Monday, April 29, 2019

Independent Bookstore Day, 2019

Doing our part to pump the local economy: $480 worth of books. Also, about thirty-one miles by bicycle. See here for the fuller story.

Photo by Mighty Reader.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

He said, “I just want to say one more thing.” But then he could not think what it could possibly be.

I'm reading Where I'm Calling From, the last story collection published during Raymond Carver's life. My exposure to Carver before now has been pretty slim, maybe three stories, which is not many and so I haven't had any opinion on Carver. Halfway through the volume, I'm still not quite sure what to think. Carver's stories seem to end just where they should begin, as if the actual event in the lives of his characters is just offstage, invisible but felt. Perhaps that's deliberate, though in many of the stories, especially the early ones, everything feels like backstory, like preparatory action, and Carver bails out of the narrative at the very moment when he should be diving forward into the thick of it.
She went through the dim apartment, back into the bedroom. He was knotted up in the center of the bed, the covers bunched into the over his shoulders, his head half under the pillow. He looked desperate in his heavy sleep, his arms flung out across her side of the bed, his jaws clenched. As she looked, the room grew very light and the pale sheets whitened grossly before her eyes.
She wet her lips with a sticking sound and got down on her knees. She put her hands out on the bed.
"God," she said. "God, will you help us, God." she said.
Perhaps, however, in the world of Raymond Carver there is no separation between these moments. Perhaps all of life is the triggering event, all of it is tragic and there are only degrees of pain, no distinct moments at all but only a long flow along a continuum of anguish and breakage. I can see that as a possible angle.

Carver is often called "the American Chekhov," but this strikes me as misleading. Carver is not Chekhov, though he shares some of Chekhov's stylistic markers: the spare prose, the abrupt beginnings and endings, the exposure of especially bad behavior towards those we ought to love most, the self-delusions and egotistic rationalizations which bring about misery. But these are surface elements only, and while they are important structural and thematic elements of much fiction, they miss the heart of Chekhov's work, which is pity. Carver, it seems to me, sees the misery of his fellow man and doesn't give a damn about it. Here we are, he seems to say, and welcome to it, for we are all bound for a hell of our own making. It is what we deserve because we are no better than our actions. This is the bleakness and despair at the heart of Carver's stories, a worldview in diametric opposition to that of Chekhov, who felt that mankind not only should be better, but could and eventually would. Chekhov is hope; Carver seems to be without hope, his characters ground down by having to endure such hopeless lives.

The stories have flashes of greatness, real insight into human behavior, and once in a while the prose rises to attain true beauty.
Outside in the backyard, one of the dogs began to bark. The leaves of the aspen that leaned past the window ticked against the glass. The afternoon sun was like a presence in this room, the spacious light of ease and generosity. We could have been anywhere, somewhere enchanted. We raised our glasses again and grinned at each other like children who had agreed on something forbidden.
I can see why Carver has been so influential in American fiction, but I still have the impression that these stories are sketches, gestures in the direction of something rather than whatever that something actually is. Maybe I get that impression from the way the stories are put together, and maybe that is just what Carver is doing in his art: implying that we do not really live, we merely gesture in the direction of life. I'm willing to believe that might be the case. Certainly despite my protests, I am reading these stories as quickly as I can, and I admit that there's a force I can't name which pulls me forward from the final sentence of one directly to the first sentence of the next. There is something there. Maybe it's even compassion. I'll think about that.

Monday, April 15, 2019

A Russian is self-assured

In the four or five years since I last read Chekhov's 1891 novella The Duel, I have read or re-read a lot of Russian literature from the latter half of the 19th century. This reading has helped me to see Chekhov's novella in a new way, as this time I'm aware of how the author is mocking the political/philosophical fiction of the day. In 1891 Chekhov was already a famous writer in Russia, having won the Pushkin Prize and having met many of the literary lights including Leo Tolstoy. Chekhov was also under a lot of pressure from many of his contemporaries to write big social works that take on burning political questions. Chekhov resisted this pressure to write about improving Russia (though he tried his hand at writing two or three Tolstoyan didactic stories that were--due to their moralism--artistic failures and this project was abandoned) while actually going out and doing something about Russia: he made a detailed study of the living conditions at the penal colony on Sahkalin Island, he ran a free medical clinic out of his home in Melikhovo, he opened typhus clinics during epidemics, he managed a plan to save farm horses during a drought when there was no hay to feed the animals, he established schools and libraries, etc. He did not write about any of this, and he had little patience for art as a substitute for action.

Hey, look at me digress as I write a hagiography of Saint Anton. Anyway, Chekhov does not take on the social problems of Russia in The Duel; he takes on the literary approach to social problems. These skirmishes take the form of satire and irony, and Chekhov's targets are everyone from Tolstoy to Turgenev and Chernyshevsky.

The character Doctor Samoylenko is a stuffy old military man who is well-meaning and unsophisticated, the very model of Tolstoy's "natural Russian" whose instinct will guide him better than his education. Samoylenko has his prejudices, though:

Since Samoylenko had left Dorpat, where he had studied medicine, he had rarely seen a German and had not read a single German book, but, in his opinion, every harmful idea in politics or science was due to the Germans. Where he had got this notion he could not have said himself, but he held it firmly.

