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.

Chekhov’s Burkin Tales

February 13, 2011 § Leave a comment

Finished: Chekhov’s Short Stories.

As you may know, and as I have come to learn about myself, one of my great and abiding literary loves if for the story cycle, or story-suite: short stories brought together by a framing device of some sort.  The Thousand and One Nights, Decameron, Manuscript Found in Saragossa, Don Quixote: I love tales within tales, the ease with which one can flow into another, interrupt another, comment on another.  Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine or Martian Chronicles are good examples of the short-story collection as novel, the framing device enriching each individual story and making the whole greater than the sum of the parts.

Another good example is Pushkin’s Belkin tales, which I read and loved in college.  It’s a fairly weak framing device, but the tales were so great, and I loved the conceit of each of them being told to the same listener by a different teller, deepening the context and mystery of the stories.  And here, in Chekhov, I was reminded of the Belkin tales by a kind of novella of three short stories, which appears to be known now as the “little trilogy” among Chekhovians but which I think of as the Burkin tales: “The Man in a Case,” “Gooseberries,” and “About Love.”

In the case of Chekhov’s trilogy, the frame is not a matter of just introducing the tales, but rather an integral part of them.  In each of them there is a tale within a tale, but each is about the telling of a tale as much as it is a delivery mechanism for the internal tale (which was more the case for Pushkin, or even Boccaccio or Potocki, I dare say).  The frame features Burkin, a high school teacher, and Ivan Ivanich Chimsha-Himalaisky, a veterinarian, out on a hunting expedition; in “The Man in a Case,” they take shelter for the night in a shed, and Burkin tells a quintessentially Russian tale about a pedantic “teacher of Greek” (is there any other kind?) who lives his life “in a shell,” terrified of change or passion, only to retreat to his bed forever after being pushed down a flight of stairs by his beloved’s brother.  It reeks of Gogol, in its descriptions of this encased man, always bundled up in one way or another, and of Kafka in its description of a man scared of his own shadow.  And then there’s the frame, and its surprising effect on Ivan, and his desire to tell a related story while Burkin wants to go to sleep, leaving Ivan to stay up smoking his pipe.

“Gooseberries” is an exquisite story, masterfully crafted, and perfectly divided between frame and interior.  Rain begins to fall just as Ivan is about to begin telling Burkin the story he didn’t tell the night before, and they take shelter at the house of their friend Alekhin.  There are these astounding scenes of the rain, the house, these astonishing juxtapositions of squalor and beauty:

The mill was working, and the noise made by its sails drowned the sound of the rain; the whole dam trembled.  Horses, soaking wet, were standing near some of the carts, their heads drooping, and people were moving about with sacks over their heads and shoulders.  It was wet, muddy, bleak, and the water looked cold and sinister.  Ivan Ivanich and Burkin were already experiencing the misery of dampness, dirt, physical discomfort, their boots were caked with mud…

It was a large two-story house.  Alekhin occupied the ground floor, two rooms with vaulted ceilings and tiny windows… They were poorly furnished, and smelled of rye-bread, cheap vodka, and harness….

The beauteous Pelagea, looking very soft and delicate, brought them towels and soap, and Alekhin and his guests set off for the bathing-house….

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…”

That image, of this provincial vet swimming ecstatically in a rainstorm, is unforgettable.  And then, back inside, in the richly appointed part of the house, with a fire burning, Ivan tells his tale of his brother Nikolai, obsessed with owning a country estate with gooseberry bushes.  Nikolai is trapped in his own sort of “case,” his view of the perfection of country life; and when Ivan visits him, and Nikolai presents a dish full of gooseberries, he weeps over their perfection when Ivan says they are “hard and sour.”  He can see the pomposity and falsehood of Nikolai playing the country squire, and gives us this passage:

There ought to be a man with a hammer behind the door of every happy man, to remind him by his constant knocks that there are unhappy people, and that happy as he himself may be, life will sooner or later show him its claws, catastrophe will overtake him — sickness, poverty, loss — just as he now neither sees nor hears the misfortune of others.

This image of a “man with a hammer” — another interpretation of the hammer in the hammer-and-sickle to come in the Bolshevik Revolution, no?  When the story is over, it “satisfied neither Burkin nor Alekhin… It would have been much more interesting to hear about elegant people, lovely women.”  In the end, Ivan asks for “mercy on us, sinners.”

The next day, in “About Love,” at a lunch of “pies, crayfish, and mutton cutlets” (aside: nothing seems more foreign to me than descriptions of meals in Russian novels, and one of the overlooked delights of many books is a glimpse at the mystery of how other people eat), Alekhin tells a story about himself, and an illicit love affair.  Again, it is a man constrained, encased — in this case, by his obedience to societal standards of how one treats another man’s wife, even if one happens to be passionately in love with that wife.  When Alekhin finally reveals his love for her just as she is leaving him, he “understood that when you love you must either, in your reasonings about that love, start from what is highest, from what is more important than happiness or unhappiness, sin or virtue in their accepted meaning, or you must not reason at all.”

