Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Forward and backward: Writing in 2014

Writing in 2014: I have mostly worked on the new one, the work-in-progress called Antosha in Prague. It's a good novel, I think. A lot of fun to write and to read (hopefully). It's a collection of Chekhovesque stories about a fictional character named Antosha Chekhonte, who is loosely based on the Russian writer/playwright Anton Chekhov. You've heard of him. This is the list of story titles (with progress status) so far:

"The Connoisseur" (written)
"Defending His Dissertation" (written)
"Under the Limbs of the Silver Birches" (written)
"Setting a Broken Bone" (written)
"The Suitor" (written)
"Ivan Ivanovna" (written)
"The Father of the Family" (in progress)
"To My Hands Alone" (written)
"Olivier Salad" (hypothetical)
"Dressing for the Opera" (written)
"Bela" (hypothetical)
"The Storm" (outlined)
"Antosha in Prague" (written)
"Caspian Terns" (hypothetical)
"It's a long time since I drank champagne" (outlined)
"A White Sparrow" (outlined, half written)

I think I've got about 56,000 words of the first draft written now. If things continue to go the way they've been going (a vague statement, that), the completed first draft will be about 85,000 words long. So I'm a good way into the manuscript. A couple more months of work, to be sure, maybe as many as four or six months before the draft is written. I don't seem to be in a hurry.

Also this year I did some work on a novel called Go Home, Miss America. That novel is out on submission now to a couple of wee publishers. In the spring or summer of 2015 I will begin another revision to a novel called Mona in the Desert. I have a lot of notes for that revision. It will be a job of work, I think. There is a slender possibility that there will be time left at the end of 2015 for me to start in earnest on a new novel, which will probably be the one called Nowhere But North. That work may be delayed until 2016.

Last night I read Browning's poem "An Epistle," and now of course I want to write a long novel based on it. I won't, but still.

Monday, December 29, 2014

"O' the lazy sea her stream thrusts far amid" in the little city by the bay with Robert

Also, I am still reading a book of Robert Browning's shorter poems. "Caliban Upon Setebos" is very good. Browning reminds me that Caliban is one of Shakespeare's greatest inventions. Browning's Caliban is also quite fine: the poet got the tone and voice just right, and his primitive theology wholly believable. My favorite line comes right at the end, when a storm hits the island and Caliban fears that his musings have offended the god Setebos:
What, what? A curtain o'er the world at once!
Crickets stop hissing; not a bird—or, yes,
There scuds His raven, that hath told Him all!
It was fool's play, this prattling! Ha! The wind
Shoulders the pillared dust, death's house o' the move,
And fast invading fires begin! White blaze—
A tree's head snaps—and there, there, there, there, there,
His thunder follows!
"there, there, there, there, there" is wonderful, the rhythmic repetition of Caliban's sudden fear at the manifestation of the horrible deity. The poem is about what? superstition, maybe, explaining the divine in the lowly terms of humanity? filling the blank spots in our knowledge with the blind spots in our self knowledge? Great stuff.

Perhaps I'm attracted to this poem because it reflects similar ideas to the snippet from George Santayana that Umbagollah has posted over at Pykk:
from the describable qualities of things, we repeat the rationalistic fiction of turning the notions which we abstract from the observation of facts into the powers that give those facts character and being.
I've been thinking about these sorts of things a lot these days, of how we paint over the face of the universe with portraits of ourselves as a way of claiming to understand reality.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

no distaste for the gossip of the town

At one time it was reported about the town that our little circle was a hotbed of nihilism, profligacy, and godlessness, and the rumour gained more and more strength. And yet we did nothing but indulge in the most harmless, agreeable, typically Russian, light-hearted liberal chatter. "The higher liberalism" and the "higher liberal," that is, a liberal without any definite aim, is only possible in Russia.

Stepan Trofimovitch, like every witty man, needed a listener, and, besides that, he needed the consciousness that he was fulfilling the lofty duty of disseminating ideas. And finally he had to have some one to drink champagne with, and over the wine to exchange light-hearted views of a certain sort, about Russia and the "Russian spirit," about God in general, and the "Russian God" in particular, to repeat for the hundredth time the same Russian scandalous stories that every one knew and every one repeated. We had no distaste for the gossip of the town which often, indeed, led us to the most severe and loftily moral verdicts. We fell into generalising about humanity, made stern reflections on the future of Europe and mankind in general, authoritatively predicted that after Cæsarism France would at once sink into the position of a second-rate power, and were firmly convinced that this might terribly easily and quickly come to pass. We had long ago predicted that the Pope would play the part of a simple archbishop in a united Italy, and were firmly convinced that this thousand-year-old question had, in our age of humanitarianism, industry, and railways, become a trifling matter. But, of course, "Russian higher liberalism" could not look at the question in any other way.
That's from Fyodor Dostoyevsky's novel The Possessed (aka The Devils). It continues to make fun of the sort of Russian intellectuals Nikolai Chernyshevsky imagined in his novel What is to be Done? In fact, I'm reading this now because I opened the book up randomly, to page 288 as it happens, and my eye fell upon a mention of Chernyshevsky's novel, and a couple of long paragraphs telling jokes about it. This is a comic novel, you see, and also is written in a sort of gentle comic tone unlike the tone of any of Dostoyevesky's other novels. It's hard to believe, as I read this book, that it was actually written by old Fyodor. Where is all the frenetic rushing about? Where are the characters beating themselves up over the insoluble problems of life? Where is the violence and the gambling? True, a main character is well known to lose at cards, but he is not exactly a gambling addict, and all of his losses (and indeed all of his expenses in life) are covered by his patroness. This man with the patroness is the Stepan mentioned above, the witty man who needs a listener. Decades before the book starts, Stepan was very mildly famous/infamous as a liberal writer, but now he's outmoded and lives in the country. He made a trip to Petersburg to rejoin the liberal circles but was laughed out of the room when he announced that the poetry of Pushkin was more important than shoes for the poor. Stepan is also the father of a young man who will soon join the story and bring much havoc with him in his role as a Bazarov-type nihilist. In fact, Pyotr (Stepan's son, the nihilist) will mention Bazarov by name, and declare him an unrealistic character. What fun, Fyodor. This is a clever, quite funny book. Laugh-out-loud funny. And yet it's allegedly by Dostoyevsky. Go figure.

