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.


Are You Ready for Some Football?

November 10, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: End Zone.

Like a good-sized chunk of America, I have a football problem.  It’s partly geography and heredity — born and raised in Nebraska, I came of age during a span of an almost unfathomable 33 consecutive years when the University of Nebraska never won less than 9 out of 12 (or sometimes 13) games and the triple option was manifestly the perfect offensive system — partly habit, and partly a sense of obligation.  Something about the short season and the fact that the vast majority of the games take place on the weekend makes it seem somehow obligatory.  I don’t claim to know why that is.  I just know it’s so.

DeLillo made the choice, back in the early ’70s, to use football to write about some really abstract and difficult things.  He set the book at a place called Logos College in west Texas, and he’s really quite good on the football details; now, of course, the football scenes seem antiquated, but then it really was true that colleges, especially on the plains, ran and ran and ran some more.  (It’s somehow an added bonus to me that this book came out in 1972, the year that began with Nebraska winning its second straight national title, the obvious model of a successful football program.)

The book’s divided into three parts; the central part is a 25-page description of a football game, the most important of the year for Logos.  It begins with an unexpected authorial interlude, and it’s so good on sports, football, our spectator culture, and language that I have to quote at length:

…numerous commentators have been willing to risk death by analogy in their public discussions of the resemblance between football and war.  But this sort of thing is of little interest to the exemplary spectator.  As Alan Zapalac says later on: “I reject the notion of football as warfare.  Warfare is warfare.  We don’t need substitutes because we’ve got the real thing.”  The exemplary spectator is the person who understands that sport is a benign illusion, the illusion that order is possible.  It’s a form of society that is… organized so that everyone follows precisely the same rules;…that roots out the inefficient and penalizes the guilty; that tends always to move toward perfection.  The exemplary spectator has his occasional lusts, but not for warfare, hardly at all for that.  No, it’s details he needs — impressions, colors, statistics, patterns, mysteries, numbers, idioms, symbols.  Football… is the one sport guided by language, by the word signal, the snap number, the color code, the play name…. The author… has tried to reduce the contest to basic units of language and action.

This is the best summation I’ve come across for why football (and sports in general, for that matter) works for me: “impressions, colors, statistics, patterns, mysteries, numbers, idioms, symbols.”  It’s also a reason I like sports (especially baseball) on the radio quite a bit: the games are literally made of words and numbers, that way, and the rest is imagination.  The interlude also clarifies that the play-by-play we’re about to read is a kind of “sustenance” for the sports junkie — “the book as television set.”  (An early example of DFW’s good ol’ “imagist” TV fiction.  Weirdly, I don’t think he mentions End Zone in “E Unibus Pluram,” although he discusses other, later, DeLillo works at length.)

DeLillo’s a bit coy throughout that whole authorial interlude, and the talk of “exemplary spectators” does seem both ironic and mockingly faux-academic.  A lot of what follows is fairly evenly divided between the coded symbols and words and isolated moments we’re led to expect, and descriptions of more or less warlike scenes.  Bodies broken and carted off the field, a benches-clearing brawl, mentions of rape and racial and sexual pejoratives (although these, too, are sometimes broken down to the level of incantations or meaningless word-symbols).  In the thick of Vietnam, this all must have been meant to signify war.

DeLillo seems to me to have always been a writer of systems, concepts, and phenomena, but with a wide metaphysical streak.  He’s wildly anti-realist, to a surprising extent for a novelist who’s gained such wide acclaim: his people almost never talk like people, things never happen like they’d really happen, people don’t wear quotidian clothes or eat quotidian meals or discuss quotidian problems.  There are diatribes and incantations and epigrams, but hardly ever conversations.  All of this is by design, of course.  His characters seem trapped in their own concerns and concepts and thoughts: not communicating, transmitting.

A lot of this book, like a lot of White Noise, seems to be about the human (and especially the atomic-age human) need to shout down the silence, the possibility of nothingness.  Words call attention to themselves in this book, and when they don’t either DeLillo or Gary Harkness, his narrator, calls attention to them for us.  I mean, for God’s sake, the school’s name is Logos — the Word, as in the Gospel of John.  And but so also the paradoxical attraction of the apocalypse — the joy and terror of reaching the end zone.

I Am in Here

September 17, 2008 § 2 Comments

Now reading: Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace.

Hard to believe: it’s been ten years since I read this. It’s a trite but true thing about a masterpiece: you’re not really ready for it the first time you read it (you haven’t read enough, lived enough, thought enough), but somehow you get enough out of it to love it anyway, and in fact have a visceral reaction to it that you’ll never have again, exactly, but which brings you back to read it again, when you’re older, and it’ll feel brand-new again, and you’ll think to yourself, why haven’t I read this again, again?

I don’t know that I’ll ever be ready for this book any more than King Lear or Basho or Tolstoy or Joyce. But I feel more ready, now, anyway. I remember reading the first section, of Hal in the university office, took me like three days of rereading, and I was feeling kind of simultaneously baffled and dazzled. It’s a little easier going, now. Quite a bit more enjoyable, as much as anything seems enjoyable in this terrible week. (Seriously, when’s this going to start feeling better?)

Anyway, I noticed this time through that of course there’s the Hal-as-Hamlet allusion going on here, but there’s something else, too, I think: there’s a bit of the Elephant Man. “‘I am not what you see and hear,'” says Hal. He is not an animal. He is a human being. And I love this description of what they hear, from the mouth of one of the Deans (I think, maybe Admissions?): “‘Like a stick of butter being hit with a mallet.'” What a perfectly horrifying sentence!

Also, I’ve never walked into an old-fashioned men’s room without thinking of this section.

A couple other notes: “I believe Dennis Gabor may very well have been the Antichrist.” Dennis Gabor is, apparently, best known for inventing holography, and this may refer to that invention. The earlier mention of Hal’s paper on “The Implications of Post-Fourier Transformations for a Holographically Mimetic Cinema” could possibly back that up, since a lot of Gabor’s work apparently dealt with the Fourier analysis in mathematics. What I think all of this might mean: I suspect calling Gabor the Antichrist is Hal’s high-level way of suggesting that simulacra have overtaken our world, that we are busy virtualizing and recreating and dicing experience in so many ways that we’ve lost track of the gestalt, the whole, and the real. And this might perhaps also be a clue to what’s wrong with Hal: could it be that his brain is experiencing a world of frames and granules while everyone else is experiencing a flow?

Anyway, the Erdedy chapter after this is one of my favorites. Erdedy, waiting in agony for a woman to deliver him a giant load of weed, watches an insect crawling around his shelves. Then we get this doozy:

Once the woman who said she’d come had come, he would shut the whole system down. It occurred to him that he would disappear into a hole in a girder inside him that supported something else inside him. He was unsure what the thing inside him was and was unprepared to commit himself to the course of action that would be required to explore the question.

I don’t know about you, but to me that seems like an awfully brave passage. It risks symbol, for one thing, which is tricky in an experimental fiction written in 1996. But it’s such a touching passage, such an awful moment of sick clarity in a person who’s not ready not to be an addict. It also reminds me very much of Murakami, only the exact opposite: his recurring wells and caves and isolated quiet places are like holes in the self, but they’re holes that people crawl into to find or recover something — they’re holes in the shelf, I guess, not the girder. What’s horrible about the hole in the girder is that Erdedy knows he keeps doing this for some reason he doesn’t understand, knows that the hole isn’t in the right place for him to actually learn anything, but can’t imagine giving up this routine he’s locked into. So, yeah, he’s an addict, if a high-functioning one, more or less.

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