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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

To read about movies and TV shows I'm watching, visit my other blog: Elliot's Watching

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

More themes in Wuthering Heights: religious

The prodigal returns - Heathcliff comes back to Wuthering Heights after a three-year disappearance; he's grown, handsomer than ever, apparently prosperous, no one can tell exactly where he's been or what he's done - perhaps served in the army? - and he's not saying. Mainly what we know is that he has 2 things on his mind: vengeance against mean "brother" Hindley and winning the now-married Catherine. You can fault Catherine's husband, Linton, all you want for his rudeness toward Heathcliff but at least he understands the danger: this guy's out to get him and to steal his wife. Why should he welcome him back with open arms into his home and into his society? There's still so much ominous going on in this novel - made even more so by the turbulent climate, the illness that the narrator, Lockwood, is suffering, and the dark landscape itself - probably the best example in literature since King Lear of the Romantic fallacy - the external environment reflects and in some ways creates the internal mood of the characters. Another element I didn't touch on yesterday in noting some major themes of Bronte's "Wuthering Heights" (race, class, incest) is the religious dimension of the novel: many references to the characters living in a version of hell, and you have the strange and doctrinaire servant, Joseph, rambling around and quoting scripture at everyone; the nightmare that Lockwood suffers during this stay at WH when he dreams of a long sermon in which the minister catalogues sins; the names themselves (isn't the servant who tells Lockwood the story of Catherine and Heathcliff named Ellen/Nelly Grace? - maybe I'm wrong on that), the sense overall that Heathcliff is devilish and Satanic and that he offers temptation to the vulnerable Catherine (there's another scene where Nelly is gathering apples - an Edenic reference). Lots of little pieces to pull together, and I'm not thinking that WH is exactly allegorical, but there are religious systems, symbols, and implications throughout that color the novel and make it feel as if the characters are fighting for salvation and that their souls are at stake. We'll see how this plays out through the course of the novel.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Some themes in Wuthering Heights

Some of the issues in Emily Bronte's "Wuthering Heights": race. The little boy that Earnshaw brings back, supposedly, from Liverpool, (Heathcliff) is constantly described as - and sees himself as - darker, foreign-looking, sometimes called a Gypsy. There's a sense throughout the first half of the novel that relations with him, in particular amorous and sexual relations are forbidden because he's not of anglo stock. Class: Hindley makes a big point of treating Heathcliff like a servant, in part as a way of protecting his own claim to father's affections and later to the estate, but also as a way of building a demarcation, another boundary that prevents Catherine or any others of their "class" from engaging with Heathcliff as an equal. Reminds me to a degree of As You Like It: the younger brother treated like a servant, and of course he's angry about that not because servants are treated badly but because he believes he deserves better. Incest: most interesting. I'm sure a million people have commented on this - and the question of how much Bronte intended this theme, how much she even know she was conveying this theme. But Earnshaw's cover story - that he was going to Liverpool - a 60-mile walk as he put it - on business, and lo and behold he returns with a little child, an urchin he picked up on the street and took home out of pity - is entirely preposterous. He obviously is bringing home a child of his own. (It's possible he didn't even go to Liverpool: he doesn't bring back any of the promised gifts, and it's absurd to imagine him carrying this child with him for 60 miles on foot.) We suspect his wife knows and understands this - it's why she does a year or so after Heathcliff joins the family. No one ever raises this issue, but it may be a 3rd reason why Hindley builds such barriers between Heathcliff and Catherine. Speaking of Shakespeare, there are obvious echoes of The Tempest in WH, with Heathcliff cast as Caliban, bestial and evil but through no fault of his own, mostly through suffering a life of mistretment, and Catherine like Miranda, opening up in surprise to the beauty of the life around her - brave new world - at least up to a point. It's obvious to any reader that, in Linton, she is making a terrible and tragic choice.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

The gloomy opening chapters of Wuthering Heights

Haven't read it since college (though feels as if I've read it ten times, as it's such a cultural reference point), and had completely forgotten the strange opening chapters of Emily Bronte's "Wuthering Heights": Lockwood arriving as a tenant and paying a courtesy visit to his landlord, Heathcliffe, in the eponymous WH, and being treated incivilly, as if he's an intruder - which, in fact, he is. The Heathcliffe-Earnshawe family is obviously strange and perverse, and Lockwood can't quite figure out why. By novelist's prestidigitation, Lockwood ends up spending the night at WH, and the one kindly servant puts him in the room that is: Always closed off for some unknown reason! And then, he just happens to stumble on a bunch of diaries and papers fortuitously placed beside his bed, and begins reading by lamplight - and that of course opens us up to the story of Heathcliffe as a young man and his relationship with Catherine. The mood of the story is as dark and mysterious as I remember - the houses gloomy and foreboding (Lockwood oddly remarks, in the 2nd sentence of the novel I think, that this is such beautiful countryside - kind of a funny sentence, in the context - and we're not sure why Lockwood favors such isolation; he probably has his own story in there somewhere), the weather always tumultuous and threatening - a real example of the Romantic fallacy: the weather and the externals of nature seem to express the inner feelings of the characters. (Some contemporary horror writers and directors have gotten lots of mileage from reversing this fallacy: having really scary things happen in very ordinary settings, which oddly can make the events even scarier). In reading the framing chapters, as Lockwood "discovers" the story of Heathcliffe and Catherine, I couldn't help but think of Ethan Frome, and wonder how closely Wharton modeled her novel on this one: the outsider, a bit more prosperous and urbane, comes into a very isolated rural landscape and culture, has a brush with a taciturn and perhaps difficult older man, and gradually learns the man's back story, which explains his misanthropy. The huge difference is that Wharton, right from the preface to her novel, holds herself at a distance and is almost condescending toward her own characters, amazed that such "simple" people could have such complex lives (at least that's her stance - she couldn't be too amazed as she endowed them with these lives) whereas Bronte seems to be as one with her characters, an avid diarist and a denizen of the moors herself.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Story leaves me wanting more: Permission to Enter

Zadie Smith's story Permission to Enter (good title, which I misremembered in yesterday's post) in current New Yorker is a good example of a story told in very small sections that covers a lot of territory - in time span, and in evolution of the main character - as we see her in each of the small sections move from a sheltered young "church" girl in London and, mainly by contrast with her much less conventional best friend. Main character, Keisha initially but later adopts a less ethnic name, is a serious student with a very religious boyfriend who's cold and kind of scary - they go off to same college together, lives totally entwined with one another, make few other friends - but gradually she breaks away from him when she's struck by the beauty of a fellow student. Her relationship with best friend from childhood carries on through college years though they grow emotionally and politically farther apart from each other. Story ends rather abruptly - which makes me think this is part of a novel or a sketch for a novel perhaps? Or a longer story that appears here only as a section? I don't think Smith could reasonably sustain this style - very short named sections - over the course of a novel: I think of the novel Mrs. Smith, which I liked a lot, telling a whole life story in short chapters - but these were chapters, not mere moments. Though the story comes to no conclusion, I admire the ambition and technique and it leaves me wanting to know more about the characters, which I suppose is a good thing.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Promising story by Zadie Smith

