Writing About Small Things

Chekhov says somewhere that a writer—a real writer, that is—ought to be able to write a story about anything, an ashtray for example.

Actually, I don’t think that that would be so difficult a task: Ashtrays in the old days would have witnessed quite a lot, if they had been sentient and observant. And then, of course, cigarette ends might have quite a lot to say before their demise. The only problem is that readers these days might not know what an ashtray is, for they are seldom put out anywhere for fear of encouraging people to smoke. Gone are the days when every gentleman, whether he smoked or not (though mostly he did), carried an elegant cigarette lighter that he whisked out of his pocket assiduously to light the cigarette of his female interlocutor. Almost certainly, many affairs began this way. Of course, the world must have smelled dreadfully of cigarette smoke, stale and throat-catching—except that, used to it as we were, our throats did not catch. But now I find even a single cigarette smoked on an outdoor terrace intolerable.

To return, however, to the possibility of writing about small things: I am very fond of idly observing the wildlife on the terrace of my tiny additional house in France that I use as my library. There is, for example, a large green lizard (large, that is, by European standards, not by those of the Komodo dragon) that seems to live in the pile of kindling by the disused bread oven of ancient stone. During the season—I am not sure what season, but I suppose it must have something to do with sex—he has a sky-blue head. He is very shy, however, at least with humans, and the slightest movement on my part sends him scuttling back into the sticks.

Then there is a sweet little vole that sticks his head out of a hole in the wall. He, too, is very shy, and he sniffs the air as if the world were full of enemies that he can smell. Of course, there are weasels, badgers, foxes, kites, and owls about, not to mention the one-eyed ginger-and-white moth-eaten feral cat that always slinks away guiltily like a politician being asked a difficult question, so I suppose the vole is only being reasonable. Health and safety come first.

But it is the insects that I enjoy watching most. Today, for example, there was a black, flying-antlike creature, only longer and more nervous in its movements than an ant. I am, alas, not entomologist enough to get much further than that it was clearly a hymenopteran of some description, rather an aggressive one in fact, and a carnivore, for it was dragging a dark creature about half its size along the stone wall of the house, looking for a hole or crevice in which to deposit its prey. It ran up and down the wall searching for such a hole or crevice, dragging the prey with it. As with a wheelbarrow, it could go both forwards and backwards, and was very energetic in its search. The legs of its prey flickered slightly, probably in its death throes.

After a time, the insect deposited its prey on a thin ledge. It was then that I saw, to my surprise, that the prey was a spider, by now dead, for its legs no longer moved, even when I touched it lightly with the bristle of a brush. Normally, one expects spiders to catch insects and not insects to catch spiders, so this seemed a mild reversal of the order of things.

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