Monday, July 7, 2014

updates, nothing to see

Oh, Harold. I'm done with Blooms, I tell you, unless named Molly or Leopold. Though this post from Himadri hits a nail on the head pretty squarely and is worth reading. At least I laughed. I'm not done with John Cowper Powys, but I haven't decided what to read next from him, or when. I'm also going to look at some more Iris Murdoch, despite the kooky unraveling of The Sea, The Sea towards the end of the book. Maybe I'll read The Bell again. She wrote a lot of books, and we have a lot of them on the shelf. Right now I'm reading Kawabata. His works always baffle me (Japanese novels baffle me in general, including--especially?--those of Murakami) but then I miss him when he's gone, so apparently I miss being baffled in a certain way, which I find curious. I think I'll read some more Yukio Mishima when I remember to look for him. I have not yet begun to branch out into Chinese authors, or Korean authors, or representatives from a lot of other geographic/cultural areas. So much reading. Such a big world, kids.

I've been writing, as I claim, a new book based loosely on certain ideas associated with Saint Anton Chekhov. It seems to be going well enough. I think I've written something like 25,000 words of that book already, which is a startlingly high number. I still sort of feel like I'm poking around with the beginning of the thing. I'm writing the title story now. I will never write another long form epistolary story again. It's a job of work.

I've also completed another round of revisions to Mona in the Desert, an actual novel in the form of a novel. Mostly. There are two chapters hidden in the narrative that the narrator is unaware of. Of which the narrator is unaware, I mean. Mighty Reader points out that a hypothetical book designer and proof reader in the future will be annoyed with me. Sorry, hypothetical publishing professionals. My current task is to type up all of my changes from the marked-up printouts into the digital file. I hate that task, but one can't be delicate. What else? Tomorrow I'm mailing a submission to a publisher for yet another novel. We'll see.

I officially claim to Have No Idea what I'll write after I finish the draft of Antosha in Prague. No idea at all. Maybe the Antarctica thing, finally. I'll have to figure out the middle section, with the boat. Penguins might be involved. No, penguins will certainly be involved. There is a whole long penguin thing going in that book anyway. In a year someone must remind me that the idea is: the physical changes to the boat. I'll know what that means when I need to know it.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Madness of King Harold

Let's suppose for a minute that Harold Bloom's "theory of poetry" is correct. Let's suppose that a young poet is creatively blocked by the awareness of, the spectre of, the influence of the great poets of the past. A young poet cannot move forward into the New because he is too busy comparing himself to his precursors, and comparing his own poems to the great precursor poems. Let's suppose that's true. Let's suppose also that the most common way a young poet breaks through this creative blockage is by imagining a flaw in the work of the great precursor, by deliberately misreading the great precursor poem(s) and then writing a poem of his own that "corrects" the "flaw" in the precursor, psychically diminishing the precursor in the eyes of the young poet, who is then able to move forward and become some future young poet's precursor. Let's say Bloom is right, and this is all true. Let's further say that my concern with craft and my lack of concern with any precursor novelists and my non-efforts in the way of modeling my work on any precursor novels is either self-delusion because artists aren't conscious of the process, or because I’m a minor talent so I don't actually know what the greatness of the precursor novelists is and I'm blind to those elements of their work which would creatively block me if I was talented enough to be properly intimidated. I can accept being a minor talent. So let's say I accept all of this, that I have no beef with Bloom's theory of poetic influence.

The problem is that I'm reading a book Bloom wrote, The Anxiety of Influence, in which he might lay out this theory. This book is a mad book, a disorganized nonlinear book whose language is vague and contradictory. The narrative chases its own tail around what is mostly an empty space where clearly-defined terms and theses ought to be. That's my problem. Bloom bezels and prolixes for page after page, saying "this is the anxiety of influence" but failing, again and again, to supply an actual this. He does not say whatever it is he is saying. He spends a lot of time spinning a metaphysical metaphorical tale about the poet as caught in the duality between the spiritual world and the empirical world, and he invokes the Muses and tells us that weak poets are Adam and strong poets are Satan (Paradise Lost as a metaphor for poetry, which is fine because I'm sure Milton's Christian metaphors were bound up with ideas about the mind and art) until Satan becomes merely a hack, an imitator of God and loses his originality. That's all a good time and Bloom's writing is breathless, breakneck, totally insane and full of fun for the reader. None of it tells us what "anxiety" or "influence" mean, though. None of it relates directly to the historical process of poetic influence, or how a poet becomes a poet. Bloom does not directly confront his subject matter in The Anxiety of Influence. I am told that he does spell out what he's really talking about in some other books, but the thing is, the book I'm reading is The Anxiety of Influence. Bloom talks around and around and makes many vague claims without demonstrating that there is any reason to believe those claims or even, frankly, making clear what his claims are. The theory that I am willing to accept, the theory I talk about in the first paragraph of this post, may be behind all the lunacy and poorly-formed argument-in-the-form-of-a-severe-poem that makes up The Anxiety of Influence, but there's no way to discover that by reading the book. The reader must cobble together Bloom's meaning piece by piece, and can never be sure that this meaning is actually Bloom's meaning. That is my beef with Mr Bloom, and that is why I find myself reading The Anxiety of Influence as a novel, because it makes sense if Harold Bloom is Charles Kinbote or Charles Arrowby. The book does not make sense if Harold Bloom is a respected professor and theorist.

No one, so far, has been able to point to a passage within The Anxiety of Influence where Bloom either makes his theory of poetry clear, defines his terms, or shows any reason to believe his claims. I don't dispute the theory, but I do say that Bloom has written a bubbling mess of a book that says almost nothing. It is a sparkling incoherency about poetry, built around the central claim that poetry is dying. "The death of poetry" is one of the few clear passages in the book. Unless Bloom means that as a metaphor, too. I can see why this book is so influential: a reader can fill it with whatever meaning he likes, because Bloom obfuscates, dances, babbles and whirls but he does not say.