Recovering yesterday from recent bout of The Pale King, and didn't get far with next reading - brought an edition of Thomas Mann stories, which I haven't read in many years (except for Death in Venice) along from train ride from Boston and loved getting back into Tonio Kroger, but I'm going to hold off on reading further and finishing it, will probably take the book with me on next travels - and got distracted by the Cryptic - and then settled later into current New Yorker story, by Zadie Smith, called something like Knock before Entering?, didn't finish (hope to do so tonight) - a story written in about 60 short sections (most a paragraph of two), each with boldface title - a bit of style whimsy on Smith's part that could be distracting, but I think she does a good job using the fragments to tell a story, in this case, as it evolves, of two young girls in the London area, apparently one black and other white?, who become friends through happenstance at a beach or pool (one almost drowns and is saved by the other's mum). They become best friends and the story sketches - through its segments, each a separate item like a post card of a jump cut in a movie, the long course of their evolving friendship and relationship. We'll see where it goes. I was like most readers hugely impressed by Smith's first novel, White Teeth, which presented a new and complex and multicultural London that was really news to most American readers and was a fresh, witty voice to all readers - even if the plot did go a bit over the top and derail toward the end - must greater for a first-time novelist to fail by trying too much than by being too timid or derivative. Her subsequent works have been good at times though not up to that level, and her novel set in America (On Beauty - I just had to look up the title) was way off-base about America (and other things) - but this story - perhaps part of a forthcoming novel? or collection? - is very promising and shows a great example of an author trying to work out some new techniques of form without sacrificing the pleasures that draw us to fiction, and that draw us to capture our feelings and ideas in fiction, in the first place.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Pale King - an unfinished (by me) novel

Like the author, I am leaving David Foster Wallace's "The Pale King" unfinished. It's really a shame - as noted in previous posts DFW was obviously a writer of super-abundant talent, much of it evident in parts of The Pale King: his eye for detail, his sense of humor, his sense of status details and cultural markers. Had he never written fiction in his life-cut-short, he still could have been remembered as one of our best essayists and journalists. But what happened to him in The Pale King? How could a novel with such great promise go so terribly wrong? The pressure of great expectations, too much on the shoulders of a still-young, heralded novelist? Or did his own great talent run him afoul? Because DFW could build the most fabulous set pieces out of the mundane and the diurnal, because he could make almost any scenes vivid and memorable - it's almost as if he pushed his talent to the limit, and in the process pushed his readers' patience (mine, anyway) to the limit and beyond. I finally bailed in the long Chapter 24; I thought this would be the chapter that finally brings us into the heart of the novel, the secretive inner workings of the IRS, as seen through the eyes of a young IRS recruit, DFW himself, if the author is to be believed. This long chapter, as noted yesterday, chronicles his arrival at the IRS auditing center. To a degree, I was able to tolerate the lengthy description of his journey by bus to Peoria, and by crowded van to the center itself, complete with descriptions of the scrofula on the boy's leg across the bus aisle and the profuse perspiration of seatmate in van and even of DFW's terrible roseate complexion - but do we in any way shape form need five dense pages of description of the traffic patterns in the parking lots outside the center? What is the point here? Is it some kind of defiance of convention - I simply refuse to dabble in the niceties of character and plot? Is it a parody of memoirs and biographies (think of Caro's long digressions in his bio of LBJ - but the digressions at least serve a higher purpose in Caro's grand scheme, whereas these seem to just be meanderings, uncensored outpourings)? Or is DFW attacking the patience of his readers for some reason? Or, what I feel and what I fear, did DFW just literally get lost in his material - so deeply into the details and so carried off by his own ability to riff on anything - that he no longer had any sense of design or direction for this novel at all? Readers of TPK will no doubt enjoy some passages here and there, even some chapters - notably, the couple on the picnic table discussing their relation and her pregnancy, excerpted in The New Yorker, I think - good choice - though the couple does not appear in the next 205 pages, BTW - but I think few will finish this novel, sadly. Reviews were kind, I think, out of respect for DFW's talent and our loss, but it's a book I think he knew he'd never be able to finish and would have abandoned or changed it drastically.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The failure of The Pale King

Beginning to feel very concerned about David Foster Wallace's novel "The Pale King." Take chapter 24 - one of the longest in the novel (so far, other than the unreadable chapter 22): reverting to the author's voice, as DFW rather preposterously re-asserts that we are reading a memoir about his experiences working for an IRS audit center in Peoria in about 1980. In this section, DFW recounts his first day on the job - and I've read about 40 pages of this section, and in all this - he has not yet arrived at the job! He starts as he's waiting for a (Greyhound?) bus, in his small midwestern city - an opportunity to riff on the incredible strip-mall dreariness of such cities, including a really smart observation about sunrise in the Midwest being like someone flicking on a light in a darkened room - sudden and intense. Long description of miserable bus ride, all the odors and sticky misery and scrofulous fellow passengers. Then the long ride in a van to the IRS center - describing the unpleasant people in the van with him and the terrible and needless traffic jams along Self Storage Parkway. Need I go on? First of all, this writing is very funny and engaging - all of DFW's journalistic skills well in play here; however, it's also disturbing that the only mood he can evoke is contempt - there's a certain unrelenting aloofness about his writing - he's smarter, more athletic, more aware than anyone and everyone else in his pitiable surroundings (though admittedly DFW as a character in the novel is self-deprecating). I can imagine him reading some of these passages and getting huge guffaws and applause - from others who look on the sadness around us and feel no pity, only scorn. I'm being tough on the late DFW here, and I do feel sadness, too, for him and his family and friends - he was a great talent and his death is a great loss - but unfortunately you can see him coming unhinged in this novel, it's sad but true. He took on the theme of the most massive and possibly boring bureaucracy in the world and is trying to build an epic from this dross. He can't do it, despite all his talent. Exactly half-way through the novel - and there's no point to it - you could write about the IRS as a behemoth if you'd actually develop characters, or even a single character, and have some conflict, some issue or crisis that needs resolution, that opens eyes, changes people, puts them in opposition to one another, engages. Despite many, many promising starts - this is not happening in TPK. Did DFW know he was wasting his time and his talent? It's as if Mozart decided to spend the last ten years of his life writing a symphony for kazoos, just to show he could make art out of anything. Maybe he could, and maybe DFW could, too - but this isn't it, and I think he knew that.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Half-way through and getting worried about The Pale King

Chapter 22 of David Foster Wallace's novel "The Pale King." Huh? Are you kidding me? This chapter is about a hundred pages (most of the chapters are about the length of short stories, but some are a page or two only), all in the voice - as if recorded for some kind of documentary project on the IRS circa 1980 - of an IRS auditor who, at least in the first 50 pages or so, describes his very mundane youth, his wasted college years, his occasional indulgences in "recreational drugs" - and guess what, that's as far as I got with this chapter. (Hoping it's an aberration, I abandoned it and skipped ahead to chapter 23; we'll see.) But what's the point here? DFW seems to be quite intentionally taking on the theme of boredom and tedium - writing a very long novel about probably the most deadening bureaucracy in the U.S., and presenting it to us - at least in some chapters - through unrelieved boredome and banality. You've heard of the banality of evil (Hannah Arendt's amazingly astute characterization of the Eichmann trial, in her New Yorker coverage) - in this is the evil of banality. DFW seems to be hoping that in confronting us with long and tedious chapters narrated in prose that aptly (I guess) captures the way somewhat enervated and nonintrospective government workers might speak to one another - that these scenes and moments will accrue into a great, devastating portrait of the monster at the heart of American society and culture. Or am I overstating this? I'll be charitable and say that, noting that The Pale King is a posthumous novel left unfinished, DFW would have ditched some of these sections, or at least cut them - each one is a unique attempt to get at some aspect of this system, which fascinates him for some reason. But maybe I'm wrong. It's sadly possible that DFW knew he was getting lost in his material, that he was pursuing a chimera down a long and tortuous path and there was no way back. I'm hoping for the best in The Pale King, but nearing the half-way point (200+ pages) I'm really concerned that DFW is never going to pull the strands of this novel together. Scenes, moments are OK - but readers do like plot, and character - at least this reader does

