Chekhov’s Gooseberries, Tower’s Moose

May 21, 2011 § 1 Comment

Finished: Gargantua, by Francois Rabelais.

Reading now: Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower.

Reading next: Pantagruel, by Rabelais.

Wells Tower’s “Retreat” is the best short story I’ve read since… well, since reading Chekhov and Tolstoy this past winter.  But it’s the best contemporary short story I’ve read in quite a while.  And I feel lucky to have read Chekhov recently, because “Retreat” enters into a fascinating — perhaps inadvertent — dialogue with the master’s “Gooseberries.”

The similarity of the stories has been noted before, apparently, by Allan Gurganus.  Interestingly, in this interview, Tower says he hasn’t read “Gooseberries” “in years.”  (Perhaps this is another case of “cryptomnesia” as it has been suggested that Nabokov had with the earlier story “Lolita” by Heinz von Lichberg?)  But there is a scene of what certainly seems like allusion and homage so direct that I assumed that it must be intentional, and which then led to the realization that the stories correspond in a number of ways.  Here is part of a swimming/bathing scene in “Gooseberries”:

Ivan Ivanich emerged from the shed, splashed noisily into the water, and began swimming beneath the rain, spreading his arms wide, making waves all round him, and the white water-lilies rocked on the waves he made.  He swam into the very middle of the river and then dived, a moment later came up at another place and swam further, diving constantly, and trying to touch the bottom.  “Ah, my God,” he kept exclaiming in his enjoyment.  “Ah, my God…”

And here is the comparable scene from “Retreat”:

… we made our way down to the tiny pond I’d built by damming a spring behind my house. We shed our clothes and pushed off into the pond, each on his own gasping course through the exhilarating blackness of the water.  “Oh, oh, oh, God, it feels good,” cried Stephen in a voice of such carnal gratitude that I pitied him.  But it was glorious, the sky and the water of a single world-ending darkness, and we levitated in it until we were as numb as the dead.

Stephen is the suffering-artist brother of the narrator of “Retreat,” Matthew, who has bought the cabin (and the mountain on which it rests) in Maine which Stephen is visiting.  They are joined by Matthew’s neighbor, George, a jolly retiree.  Just as in “Gooseberries,” we have a trio of two tightly joined characters and a third wheel of sorts.  In “Gooseberries” the bulk of the story is taken up by Ivan Ivanich telling a story about his brother Nikolai, who longs to own a country estate and fulfills his dream after his rich wife’s death.  Nikolai’s willful insistence on the perfection of his life and his plan despite the “hard and sour” gooseberries his estate has produced seems to echo the final scene of “Retreat,” the fascinating aftermath of the hunt in which Matthew has bagged a moose, and insists on believing it is not diseased despite all evidence to the contrary.  (And of course, Ivan and Burkin are also hunters, in “Gooseberries.”)

The richness and complexity of the relationship between Stephen and Matthew, and the way that Tower has painted a defining portrait of American life over the canvas of “Gooseberries,” makes this story a masterpiece.  There’s just so much artistry going into that portrait: the  unconscious greed, a default state of being, of real-estate speculator Matthew; the impact on the environment reflected in his speculative plans to subdivide the mountain he’s purchased on the cheap; the hairshirt-wearing Matthew; the mini-epiphany of Matthew’s drunken pronouncement, “My life is on fire,” and the way it is shrugged off at the slightest sign of a change in luck, in classic American fashion; the wonderful crescendo of meaning, the thematic and even allegorical brilliance, of the diseased moose, and the implications of Matthew’s choosing not to believe that it will make him sick.  Much of this is Tower’s own, but the way that much of it has been transfigured from Chekhov’s story (intentionally or not) does seem to deepen the story’s meaning and impact.  After all, Chekhov’s story includes that famous line, “How many happy, satisfied people there are, after all, I said to myself.  What an overwhelming force!”  The implication of suffering for many in the happiness of some is also very present in Tower’s story, miniaturized in the vicious, parasitic relationship between Matthew and Stephen.

Nabokov’s Mysterious Chess Problem

May 15, 2011 § Leave a comment

Finished: Speak, Memory.

Reading now: Gargantua, by Francois Rabelais.

One short note before leaving Nabokov for a while: there’s a baffling passage at the end of chapter 14 concerning a chess problem, which Nabokov imbues with strange import.  Anyone who’s read him knows to be on their guard for this sort of thing — he’s a trickster — so I went to MLA Bibliography and tried to look it up, but came up more or less empty.