Monday, June 30, 2014

New clothes, no emperor

Harold Bloom proposes an antagonistic relationship between artists and art, an Oedipal struggle* between young artists and older artists, where the young/beginning artist must defeat his predecessors or be defeated. A major component of this struggle is the presumed privileging of originality by successful (Bloom's word is "strong") artists. These propositions and assumptions (found in Bloom's rollicking fantasy novel The Anxiety of Influence) tell us many interesting things about the presumed author of that novel, including the obvious influence upon Bloom of that old reactionary crackpot, Ralph Waldo Emerson. They do not, alas, tell us much at all about the poets of the real world and how they came to write poetry.

I've never managed to make it all the way through The Anxiety of Influence in any of my past attempts, the book being so clearly wrongheaded, but I have sworn to actually finish the damned thing this time through. It is, after all, pretty slender. What's wrongheaded about Dr Bloom's famous bit of fiction is this: he has noticed, being a good reader, that some good poets progress over their lives from stumbling, derivative poets to being poets who find new formal strategies. Other poets never find anything to do in the way of formal innovation. Bloom takes this observation and spins his Oedipal fantasy, creating a drama with young poet as protagonist, and influential older poet as antagonist, the father figure who must be killed in order that the young poet may become his own man. Exciting stuff.

What Bloom fails to see is that there is a much simpler explanation for this progression: the young artist must learn his craft. He is not oppressed by the spectre of the poets of the past, nor does he battle against them. In the preface to the edition I'm reading, Bloom makes a claim about Shakespeare's allusion to Marlowe in "Richard II" (where Richard looks into a mirror and asks if his was the face that once commanded thousands of men, an echo of Marlowe's "the face that launched a thousand ships"): Blooms says,"however we think Richard intends it, Shakespeare flaunts it as an emblem of his new freedom from Marlowe." There is no reason at all to believe this claim. It is more likely that Shakespeare, never shy about plagiarism, just liked the sound of it and stole it for himself. There is no reason to believe any of Bloom's claims about the poets under discussion. There is no reason for Bloom to have imagined this violent struggle between generations of artists.

Well, there are reasons, but they all have to do with Bloom's failure to become an artist on his own. He gives it away when he says that criticism "is either part of literature or it is nothing at all." His claim is that criticism is part of literature. He presents this false dichotomy, daring you to tell him that criticism might be something that is not necessarily part of literature, because Bloom wants to be an artist. In The Anxiety of Influence, we read Harold Bloom's hallucinatory struggle against the Western Canon, and nothing more.

Bloom is not, in this tiny book, talking about the creation of art. He claims to be, but he's not. Entirely missing from Bloom's discussion is the joy of creation, or in fact any kind of understanding of the creative act in action. Bloom has poets, and he has poetry, but he has nowhere really considered the poet's sense of writing a poem, what Jon Gardner calls being within "the fictional dream." Bloom gives us agony. Where is the ecstasy? Perhaps Bloom labors, struggles, claws his resentful way forward and dreams of murdering his literary predecessors. Most people who make art do not engage in this particular struggle, is my claim. There is no reason to believe that Bloom is right about any of this. There is no reason to believe that poets, writers, playwrights, spend much time or effort thinking about the poets/writers/playwrights they admire, and certainly less reason to believe these people are in any way oppressed by the past.

One of Bloom's criteria for "strong" artists is the creation of new and original work, something that moves away from the respected figures of the past. Bloom writes as a critic, an outsider to art, not as a man who creates art. There are some artists who talk ceaselessly of finding their own way, of making something unique, and these (contrary to Bloom's claim) are generally the least of our artists. A good, "strong" artist is concerned with what he is trying to do now, with what he is trying to accomplish in the present work. Artists collect tools and learn how to use them, and find new things to do with those tools as a matter of course, because the ideas one has look different every time you learn a new technique. As craft grows, so naturally does vision evolve. This is not a freeing of oneself from one's psychological fetters; it is experience and competence and acquired depth. Perhaps this is actually what Bloom means, all he means, and he's chosen to build this clumsy and amusing metaphor around it, and the "murder your fathers" stuff is all a bit of a joke. Why else would he lard his prose up with Greek terms, as if we all live in ancient Athens? He hides his commonplace observations about the growth of art behind jargon, and we all should know what that means. Nabokov would've had a good time with Mr Bloom, I think, lampooning and dissecting. Oh, wait: he already did. Nabokov wrote that splendid novel where a critic writes himself into the history of someone else's poem, remember? In Pale Fire, certainly, criticism was literature.

* In the preface to the 1997 edition, which is the edition I'm reading, Bloom states that his theory in no way invokes an Oedipal struggle. The anxiety is not in the poet, it is in the poem. What can this possibly mean? Tomorrow, maybe, or the next day, I'll talk about Bloom's actual theory of influence and the anxiety inherent in that process.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Lying on the shores of The Sea, The Sea