Monday, July 23, 2012

Only rarely do characters in stories grow and mature: Junot Diaz story

I've read just about everything by Junot Diaz and remain a fan - even though he makes it difficult at times. Story in current New Yorker, A Cheater's Guide to Love (sounds like a novel title, doesn't it?) case in point: in some ways a very smart, funny, even sensitive story in which the protagonist is a complex guy with many evident flaws and much charm; in other ways, a disturbing story that treats women as objects that exist largely to satisfy male needs: whether for sex (primarily), nurturing, love, or posterity (i.e., birth machines for male heirs). In that way, as friend A., who like this story a lot, notes, reading Diaz is a guilty pleasure. Can be, anyway. This story is written in 2nd person, a bit of an affectation but he pulls it off, and the protagonist, "you," is/are a person who shares many of the known characteristics and biographical details of the author: a successful Dominican-American writer teaching in Boston and struggling to find a theme for his next novel. With a few changes of surface details, he could have written this in the first person: except, just because the character seems to be like the author doesn't mean that he is the author. For all we know, every one of the plot details of the story - breakup with fiancee in "Year 0" when she learns he has cheated on her multiple times, followed by 4 years of alternately pining for her and getting entangled in a series of unsatisfying, unhealthy relations, while his writing and teaching take dive and he cannot find a suitable subject - until the end when, surprise, or perhaps not, his subject is the cheater's guide to love, the story you're reading. More than many of Diaz's stories, this one evokes a lot of sympathy for the protagonist, aka You, for his sweet vulnerability, his cultural alienation (he feels constantly hounded and harassed in Boston), and his general cluelessness about the relationships he enters into and falls out of. We could like him/you more if he/you were not so unfaithful and dismissive about women. Have to wonder, as I've noted in earlier posts, whether Diaz doesn't get a lot of slack simply because of his Dominican background: if a Jewish-American writer were to write this way about women (Roth, perhaps?), he would be (as Roth has been) skewered, but for a Dominican it's cool because, why? It's street smart, and report on the culture? I hope Diaz's relation to women - in his fiction, I mean - will evolve, and this story makes me think maybe that will be so: the character seems wiser from his suffering, more forgiving and more serene. Only rarely do characters in short stories actually grow and mature - there's usually not space for that in a short story. Here's an exception.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

An unattractive aspect of David Foster Wallace's The Pale King

Much as I enjoy and admire about David Foster Wallace's posthumous, unfinished novel, "The Pale King," I have to believe there were lots of sections he would never have published, or at least not in current form - it seems that many of the sections, or chapters, of TPK are fragments, and possibly abortive attempts Wallace made to explore certain themes and characters. Some are incredibly tedious in fact: a long, sophomoric chapter entirely in dialog, spoken presumably by a few people, none identified by name or by anything else, about the government and taxes and our duties as citizens - the kind of dorm-room conversation that goes on or used to at almost any college at 1 a.m. Perhaps - in this novel, presumably these are some IRS agents socializing, somewhere - no setting though. Another chapter involves three IRS guys outside on a smoke break, talking two of them talking about what they did over the weekend, totally mundane information that DFW captures in all its banality. So my sense is that he would never have wanted all this undeveloped material in a final version of his novel. But what if I'm wrong? If he did want these sections - and we've got them whether DFW wanted them or not - it shows to me the less attractive side of DFW's writer-personality - a smart-aleck contempt for (some of) his characters, for their unexamined lives, for their ignorant observations, most of all for their inarticulate speech. Other writers have skewered office life and bureaucracy - Dostoyevsky, Gaddis, Yates - but generally in a way that is more loving and sympathetic, at least in regard to the protagonist, or more broadly comic. DFW's sections on the IRS employees, though they would get a lot of laughs had he presented them in public readings - which he probably did - are also rather cruel and unfeeling. I'm not sure of his larger purpose. He's obviously taken on a hugely challenging topic - when it comes to government bureaucracies, thousands have written about the CIA, the FBI, Congress, State - but who'd think there was epic material in the IRS? Yet what is his game? He's hinted at broader, grander themes - the sense that the agency is evolving into a revenue-generating agency, with all that implies for American values and the role of government vis a vis business; however,100+ pages into the long novel DFW seems ineluctably drawn to low-end satire. Hoping he raises the level in the next 100 pages.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Conspiracy and the novel: The Pale King

As we move along in fits and starts with David Foster Wallace's "The Pale King," the plot, such as it is, begins to take shape: a series of interviews with employees of the Peoria Regional Center of the IRS circa 1980 reveals that the IRS has a new major initiative, based on what I think he calls the Spackman Reports, or something like that, but a clear dig at David Stockman, Reagan's idiotic economics advisor who came up with the idea that tax cuts, especially for the wealthy, would produce sufficient prosperity to more than pay for themselves, an obviously self-service, right-wing bit of fantasy and ideology that still haunts us today - anyway, Spackman plan is to change the mission of the IRS to focus on collection of revenue - and employees would be recognized, promoted, etc., not for the # of forms processed but for the amount of revenue they generate. Awesome - so weird that it's possibly even true. Assuming otherwise, you can see that The Pale King is taking shape as one of those vast, encompassing novels that posits some kind of enormous and almost indiscernible, sinister conspiracy - not like a political sect or a coup, those are more likely materials for a fast-paced thriller or a political novel, but some form of mind control or thought control exercised by government agents or others who are largely anonymous. DFW's style is perfectly suited to this kind of material, which is most often the subject of vast novels, very often disjointed, in which other than perhaps a central protagonist trying to survive the system or even turn it over, are generally not driven by character but rather by mood, detail, language, and sometimes experiments with form: Kafka is the first exemplar, though not quite typical - more recent writers in this vein are, obviously, De Lillo, but also Pynchon, Gaddis, maybe Heller, Murikama at times - and definitely Musil. Might be worth thinking about why the maximal form is so well suited to this kind of material, or world view - something in the character of the author? Or the very idea that you're thinking about a tremendous conspiracy that's largely unseen requires coming at your subject through indirect and through many courses: fragments, changes in style, sections and scenes that at least initially do not cohere. Note that one exception is Pynchon's Crying of Lot 49, one of the few conspiracy novels that is compact and efficient.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Why David Foster Wallace called The Pale King his "memoir"

