Tag Archives: Chekhov

Esme the critic

My mother, Esme, left school at 14 or 15 in the mid 1920s. She married my father when she was 19 and lived on a sugar-cane farm outside Innisfail in North Queensland for the next five decades. As her five children went off to boarding school and then spread out over Queensland and beyond, she wrote letters to each of us, weekly to start with and then less frequently but still with a shaming regularity. Mostly she kept us informed on one another’s doings and home-front developments. Occasionally she would comment on literary matters.

Here are some of her passing comments on the literary scene, which I find interesting in all sorts of ways:

17 December 1971: I’ve just finished reading Thomas Keneally’s The Fear & enjoyed it more than any book I’ve read for ages. So nice & clean & sort of old-fashioned.

7 March 1972: I’ve just read [Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s] Cancer Ward. It’s really absorbing but very frightening really. I’m sorry I’ve finished it really. … You’ll be pleased to hear A was reading [Germaine Greer’s] The Female Eunuch. I have to own that I burnt my copy. M & N said, ‘At least you could have passed it on to us.’ Perhaps I should have saved their money as curiosity will get the better of them I’m sure.

25 July 1972: I am reading a book of yours that MA found in her box. I’m not liking it as much as The Fear. It is [Thomas Keneally’s] Bring Larks & Heroes.

28 November 1972: Thank you so much for remembering my Birthday. I’m sure I’ll enjoy the books. I’ve started [the first book I worked on in my editing job with Currency Press, David Williamson’s] The Removalists. It’s nice & easy to read. [Later in the same letter:] Having read The Removalists I’m glad it was a gift from you Jon because from you it is meant as a shocker. [It wasn’t.] From anyone else I would have a sneaky feeling that he/she might imagine I liked that sort of talk. If he’d made it a story of police brutality without the four letter words I feel sure it would have been just as big a success or even bigger.  Anyhow now I’ve started the [Gerald] Durrell one [probably Catch Me a Colobus] & it is really my pick. I’ll be able to lend it around.

25 December 1972: It was only today I learned that it was you who gave [my nieces and nephews Maurice Sendak’s] Where the wild things are. I had made a note of it to buy for [another grandchild]. It is the most read & the most cherished book in their house & yet it looks ghastly really.

24 February 1973: Of course I have not burnt The Removalists, Jon. As a matter of fact I have a waiting list of about a dozen women, as ignorant as myself, wanting to learn all about life!! seeing that M & N & E & V think that I have no ears to hear with. ‘Surely you’ve heard such talk,’ even in the street. Well I haven’t. Actually I think [youngest daughter] Liza knows more than I do but I certainly don’t feel underprivileged because of my ignorance.

28 March 1973: We have watched some of Certain Women on your recommendation Jon. I missed the name of the writer last night (not being in the habit of reading all those names, though I do notice that the writer, who should be the most important, is never so). It was the ‘model’ girl & I think it could have been Keneally as he is sort of old fashioned. I thought the Williamson one was the most – real is the word I suppose. He certainly understands today’s youth, don’t you think?

8 April 1973: Our Repertory Group put on [Richard Beynon’s ] The Shifting Heart last week. Roslyn Watt played the Italian mother & she was perfect. Seniors must have to study it this year because the night Dad & I went there was a bus load from Tully & the night E & V went there were 2 bus loads from Cairns.

9 July 1973: Last week there was a play on TV, The Cherry Orchard Chekhov [an MTC production with Frank Thring, Googie Withers, Irene Inescort] & knowing how interested [oldest son] Michael is in plays (He was in a Chekhov once) & feeling it would give me some culture, we watched it right up to the end of the first act then turned the TV off. It was played to packed houses in Melbourne for ages so the ad said. I wonder if you watched it & don’t say you enjoyed it. To me it could have been Innisfail repertory doing it for the first time. Dad stayed home from Poker to see it too which made it worse.

1 August 1973: I see [Peter Bogdanovich’s] What’s Up Doc advertised at the pictures somewhere in Sydney. Do go & see it if you can. [I did.] It’s really a scream, Makes you laugh till it really hurts – just absolutely stupid but I’m sure you couldn’t help enjoying it.

