Monthly Archives: April 2016

Reading Chekhov 2

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Clara Brack, photo of Chekhov, in Reading Chekhov, held up to the light

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Reading Chekhov

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Janet Malcolm, Reading Chekhov                                                                                                         

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The matryoska doll

How was Chekhov capable of delving so deeply into the minds of his characters? I regularly ask myself this while reading his short fiction. He seems to pass through layer after layer of desire until he nearly approaches the very core of their beings, the singularity of their wills, the unifying principle of their souls. The Russians had a unique capacity for such depth which I am hard-pressed to discover in the best Western writing (Herman Hesse excepted, perhaps). 

Fitting the vectors of my onion back together reminded me of the matryoshka doll, the iconic Russian dolls-inside-of-dolls. Imagine playing with such a toy from your youth. The Barbie doll is simply breasts-legs-hair. A GI Joe is nothing more than a toy gun delivery service. But the matroyshka doll points towards the soul, what St. Paul calls “the inner man.” The matryoska doll is the inner man inside the inner man inside the inner man. How could Chekhov not see man as layers inside of layers? And does the matryoshka doll not immediately invite our desire to look below the surface? To peel back the surface and discover what is hidden? Does the matryoshka doll not egg us on to look deeper? And every time the doll opens unto another doll, are we not amazed at how small they get? Do we not say, “Certainly this is as deep as it gets,” only to find another egg shaped woman inside? The point of the matryoshka doll is to taunt us with mere appearance, to disatisfy us with the surface. 

Joshua Gibbs, The Brilliance Of Chekhov Began With His Toys (from here) 



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Opportunities for imagination

Deborah Treisman asks  the writer, Ian McEwan

Have you ever been tempted to steal anything from another writer? . . .

Ian McEwan: Borrowing or stealing isn’t quite the issue here. Writers you like, whose imaginations appeal to you, open up opportunities for your own imagination. Some writers—and they needn’t necessarily be great or well-known—can suggest routes to freedom, to a new mental space. A reader, or that other writer, would probably never spot the connection. But the debt remains.

Interview in The New Yorker , 21 March 2016 from here 

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A father talks to his son

The poet W. S. Merwin describes a ‘confrontation’ with his father, a Presbyterian Minister.

”I would stand in front of his (study) desk, uncomfortable, hot, wondering what I had done wrong now, and he would tell me to shut the door behind me. Then he would fish in the lower recesses of his desk for a moment, shut a drawer and sigh, and tell me we just were not spending enough time together, he and I, and that he was sorry it was happening but he could not help it right now because he was so busy and had so much on his mind. But these were precious years that would not come again. He would tell me how hard things had been for him as a boy, and how fortunate we were, we children, and how much easier life was for us, with our yard to play in. And he said how important it was for me to study hard and do well at school. … Then he would start telling me about insurance, how I would come to realize its importance when I was older. … And he might give me something, such as a card printed with the Ten Commandments, … and pat me and say he would try to find more time to be together, and we would be pals, and I would nod, and go, feeling grief inextricably tangled with my own unexpected and unconvincing goodness, and shutting the door behind me.”

(from here )

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Looking and Noticing

In ordinary life, we don’t spend very long looking at things or at the natural world or at people, but writers do. It is what literature has in common with painting, drawing, photography. You could say, following John Berger, that civilians merely see, while artists look. In an essay on drawing, Berger writes that, “To draw is to look, examining the structure of experiences. A drawing of a tree shows, not a tree, but a tree being looked at. Whereas the sight of a tree is registered almost instantaneously, the examination of the sight of a tree (a tree being looked at) not only takes minutes of hours instead of a fraction of a second, it also involves, derives from, and refers back to, much previous experience of looking.” Berger is saying two things, at least. First, that just as the artist takes pains—and many hours—to examine that tree, so the person who looks hard at the drawing, or reads a description of a tree on the page, learns how to take pains, too; learns how to change seeing into looking. Second, Berger seems to argue that every great drawing of a tree has a relation to every previous great drawing of a tree, since artists learn by both looking at the world and by looking at what other artists have done with the world. Our looking is always mediated by other representations of looking.

Berger doesn’t mention literary examples. But in the novel, think of the famous tree in War and Peace, which Prince Andrei rides past first in early spring, and then, a month later, in late spring. On his second journey, Andrei doesn’t recognize the tree, because it is so changed. Before, it had been leafless and wintry. Now, it is in full bloom, surrounded by other trees similarly alive: “Juicy green leaves without branches broke through the stiff, hundred-year old bark, and it was impossible to believe that this old fellow had issued them.” Prince Andrei notices the tree in part because he too has changed: its healthy blossoming is related to his own.

James Wood, Serious Noticing

(from here) 

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