The Author's Forward to David Foster Wallace's "The Pale King" comes some 80 pages or so into the novel, so not really a forward (cute), and in many ways it is what it portends not to be. In this forward, DFW claims to be the author speaking to us, and not some character or author's creation, and he directs our attention to the publisher's disclaimer on page iv or wherever that everything in the novel is fictional and no characterizations of people living or dead, etc., or whatever the boilerplate language is - as every author (and reader) must know, these are weasel legal-speak statements and would not serve in any court of law to cover anyone's ass, but there they are in every forward - and in any case, as DFW knows, or at least he toys with the idea, there's essentially no such thing as fiction - every novel is "real" within its own terms and every novel or story, to one degree or another, draws on the "real" experiences, feelings, observations, or studies of the author - fiction is a version of reality. So in this forward DFW laughably tries to make the case that we are not reading a novel but a memoir, that DFW is telling us about real people he knew when he took a year off from school to work in an IRS regional center in Peoria. True? Who knows? - I guess somebody knows, but even if DFW did so, the novel is clearly not a memoir - but he does amusingly put in a SSI# (clearly not his, I hope) and a street address (his maybe?) - but he also claims that he's not writing some postmodern novel of Chinese boxes or infinitely receding visions in facing mirrors - but of course that is exactly what he is doing (at least in this section of this long novel): he is making us ponder what we are reading when an author addresses us in his or her own work, whether of fiction or not, about our different expectations when reading a purportedly fictional work compared with a nonfiction work, about how our perceptions shift if and when we receive conflicting information about the text we are reading - all tropes of postmodern fiction, which by claiming not to be writing he actually is (writing). This "forward" section the first to evince DFW's trademark extensive footnoting (who came first, DFW or Nicholson Baker, The Mezzanine, qv,or maybe some French writer, perhaps Perec, who DFW glancingly mentions as one of his inspirations) unfortunately in type so minute it's just about at the limits of my perception. Novel, at about page 100, still very entertaining and readable but I wonder about the coherence and the overall vision of the work - even acknowledging that this piece is posthumous and incomplete, The Pale King makes me begin to think about the difference between and the border between excellent writing and an excellent novel - the two are not the same, qv Don Dilillo's Underworld.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Maximalists: David Foster Wallace et al.

Have to say, 80 or so pages in, I'm liking David Foster Wallace's "The Pale King" more than I thought I would; I have actually liked a # of DFW stories as well as some of the essays I'd read early in his career - I particularly remember one about a visit to the Illinois State Fair - but for some reason have always balked at his novels - too big, too grand, too much, too little time - maybe I've been wrong and should give all of them a chance. For the most part, I have have always favored minimalism: thinking of Strunk & White and "omit needless words," and of course have just finished reading stories by the great Chekhov who identified simplicity as one of his guiding principles. But some writers are by their very nature maximalists - I'm sure they appreciate the need for brevity and concision in some contexts, but when it comes to literary expression they're all in: Sterne, (late) Joyce, Whitman, Pynchon, Barth, Ginsberg - and of course DFW, to name some who may have little else in common other than magnitude of style. The Pale King seems, in first 80 pages (before first extensive "author's note") to be a series of stories or sketches, some a page or two long, most about typical short story length, one - about an IRS auditor heading to a new assignment, quite lengthy and a tour de force or maybe tour de farce - connections and relations between these pieces (though there are 2 about the IRS guy) are completely unclear at this point - whether that's a result of Pale King's being composed from materials that DFW left behind at his untimely and sad death, or whether he had the design well plotted before he left this work behind, is unclear and to me, anyway. I find myself surprisingly captivated by the IRS guy and his arcane knowledge of systems (a Wallace theme) - which he discusses in the airport van with two other auditors - kind of like The Office meets Bonfire of the Vanities. Also very moved by short piece about a couple, sitting on a picnic table by the lakeside, and discussing her pregnancy, and how this short piece unfolds sorrowfully their whole lives together and apart; also saddened by story about a super-good, super-achieving kid whom everybody despises. The question, which will deepen as I read further, is whether DFW can sustain this novel; 80 pages of barely related segments is one thing, but 500+ pages could become just literary chaos. Will he build a plot, or will he just spin off thousands of beautiful, odd vignettes and apercus?

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Is The Pale King readable?

They weren't kidding, apparently David Foster Wallace's final (unfinished) novel, "The Pale King," is about an IRS inspector heading for Peoria, Illinois. Thought this had to be a joke, but not, Wallace did spend many years and thousands of words on this topic. OK, anything and anyone can be a great topic for fiction, and I should be grateful that here's a protagonist who's not a 20-something bond trader or media mogul or software genius - but and it's kind of a bi-coastal snobbism that makes me skeptical about even the premises of this novel - and of course Joyce wrote one of the greatest novels of all time about a guy selling ad space in newspapers (I think) - but Wallace set himself almost an impossible task here, in some perverse way, and, though I know he was an Illinoisan himself, there's also a certain perversity about setting this novel (at least initially) in Peoria. Does he love his characters? Is he contemptuous of them, holding himself above them and examining them as if they're larvae under a scope? Can't say yet - but I do know this from first pages of novel: Joyce developed the character of L.Bloom through a great deal of interaction among people and detailed and loving observation of society and culture - not just through language experiment, though of course there's plenty of that in Ulysses; DFW exhibits none of the above in the opening pages - we're totally locked in the IRS inspector's head as he worries about his pay grade, his bumpy flight, etc. - how long can DFW sustain this? Oddly, the novel actually begins with a short and way over the top lyrical passage (those who balked at the atypically lyrical opening paragraph of Exiles, see this) that leads to a weirdly sophomoric sentimental outburst - more striking to me after reading for weeks the completely non-sentimental Chekhov - and I don't know whom to blame for this - my guess it was a found fragment, not meant to open this novel but placed there by the editors of this posthumous publication, and that DFW would have had the sense to disregard. I'll keep reading, at least for a while, but suspect this is heading toward the territory of novels that may be great but are largely unreadable except for scholars and true believers (Gravity's Rainbow, Finnegans Wake, anything by David Mitchell, qv).

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Chekhov's last story - and why it's not qute a feminist manifesto

The Fiancee, Anton Chekhov's last story?, definitely the last story in the Pevear-Volokhonsky collection of Chekhov stories, could be his most pro-feminist story, an antidote to The Darling, but things are never so black and white with Chekhov. First of all, this story from about 1904 (?) coinciding with the composition of his four great plays, and it seems in itself that it could be a sketch for a play: The eponymous fiancee lives in the provinces (of course, like most Chekhov characters), is engaged to a blowhard and lives with her crude but wealthy grandmother and her educated but oblivious mother - they have an occasional summer visitor, a distant cousin, Sasha, who once had great promise as an artist but now works in a printing shop in Moscow and is considered, and considers himself, a failure - he's a loner, a ill with some kind of heart of lungs problem - in other words, a real Chekhov type, seems to have stepped right out of one of the plays. His role in the story to persuade the Fiancee that she's about to miss out on life, that she should walk away from the intended marriage and travel and find herself. And she does so - leaving the fiancee, creating a bit of a scandal (no one really thinks she went away with Sasha for romantic reasons - though it's never stated, it seems he's probably a gay man) - alienating her mother and grandmother. So she's something like Chekhov's version of Hedda Gabbler - and this could be a feminist manifesto, except that the F. requires a male intermediary to convince her to walk out on the marriage: whereas The Darling showed a woman who appeared dependent but was in fact independent, the Fiancee shows a woman who appears independent but in fact dependent - on a man. I suspect this might have been a reason Chekhov did not treat this material in dramatic form - the action of the story was too much imposed on the Fiancee from without (by Sasha) rather than coming from within her own character, as part of her development. Still, it's a beautiful story with a haunting ending, as the F. returns to her mother's home and ultimately packs to leave forever, or so she thought - as Chekhov slyly remarks. Pevear stresses in his into to this collection that Chekhov is rarely overtly political - one of his many great strengths as a writer - but The Fiancee is an exception, in part - notably the very powerful scene when Sasha points out to the Fiancee that her supposedly educated mother allows servants to sleep on rotting bedding on the kitchen floor - a stunning indictment of class power and privileges, that moves the Fiancee and should move anyone (even a Republican).

