could barely understand her instructions. When she had gone, leaving only a delicious fragrance, I feverishly speculated as to how soon it would be proper for me to ask her out.
     Imagine my reaction when, that evening, she telephoned me at home and informed me that she had been aware for a long time of my feelings for her; that our interview in the office had confirmed that these were unchanged; and that she wished to invite me to her house for supper the following day.
     My surprise was tinged with disappointment, for I am something of a romantic. She had seemed my ideal woman. I had envied Peterson his luck in marrying virtue as well as beauty and had equated her with the irreproachable Mrs Bilkin; part of my speculation had indeed involved a distant possibility of wedlock.
     A lawyer is no stranger to human behaviour, but even I was shaken by her frankness the following evening. When the meal was in its final stages she gave me to understand that she had certain appetites which, in the absence of her husband, were being left unfulfilled.
     My disillusionment – after all, the poor chap had been in his box for less than a month – was soon eclipsed. My experience of women had not been extensive; Clarice showed me that night that there really is such a thing in the world as bliss. It would be quite wrong of me to expatiate, but take it from me that no normal man could resist her.
     Long before dawn she woke me and said I should leave. She also said that she had enjoyed herself and asked why we shouldn’t repeat this weekly. I admit I felt sordid when sneaking out of the house unobserved; but, as I say, one cannot resist her.
     Since then I have come round to her pragmatic point of view. I respect her honesty. She once asked me, in our dreamy post-coital state, whether I would be jealous if another man looked at her. I thought it best to give the expected answer and said that I should not. In fact her question raised a most unpleasant pang in my breast – till then I had been sure of her exclusive affection for me. I had viewed our arrangement as secure, satisfying our mutual needs, causing no harm to anyone else, and had regarded Thursday as the very zenith, the pinnacle, the apex of my week. The prospect of being forced to share her or, even worse, losing her altogether, was obnoxious in the extreme.
     I seem to recollect that she asked me that question last September.
     Now let us close this lengthy parenthesis and return to Bilkin and our October chess game. He began by moving his king’s pawn forward two squares to e4, a move which marks the beginning of the Giuco Piano, a mild enough opening, as the Italian name implies. I responded with the expected king’s pawn to e5.
     I assumed he would proceed at once by moving his king’s knight to f3. Instead he hesitated. I noticed that he was studying the board with unusual intensity. His whisky remained untouched. He seemed to be in the throes of a debate with himself.
     Bilkin’s remark about the perfume, and especially his odd glance, returned to my thoughts.
     A moment later, without looking at me, he extended his forefinger and pushed his king’s bishop’s pawn two squares forward.
     This of course is the second move of the King’s Gambit, which in the hands of a player like Bilkin can lead to an astoundingly brutal game, the chess equivalent of a fight with crowbars. The king’s bishop’s pawn has its throat cut, if Black is unwary enough to do the deed, on the altar of a positional advantage that can become not just decisive but overweening.
     The theoretical part of me knew that I should decline the proffered pawn and instead parry with queen’s pawn to d5; or perhaps king’s bishop to c5, in order to thwart this attempt to dominate the centre. But his sudden deployment of the King’s Gambit – which rarely featured in our play – had not only unnerved me but piqued my curiosity.
     To my further consternation, something now dropped into place. He said he had bought the perfume the previous day, Monday. Tuesdays were reserved for our chess. On Thursdays I saw Clarice. If she were to enter into a similar arrangement with another, Bilkin for example, would she not wish to space the appointments? Wednesdays and Fridays, on either side of my own visits, would be unlikely candidates. At the weekend Bilkin played golf, besides which, on Saturdays and Sundays Clarice was wont to catch up with her two children and their young families.
     Had Bilkin been served his Chanel by the comely proprietor, from whom an invitation to supper had then issued with all the directness at her command?
     Jealousy assailed me as I tried to decide how to respond, for once the green-eyed monster has been roused, the victim must know whether his fears have any basis. For a brief period I became a veritable Othello, appropriate enough given that Bilkin had picked White. My Moorish king, his footsoldier already in the fray, demanded blood at whatever cost. Pawn murdered pawn.
     Bilkin looked up at me and I could not read his expression. He looked down again and placed his king’s knight on f3, the textbook response, blocking my queen from her putative dash to h4. Yes, he was using the King’s Gambit, all right: there was no longer any doubt of that.
     I tried to tell myself that my suspicion was nothing more than a mare’s-nest ... albeit Bilkin is handsome fellow, and what female can resist a doctor? He had been devoted to his wife. Even so, it had been six years since her passing; had he remained true to her memory, or had he now found solace elsewhere? With Clarice, my own Clarice?
     His peculiar glance had suggested that he knew about my trysts with her. If so, how? Had she told him?
     My relationship to Clarice was such that I doubted she would confide such a thing to me ... which implied that, if she were the source of his knowledge, he was already closer to her than I was myself.
     I answered Bilkin’s Nf3 according to the book, by moving my king’s knight’s pawn to g5. The expected reply, which would have pulled the rug from under my pawn structure, was pawn to h4. Instead, after more strenuous deliberation on Bilkin’s part, and mine, his king’s bishop lunged to c4. Thoroughly rattled, I answered with pawn to g4 – for that daring, obstreperous lunge is the precursor of the Muzio Gambit, which as I am sure you know is the subject of much controversy. White throws away his knight in hopes of strengthening his attack. And sure enough, at the next tempo he made the classical move and castled.
     The Muzio is not for the faint-hearted. While I stared at the board, wondering whether to take the knight, I remembered his enthusiasm for Vukovician sacrifice. As his rival elsewhere, beyond chess, might I too be sacrificed? And what was chess but a sublimation of the struggle for supremacy between males?
     And this particular game, it seemed to me in my jealousy, had become an argument about, even a contest for, Clarice.
     Forcing myself to calm down, I took the knight, for it is a valuable piece and its loss so early handicaps one’s opponent, Muzio Gambit or no. I knew that I had to strive as I never had before. Our chess hitherto had been essentially recreational. No one really cared who won; sometimes we would play three half-serious games on the trot.
     This one was quite different.
     As it unfolded I drew on my deepest resources. The law is ultimately a matter of pure logic, while medicine combines science with the fuzziness of art. And at the fifteenth move Bilkin’s ferocious concentration faltered. This tiny error subsequently compounded itself and his domination of the central squares evaporated. We were level. There followed a ruthless exchange of pieces and we found ourselves, still evenly matched, in the sparse uplands of the end-game.
     Until now neither of us had spoken – out loud, at least.
     “Hmm,” he muttered. “Now what?”
     I sat back and he did the same. We smiled. There was something thin and significant in his smile, ironic, amused, that only went to confirm my fears. It was almost a smirk.
     Had he really been with Clarice last night? Short of asking either of them, there were certain lines of inquiry. I could ask her out, to a West End theatre, say, specifying a Monday performance. Her reaction would give me a clue. Equally I could try to make some sort of date with Bilkin for the same Monday and see what happened.
     More practical would be a simple watch on her house. I would have to hire a car to sit in, since Bilkin would recognize mine. I would need to park well back and use binoculars.
     I pictured myself lurking in the shadows. I saw the fog-shrouded streetlamps, the slivers of friendly light showing at Clarice’s curtains, Bilkin’s furtive arrival and his hasty admittance. I saw myself with the binoculars jammed to my eyes like a Peeping Tom; and I foresaw my feelings of betrayal and loss. How could I continue with Clarice after that? And how could I ever again have the pleasure of Bilkin’s company?
     He took an appreciative sip of whisky and returned his attention to the board.
     Which of the two did I value more, Bilkin or Clarice?
     The question was moot. All I had to do was suppress this absurd jealousy and leave my suspicions unconfirmed.
     In my youth I read Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching. One of his dicta stuck in my mind: “Do that which consists in taking no action” (section 147). I cannot begin to tell you of what importance this has been in my career. It is the very foundation of my reputation. When another solicitor might encourage a client into foolhardy litigation, merely for the sake of the fees, I advise restraint. Only in cases where a grave injustice has been done, and only where there is a reasonable chance of winning, do I agree that my client should consider – merely consider, mind you – going to law. Or again, in all one’s dealings, professional or private, it can be of tremendous benefit to do nothing, to wait, to reject the rash, to eschew needless contention.
     I contend at chess, for it is only a game, but in life I would rather not, especially when it comes to friendship.
     Besides, was not Clarice entirely free? Bilkin likewise. Polygamy is seen as perfectly natural in some societies.
     To cap this line of thought, I realized that my suspicions were in all likelihood ridiculous. Yet enough of them lingered in the end-game for me to sense that Bilkin was steering us towards a draw. He too may have been thinking how pleasant our Tuesdays were.
     Anyhow, he contrived, with my assistance, to trap my king near a corner. The verdict: stalemate.
     “Well played,” he said.
     Whether or not he sees Clarice on Mondays now, she is subtly changed. Her effervescence has returned in full. She seems more contented, more independent, more the woman I originally fell for. I believe I adore her more than ever and, as a result, our time together has become yet more precious to me.
     Bilkin too seems happier. He has visibly relaxed. I hear that he is less competitive on the fairway; but at the chess-table he has raised his game considerably, and so have I. My leisure reading consists of books of advanced theory. I study in depth and try to emulate the brilliance of Steinitz, Alekhine, Nimzovitch, Tarrasch, Capablanca, Fischer: because nowadays our Tuesday contests feel, to my mind at least, as if they are inspired by, and might conceivably be all about, the generous, passionate, and thoroughly delectable Mrs Peterson.