23rd October 1973 (after a visit to Sydney): I managed to get a Sat Aust(ralian) with Katharine Brisbane [my boss at the time] write up of the play [probably Rex Cramphorn’s cutting-edge production The Marsh King’s Daughter, which she mentions in a later letter] & I agree with her and the more I think back on it the more I like it really. Then today I found Jock Veitch’s write up which is downright lousy – even saying he couldn’t hear. I feel like writing & telling him to go again & wear his glasses & take along his hearing aid.

4 February 1974: Poor Mr Solzhenitsyn is having a rough time. Have you read Cancer Ward, Jon? [I had.] It is the best I’ve read. It seems queer but I think Patrick White writes much like him, so simply. I’ve read only one of his, The Tree of Man, & really enjoyed it.

March 1974: Innisfail had Godspell during the week,  packed the Shire Hall. We didn’t go, we left it to the young. The [Marist] Bros all went & raved on about it – more an experience than a show etc. They took 45 boys along so deserved a free ticket.

31 July 1974 (reporting on a time in Brisbane): We went to see [my cousin G’s] production Fetch Me a Figleaf. There were 10 of us … G sat with us so we had to say all the right things. It was rather naughty but really entertaining all about gods & goddesses on Mt Olympus.

13 October 1974: Well! we were trapped into a bit of culture last night. If we’d been at home we’d have turned it off but we were babysitting so left it on & were really sorry it had to end. It was The Misanthrope, Moliere’s play. The man who did the translation [not named on IMDB] must be a marvel & all the players were lovely. It says ABC production but I can’t believe it was. It was too good.

7 March 1975: Have you seen a book Watership Down? It’s about rabbits, all about rabbits. I’ve just read it & loved it. [I still haven’t read it.]

22 June 1975: We’re all reading The Towering Inferno, actually it’s called The Tower. Dad’s on it at the moment and doesn’t even answer when spoken to. It’s really suspenseful.

Late September 1975, from Launceston: We went to see [Roman Polanski’s] Chinatown & thought it pretty ordinary. Being overheated didn’t help. I’d put on woollen sox & extra cardigan & shed everything except the sox as the theatre was heated.

And that – when she was 61 and I was 28 – is where I stopped carefully hoarding her letters.

Andy Kissane and the Swarm

Andy Kissane, The Swarm (Puncher and Wattmann 2012)

20121003-175856.jpg I read this collection of Andy Kissane’s short stories a month or so ago, just after reading some Chekhov stories for the first time. (The reason for the delay in posting is that – a rare event for me – I received an advance copy from the publisher, and the book isn’t being launched until Sunday.) The stories in The Swarm made me realise, with some embarrassment, that I had read Chekhov as if I was visiting a museum: it was interesting, instructive, challenging, but all at arm’s length, preserved, from another time and place. Andy Kissane’s stories are as alive and immediate as neighbourhood gossip.

Partly that’s because these stories, all except two, are set in the present. And partly because of the book’s strong sense of place. Most of the action takes place in an inner city landscape as distinctive as Chekhov’s rural villages, and the characters – musicians, mostly unsuccessful actors, a twenty-something artist, a young mother screwing up her courage to invite her recently widowed father to move in – are as much part of that landscape as Chekhov’s peasants, idlers and provincial bourgeoisie are of theirs. I imagine the sense of the local in these stories would appeal to any reader, including one for whom the Marlborough or St Vincent’s are no more than names, but it’s especially sweet to me because by and large, it’s my local.

[About 200 words about being a North Queenslander deleted here.]

A sense of place doesn’t make a good story, of course. And there is a lot more than that to enjoy here. Again and again a commonplace experience is seen freshly, charged with moral or emotional meaning the way commonplace things often are. A young man stands at a condom vending machine in a pub toilet. A couple spend an evening playing Monopoly when the TV set has died. An old man cleans up his daughter’s yard. A musician watches his cello being played badly by a prospective buyer. A man (who could have come from the pages of On Western Sydney) boasts of car-related derring-do. Looking at that fairly random list of closely observed, mostly domestic events, I realise that the common subject of the stories is love: romantic love, parental love, love betrayed, love unfulfilled, love surprisingly revived or belatedly recognised. Nothing flashy, just a deepening sense of what it means to be human and in connection.