Monday, July 16, 2012

A Chekhov story that could be a movie, set in America

Anton Chekhov's In the Ravine is no doubt his story that could most aptly be developed into a screenplay and adapted to another time or place: a brief summary, in a remote, impoverished village where some rundown factories pollute the land and the water, one rich guy controls the entire economy through his control over the trade in vodka and various other wares and contraband; he has two sons: one is a police inspector and lives away from home and seldom comes back to see his family; the other is a deaf-mute, apparently not very intelligent, married to a beautiful woman with a strong and tempestuous personality who takes over management of all the business affairs of the family - the father-in-law adores her. Inspector son comes home for a visit, they decide it's time to get him married; they find a very beautiful young woman living in extreme poverty - and she's his bride. Strangely, the son is very tearful at the wedding, and is never happy with wife once married - an implication that perhaps he is gay? - eventually, family is rocked by scandal, as the inspector son it turns out has been distributing counterfeit rubles - he's arrested, sentenced to Siberia; father devastated, and decides to leave his land land the inspector son's infant - rewrites his will - daughter-in-law goes crazy, on a rampage, scalds the baby with boiling water, the baby dies. The young mother horribly tearful, and in a haunting long final sequence she comes home from the hospital, a long night journey, to bury her infant. At the final moment, she offers to make peace with the woman who killed her child. So many strong characters here, and so much incident - as a story, it feels a bit sketched - and I suspect Chekhov may have known he had novel material here but in 1900, toward the end of his life, he knew he didn't have the strength to develop this material to its full value and just wanted to get it down, to record it. I can imagine this as a film on the American frontier with American western characters - either in the 19th century, or perhaps today, maybe even in an Alaskan mining town or fishing village. Wish someone would try to make a movie of Ravine - i think it could really work.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Chekhov's sense of an ending: Lady with a Little Dog

So I was a wrong in my recollection of Chekhov's Lady with a Little Dog - in yesterday's post noted that my memory was that he'd get what he deserved - that she (Anna, the eponymous lady) would spur him (Gurov) - but that's not the case: Second part of the story, lady returns to her home (not in Moscow, as I'd thought, but in the provincial town that Chekhov in his delightfully Russian manner identifies as S - Woody Allen had a lot of fun with these Russianisms in one of his essays) - while Gurov goes home to Moscow - but he years for her, makes a surprise visit to her city, stands for sometime outside the gate to her home, hoping she'll notice him (she doesn't - he watches a maid walk the dog) - and then he steps up to her at the opening night of an opera (The Geishas - interesting choice). They resume their affair, and she begins regular visits to see him in Moscow - it's obvious that her husband, described (by her) as "lackey" know of this - does he care? We learn nothing about his point of view. Gurov's wife obviously does not care what he does, she's contemptuous of him. The story ends with Gurov and Anna realizing or believing that they can find happiness with one another, not sure how to maintain their relationship, and realizing that they have just begun on a journey that will be extremely difficult for both. This ending is one of those extraordinary Chekhov conclusions that open the story up rather than tie down the loose ends - the type of ending that has influenced the short story for more than a century, with the greatest contemporary practitionist being William Trevor. The ending invites us to think beyond the margins of the story and imagine where they characters will go, what their fates will be - it makes the characters more real and complete by withholding information, and it makes us more active and engaged readers by understatement and indirection. In this case, though I don't feel Gurov is as despicable as I did in the first half of the story - he does, in fact, grow and change, as many great characters (and people) do - I do sense that what makes their affair so significant to the two is the illicit, secretive, risky aspect - if they were to each divorce and marry one another, I suspect that a follow-up story ten years down the road would show a horrible marriage, with Gurov back to his duplicity - though note that the end of Lady with a Little Dog shows Gurov worried about losing his looks - so maybe he'd be trying desperately to hold on to Anna, and she'd be the one to lose interest. And by the way: what ever happened to the little dog?

Saturday, July 14, 2012

A rare, dislikable Chekhov protagonist

Just a few words on Anton Chekhov's "Lady with a Little Dog" - definitely one of his most famous stories, and deservedly. I think this story inspired a movie - which (other than movies based on his play) is a rarity for Chekhov, as his stories tend to be very subtle and internal, not filled with action or dramatic conflict between characters, the staple of movies I guess. Lady with a Lapdog (I think that's the movie title) is no doubt an art-house, indie type of film, not a blockbuster - but I can see, from the first half of the story, why it would be suitable for film: It's about a doomed and failed relationship, kind of like Brief Encounter, though not brief - the story covers a span of time. It's also notable that the male protagonist, Gorov (?), is an atypical Chekhov "hero" - almost all of his protagonists are flawed but ultimately likable and sympathetic, and that tension between the obvious moral, intellectual, or ethical shortcomings of the characters and our generally compassionate feelings toward them is what gives Chekhov's work part of its edge and part of its enduring charm. Gorov, however, is not really likable at all: narcissistic, irresponsible, cruel. In first half of story, he eagerly preys on a naive, vulnerable, lonely, much younger woman - whom he doesn't (at first) appear to care about at all - she's just another of his many conquests, and another barb to hurl at his unloved wife. But as I recall from reading story years ago - and as any reader can most likely predict - he'll get his, as he ends up caring much more about the eponymous lady than he'd ever thought he would - she leaves the seaside resort and returns to her home (in Moscow?), and ultimately he will e drawn to her. Will he learn and grow? Or only suffer?

Friday, July 13, 2012

The Chekhov story I'd most like Romney to read (not that it would matter)

Might we call On Official Business Chekhov's most political story? Not in the restrictive sense of electoral politics but in the broader sense of a "political world" - or - put another way: This is the Chekhov story I'd most like Romney and his legion of plutocrat, selfish, narrow-minded followers to read. On the surface, the story is about two men: a middle-aged doctor and a coroner in his 20s, who are called out during a winter blizzard to examine a corpse: a man who seems to have shot himself in a public lodging in a remote village. There's a suspicion that the man may be a murder victim. His death in a public place is so disturbing that the villagers are all afraid to go out in the dark lest they come across his wandering spirit. Well, this has all the set-up of a great mystery story, and we definitely expect that the narrative will include an examination of the corpse and perhaps some startling discoveries that change our view of the case. Not to be. The two men arrive late, having lost their way in the blizzard, and they'll have to stay the night and being the examination in the morning. The doctor, distressed by the rough conditions of the public lodging, gets a carriage to take him off to the home of a friend nearby; the coroner stays, and beds down in rough quarters, after talking to the "beadle," who will help them with the case - a very impoverished man fallen on hard times. The doc, though, returns and insists on taking the younger coroner to stay at his friend's estate: they arrive, it's pretty late, they get a good meal, entertainment, nice lodgings. And then the heart of the story: the coroner, who had been lamenting his assignment to a remote province, has an insight and realizes that his concerns are petty, that every privilege he enjoys is made possible by the sufferings of people like the beadle and others, who live lives of difficult service: there's a very striking image of the beadle and others trudging across a snowy plain, chanting: We walk, walk, walk. Yes, the drudgery of some enables the luxuriance of others - and the others think they deserve their status in life through no reason other than birth and good fortune. As one of Romney's coterie apparently said: We're VIPs. Oh, sure. Read this story and think about it. By they way, the story ends with no conclusion to the suicide/murder issue - the two men head back to the village in village in the morning to begin their examination. The point is - that's not the point.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Why The Darling is not Chekhov's most anti-feminist story

