“Those Last Notes Which Complete the Harmony”

William-Trost-Richards-Rocks-and-Sea

In her essay “The Russian Point of View,” Virginia Woolf writes about Chekhov’s stories and their endings:

But is it the end, we ask? We have rather the feeling that we have overrun our signals; or it is as if a tune had stopped short without the expected chords to close it. These stories are inconclusive, we say, and proceed to frame a criticism based upon the assumption that stories ought to conclude in a way that we recognise. In so doing, we raise the question of our own fitness as readers. Where the tune is familiar and the end emphatic — lovers united, villains discomfited, intrigues exposed — as it is in most Victorian fiction, we can scarcely go wrong, but where the tune is unfamiliar and the end a note of interrogation or merely the information that they went on talking, as it is in Tchekov, we need a very daring and alert sense of literature to make us hear the tune, and in particular those last notes which complete the harmony. Probably we have to read a great many stories before we feel, and the feeling is essential to our satisfaction, that we hold the parts together, and that Tchekov was not merely rambling disconnectedly, but struck now this note, now that with intention, in order to complete his meaning.

Over the past few days I listened to a Russian audiobook of Chekhov’s story “The Duel,” read by the actor Denis Nekrasov. I love a good audiobook, especially when it is well read; all the same, I was unprepared for this return to a story I had read and misunderstood years ago (and still carried with awe in my memory).

I first read it as an undergraduate, I think, and found it funny at the time; I saw it as a satire on the tradition of the duel in Russian literature and wrote a paper to that effect. (The teaching assistant commented, “What tradition of the duel?”) Now I hear it entirely differently. It has tinges of humor, but the overall tone is hard to define: world-weary, melancholic, hopeful, but tilting, shifting, swaying out of all of these states.

It is not really “about” a duel; the duel is primarily a state of mind: a state of forced certainty, of knowing that “it has come to this,” that you know exactly another person’s worth, and that you or he must die. Just how that state forms, hardens, and dissolves, this is the matter of the story. But it is not the action of one person alone, but of many figures with entrances, exits, and presences. A person who seems on the periphery can change the course of events. Conversations that seemed incidental can come back as refrains. Maybe the characters change profoundly, maybe not; but as they lose their certainty, they move into decency.

I am not going into detail, since I hope others will read the story. (Also I’m about to board a flight to Dallas.) But I know now that the earlier misunderstanding was worthwhile; I latched onto the duel itself, just as the two duelists did. Over many years, my forced certainty came undone, but still admired the story for reasons I could not articulate. Yesterday, listening to the ending, I heard the rhythms of the sea, of farewells, of the characters and their changing thoughts.

 

Image credit: William Trost Richards, Rocks and Sea.

 

 

 

In Praise of Lingering

fort-tryon-6Our culture extols “moving on”–that is, putting the past behind you, dropping all negative influences from your life, and steamrolling your way into satisfaction. Yet neither lingering nor “moving on” is inherently good or bad; both can participate in virtue, and both can be taken to extremes. Of course it isn’t helpful to hold on to an old grudge or wait for someone who has willfully left your life. But there is a place for memory and waiting; maybe it’s just a little place–a rock out in the woods–but still a place, and worth a pause.

In a stunning interview with Joe Fassler (in The Atlantic), George Saunders, whose novel Lincoln in the Bardo came out this week, speaks about the unsettlement of fiction–with particular attention to Anton Chekhov’s story “Gooseberries.” Saunders understood Chekhov for the first time when hearing Tobias Wolff read three of his stories aloud:

I was a first-year grad student at Syracuse when I went to see Tobias Wolff, who was our teacher, do a reading at the Syracuse Stage. He was feeling under the weather that night, so instead of reading from his work he said he was going to read Chekhov. He read three Chekhov short stories known as the “About Love” trilogy, and “Gooseberries” is the middle component. It was a huge day for me because I’d never really understood Chekhov at all. I’d certainly never understood him to be funny. But when Toby was reading him, he captured this beautiful range of feelings: beautiful, lyrical sections and laugh-out-loud-funny things.