The historical stories – ‘A Bright Blue Future’ and ‘A Mirror to the World’, about asbestos mining at Wittenoom and racist frontier violence respectively – mostly keep to a similar domestic perspective. They too can be read as about love – one man makes disastrous moral compromises out of concern for his family’s short-term wellbeing; tentative overtures between Aboriginal Australians and settlers end in disaster.

‘A Mirror to the World’ is the longest and most ambitious story in the collection. It is based on an incident that happened in Rockhampton in the 1870s – an incident, interestingly, that’s interpreted quite differently in Ross Gibson’s Seven Versions of an Australian Badland. At least, one of the story’s two narratives is based on that incident. The other belongs to the author–academic who is writing that historical narrative, in between running a creative writing course where he lectures on multiple narratives, mise-en-abîme and other devices that are used in the story itself. So, yes, unlike the other ten stories it draws attention to itself as an artefact. It does this in other ways as well. There are explicit references to at least two other stories in the collection: a character from one makes an offstage appearance, and a situation from another is echoed in detail. It’s cleverly done, and there’s a final twist that crowns the cleverness, but it serves a serious purpose. As the story turns back on itself, it opens the way for questions about what it means for a white Australian to tackle the appalling injustices of our colonial past, about the question of moral judgement, the difficulty of imagining the inner world of the early settlers without either surrendering or imposing a modern perspective. The ending is both a technical delight and a moral/political challenge. It’s a story I’d love to discuss – but not here, not to spoil it for people who haven’t read it.

Full disclosure: As well as receiving a free book, I have a degree of commitment to Andy Kissane’s work, since the script for the short film currently known as Scar!, which regular visitors here will know I co-wrote, was inspired by his poem ‘The Station Owner’s Daughter, Narrandera’.

The Book Group reads Chekhov short stories

Anton Chekhov, The Lady with the Little Dog and other stories, 1896–1904 (translated by Ronald Wilks, Penguin 2002)

I was enthralled by The Brothers Karamazov when I was 16 – the Grand Inquisitor raised the hairs on the back of my Catholic neck – but have so far managed to read very little of other 19th century Russian writers. The Book Group made me read Anna Karenina a while back, and now it’s Chekhov.

Before the meeting:
Knowing that Chekhov is one of the masters of the short story, I was vaguely expecting a display of virtuosity – cleverly constructed mechanisms with twists in the tail, perhaps, like O Henry’s ‘The Gift of the Magi’ only profound. The stories in this late collection aren’t like that at all. (I don’t know about his earlier stories, and it would probably have been better to start with some of them.)

To generalise, the stories are studies in Russian provincial life at the turn of the twentieth century. It’s hard if not impossible to read them now without an awareness that the Communist revolution was on the horizon. Chekhov’s picture of the oppression of the peasants, the hand-wringing of liberal land-owners and the viciousness of others, the flailing about of the intellectuals, and the way the economic and social system stifles and corrupts everyone, clearly reflects a world ripe for revolution. Not that he calls for revolution, but he does lay out the inadequacy of anything else on offer. These are stories, not tracts. They contain a lot of argument, but they don’t push a line – or if they do, it’s in terms that have become impenetrable to this casual reader a century and a hemisphere away.

In ‘The House with the Mezzanine’, when a socially responsible woman chides the artist–narrator for having no interest in such matters as the creation of a clinic for peasants, he replies that on the contrary the question interests him a great deal, and in his opinion the peasants do not need a clinic:

‘To my mind, with things as they are, clinic, schools, libraries, dispensaries only serve to enslave people. The peasants are weighted down by a great chain and instead of breaking this chain you’re only adding new links … What matters is not Anna dying in childbirth, but that all these peasant Annas, Mavras and Pelageyas toil away from dawn to dusk and that this unremitting labour makes them ill. All their lives they go in fear and trembling for their sick and hungry children. … You come to their aid with hospitals and schools, but this doesn’t free them from their shackles.’

And he goes on. Up to the point where he starts talking about spirituality, he could be a hardline lefty of a couple of decades ago railing against reformism. In the story, the dilemma is not resolved. At the end the peasants are still suffering and the narrator, without explanation and perhaps symbolically, fails to find true love. (A while after I’d written that, I came across this quote from Chekhov’s correspondence:: ‘You … are confusing two concepts: the solution of a problem and the correct formulation of a problem. Only the second is required of the artist.’)