The Darling is easy to read as Anton Chekhov's most anti-feminist story, but such a reading may not be accurate of fair. On the surface, yes - it is completely anti-feminist: the title character is a cute youngish woman whom everyone refers to as a "darling" (in more common parlance, she's a sweetie-pie or a cutie?); she lives in a house inherited from her father, with some tenants - and she falls in love with one of tenants, who runs a small theater - he complains about how the public prefers crass entertainment to serious art, and she picks this up; after they're married, the Darling has a expresses very strong and well-articulated views, which are his. He dies, she remarries, this time a lumber merchant - and soon she's dreaming of lumber, managing his accounts, and she talks about: some people have time for frivolities like the theater, but we don't. And this goes on through a 3rd relationship, and then her mothering relationship to a young boy: when she's without a man, she has no opinions whatsoever, and she's miserable; when she's with a man, she blossoms, and becomes a acolyte and true believer, espousing her espouses opinions. In other words, a woman is an empty shell without a man to fill her with (his) ideas - or so it seems. But I think there's a deeper level to this story: story ends with her devotion to a young boy, the son of the 3rd in her series of relationships, whom she takes into her household and mothers him, as his dad spends time traveling on business. We see her getting him ready for school, and finally actually following him to school, to his embarrassment. He assures her he can get to school on is own. I see an image or metaphor here: she is pursuing the opportunities that she never had; it's obvious that she is very bright and eager to learn, but she had no opportunity in 19th-century Russian society to have a life, a career, even a set of ideas on her own. At the end, her following the son to school is a poignant image of what's actually missing in her life: not a man, but the opportunities and education that was afforded to men only, at that time. The Darling is in that sense almost a tragic story - not her tragedy, but the tragedy of an entire half of humanity, subjugated, wasted.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

An abduction that really isn't - in the New Yorker

Tessa Hadley's story in the current New Yorker, An Abduction, isn't really about one - even though it begins with the grippping sentence that states something like: I was a victim of an abduction and nobody noticed. Well, I guess it's meant to be slightly ironic or a double-entendre, but the events of the story are not quite as set forth: teenage girl, somewhat bored during the summer, largely ignored y parents and sibs, hanging around the driveway outside her house, gets picked up by 3 guys in a sports car; the guys are Oxford students (story in London area - Surrey, late 1960s or so) - the boys take her on a jaunt involving shoplifting, drinking, then, back at the house of one of the guys, some drug use and eventually, sex - she has sex, that is, with one of the 3 guys, the handsomest of group - it's her first time, and obviously he's taking serious advantage of a younger girl, but she's not as innocent as she puts forth and certainly old enough and mature enough to get out of the situation or to draw a line. They're careless, reckless, maybe somewhat cruel guys, but they're not at all criminals, and if she'd asked for a ride home - which she does, eventually - it seems like they'd comply. So that's part of the beauty of the story, I guess, that what was a fairly innocent fling or jaunt for the young guys was traumatic for the younger girl - though purports that she went on to have a pretty normal life of marriage, kids, divorce, something about that experience stays with her - in an ending that reminds me a bit of some of the Chekhov I've been reading, we jump forward in time, to the near present, at the end of the story, as the main character recalls, in scattered form, these incidents for her therapist, and the guy - they never cross paths after this fling or "abduction," if you will - has no memory of the events. Hadley has become a New Yorker fave, and I think this is one of her strongest stories - it's not as self-consciously English as some of her others, it really could be set in the U.S. or anywhere - though she does have a propensity for weird Britishisms like debouch and others too odd even to look up: secataire, anyone?

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Two versions of the pastoral - Chekhov's Gooseberries

Anton Chekhov's story Gooseberries is a sequel, of sorts, to Man in a Case - both begin with two friends out hunting in the Russian countryside who pass some time telling one another stories: Man in a Case a story the schoolteacher tells to the veterinarian, and in Gooseberries it's the vet's turn. Gooseberries is a rarity for Chekhov - a framed story. The hunters are caught in a downpour and they take shelter in a nearby working farm owned by one of their friends whom they hadn't seen in a long time. After the bathe and change into dry clothes, the sit in the salon and the vet tells his tale: it's about his brother, who leads a miserly and circumspect life, working in an office and dreaming of owning an estate in the country; he saves all his money toward this end, he marries a woman he does not love so as to inherit her fortune, ultimately he buys the estate. The brother visits - they had not seen one another for many years - and the man is very proud of her rather paltry estate - especially of the gooseberries, which he devours. In fact, the gooseberries are sour and dry - much like the man himself, obviously. Does he know how bad they are but eats them just to put on a boastful display? Can he not even tell they're terrible - all he cares about is that they're his? This part of the story - actually, it's the only part I remembered from my previous reading of the story many years ago - is powerful in itself, but the framing give the story special poignancy: the farm that the two brothers visit is an image of the pastoral at its finest; the farmer working very hard on his estate, not at all self-conscious, delighted to have visitors - the scene of the three men in the bathhouse and then swimming in the pond is especially beautiful, kind of Lawrentian - and the farmer himself seems to be a character who stepped right out of Tolstoy, an intellectual who finds solace and significance in working this land. Several references made to the very beautiful servant maid - but he never refers to her beauty and there's no overt reference to his having any relationship with her: he's focused on his work. The possibility, however, hovers beyond the horizon of the story: we can almost imagine that someday he will realize that he loves her and they will enjoy a life together.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Of the two sisters, he loved the young: Failed Chekhov marraiges

And after two Anton Chekhov stories about bad marriages - how about two stories (in the Pevear-Volokhonsky selection of Stories) about failed marriages, that is, of marriages that failed to happen because of the complete eccentricity, or narcisssism, of one of the characters: First, The House with a Mezzanine, a Chekhov rarity in that it's written in first person, in which an artist describes part of a summer he spent at a friend's estate, next door to the eponymous house, in which lived two sisters, a beautiful elder sister who's politically passionate and scornful of the artist as a worthless aesthete, and the younger sister just entering womanhood. Toward end of summer, the artist embraces the younger sister and kisses her, and it's assumed that they are destined for each other - but the next morning she's gone, the older sister has stolen her off to Crimea or some remote place, and the young sister leaves a note, and the artist, forlorn, never sees her again. Similar story: Man in a Case, this one narrated by one hunter two another during a night's layover in a remote hut, he describes a very eccentric colleague who teaches Greek and is always telling others what they should and shouldn't do - a stickler for rules and conventions. Surprisingly, he falls in love with a visitor, and they seem to be on the verge of getting engaged - but the woman's brother, another teacher in the school, can't stand the Man in a Case (that is, sheltered from and buffered against all the troubles of the world) and essentially tosses him out on his ear - and the woman laughs at that. End of relation - and the Man in the Case becomes ill from the shock of the toss-out (and the rejection?) and dies. Sad stories, in a way - and both about people who should have been left alone to find the love that would make them happy, but were tragically derailed by meddling siblings who think they know what's best.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Chekhov on marriage

