Short Fiction Notes: Chekhov

chekhovBecause I have been trying to write some fiction, I have been reading the acknowledged masters of the genre, beginning with a little Barnes & Noble edition of stories. What appeals to me about Chekhov is his coolness, his detailed dispassionate descriptions of people and events. He is sympathetic toward his characters, but he does not indulge them. And Chekhov should also dispell the common notion that a short story must have a crisis and resolution, or that the main character must change or see the world differently. Writing to his publisher (who also wrote stories), Chekhov said that the job of the storyteller is to present and defina a problem, not solve it. That strikes me as good advice, which I am trying to take to heart as I write my own stories.

I spent some time yesterday diagramming the scenes in the famous story “Goosberries,” which is structurally a straightforward story within a story. [The link is to an earlier translation than the one I read.] Ivan tells his friends the story of his brother, a government clerk who has scrimped and saved enough to become a landowner in his retirement. In doing so, he has become complacent and self-satisfied. But the setting is everything. Ivan tells this story while sitting in the upstairs room of his friend Alehin, whose farm Ivan and his friend Burkin have stopped at, taking shelter from a rainstorm. The two farmsteads function almost as two additional characters in the story, with Alehin’s productive and in good trim, while I’van’s brother’s farm is described as chaotic and disorganized (though this description is Ivan’s, not the narrator’s). Ivan urges Alehin not to become complacent like his own brother, which is odd since the two characters are about as different as can be imagined — the obsessive brother and Alehin, who is described as a kind of healthy animal.

Well, my intention is not to retell the story. [Here is a pretty good e-notes summary of the story.] What interests me is the way that Chekhov refuses to take sides. The narrator notes that “no one was satisfied” with Ivan’s story (despite the fact that it is told with passion and good will) and the brother’s situation — which the reader gets only through Ivan’s eyes — is not dismissed or belittled despite Ivan’s attempt to use it as a warning. Alehin is presented as self-sufficient, part of the landscape. The problem the story presents is, How is it best to live? It does not provide an answer.

End of Term Blues

Just finished grading my last set of papers & now I’m on sabbatical until next September. The papers brought me up short, I must admit. They were from a freshman class and we had finished the semester reading Margret Atwood’s Oryx & Crake, a very smart & entertaining book, I think. My students seemed to like it too, but their papers were, with only a few exceptions, dismal. I have to take some of the blame for this, though, because I should have gone over the basics of evolution with them before turning them loose on a novel about the hazards of genetic engineering for fun & pleasure. Many of them went wrong by assuming that evolution is teleological, i.e., that it leads inevitably to us. Others fouled up by assuming the meaning of “natural” to be self-evident. But the most breathtaking move — which showed up several times — was importing an entire metaphysics unexamined into an argument with a single sentence: We were put on earth for a reason. By whom & for what was never mentioned. What my students were really saying, I think, is something like “the world makes sense” — a rejection of nihilism. That rejection might have been a good start, but I didn’t get the chance to move them along since this was the final essay in the semester.

Actually, I’m dissatisfied with the way I have structured the course. I like the content I’ve worked up since we rennovated the curriculum three years ago — the authentic individual in a social context, the problems of establishing justice — but the wriing element isn’t really working. I’ve always just assigned four 3-5 page essays with opportunity for infinite revisions, but most of the essays turned in are essentially rough drafts. So when I go back to this class next year I’m going to make some changes.

  1. I’ll reduce the nmber of major texts and supplement them with critical essays. I’ve been using Graff’s little handbook They Say / I Say & when I can get them to adopt its methods, my students are better writers. (I’m also looking at a similar book, Rewriting, by Joseph Harris, but it seems aimed more at advanced writers of academic prose.) But I have to do more in class with this “entering the conversation” trope. In fact, I have to have workshop sessions using student writing. So:
  2. I’m going to assign six two-page essays starting in week one, with one final essay of 5-6 pages that develops some idea from earlier writing. We will use these two-pagers in class to discuss the various kinds of moves you can make in writing. Basically, I’ll do what I do in my creative writing workshops.
  3. Possible book list: The Book of Job (Mitchell translation), Utopia (More), Parable of the Sower (Butler), Oryx & Crake (Atwood), along with a simple text on evolution and a pocket style guide. [Great video here of Atwood discussing her novel.]