It reminds me a little of what I heard yesterday in the third movement of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 (I went to an open rehearsal at the New York Philharmonic). It is described as parody–and indeed there’s a great deal of that–but there’s also something soulful, something that doesn’t let you put it aside. Here’s a video of Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra performing it. You might end up listening to it again and again.

Chekhov’s “Gooseberries” seems to be saying one thing about happiness–and then, as Saunders points out, it takes a turn, but not just one. Even the digressions, even the passing details, have something to do with happiness. One tone turns into another. The story within a story lets us think, for a while, that we know what the story is, only to find out later that we do not.

In a very different (and ferocious) way, this happens in Saunders’s story “Winky,” which he does not bring up in the interview. I don’t want to spoil it for those who haven’t read it–but it starts out with a cult approach to happiness, in which, to attain “Inner Peace,” the willing must identify the human obstacles in their life, erect protective barriers against them, and confront them with this new state of things:

“First, we’ll identify your personal Gene. Second, we’ll help you mentally install a metaphorical Screen over your symbolic oatmeal. Finally, we’ll show you how to Confront your personal Gene and make it clear to him or her that your oatmeal is henceforth off-limits.”

This is so ridiculous (yet recognizable) that we know it will break down somehow. But what makes this story stand out (not only among stories, but in my life) is the poetry of the breakdown. I am left with a little ache; instead of feeling vindicated, of being reassured that this stuff is as stupid as it sounds, I am brought into something more important, where I am not entirely justified or right. I can’t just walk away; I have to stop for a little bit.

Near the end of the interview, Saunders says, “Fiction can allow us a really brief residence in the land of true ambiguity, where we really don’t know what the hell to think.” He adds that it’s impossible to dwell there forever–but even a few minutes can do tremendous good.

To boot, insistent, dogmatic “moving on” can do great harm. If we not only march forward in brazen confidence, but also look down on those who linger and question, then we stigmatize conscience itself. I have seen this happen a lot, not only on the political front, but in everyday contexts: people say, “move on, move on,” implying that those who pause, even briefly, are doing something wrong or, worse, standing in the way of progress.

Lingering is not inherently good either; all depends on its form and meaning. But just a little bit, a hint of “maybe I was wrong,” could offset some of the cruelty in the world and open up the imagination.

 
Photo credit: I took this picture a few days ago in beloved Fort Tryon Park.

Note: I made a few minor edits to this piece after posting it.

Chekhov’s “Home”

doma3Anton Chekhov’s “Home” is just ten pages long, but it will take me a few blog posts to do it a sliver of justice. This post consists of three parts. You can read along in English here and in Russian here.

In Russian the title is “Дома” (“Doma”), which can be translated as “home,” “at home,” or even “in the family.” All of those senses come into play here.

A Reading of “Home”: Part 1

The father, who works as prosecutor for the circuit court, has just come home from work; the story begins with the governess’s voice, as she rattles off various news. People came by for a book, the postman delivered the mail, and now for serious matters (which she introduces with “kstati,” or “by the way”: For the third day now, Seryozha has been found smoking. Not only that, but when the governess tried to speak to him, he simply plugged his ears and started singing.

Amused by the picture, the father gathers some facts, as is his habit. How old is Seryozha? he asks. (What a question! we may think. But a judgment here would be too hasty.) Where did he get the tobacco? Having learned that he got it from his (the father’s) study, he asks to have Seryozha sent in.

(more…)

At Home

domabookstandFor the next few blog posts, I’m going to do something a little different from the usual. I plan to walk through Chekhov’s story “Home” (“Дома“), pointing out some details and favorite parts as I go along. In this story, a father (a prosecutor by profession) learns from the governess that his seven-year-old son, Seryozha, has been smoking in his study. He now has to take up the matter with the little boy, but how? For the first post, I will discuss the story from the beginning to the boy’s entrance (“Good evening, papa!”). Subsequent posts will progress through the story. I will announce the passages in advance.