A few mid-1890s stories by Anton Chekhov take a different tack: after he'd been exploring longer, almost novelistic forms with Ward No. 6 and others, he moved back (at least it would seem this way in the Pevear-Volkhonsky selection) to a few shorter stories that focus, as many of his earlier ones did, on a single moment or image: but whereas the earliest stories tended at times to be sharp and ironic, these mid-to-later career stories are sorrowful, and they establish a new Chekhovian theme of tragic misalliances, bad marriages: Rothschild's Fiddle, one of the best, concerns the old coffin-maker who realizes, on the death of his wife, that he was unkind to her and unsympathetic through her whole life - we see them together in only the last stages, and it's horrible, as he expects his wife to serve him even when she's on the verge of death, and she tries, out of a fear of his wrath; the coffin-maker is one of the most despicable characters in Chekhov - most of his protagonists and at the least sympathetic, but not him - though he repents at the end and bequeaths his violin, or fiddle, the the Jewish musician, Rothschild, whom he'd abused for many years - and Rothschild can play only sad tunes with his new instrument. Others, The Student and the oddly titled Anna on the Neck (reference double: to a medal worn on the collar, and to a wife's dragging her husband down, hindering him) - the latter story in particular a story of a terrible marriage, young girl marries much older man for his wealth, but naturally she breaks free from him when other men notice her beauty - the old man, though stingy, even miserly, does nothing terribly wrong, but still Chekhov treats him like an object of ridicule, with no sympathy. At this point in his career, Chekhov seems to have a very darkened view of marriage, for some reason, and he illustrates, through a series of stories, how people who enter into matrimony do so at great peril.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Extreme Chekhov: The Black Monk

Black Monk is definitely one of the strangest and most puzzling of Anton Chekhov's stories; it's another early 1890s example of Chekhov's exploring somewhat longer forms, compressing novelistic material into the story or at most the novella format - whereas his earlier stories typically explored a single action or moment, the mid-career stories explore the course of a lifetime in a tight, efficient manner - breaking story up into several short, enumerated sections. Ward No. 6 a pefect example - but The Black Monk is similar - the first 10 or so enumerated sections following the course of a courtship and marriage between the scholar Kovrin and the daughter of his mentor, Olga (?). Only the last section jumps forward quite a bit in time as we see Kovrin after breakup of marriage, late in his career, and near death. Several aspects of this story are strange and intriguining, notably Kovrin's relation to the Black Monk - a legendary figure who appears as a vision and of whom it's said he will return in 1000 years; Kovrin has visions in which he sees and speaks with the Black Monk, who tells him that he is a special genious who should persue his creative vision and not become part of ordinary humanity; these visions, at first, give Kovrin peace and self-confidence, but after his marriage, his wife, a highly emotional and fragile very young woman, sees that he is distracted and at last sees him talking to an empty chair and she (and her domineering father) are sure that K. is insane; they urge treatments on him, and then later we see him living on father's orchard but a dull, ordinary man who believes he has betrayed his vision and his gift. This story, like Ward No. 6, explores the boundaries of madness - what seems to be madness to conventional society may be a form of creativity or greatness - or maybe not, maybe K. is just simply insane, without the potential for greatness. Plenty of geniouses were no doubt considered insane in their day; and plenty of mentally ill people believe they are seeing visions and that they are called to greatness. This story is a rare example of Chekhov's working in a Dostoyevsky-like palette - highly emotional people, mental derangement, visions, failure on a grand scale - except in Dostoyevsky the protagonist would be more likely an epileptic rather than consumptive and would be a political visionary rather than a scholar or artist - and the suffering wife would be more saintly and less of a neurotic. In his later novellas, e.g., Lady with a Lapdog, Chekhov perfected the use of novel-like material in the story format; the Black Monk is fascinating but a little uneven and hysterical in tone - Chekhov pushing himself to the extremes of emotion, for him.

Friday, July 6, 2012

A note on Russian translations in Chekhov, Dostoyevsky

A word about one of the translation quirks in the Pevear-Volokhonsky edition of Anton Chekhov's Stories: why do they often translate a phrase in Russian conversation among men as "my dear"? I've seen this in other P-V translations as well, notably the conversations between the inspector and Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment. Perhaps "my dear" is a literal translatio of a Russian phrase, but I have to wonder if P-V are tone deaf in some respects: in English, no man would address another as "my dear" outside of a sexual or amorous relationship or, rarely, perhaps a father or grandfather speaking to son or grandson. The phrase in conversation among friends always strikes me in P-V translations as very odd - and I don't believe it would be any less odd in the late 19th century. I don't know anything about the Russian original - but isn't there a more apt phrase in English, such as "my friend," pal, buddy, something? Have just started next Chekhov story in the excellent collection, The Black Monk, about a scientist or psychologist who is suffering from exhaustion and goes on a vacation to visit his former tutor or benefactor (seems that the man, Yevgeny?, has raised him since childhood) and in particular to visit Y's daughter, whom he believes he might fall in love with. Y. expresses the strange and selfish hope that the daughter will never marry - so that she can carry on with his beloved orchard (there's a Chekhovian theme!) after he dies - but says the one person he would accept her marrying is the young visitor. This statement sets up many expectations - but all will not go smoothly, it seems, as father and daughter sometimes quarrel bitterly and the very rational, temperate scientist is beginning to realize that the girl may be far more complex and tempestuous than he'd imagined - when he knew her last, as a little girl.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

A dark and chiling story - one of Chekhov's best

War No. 6 is justifiably one of Anton Chkhov's greatest stories - as noted yestrday - and also as noted the insipid doctor, Andrei, does get his comeuppance, but this is Chekhov so not everything is hard-edged and morally unambiguous - there's a lot of sorrow and mystery at the end of this story: Andrei, by the middle of thie novella-length story, is spending a great deal of time in the ward for the insane speaking with the only educated inmate, Ivan, and sharing his philosophy - essentially that pain is only in the mind, that in the end we all are equal and of equal worth, Ivan should take his miserable circumstancs and accept them; Ivan rightly Andrei he is arguing from a position of privilege and comfort, that pain is real, that man deserves an opportunity for freedom and happiness. Others in the hospital see Andrei spending time with Ivan, and they think Andrei is losing his competence, such as it was: Why would a doctor willingly speak at length with one of his mental-ward inmates? A so-called friend lures Andrei to take a trip to Moscow and Poland, pure misery for Dr. Andrei, and when he returns he's stripped of his authority by the corrupt managers of the hospital - and eventually, he's lured into the ward, supposedly to observe a case, then abandoned there and held among the inmates. He dies after a day or two in captivity. Has he changed? Is he a better man? He definitely does come to some kind of realization that his philosophy was a lot of relativistic crap; but not sure that's the whole message of the story. Part of the story is simply an indictment of medical conditions in Chekhov's time, especially the treatment of mental illness; part the familiar Chkhovian indictment of life in the provinces. The other mental patients, particularly Ivan, are not heroes, either, however; the are unjustly imprisoned and horribly treated, but Ivan is not a sympathetic character: the story is in part an indictment of human nature, an examination of the lows to which people will sink when in a struggle for comfort and survival. Also, a spiritual dimension to the story: Is there in fact a better world awaiting, some possibility of transcendence, or are we all earth and clay, gone to dust? Either way, it is better to lead a good and honest life - as do none of the characters is this dark and chilling story.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