And then I saw this.

Now, this is an anonymous piece, the original URL for which has been redirected to a list of porny sites, and which has been rescued and remounted by a plucky enthusiast.  But it’s a mind-blower, and it strikes me as fairly convincing, solving a lot of the mysteries I felt surrounding the riddle when I first read it: why the pawn is turned into a knight instead of a queen, the bizarre hints about censorship, the allusions to Alice in Wonderland that pop up here and there in the book.  (The fact that Nabokov translated that book into Russian may be one of the bits of evidence against this interpretation, but then again, the intensive engagement with the text that translation entails may have led Nabokov to his response via chess problem.)

I plan to delve into some biographies to see if this has already been covered, and the anonymous Internet posting is just rehashing previously established scholarship.  I’ll plan to update this post thereafter with what I find.

UPDATE, 5/15/11: A quick-and-dirty literature review shows that the major scholarly article about this chess problem is David Sheidlower’s “Reading Between the Lines and the Squares,” published in Modern Fiction Studies way back in 1979.  Sheidlower sees this problem as pointing towards the conclusion of the novel Bend Sinister, and makes a convincing case.  His argument also pegs the problem to the problem in Alice in Wonderland.  The Freudian interpretation of the anonymous online interpreter and Sheidlower’s interpretation seem to work at the problem from opposite angles: one uses the evidence in Bend Sinister to interpret the chess problem as an independent part of Nabokov’s overall oeuvre, the other sees the chess problem as primarily important for interpreting the meaning of Bend Sinister.

Nabokov’s notorious declared hatred of Freudian ideas and symbols may have been a case of protesting too much, or a stance that guides the reader toward an attempt to understand his own ideas about sex which differ from Freud’s.  (The end of Speak, Memory, with its allusions toward his and his wife’s vigilance in protecting their son from sexual predators, certainly does lead one to think that the topic was much on his mind.)  And I think he’d certainly be pleased at the idea of a problem that could be interpreted on narrative, thematic, and societal levels.

More Posts About Lyrics and Tunes #4: The Best of Matthew Sweet

May 2, 2011 § 3 Comments

“In a deceiving way, time is only a dream.”  -Matthew Sweet, “Through Your Eyes”

I gave myself the task of ranking my top 20 Matthew Sweet songs for my first playlist of the summer.  Sweet, for those of you who haven’t been indoctrinated, is one of the great American songwriters.  He is Nebraskan.  He writes shimmery pop songs, devastatingly sad songs, songs that are both, folk songs, hard rock songs.  Great songs, mostly.  Here’s my list, culled from a list of 50 songs I really and truly love: the best of the best.  I’d love to hear others’ favorites.  This world needs a Matthew Sweet revival.

20. “Back of My Mind,” from Sunshine LiesSunshine Lies is one of those albums that sneaks up on you, and you only realize it’s  good after four or five listens.  This song is the first example on this list of the central theme of Sweet’s oeuvre: inexorable, pliable, hateful, merciful Time, and the vast range of human reactions to the phenomenon.

19-17. “Millennium Blues,” “If Time Permits,” and “Beware My Love,” from In Reverse.  This three-song suite opens the album; its  bookend, the magisterial nine-minute “Thunderstorm,” was one of the toughest omissions from this list.  I love the horns in “Millennium Blues,” and that great transition from the sweetness of “If Time Permits” to the slightly psychedelic menace of “Beware My Love.”  This album, just by the way, was criminally overlooked.  Criminally.  It’s fantastic, and it’s not even one of his best three albums.

16. “Let’s Love,” from Sunshine Lies. In which Mr. Sweet displays his incomparable gifts for the Hook and the Harmony.  (Link to a live acoustic version.)

15. “Through Your Eyes,” from Kimi Ga Suki * Raifu. A great song about Buddhist cosmology, from Sweet’s album for his Japanese fans which finally got released in the US after word got out how great it was. The Girlfriend lineup is in full force here.

14. “Where You Get Love,” from Blue Sky on Mars. I have no explanation for why this wasn’t a massive hit, back in 1997.  I know I was psyched about it. I know it had a really rad video. I know it’s as propulsive as anything he’s written.  Seriously, someone tell me: why wasn’t this a hit, and why did this album tank?  Were keyboards really that uncool in 1997?

13. “Morning Song,” from Kimi Ga Suki * Raifu. Quintessential Sweet: shimmery, sunny, gorgeous, beautiful, but with a touch of darkness in the lyrics. Plus it’s a helluva lotta fun to sing along with.