Anyone who writes is inured to having his or her work pirated; so it is nice once in a while to get one’s own back.

The idea for the preceding story was stolen some years ago from here.

Alas, its author passed away in 2012, or I would have emailed him the link to this page. I lifted a copy of his text because the idea amused me; I returned to it at the weekend.

Here it is, in case the late Mr Harter’s site ever disappears from the internet.
You may be thinking of the book entitled "Nabokov" which is not, of course, by the author named "Nabokov". The book is quite interesting. Nabokov is a small Russian village not far from Moscow - an invented village of course. The novel is set in 1830; it concerns itself with the doings of the widow Petrovsky who has lost both her husband and her lover in the Napoleonic wars. She is conducting what she supposes to be clandestine affairs with both the local doctor and the local priest. They in turn are aware that each other is receiving the favors of the lush and passionate widow but never admit it. The doctor and the priest, being the only intellectuals in the village, have an evening of playing chess once a week, these matches being a thematic element in the novel. At first one supposes that the chess games are a metaphor for their concealed competition for the widows favors. It is only upon close reading that one realizes that the situation is quite the reverse; that the weekly chess games are the core, the essential reality of their relationship. Neither can afford to defeat the other permanently at chess or in love, for that would destroy the basis of the relationship. Nor can they admit that they are not "playing to win". In turn, the widow Petrovsky senses this without realizing it consciously. She appears to be playing one against the other in an erotic competition. In reality she is maintaining a relationship with an ambiguous duality. As I say, it is an interesting book. Unfortunately it is not real.

I may have absorbed enough Turgenev, Gorky, etc. to be able to attempt such a pastiche, but it was easier to transpose things to a modern setting and make the priest a solicitor. And while the result is hardly a “book”, I do think it might have become “real”.