It's not clear how unreliable the unreliable narrator of Iris Murdoch's novel The Sea, The Sea is. I know he's lying to me, but he also seems to be unaware of some facts about his new home on the seaside. The old house is called "Shruff End," a name he briefly ponders and then dismisses. What Charles Arrowby doesn't seem to know is that shruff is an obsolete word meaning rubbish, or bits of trash that can be used for tinder. He bought the house from an old woman named "Mrs Chorney." chorney is Russian for "black." It's also closely-related to chyort which means "the devil." Arrowby has already let it slip, between the lines of his memoir/diary/whatever, that he's not a nice man (he refers to women as "bitches" and lets us know that he's always had plenty of women around who were happy to act as his chauffeur, which is why he's never learned to drive a car). Shruff End, the old house Arrowby has drained his savings to purchase, is not at all a nice house, which is something that Arrowby is not telling his reader. There is a damp smell and it's hideously furnished with broken-down old furniture, but really the smell isn't so bad and the furniture, you see, it's really after all quite charming and endearing in a funny way. A watch tower, or possibly an old lighthouse tower, is falling into ruin at the edge of the property and Arrowby hasn't the money to have it repaired but he'll save up for that, don't you worry. He describes the house in great detail but the place becomes more confusing and sinister the longer he talks about it, as if it's some location out of Lovecraft, where an eldrich horror lurks beneath the floorboards. We are told a great deal about the freedom Arrowby feels here in his house with its private beach overlooking a lonely bay. There is no electricity or hot water, but of course Arrowby is fine with that. He's roughed it before, you know. He is happy being alone, though he's always lived around or with people. It is difficult and dangerous to get into the water from any of the local beaches, but he'll hire someone to install a handrail to assist him getting down the rock face at his own beach. No problem at all, you see. Everything is fine, if you don't count Arrowby's clear lack of purpose in living from day to day, his complaints that nobody writes to him and there's not telephone service, and of course there was that hallucination (was it a hallucination?) on his second day, of the immense serpent made of sea water, rising up out of the bay and then dissolving away again. Arrowby supposes he has found sanctuary. He insists upon it. No, everything is perfectly lovely, alone in the decaying house at the edge of nowhere, at the edge of the sea, the sea.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

to impoison and drive to madness

Another thing had struck Sylvanus as curiously heart-piercing in this House of Ghosts, and that was the way Sex itself, the great life-urge of the world, fell away and dwindled and receded. It sank, this thing, from occupying the first place in human life to occupying the ninth or the tenth. Its results were here only too clearly ; but its living manifestations seemed minimized, sterilized, paralyzed. Anyone who has been in Bedlam will bear witness how forlornly correct Sylvanus' observation was. As a matter of fact it is curious how the illusion should ever have got about that mad people are often happy and cheerful, and merry and gay! As a matter of fact upon an insane asylum lies exactly the same kind of sick, inert, bewildered, unearthly sorrowfulness that Homer depicts as the prevailing condition of those faint spirits, who in the realm of Hades "no longer behold the sweet sun". Yes, the sadness, the dispiritedness, the inert hopelessness that is the dominant atmosphere of such a place is almost identical with that twilight kingdom where only the drinking of blood enables a mother to know her own son ! And it would seem that just as with the loss of their bodies "the noble nations of the dead" feel no longer the urge of amorous desire, so in the atmosphere of Hell's Museum considerations of excrement played a larger part than those of the heart. That terrible and startling indifference to personal appearance, to the state of one's dress for instance, that is such a noticeable characteristic of these societies of the damned is a fearful and significant hint as to how the implacable Goddess of Desire, when by her ravages she has reduced her victims to this condition, leaves them in contempt, and glides away, to impoison and drive to madness other, fairer, fresher, younger, less plague-spotted souls!
Last night I finished Weymouth Sands. Very clearly, as I closed the book, I thought Well, that was all right. It's a mad book, full of mad people who believe in a mad, violent, somehow sentient world wherein we are all driven to torture one another--the world itself torturing us, too--all for a drop of solace (which is one of the metaphors in the book, where dogs are tortured and sleep deprived so that their poor bodies will produce a hormone that acts as a sleep aid to humans, o ye gods of irony). John Cowper Powys, the author of this mad world, himself believes in this active, aware universe where emotions and thoughts and even the shadows of emotions and thoughts are like forces of nature, like wavelets that combine and grow into tsunamis, that wash over and through other people and places and things. It's all connected, all violently and sexually connected in a maelstrom of desire and deceit and ignorance. So much ignorance, so much lying to ourselves and others, and as Pykk pointed out, Powys finds this exciting and titillating. It's a mad universe in Powys, not a place I'd want to live but it was interesting to visit, to see how--sometime recently there was a conversation about this on this very blog--the landscape, the setting, becomes an actor, a character in the story, a voice and a doer-of-things. Yes, that was all right. I'll visit Powys-world again, I think.

For now, I'm in Iris Murdoch's mad and deceitful world of The Sea, The Sea. The landscape is described in detail, hard and cynical detail even when the narrator claims to admire what he sees. Charles Arrowby is going to be a pushy sort of narrator, telling his reader what to think. John Cowper Powys is a pushy narrator, elbowing his way into center stage past his characters and sets, telling us what to think, lecturing the reader. You can see how Powys made all of his characters into versions of himself or versions of the archetypes in which he believed. There were no real people in Weymouth Sands, not even--I think--the intrusive author. A good book, though. A violent dream of desire and the unsureness of selfhood.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Because houses + moles = evil

Yes, I know, making fun of misspelled words is crass and déclassé. And yet.

Also, I report that not only are houses in my neighborhood being rid of moles, the writer in my mole-free house has stumbled upon the large conceptual frameworks for his work-in-progress. I am not claiming that the book will have a central theme, because I don't write those sorts of novels, but I do like to explore some linked ideas across the length of a narrative, and I wasn't aware what those ideas were until very recently. The use of symbolism in Russian literature is one of the ideas, the personal flaws of artists is another idea, etc. Saint Paul versus Christ is another idea. The usual sort of stuff, in other words. Etymologies of names, and some discussion of fishing. Shakespeare, of course.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Chekhov Writes A Dostoyevsky Story: "An Attack of Nerves"

How many of Chekhov's stories have I read? I have no idea. Hundreds of them. All 201 in the Ecco 13-volume set of Constance Garnett's translated tales. A bunch translated by Ann Dunnigan. Peter Constantine's collection of 38 stories from the young Chekhov. Lots more, though most translators mine the same vein of tales that Garnett worked. But let's say I've read some 300 stories by Anton Chekhov, and I can only think of one of those stories that seems to have been directly influenced by the works of Fyodor Dostoyevsky. I am going to claim that the 1889 story "An Attack of Nerves" (also known as "A Nervous Breakdown") is inspired by the fourth section of Dostoyevsky's Notes From Underground, the encounter between the Underground Man and the prostitute Liza.