12. “What Do You Know?,” from Altered Beast. I am tempted to make all sorts of grandiose claims for this album — most underappreciated album in American pop music, one of the top ten albums of the ’90s, most expansive, genre-defying rock record of the decade, etc. — but I’m unqualified for all that.  So I’ll just say you really, really need to go listen to it if you haven’t, or even if you haven’t in a while.  And if you trash it, I will come after you like a spider monkey.

11. “Untitled,” from In Reverse. I have no words.  This song’s just gorgeous.  Instead, here’s a question: why haven’t these songs been covered more often?  Half of the songs here could be massive hits for a country star.  Or anyone, really.

10. “We’re the Same,” from 100% Fun. For me, like probably a lot of people my age, this is the soundtrack of the summer of ’95.  It’s a perfect summer song.  It sounds fantastic when you’re driving around at night with the windows down.  Here’s the thing: Matthew Sweet can write a pure, perfect pop song in his sleep.  Like Prince.  Like Paul McCartney.  There’s only a handful of these people.  It starts the top ten, then, but every song that I ranked higher than this takes that gift and does something extra-special with it.  At least to these ears.

9. “Sunlight,” from Living Things.  A really cool song, aurally, with an epic feel, and a lot of layers. There’s a lot of interesting nature and animal imagery in this album’s lyrics, as there is in much of Sweet’s work.

8. “Evangeline,” from Girlfriend. Girlfriend. Where to start here?  Like a lot of people, this is where I started with Sweet.  And on first listen, when I was 14, this was my favorite song.  I’ve had at least five different favorite songs on this album (always a trademark of a classic album when it keeps up with your changing tastes).  In those pre-www days, I was really keen to find the Evangeline comics, and could not for the life of me, in small-town Nebraska.  Now I work at a library that owns them, and I’ve shown them to undergraduate students studying visual art, comics, and the like — mostly because it just makes me happy to be able to do so.  (Link to a live version.)

7. “I Don’t Want to Know,” from Kimi Ga Suki * Raifu.  Love the kitty at the start.  And the tambourines — or are they sleigh bells?  And the chorus, one of his best.

6. “Smog Moon,” from 100% Fun.  It sort of kills me to leave this out of the top five.  I cannot be in the same room with you if you do not appreciate this song.  One of my favorite final tracks ever.  “There’s a smog moon/ In the amber sky/ Wavering and burning like a golden lie.”  Also, “We both know that staying young can take its toll.” (Link to hilarious Vampire Diaries fan video scored to this song.)

5. “Time Capsule,” from Altered Beast. Another song with a fantastic (and creepy!) video.  While I love the songs I ranked above this a tad more, I think this is probably the song I’d pick if I had to introduce someone to Matthew Sweet with only one song.  My second-favorite Sweet chorus, especially that last line, toe-tripping down the stairs.

4. “Winona,” from Girlfriend. The go-to song for wallowing in melancholic self-pity, as a teenager.  Because of that, and because it’s a song that just really sounds good as a duet, it is incredibly satisfying to sing along with a loved one, holding hands, having gotten past all that.  (Link to creepy Winona Ryder slideshow, but hey, it’s the only source on YouTube for the original song.)

3. “Sick of Myself,” from 100% Fun.  I know, I know: Nirvana.  But this was as close as I ever got to claiming an anthem.  Hell, realistically, the generation was never as idealistic nor as hopelessly fucked up as Nirvana would lead you to believe.  This song reflects that.

2. “Girlfriend,” from Girlfriend.  I would appreciate the opportunity to love somebody.  Oh, are you looking for someone whom you could love?

Seriously though: I suppose the key to this song, beyond one of the best riffs in history, is the Chorus of Angelic Matthew Sweets.  They’ve never sounded better.  That and the interplay of electric, steel, and acoustic guitars.

1. “Someone to Pull the Trigger,” from Altered Beast.  But this, right here, is the best Matthew Sweet song.  Stone cold perfect.  “I need someone to pull the trigger/ ‘Cause there’s a hole in my heart getting bigger/ And everything I’ll ever be I’ve been/ And I need someone to pull the trigger/ So if you’re what I think you’ll be,/ If you’re who I think I see,/ shoot.”  That, my friends, is as great a chorus as any of us will ever hear.

By the way, this needs to be available in a karaoke version.  (Kellyn, I’m looking at you.  Make it happen.)  You could really get a room full of drunks sobbing with this one.

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