"Yes, the Germans!" he repeated once more. "Come and have some tea."
From where would Dr Samoylenko get this prejudice? Why, from Tolstoy's War and Peace:
A Frenchman is self-assured because he regards himself personally, both in mind and body, as irresistibly attractive to men and women. An Englishman is self-assured, as being a citizen of the best-organized state in the world, and therefore as an Englishman always knows what he should do and knows that all he does as an Englishman is undoubtedly correct. An Italian is self-assured because he is excitable and easily forgets himself and other people. A Russian is self-assured just because he knows nothing and does not want to know anything, since he does not believe that anything can be known. The German's self-assurance is worst of all, stronger and more repulsive than any other, because he imagines that he knows the truth — science — which he himself has invented but which is for him the absolute truth. (Bk. IX, ch. 10)
Tolstoy blames a lot on the Germans (damn you, Prussia!), if you haven't read War and Peace. They're worse than the French for poisoning the minds of noble Russian aristocrats and pretending to have invented the science of warfare.

Chernyshevskian utilitarianism also comes under constant fire through the person of a social Darwinist, the zoologist Von Koren:

"The moral law, let us suppose, demands that you love your neighbour. Well? Love ought to show itself in the removal of everything which in one way or another is injurious to men and threatens them with danger in the present or in the future. Our knowledge and the evidence tells us that the morally and physically abnormal are a menace to humanity. If so you must struggle against the abnormal; if you are not able to raise them to the normal standard you must have strength and ability to render them harmless -- that is, to destroy them."

"So love consists in the strong overcoming the weak."


"But you know the strong crucified our Lord Jesus Christ," said the deacon hotly.

"The fact is that those who crucified Him were not the strong but the weak. Human culture weakens and strives to nullify the struggle for existence and natural selection; hence the rapid advancement of the weak and their predominance over the strong. Imagine that you succeeded in instilling into bees humanitarian ideas in their crude and elementary form. What would come of it? The drones who ought to be killed would remain alive, would devour the honey, would corrupt and stifle the bees, resulting in the predominance of the weak over the strong and the degeneration of the latter. The same process is taking place now with humanity; the weak are oppressing the strong. Among savages untouched by civilisation the strongest, cleverest, and most moral takes the lead; he is the chief and the master. But we civilised men have crucified Christ, and we go on crucifying Him, so there is something lacking in us. . . . And that something one ought to raise up in ourselves, or there will be no end to these errors."

"But what criterion have you to distinguish the strong from the weak?"

"Knowledge and evidence. The tuberculous and the scrofulous are recognised by their diseases, and the insane and the immoral by their actions."
Ah, special pleading! I know the moral man by the similarity of his views to my own! Well done, Von Koren. He and Rakhmetov would be fast friends. There is more of this stuff threaded all through The Duel, and it's all quite funny. But my favorite part is the duel scene itself:

A silence followed. Boyko took a pair of pistols out of a box; one was given to Von Koren and one to Laevsky, and then there followed a difficulty which afforded a brief amusement to the zoologist and the seconds. It appeared that of all the people present not one had ever in his life been at a duel, and no one knew precisely how they ought to stand, and what the seconds ought to say and do. But then Boyko remembered and began, with a smile, to explain.

"Gentlemen, who remembers the description in Lermontov?" asked Von Koren, laughing. "In Turgenev, too, Bazarov had a duel with some one. . . ."
Nobody at the duel actually knows how to properly conduct the event, and these educated men with good Russian literary tastes all fall back upon the classics they read in school. This is part of Chekhov's ongoing theme of abstract theory failing to engage with the realities of the world. The Duel is a tale wherein people are defeated by their false beliefs, over and over again. A recurrent theme in Chekhov's oeuvre, if you'll pardon my French.

Monday, April 8, 2019

it might not be a bad thing at all

I'm reading Some Trick by Helen DeWitt, which is a collection of short stories. They are so far odd and modern stories, and pretty good. There's one about a mathematician whose imaginary robot friends used him as their amanuensis to write a children's book about robots, and the mathematician is now trying to figure out a way to get his publishers to include more mathematics in his second book of robot stories, because math is beautiful and pure and some people are spiritually moved by the binomial theorem. Arch, I think, is the term for this sort of writing. Like Iris Murdoch after a few stiff drinks.*
Gerald was only a Canon in the Cathedral, not a very forceful one. He put it to the Bishop that it might be A Good Thing to invite a Jew to participate in the VE Day service, and the Bishop waved a hand affably, as who should say, if a Jew can be found it might not be a bad thing at all.
*I don't claim to speak from experience, mind you.

Thursday, April 4, 2019

man will become better when you show him what he is like

"No man understands a deep book until he has seen and lived at least part of its contents."
--Ezra Pound

"He had an almost virginal modesty, he could never bring himself to challenge people loudly and openly...vainly trusting that they would themselves realize the urgent necessity of being more decent."
--Maxim Gorky

How to write about Chekhov? Is it possible to separate his moral meaning from his technique, and if so, does anything then said have any real value? I'm not sure.