I steal the following summary from the NYU School of Medicine "stories about doctors" website:
A night on the town with two friends turns into "an attack of nerves" for Vasilyev, a law student. The three students spend the night drinking and visiting houses of prostitution; Vasilyev is horrified and repulsed by the women, who he thinks are "more like animals than human beings." The social problem of prostitution becomes an obsession; he is so fixated on finding a solution that he is in moral agony. His friends, among whom is a medical student, are concerned only with his health; they take him to a psychiatrist who "cures" Vasilyev with bromide and morphine.
I will ignore the NYU School of Medicine's shallow comments on the story and give you my own.

While both the Dostoyevsky and Chekhov stories are part of a long and dense tradition of Russian "fallen women" fiction, I claim that they are more closely linked than by just that tradition. Notes and "Nerves" share important symbolism; Chekhov's formal structure pushes against Dostoyevsky's in an asymmetrical manner to form a kind of balance; Chekhov's protagonist is strikingly similar to the Underground Man; both tales end with frustration at the protagonist's inability to solve the problem of subjugation. I hope I remember to mention that Chekhov seemingly implies a sympathy with Chernyshevsky's idea that woman can only be freed when men become civilized enough to free them. We'll see how well I do. This entire essay might be beyond my abilities. You've been warned.

Let's start with the snow, which is an important symbol in both stories. Dostoyevsky's snow is the element which opens Part II of Notes, the element to which he returns in the tale of Liza:
Snow is falling today, yellow and dingy. It fell yesterday, too, and a few days ago. I fancy it is the wet snow that has reminded me of that incident which I cannot shake off now.
Chekhov's story is also set on a snowy night, but his snow is beautiful and mysterious:
The first snow had not long fallen, and all nature was under the spell of the fresh snow. There was the smell of snow in the air, the snow crunched softly under the feet; the earth, the roofs, the trees, the seats on the boulevard, everything was soft, white, young, and this made the houses look quite different from the day before; the street lamps burned more brightly, the air was more transparent, the carriages rumbled with a deeper note, and with the fresh, light, frosty air a feeling stirred in the soul akin to the white, youthful, feathery snow.
Dostoyevsky's snow is always "wet" and sometimes even "warm," and is never anything but part of the world's antagonism, another marker of the Underground Man's misery, pointing in the same direction as everything else in the Liza story:
The wet snow was falling in big flakes; I unbuttoned myself, regardless of it. I forgot everything else, for I had finally decided on the slap, and felt with horror that it was going to happen NOW, AT ONCE, and that NO FORCE COULD STOP IT. The deserted street lamps gleamed sullenly in the snowy darkness like torches at a funeral. The snow drifted under my great-coat, under my coat, under my cravat, and melted there. I did not wrap myself up--all was lost, anyway.
Chekhov's protagonist, on the other hand,
liked the snow, the pale street lamps, the sharp black tracks left in the first snow by the feet of the passers-by. He liked the air, and especially that limpid, tender, naïve, as it were virginal tone, which can be seen in nature only twice in the year -- when everything is covered with snow, and in spring on bright days and moonlight evenings when the ice breaks on the river.
Dostoyevsky, then, uses the snow to show that the world itself--including the weather--is a force set against man, whereas in Chekhov it is man who is the force of evil set against nature:
If one looked upwards into the darkness, the black background was all spangled with white, moving spots: it was snow falling. As the snowflakes came into the light they floated round lazily in the air like down, and still more lazily fell to the ground. The snowflakes whirled thickly round Vassilyev and hung upon his beard, his eyelashes, his eyebrows. . . . The cabmen, the horses, and the passers-by were white.

"And how can the snow fall in this street!" thought Vassilyev. "Damnation take these houses!"
these houses are bordellos, where Vassilyev has been dragged, from one to the next, by his friends. His friends are looking for a good time; Vassilyev is horrified by what he sees, by the objectification of the women, by the base nature of man--even of his good and beloved friends.

Which brings us to the next important similarity between the stories, the protagonist's disgust with man. Dostoyevsky shows us this by having the Underground Man insult Liza in as cruel a manner as he can, demonstrating to her that she is a slave to men, maybe less than a slave, and that he is no better; she cannot possibly look to him for salvation (this is a direct attack on Chernyshevsky's novel). The Underground Man sees no end to this slavery and baseness, but it's all one with the evil that is the world so it does not particularly matter more than anything else. Chekhov's Vassilyev, on the other hand, determines that he is going to save women, to end prostitution:
It seemed to him that he must settle the question at once at all costs, and that this question was not one that did not concern him, but was his own personal problem. He made an immense effort, repressed his despair, and, sitting on the bed, holding his head in his hands, began thinking how one could save all the women he had seen that day. The method for attacking problems of all kinds was, as he was an educated man, well known to him. And, however excited he was, he strictly adhered to that method. He recalled the history of the problem and its literature, and for a quarter of an hour he paced from one end of the room to the other trying to remember all the methods practiced at the present time for saving women. He had very many good friends and acquaintances who lived in lodgings in Petersburg. . . . Among them were a good many honest and self-sacrificing men. Some of them had attempted to save women. . . .
The problem, however, is too big for one student in Moscow to solve. Vassilyev, who has always been a sensitive soul, goes mad from the pressure of the world's evil. He becomes a version of the Underground Man:
Vassilyev lay down on the bed and, thrusting his head under the pillow, began crying with agony, and the more freely his tears flowed the more terrible his mental anguish became. As it began to get dark, he thought of the agonizing night awaiting him, and was overcome by a horrible despair. He dressed quickly, ran out of his room, and, leaving his door wide open, for no object or reason, went out into the street. Without asking himself where he should go, he walked quickly along Sadovoy Street.