He pretends that he just doesn't see: Chekhov's doctors

It's no surprise that many of the protagonists in Anton Chekhov's stories are doctors, but what does surprise is the range of characters and types among the doctors whom Chekhov portrays - in his career as a physician, he must have met and known a wide variety of types, probably a more disparate group that doctors today who tend to be more specialized I'd think, and it's also obvious, from a # of Chekhov's stories, that physician was one of the few career choices open to an educated young man in 19th-century Russia - it's not that all doctors were enamoured of the medical profession or even of medical science, it's just that they had an aptitude and had few options. We see this in at least 3 of the stories in the Pevear-Volokhonsky collection: one (title?) is about an elderly medical profession, dry as a husk and burned out, regretful that he has not become famous or properly recognized (and compensated) for his accomplishments, such as they are; another, in The Fidget, very dedicated physician, misunderstood and unappreciated by his pseudo-artistic wife, dies in the service of medicine. A third, in the famous story (or novella, if you like) Ward No. 6, is perhaps the most contemptuous of Chekhov's physicians; this story an absolute indictment of the the medical care and conditions in 19th-century Russia, particularly in rural Russia (an ever-present Chekhov theme, the misery and loneliness of life far from the cultural centers) and particularly in the mental ward. The young doctor who comes to the hospital at first seems to us like he may be a force for good a reformer - clearing out detritus of his corrupt predecessor, who took bribes, offered no treatment at all to mental patients, allowed them to live in squalor. But we soon see that this new guy is perhaps even worse - because he seems to realize and to care about the patient conditions, but just shrugs his shoulders and "pretends that he just doesn't see" - prefers to spend his afternoons reading and thinking (he's one of the doctors who wished he could hae followed another profession, and it would have been better if he had) and ultimately to speak with his one friend, smoking and drinking to oblivion - all his high-flown words of philosophy and noble thoughts do nothing to help the patients who are in his so-called care. By end of novella, he will get what's due him.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Between grief and nothing: A great Chekhov story

A short example of an (early) Chekhov story that that's one of his best : In Exile, set on a wintry river bank in Siberia, story mostly about the man who runs a ferry or barge to carry people and their horses/carriages acorss the river and the group of men who liver miserable lives under his service - all of them in exile from Russia, for some crimes or other against the state or some sort of malfeasance, petty theft even. The main character, Semya (?) known as The Explainer, talks to his men about why it's best not to care for anyeone of anything, life's the same anywhere, just go on with your life - heis contrasted with the social outcast of the group, The Tarter, who speaks broken Russian only, and who is a recent exile - his young wife left behind in his village, and believes he was framed by a rich villager for a crime he didn't commit. The Explainer tells a story of another exile, living across the river, who is seeking medical help for his daughter and sends for every sort of doctor near and far, with little hope for success. The Explainer belittles this man, calls him a fool - and at the end The Tarter, in his broken Russian, calls the Explainer a bad man - an evil man: The Explainer says it's best to have no feelings, and the Tartar in his outburst says it is best to have these feelings of longing, even if they are sure to be dashed. Reminds me of the phrase, from Sartre I think?, quoted famously in Godard's Breathless: Between grief and nothing, I will take grief. This story, In Exile, a great example of the painful truth of that statement - it is better to have feelings(for others, for society) and to suffer than to be an isolate, a cynic, a numb and dead sole - even if that numbness can protect you from pain.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Chekhov's stories: differences between the good and the great

Anton Chekov's 1890s story "The Fidget" (strange title, is this a quirk of the tranlsators, Pevear-Volokhonsky?) opens many of the most famous Checkovian themes and tropes: this story about a young, artistic woman, Olga, who befriends many famous artists, singers, and writers - she's always interested in "celebrities" (another translation quirk? these are not celebrities in today's People/US mode) and though she seems to have some talents she's essentially a dilletante - she marries a very conventional guy, Dymov, a doctor, not at all like Chekhov btw, sweet and sincere and completely oblivious to art though he understands that others appreciate it and admires Olga's fascination with artists - none can quite figure what she sees in him. Of course the inevitable: Olga tires of the bland Dymov and begins an affair with one of the artists, who treats her very badly. Dymov becomes suspicious but it's not in his nature to be anything but good and trusting; at the end, Dymov becomes gravely ill (contracted diptheria from a child he was bravely treating) and he dies - Olga at the end calls out his name, futilely. So we see in her the Chekhovian sens of a character who has wasted her life and realizes it far too late; and in Dymov we have the simple but good man befuddled by the complexity of a world that leaves him out of account. Why is The Fidget, though, not among the greatest of Chekhov stories? First, I think, because it's too focused on Olga's point of view - when Dymov, with his silent suffering and forebearance, his Chist-like demeanor, is the more interesting and complex character. Second - and perhaps this follows from the first - the ending is melodramatic, Dymov dead and Olga calling his name, a reverse of La Boheme in a way, whereas the greatest of Chekhov stories (and plays) end with a more mysterious and open tone, the characters reflective and resigned, rather than in despaire.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Marriage on the Rocks: New Yorker story

The New Yorker continues its hot streak within another good story in current edition, this one by Paul LaFarge (Another Life), an author whom I don't know though the LaFarges are a long-time artistic and literary Rhode Island family (one of w,hom wrote reviews for me at the Journal back in the day, if I can recall correctly); this story has some real narrative verve, as it's told essentially in three or four very long paragraphs, each of which packs in quite a bit of information and dialogue - usually I move away from stories or novels (often European and self-consciously "experimental" - Saramago, et al) that use extremely long paragraphs, but Lafarge uses them to good effect, to keep the story moving rather than to slow it down and examine everything in minute detail (Proust - one of my favorites, but not know as a master of the short form to put it mildly). In brief, Another Life is about a guy in with low self-esteem (an unpublished writer who thinks at times his work is too difficult for the commonplace reader) with a teaching job for which he seems to have contempt - heading from New York to Boston for party for father-in-law, which brings up many issues of his failure as a husband; wife is a pediatrician, no children. Apparently wife is still very much in thrall to father and his dicta. Man identified only as "the husband" - leaves party early, returns to hotel, goes to bar, flirts with "Pretty Bartender," wife later comes to bar, man id'd as "sleazy" sits next to her, wife apparently leaves with sleazy - leaving husband alone - later to flirt with Pretty Bartender and invite her out for a drink. In short tight space we get an Albeeish look at a marriage on the rocks, at two (or certainly one) selfish and self-centered people, very privileged and fortnate yet bitter and full of loathing. I do have quibbls with the story however, notably, LaFarge does very good job sketching in portrait of "Pretty Bartender," yet for all that - why would she make herself so available to a nasty, drunk, older, married guy like The Husband? She wouldn't - male fantasy only. There is very nice twist at end of story (spoiler), but a not sure I would accept that this story would be written by the Bartender - it's totally a male POV story, hers would be very different.