Chekhov wrote, in the beginning, primarily for money. He was a penniless medical student who strove to help with the expenses of his family, his father being no good with finances (having fled from the family home in Taganrog to Moscow to escape his creditors). Somewhere along the line, in the late 1880s, Chekhov realized that fiction had power beyond the income, that it was art, and that he was in fact an artist, and he bent his art to his morals, as one always does, for better or worse.

"I have said that the arts give us our best data for determining what sort of creature man is. As our treatment of man must be determined by our knowledge or conception of what man is, the arts provide data for ethics."
--Ezra Pound

Chekhov worked on the novella "Three Years" for three years, after returning from the Sakhalin Island trip (he fled from Russia to Siberia in the midst of a personal and artistic breakdown brought on by the death from tuberculosis of his brother, and the criticism of Tolstoy that he should make his art didactic and moralistic). Chekhov made copious notes over those three years, wrote to his publisher and other writers about the story-in-progress, fought against it, defeated and was defeated by it, and finally emerged from the struggle with a new vision for his fiction, and a technique that merged his straightforward prose style and sharp eye for detail with the sophisticated dramatic sense of characterization he'd developed while writing for the theater.
She was twenty-one already. There were no eligible young men in the town. She pictured all the men she knew--government clerks, schoolmasters, officers, and some of them were married already, and their domestic life was conspicuous for its dreariness and triviality; others were uninteresting, colourless, unintelligent, immoral. Laptev was, anyway, a Moscow man, had taken his degree at the university, spoke French. He lived in the capital, where there were lots of clever, noble, remarkable people; where there was noise and bustle, splendid theatres, musical evenings, first-rate dressmakers, confectioners....In the Bible it was written that a wife must love her husband, and great importance was given to love in novels, but wasn't there exaggeration in it? Was it out of the question to enter upon married life without love? It was said, of course, that love soon passed away, and that nothing was left but habit, and that the object of married life was not to be found in love, nor in happiness, but in duties, such as the bringing up of one's children, the care of one's household, and so on. And perhaps what was meant in the Bible was love for one's husband as one's neighbour, respect for him, charity.
 In Chekhov's early stories, which is to say most of the stories he wrote (his output slowed down greatly after his return from Sakhalin Island in 1892 or whatever it was), the story is usually structured around a character attempting to complete a discrete task (write a letter, transport cattle to market, arrange a private rendezvous with a paramour, etc), and the shape of the narrative is determined by the progress of the task. In his full-length plays, Chekhov discovered a way of accumulating small events, details of character, conversations and miscommunications that all point in a general thematic direction, and there is no clear through action, no solving of a definite problem set before the characters. Instead there is a rough structure of claims about life being made, real life beating very hard against those claims, and at the end we are left facing some truth. Chekhov's mature stage works are dramas (or comedies, as he saw them) of unmasking, and even if the protagonist does not see that his mask has been pulled away, the audience surely does. Starting in 1892 when he began work on "Three Years," Chekhov was able to apply this narrative method to his prose fiction.
"It is written in the Gospel: children must fear and honour their parents."

"Nothing of the sort. The Gospel tells us that we must forgive even our enemies."

"One can't forgive in our business. If you were to forgive every one, you would come to ruin in three years."

"But to forgive, to say a kind, friendly word to any one, even a sinner, is something far above business, far above wealth."

Yulia longed to soften the old man, to awaken a feeling of compassion in him, to move him to repentance; but he only listened condescendingly to all she said, as a grown-up person listens to a child.

"Fyodor Stepanovitch," said Yulia resolutely, "you are an old man, and God soon will call you to Himself. He won't ask you how you managed your business, and whether you were successful in it, but whether you were gracious to people; or whether you were harsh to those who were weaker than you, such as your servants, your clerks."

"I was always the benefactor of those that served me; they ought to remember me in their prayers forever," said the old man, with conviction, but touched by Yulia's tone of sincerity, and anxious to give her pleasure, he said: "Very well; bring my grandchildren to-morrow. I will tell them to buy me some little presents for them."
It was a profound and permanent change in his manner of writing. Where his stories had before been presentations of episodes, slices of life as it were, the timelines began to expand, the narratives opened up and become looser, simultaneously more diffuse and more intensely emotional, and in this new way of writing Chekhov was able to achieve moments of beauty that were impossible in his early works.
Then he sat on the verandah and saw his wife walking slowly along the avenue towards the house. She was deep in thought; there was a mournful, charming expression in her face, and her eyes were bright with tears. She was not now the slender, fragile, pale-faced girl she used to be; she was a mature, beautiful, vigorous woman. And Laptev saw the enthusiasm with which Yartsev looked at her when he met her, and the way her new, lovely expression was reflected in his face, which looked mournful and ecstatic too. One would have thought that he was seeing her for the first time in his life. And while they were at lunch on the verandah, Yartsev smiled with a sort of joyous shyness, and kept gazing at Yulia and at her beautiful neck. Laptev could not help watching them while he thought that he had perhaps another thirteen, another thirty years of life before him. . . . And what would he have to live through in that time? What is in store for us in the future?

And he thought:

"Let us live, and we shall see."