Snow was falling as heavily as the day before; it was thawing. Thrusting his hands into his sleeves, shuddering and frightened at the noises, at the trambells, and at the passers-by, Vassilyev walked along Sadovoy Street as far as Suharev Tower; then to the Red Gate; from there he turned off to Basmannya Street. He went into a tavern and drank off a big glass of vodka, but that did not make him feel better. When he reached Razgulya he turned to the right, and strode along side streets in which he had never been before in his life. He reached the old bridge by which the Yauza runs gurgling, and from which one can see long rows of lights in the windows of the Red Barracks. To distract his spiritual anguish by some new sensation or some other pain, Vassilyev, not knowing what to do, crying and shuddering, undid his greatcoat and jacket and exposed his bare chest to the wet snow and the wind. But that did not lessen his suffering either.
That particular scene closely echoes a scene in Notes From Underground. The other strong sign that "An Attack of Nerves" is related to Notes From Underground is the ending, atypical of Chekhov. It is atypical in that it is an actual rounding off of the through-action of the piece, which Chekhov rarely does, and it strikes a negative, cynical note which Chekhov rarely uses. It is not subtle, and its comedy is a cheerless sort of joking: "He had two prescriptions in his hand: one was for bromide, one was for morphia. . . . He had taken all these remedies before." Chekhov implies that the problems of civilization cannot be solved; they can only be pushed away and ignored. His own profession, or at least psychiatry, cannot cure depression caused by the shape of society. It is society which is sick, but we can only treat the individual, not the society.

And so on, in the same general style, as Chekhov would say. There are other Chekhov stories that deal with prostitution, but none which so closely echoes the form and content of Notes From Underground. So that's my attempt to extend the literary influence of Nikolai Chernyshevsky's What is to be Done? through Dostoyevsky's Notes From Underground and into Chekhov's oeuvre. Even if I'm wrong, "An Attack of Nerves" is a great story, written in beautiful language. I don't know why I ever read anything but Chekhov, I say yet again.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Clerihew from underground (for Marly Youmans)

Nikolai Chernyshevsky
said to Dostoyevsky,
"So what's to be done
with Anton Chekhov's gun?"

Is that sufficiently awful? I can try again.


  1. Hah, you tricked me! I should have thought to say that you can't rhyme "Chernyshevsky" with "Dostoyevsky"! Edmund Clerihew Bentley would probably disqualify you for not coming up with a multi-word rhyme for "Cheryshevsky."

    However, I like it with all the names...

    "Sufficiently awful." I think part of the point of clerihews is that they be awful, though Auden and Hollander wrote some. Most of the ones you see online are not attributed to an author, though maybe it's because people don't admit to committing clerihews.

    Clerihew frolics--

    Sir James Dewar
    Is smarter than you are
    None of you asses
    Can liquify gases.

    Here's one with wacky rhyme--

    Desiderius Erasmus
    Suffered from one of the rare asthmas.
    His worst wheezes
    Were caused by over-ripe cheeses.

    This one pops up a lot, and I like it:

    John Stuart Mill,
    By a mighty effort of will,
    Overcame his natural bonhomie
    And wrote Principles of Political Economy.

    And this:

    Moses Maimonides
    wrote vast quantities
    and stood for amity
    in an age of Kalamity.


    When the young Kant
    Was told to kiss his aunt,
    He obeyed the Categorical Must
    But only just.

    Lord Byron
    Once succumbed to a Siren:
    His flesh was weak,
    Hers Greek.
  2. Oh, see, those are good poems. I had no idea. I also don't know what I meant by "sufficiently awful." Maybe I assumed the expectations for a poem by Bailey would be as low as possible! As you see, I can make rhyming couplets, but I'm not so good at making them into a poem. But here's another try:

    Nikolai Chernyshevsky:
    To him I raise a glass of whiskey
    What was his reward for freeing dear Olga?
    Eight years on the Volga

    I can't seem to break free of blocky, foursquare construction.


    1. Haha! "Chernyshevsky" does rhyme in a drunken, slant way with "glass of whiskey" that I find funny!

      If it were mine, I'd cut "What was" and "dear." Maybe even turn it into an address with "you" and "your" instead of "him" and "his."

      But I like the first one two, even though it cheats!

    2. AAAAAGH! First one TOO, please.

    3. I actually added the "what was" and "dear" to break up the regularity of the line lengths. So you see how little I know what I'm doing here. Poetry is so much out of my depths.

      The only other rhyme for "Chernyshevsky" I can think of is "Nevsky," but that also seems like cheating.

    4. It is like cheating! But go ahead--the clerihew started as a schoolboy prank. I think clerihews can be full of awkwardness, but I like that line as a pithy, trochaic one. I'm going to have to post a link-post to your clerihewishness.
  3. One clerihew that i like - and wish I could lay claim to it - is:

    Carl Gustav Jung
    Was well hung,
    A fact that annoyed
    Sigmund Freud.
    1. Sigmund S. Freud
      was often annoyed
      by the fact that his smokes
      were the butt of lewd jokes.

      (stolen from here)

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

"It would be necessary to describe him, if he had not already been described."

Tom over at Wuthering Expectations has begun posting about Dostoyevsky's 1864 novella Notes From Underground, and thank goodness for that because I was afraid I'd have to go first and I was stuck for anything to say, frankly. If nothing else, I can pad my blogging with lengthy responses to whatever Tom says on his blog. It's like the Republic of Letters, but quite quite watered down on my end. Excitement to commence!

I will begin my own assault on Notes by quoting myself, a comment I made on Tom's post in which I say who and what I think Dostoyevsky's Underground Man--the narrator of Notes, that is--is supposed to be.
My opinion, today anyway (I finished my rereading of Notes last night, about 10:00), is that the Underground Man is the result of Dostoyevsky's testing of Chernyshevsky's theory that mankind would be happy were he rational. Suppose man were given only rational options, FD says, and the Underground Man is what would result. He is forced underground, beneath the feet of the Rational Man as it were, because at heart man is irrational and the more you attempt to force rational behavior onto him, the more irrational man will become. Then FD puts his test subject into versions of scenes from What is to be Done?.
The pieces of Chernyshevsky's novel that are parodied in Notes From Underground are, more or less and in order of appearance:

1. The introduction and numerous subsequent passages where Chernyshevsky the author character directly addresses the reader, often verbally abusing "the perspicacious reader," who may in fact be the Tsar's censors, or at least the censors at the Peter and Paul Fortress in which Chernyshevsky was imprisoned when he wrote the novel.