cardinal-book-propThroughout this reading, I will use a book prop patented and manufactured by my great-granduncle’s company, the Chas. Fischer Spring Co., once located on Kent Street in Brooklyn. They were best known for the AN-6530 goggles, which the U.S. Army and Navy flight crews used in World War II. But Charles Fischer (1876-1946) invented and patented a host of other things, including a timer (Pat. No. 2,417,641), a handle for pipe cleaners (Pat. No. 1,782,871), a boudoir lamp (Pat. No. 1,639,493), a rack for boots and shoes (Pat. No. 1,603,382), a take-up spring (Pat. No. 1,578,817), a telephone receiver (Pat. No. 1,526,666), a magnetic speedometer (Pat. No. 1,467,031), a display stand (Pat. No. 1,437,837), and a telephone stand (Pat. No. 1,371,747). (The links take you to the drawings.)

The book prop has some marvelous features; it rests on the leg and clasps onto the knee, so that you can do other things with your hands; it has an indentation for the book’s spine, and it clasps the pages from below or from the sides. The box says, “Patented and M’f’d by the Chas. Fischer Spring Co., Brooklyn, N. Y.” It resembles his display stand in some ways.

Charles came to New York City around age 14, with his parents and seven siblings, from Györke, Hungary (now Ďurkov, Slovakia). My great-grandfather Max was one of his younger brothers. They were Jewish, and they spoke Hungarian at home. In 1900 they lived at 346 East 3rd Street, and Charles worked as a toolmaker. A few years later, they moved to Brooklyn; from there they dispersed to the various boroughs. In 1906 Charles founded his company (where some family members, including Max, would be employed for many years to come). In 1933 he was one of the charter members of the Spring Manufacturers Association.) In 1944 the Knights of Columbus named him among “public-spirited citizens who are always in the fore in striving to make our community a finer and a better place in which to live.” He died in 1946.

It seems fitting to use the book prop for Chekhov’s story. I hope you enjoy reading along.

Update: I took the two pictures at the top;  the picture of the box is courtesy of The Monkey’s Paw, “Toronto’s most idiosyncratic secondhand bookshop.” Also see Joe Simpson’s comment (below), as well as my later post “The Springs of Creativity.” Since then, I have acquired two more book props and a box.

Literature Conference in DC!

cuaOnce upon a time, I would not have ended such a heading with an exclamation point. I was weary and wary of literature conferences that focused on newfangled theories and sidestepped the literature. Even at the best conferences, this happened a lot, or so it seemed to me.

I remember listening to someone apply Mikhail Bakhtin’s “chronotope” to Anton Chekhov’s work. There didn’t seem to be much Chekhov there, or even much Bakhtin.  The speaker’s voice would rise in pitch on the last syllable of “khronotop” (Russian). After a while,  all I could hear was “khronoTOP, khronoTOP, khronoTOP.” I held myself together, but as soon as the session was over, I rushed out of the hall and burst out laughing. (I admire Bakhtin but am sometimes giggly about dogmatic Bakhtinians. I have a Bakhtinian parody published on Pindeldyboz.)

Anyway, this conference is about literature. It’s the Twentieth Annual Conference of the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers (ALSCW), to be held from October 27-30 at the Catholic University of America. Panel and seminar topics include Milton, Dante and Augustine, humor, poetry translation, Irish poetry, American literature across borders, and David Bromwich’s much-anticipated keynote address, “The Literature of Knowledge and the Literature of Power.” There will be a poetry reading by Rosanna Warren and Brad Leithauser, a musical performance, and much more.

I will be presenting two papers, reading a poem or two, and leading a seminar (in which I will present a third paper). One paper is on Nikolai Gogol’s “The Nose,” another on my translation of Tomas Venclova’s poem “Pestel Street,” and a third on Julio Cortázar’s story “End of the Game.” The seminar, “‘You Must Change Your Life’: The Gesture of Opening in Literature,” features papers by E. Thomas Finan (on Woolf), Ann Marie Klein (on the Iliad), William Waters (on Rilke), and myself.

This should be a great four days. Registration is still open; for details, see the ALSCW website.