It’s a terribly sad, beautiful story, and it ends with another kind of flat disconnect between listeners and teller, with Burkin and Ivan thinking of how beautiful Alekhin’s beloved was, whom they had both met.  And yet there’s perfection in this round-robin of three tales, and in their presentation.  Each tells a story, to others who hear his own story buried inside of it.  True communication always passes through a film of consciousness, and true comprehension of another’s meaning is well-nigh impossible.  I don’t know if that’s what Chekhov was trying to say, but it does seem to be a recurring theme in the stories in this volume.


Horse Breath in Dickens and Chekhov

February 6, 2011 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Anton Chekhov’s short stories.

Reading next: The Body Artist, by Don DeLillo.

Chekhov has been one of those huge gaps in my reading, so I’m glad to start filling it in with this Norton edition of short stories.  The early stuff is clearly inferior to the later stories from 1887 onward — partly, I learn from the supplementary texts here, because the early stories were written for hire for comic literary magazines under strict space limitations — but still better than anything most writers will ever put down, and apparently these stories are still more beloved in Russia than a lot of his later work.

Anyway, a reminder of Dickens stood out in one of my favorite early stories, “Misery” (from 1886).  In “Misery,” the sleigh driver Iona carries fares through a snowy night, struggling to tell anyone of the recent death of his son.  Finally, he unburdens himself to the mare who drives his sleigh back at the stable as she eats.  The final paragraph: “The little mare munches, listens, and breathes on her master’s hands.  Iona is carried away and tells her all about it.”

So what is it about the breath of horses, anyway?  As I posted here, in chapter 15 of David Copperfield the villainous Uriah Heep breathes into the nostrils of a pony, “as if he were putting some spell upon him.”   Obviously horses were everywhere in nineteenth-century Europe, and the relationship between the species must have been complex and close.   But is there some traditional significance attached to the breath of the horse in particular?  In both Dickens and Chekhov a similar emotional or moral significance seems to be carried by the animal’s breath: Uriah’s apparent attempt to replace the breath of the pony with his own seems to David (and to the reader) a malevolent act; we are led to infer the sweetness and “goodness” (in one sense or another) of the pony’s breath by the uneasiness and wickedness we sense in Uriah.

In “Misery,” feeling the breath of his mare on his hands breaks the dam inside of Iona, and he unburdens himself to her.  Iona is closer to this animal than to any of the people he met that night, who cannot be bothered to hear about his troubles; she becomes a kind of therapist, patiently listening as she eats the hay which is all he can afford to feed her (not having earned enough for oats).  There’s an intimacy in feeling the breath of an animal that can be matched by very few human interactions, a willingness to touch and interact that an animal can provide that few humans would (just imagine the warmth of that breath on your hands on a cold, snowy night — the kind of astounding sensory detail that indicates the mastery of Chekhov).  And the unctuous, obsequious Uriah would never dream of breathing on another person, whereas he forces his breath on the pony when he believes he’s alone — betraying, perhaps, his repressed desire to conquer (or, past that, become intimate with) other creatures.

Apparently horse’s breath was once thought of as a cure for whooping cough, continuing the positive associations, but I find little else about it on a cursory glance.  I want to do some more digging into folklore: horses have been talismanic animals throughout the history of many of the world’s cultures, of course.  Many of us today have never interacted with a horse — have never touched or ridden one, much lest felt or smelt its breath — but horses would have generated a whole world of associations for the nineteenth-century reader that are more or less lost to us now, when horses are mostly status symbols, convenient gambling tools, or nostalgic transportation in tourist cities.  There’s something in each of these stories that points to the symbiotic relationship of horses and humans that has been dismantled in the past century, kept alive mostly by guilds and hobbyists.  Now, of course, there are our pets — our dogs and cats, our ferrets and parrots.  We unburden ourselves to them.  We react to their mistreatment in ways that surpass our insensitivity to human-on-human violence — we feel the wrongness of taking out human frustrations and acting out human desires on animals in ways that often surpass our reactions to with human-on-human crime.

There’s something in us — or some of us, at any rate — that requires interaction with animals.  And I do think that Chekhov intended the ending of “Misery” to be both comically ironic and sad — that this inarticulate, lonely, poor peasant, out of place in the cruel city, can only find sympathy and relief from an animal who cannot understand him, not from the humans who shy away when he mentions his dead son — but there is also something tender and natural in this ending, in this kind of benediction that’s felt in the breath on Iona’s hands, in the thawing of the heart to which it leads.

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