Dostoyevsky structures Notes as a long unbroken lecture to the reader by the Underground Man.

2. This scene, where Chernyshevsky tells us what sort of man Lopukhov is:
One time he was walking in a shabby uniform on the Kammenoi-Ostrof Prospekt, on his way from his lesson, for which he got fifty kopeks an hour, though he had to go a distance of three versts from the lyceum. A distinguished somebody, of imposing mien, met him, motions him out of the way in the manner of men of imposing mien, and bears straight down upon him without giving way. But Lopukhof, at that time, had a rule, not to be the first to turn out for anybody except a woman. They bumped against each other with their shoulders, and the distinguished somebody, half turning about, said, 'What a pig, what a hog you are!' but while he was preparing to continue the lesson, Lopukhof made a full turn towards the distinguished somebody, took the distinguished somebody by the body, and deposited him in the gutter very tenderly ; then he stood over him, and said, 'Don't you move, else I will drag you farther where the mud is deeper.'
Dostoyevsky shows us what happens when the Underground Man meets a distinguished somebody on a bridge and the question of right-of-way comes up.

3. The many scenes in What is to be Done? where educated revolutionaries get together, talk politics and arm wrestle, acting civilized and progressive and with excellent bonhomie.

Dostoyevsky shows us what happens when the Underground Man joins a party of young gentlemen he knew from school. Hijinks ensue.

4. The central domestic drama of What is to be Done?, of Lopukhov marrying Vera to rescue her from her greedy, common family and then letting her go when Lopukhov realizes that Vera is in love with his best friend Alexander Kirsanov. Releasing Vera from her obligation and gratitude is the function of the Lopukhov character.

Dostoyevsky gives us the story of how the Underground Man confronts the subjugation of women.

That's Notes From Underground in broad strokes. Tomorrow I might quote from each of these sections, comparing and contrasting, etc. Or I might just go for the jokes, because there are a lot of jokes in Dostoyevsky's novella. Or I might just let Tom do all the work and save myself for the essay I'm planning about Anton Chekhov's version of one section of Notes From Underground. We'll see.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Tea and Vitriol

On Sunday it rained, so we stayed in and had tea. We do tea right at our house:

photo credit: Mighty Reader

There were dessert items as well as sandwiches.

photo credit: Mighty Reader

On Sunday I also began my re-read of Fyodor Dostoyevsky's 1864 long magazine article Notes From Underground. I've just read Nikolai Chernyshevsky's 1863 long novel What is to be Done?, to which Notes is a partial response (and parody). That experience makes Dostoyevsky's piece seem quite a different thing than it was the first two times I read it. More about that, possibly, tomorrow. But I will say two things about Notes:
  • It's typical disorganized Dostoyevsky, and
  • It seems to be pretty hard on old Chernyshevsky, digging quite hard. I would like to remind Fyodor that Chernyshevsky, after all, was not hoping for the creation of the Gulag or Stalin; he was hoping for a happy and benign utopia. An impossible, fundamentally inhuman utopia (in this I agree with Dostoyevsky), but still a place where people would be free and happy. Parody is risky business.
Biggest laugh line so far:
Once you have mathematical certainty there is nothing left to do or to understand. There will be nothing left but to bottle up your five senses and plunge into contemplation. While if you stick to consciousness, even though the same result is attained, you can at least flog yourself at times, and that will, at any rate, liven you up. Reactionary as it is, corporal punishment is better than nothing.
Also! I am pleased to remember to mention that there is a Chekhov tie-in with Notes From Underground that I will hopefully remember to write about later this week. I've been wanting to read some Chekhov again in any case.


  1. Are you kidding me? You two should have charged yourselves, like, a hundred bucks to attend tea at your place. You'd be making so much money if you did that. I'm particularly impressed that your berry garnish has its own little pink flower garnish.

    1. Davin, you and Red are invited to our tea room any time you like. The little flowers on the raspberries are from our lilac tree. The raspberries, sadly, are from the grocer.

      For a while in Seattle there were a couple of unlicensed tea houses that did pretty good business. Mighty Reader remains tempted by that vocation.

    2. We're into a lovely tea here too. One of life's pleasures. But I think Austen or Wodehouse would go better with the tea.

    3. Tea is a sure mark of civilization. My vote goes to Wodehouse, though I'd also be fine with any number of English writers.
  2. Very lovely, Scott! I remember the tea at your house, and it was an experience! I love everything about your house, by the way. If I were a criminal, I'd steal it out from under you. And I'd keep that china too. ;)

    This makes me want to re-read our anthology of Notes!

    1. Michelle, you cannot have our house. But you can come visit again, and we'll have tea.

      Every once in a while I think the three of us should do another anthology. But then I snap out of it.
  3. Should I interrupt the tea? I think you're wrong on both bullet points, but that can wait.

    1. You think it's atypical disorganized Dostoyevsky? My second bullet point contains too many claims for me to guess what you disagree with there. Yes, interrupt, do.

    2. This is an organized book, even in the simulated rant. The parody gives D. some structure. The single character helps, too. Maybe this is clearer in Part II.

      Dostoevsky does not think people will be either happy or free in that utopia.

      It may be unfair to attach the Gulag to Ch., but he, like Dostoevsky, was aware of the last revolution that came out of the radical Enlightenment. I hope that Perspicacious Reader, with whom I deeply sympathize, was able to get across the border before the row of asterisks hit. He's gonna get it in the neck. But then so will Chernyshevsky.

    3. The book is organized into four distinct sections, yes. What I mean is that, at the paragraph level, Dostoyevsky's prose is always disorganized. It points in all directions and works more cumulatively than linearly. Typical disorganized Dostoyevsky. Sloppy prose. Things settle down in Part II, and happily the narrative broadens. The three main episodes that make up Part II are fine dramas. Part I is lousy fiction, is what I think. I am aware, yes, that Notes was not intended to be read primarily as fiction; the strength of Part II is that it stands on its own without reference to Chernyshevsky; the daily life of the Underground Man is timeless and beyond politics.