Or take this rant in ‘Gooseberries’, in which a character is talking about his brother, who chose to live a contented life on a small farm. It could be 21st century polemic against the self-help industry:

It’s obvious that the happy man feels contented only because the unhappy ones bear their burden without saying a word: if it weren’t for their silence, happiness would be quite impossible. It’s a kind of mass hypnosis. Someone ought to stand with a hammer at the door of every happy contented man, continually banging on it to remind him that there are unhappy people around and that however happy he may be at the time, sooner or later life will show him its claws and disaster will overtake him in the form of illness, poverty, bereavement and there will be no one to hear or see him. But there isn’t anyone holding a hammer, so our happy man goes his own sweet way and is only gently ruffled by life’s trivial cares, as an aspen is ruffled by the breeze. All’s well as far as he’s concerned.

There’s a lot of grim humour. The wedding celebration in ‘In the Ravine’ could have been the inspiration for Jack Hibberd’s Dimboola – but audiences laugh at the latter, while any laughs at the former are tinged with despair and disgust. And the stakes are raised by the peasants outside, one of whom shouts, ‘You’ve sucked us dry, you rotten bastards. You can all go to hell!’ That moment, of course, quickly passes as the peasants too join the celebratory mood. But the reader has been warned.

Chekhov isn’t one of those writers who ties everything up in a neat little bow. In ‘In the Ravine’ when a baby is murdered, his mother is blamed and the murderer goes free – but we are given no explanation for the mother’s failure to defend herself or other people’s silence about the cruel injustice. ‘The Lady with the Little Dog’ is a love story. Instead of ‘happily ever after’, it ends, ‘ And both of them clearly realised that the end was far, far away and that the most complicated and difficult part was only just beginning.’ Which is my sense of what all the stories are saying, about everything.

I’ve seen Eudora Welty quoted on the Internet as saying, ‘Reading Chekhov was just like the angels singing to me.’ That transforms my sense of what an angel can be.

The meeting: This meeting was postponed a number of times because I was hosting it and I was down with a heavy cold. As a result, most people’s recollection of the stories wasn’t very precise, but we’d had time to absorb them – in particular I had read some new Australian short stories (about which I’ll post separately), and my appreciation of the Chekhov had grown with the comparison. A big impediment to our discussion was that, as it turned out, we’d read different books: three of us had read The Lady with the Little Dog and other stories, 1896–1904. Others had read Lady with Lapdog and other stories, translated by David Magarshack, which contains a different set of stories (damn you, Penguin, for giving different books almost identical names!). The only stories in both books are ‘The House with an Attic’ aka ‘The House with the Mezzanine’, ‘Ionych’, and ‘Lady with Lapdog’ aka ‘The Lady with the Little Dog’.

We had a lively discussion. I think Chekhov was a bit of a surprise for everyone – not enough story for one chap (who thought the title of ‘A Boring Story’ said everything that needed to be said about it), a bit on the grim side for another, surprisingly modern in his discontinuities and sexual morality, surprisingly not, or not always, about the sufferings of the peasants.  At one stage, for the benefit of someone who hadn’t read it, I gave a synopsis of ‘The House with the Mezzanine’. It seemed a bit on the incoherent side, and then someone realised that I’d thrown in a key scene from another story altogether. Will I ever be trusted again?

Since the meeting, I found ‘A Dreary Story‘ on the internet in Constance Garnett’s translation (I think). There’s a wonderful passage near the beginning that could have been about me:

 I write poorly. That bit of my brain which presides over the faculty of authorship refuses to work. My memory has grown weak; there is a lack of sequence in my ideas, and when I put them on paper it always seems to me that I have lost the instinct for their organic connection; my construction is monotonous; my language is poor and timid. Often I write what I do not mean; I have forgotten the beginning when I am writing the end. Often I forget ordinary words, and I always have to waste a great deal of energy in avoiding superfluous phrases and unnecessary parentheses in my letters, both unmistakable proofs of a decline in mental activity. And it is noteworthy that the simpler the letter the more painful the effort to write it.