      I agree that nobody would be happy in Ch's utopia; I don't know enough about his political essays and the content of that journal he edited to know if he called for a bloody revolution. Though, I guess, most revolutions begin and end with someone being put against a wall, don't they? 

    4. Ah, there's the difference. I think the first part in fact was intended to be read as fiction, even though it took many decades for anyone to actually do it, and that it is effective as fiction. Maybe I could expand on this, although that might be beyond me.

      To a Leninist, Stalin and the Gulag are hidden under the asterisks. I don't know what Ch. thought. Probably that it would all just work out somehow. Pangloss as revolutionary.

    5. Well, Rakhmetov is willing to be a machine in service of progress, to do whatever is necessary. His room, you recall, runs with blood. I'm sure he'd have no qualms if that blood was someone else's. I phrase that poorly but I hope you see what I mean.

      Part of the problem is that I've begun to imagine a "Chernyshevsky," a naive idealist and a harmless sap, a guy with extraordinarily bad luck; probably why Dostoyevsky railed so hard against the real Chernyshevsky is because he (NCh) couldn't see the ramifications of his philosophy.

      I don't know. It somehow comes down to me not enjoying Notes this time. Tomorrow I'm going to post about how I'm not enjoying it, or at least how I'm unable to find something to say about it despite my many false starts. Maybe.

    6. I want to argue with the idea of Dostoevsky being disorganised. He's organised to be Dostoevsky in the way that Christina Stead is organised to be Christina Stead or Balzac is organised to be Balzac. I'm not sure how else anybody would want him to organise himself. They're all volatile; they bulge.

    7. While "disorganized" is certainly how I think of Dostoyevsky's prose style, I don't mean it as a judgment against him. His writing is like a bush grown wild, where other writers would prune back, espalier, etc. Dostoyevsky writes in several directions at once and reveals his meaning over time instead of immediately, and the narratives threaten to explode in unpredictable trajectories. Wait; did I say "threaten to?" They do explode in unpredictable trajectories. None of that is a weakness. Maybe "sloppy" is too harsh a word, but I'm stickin' with "disorganized."

      I'll be reading Demons soon, so we'll see then if I still believe what I'm saying now. Before that, I'm reading Weymouth Sands, but first it's a volume of Chekhov stories. I'm getting dizzy.

    8. Demons is amazing. I look forward to seeing what you think of it.
      As to the French Revolution, by the late 1800's it was possible to look at the long-term effects and see that while it was horribly bloody in the short run, in the long run it did a lot of good. Then again, I suppose whether or not you think the French Revolution was a good thing is still one of the dividing lines in politics today. 

    9. I guess I come down on the side of people who wonder if the means justify the ends; I wonder if the Republic is truly best implemented by first beheading the aristocracy. If the first act of a new government is to kill all of its ideological enemies, how free is that state really going to be? I am always suspicious of purges in the name of progress, I guess. Did ideas of egalitarianism spread because of the revolution, or despite it? Correlation is not causation, etc.

    10. To be pedantic, the Terror really wasn't about beheading the aristocracy; it was mainly about going after the government's enemies, whatever class they happened to be. And it was hardly the first act of the new government. But I take your point, and I don't justify what happened. The fundamental mistake, I think, was before they even implemented the Republic, when they decided to go to war with Austria.
      I guess my point is that it's a common enough belief, and one which I share, that the French Revolution was a very good thing indeed, that it's not clear at all that it should have been a warning to Chernyshevsky. 

    11. No, no, I get that, I do. My view of the French Revolution is based almost entirely on "A Tale of Two Cities" and "Horatio Hornblower." A scholar I am not.

      I do think that maybe Chernyshevsky thought people could be convinced through the force of his logic to radically change society. If he talked long enough and well enough and had the right friends, it would all happen as if by magic. Maybe. I might actually be that sort of revolutionary myself, to tell the truth.

      I also think that for many people, revolution in the abstract is a good idea and it always comes as a surprise when the houses are on fire in real life. Though I have also met "revolutionaries" who merely wanted to burn everything down to see the flames, and to avoid having to get real jobs after college. There are many ways to be a revolutionary, I guess. I'm back to where I started, I see.
  4. I agree - Ch. did not understand the imaginative potential of his own creation. This is part of what makes him a tragic figure.

    And people ask if his book is worth reading!

    1. I admit that I thought more folks would join the read-along. It's really been a swell time. Someone should do (or maybe already has done) a study of what fantasy novels revolutionaries have read.
  5. Part of the problem is that I've begun to imagine a "Chernyshevsky," a naive idealist and a harmless sap, a guy with extraordinarily bad luck; probably why Dostoyevsky railed so hard against the real Chernyshevsky is because he (NCh) couldn't see the ramifications of his philosophy.

    In some places I think Dostoyevsky sees Chernyshevsky exactly the way you do here. To paraphrase Joseph Frank, when there was a “schism among the nihilists,” Dostoyevsky saw the brilliant and hard-edged Pisarev as the one whose ideas were really dangerous, and Chernyshevsky's camp as well-meaning and naive. Pisarev's ideas lead to Raskolnikov committing murder, and Chernyshevsky's to the buffoonish, but ultimately decent, Lebezyatnikov (also in C&P).

    And @Tom: It may be unfair to attach the Gulag to Ch., but he, like Dostoevsky, was aware of the last revolution that came out of the radical Enlightenment.

    Tying him to the French Reign of Terror is a step fairer than tying him to the Gulag, but Ch. could look at 1776 and 1848 as well as 1789. He could and did write about the American Civil War and the Roman Republic.

    1. Yeah, in FD's parody response to Schedrin's parody, Dostoyevsky treats Ch as a crank, a goof. He implies that Schedrin will abandon the revolutionary position once he starts reading poems and literature rather than parroting party line. I'm guessing that in the opening salvo of Notes, Dostoyevsky is firing at more targets than Chernyshevsky.
  6. Darn it, now I'm hungry.

    1. You and yours are also invited! We don't have a high chair, so you'll have to bring yours.