Language and the Truth

I’m sort of old-fashioned in that I tell my creative writing students that they have a responsibility to the truth of their own experience and that the way they use language reveals the extent to which they have taken that responsibility seriously. Listening to Sarah Palin reminds me of nothing so much as listening to an unprepared & incurious freshman discussing the reading for the day. After listening to Palin for a while, I feel stupider than when I began. In recent days I have found that immediately after listening to Palin, reading a big chunk of Beckett or Chekov is the best antidote. See also: The poetry of Sarah Palin — not since rumsfeld have we had such a master.

How to Read a Poem*

Instructions: Begin, in so far as it’s possible, without preconceptions and do not rush to make a judgment about whether you like or dislike a poem, or whether it’s good or bad; most of all, do not dismiss mysteries or difficulties as weird or incomprehensible (at least) until you have worked through the steps below. Read the poem aloud. Now read it again to yourself without (yet) trying to understand it in order to get a feel for the whole thing.

1. Read the sentences (not the lines) for the basic, literal meaning of the poem. What is the setting? Who is speaking? What is the tone? (Tone is usually defined as the speaker’s attitude toward the subject matter as revealed through the speaker’s word choices, rhythms, etc.) Are there words you don’t know the meanings of? If so, look them up. Does the title of the poem offer a key to the situation the poem describes or enacts?

2. After you understand the basic meaning of the text, look at the images (clusters of words that represent a sense impression: sight, sound, taste, etc). Do the images suggest anything more than their literal meaning? Do they rise above simple description? Are there patterns of images? Does the author use figurative language, i.e., metaphors or similes, etc? If so, what is the effect of these figures?

3. Stick to the actual text of the poem & do not import “explanations” for things you don’t quite understand from outside the poem. Not yet, anyway. For instance, say you are reading a poem in which the speaker seems to shift from one subject to another without transition. It might be tempting to say, “Well, maybe the speaker is drunk.” But unless there is a glass of whisky in the poem, you have no warrant to make such an assumption. Sometimes you have to simply “bracket” certain parts of the poem and save them for later analysis; this is far better than trying to “solve” every mystery on first (or second) reading.

4. Now look at the ways in which the lines break up or coincide with the poem’s sentences. Does this patterning affect the rhythm (and thus the tone) of the poem? Is the poem broken into stanzas? If so, are the stanzas integral to the organization of the subject matter? Do the lines of the poem seem to have a regular number of syllables? (Alternatively, do stanza contain lines that vary in syllable count according to some pattern?) Do the lines have a regular number of stressed syllables & if so are they evenly distributed in the line? If the lines do not show patterning of syllables or stresses, is there some other principle of patterning at work? Does the poem contain rhymes? If it does, do they fall into a particular pattern? If there is a pattern, is it simple or elaborate? What are the effects on the reader’s understanding of the patterns you have discovered?

5. Are there any hints about the larger context in which the poem was created? Time period? Author’s biography? Major historical or cultural events? How about connections to other literary texts, especially the bible or other mythological texts; also Shakespeare.

6. Now read the poem aloud again. At this point you are prepared to begin to make judgments about the poem’s meaning. Whether you “like” the poem or not is of interest to you personally, but not very important in the larger scheme of things. (Another way of saying this would be: Until you have read a lot of poems in the manner outlined above, you like or dislike of a particular poem is uninformed and thus not very valuable to the wider conversation about poems.)
*Notes prepared for my freshman Humanities students.

Sarah Palin & Censorship

Perhaps the list I posted below is a hoax, but as I said in my correction, Palin’s ideology is just fine with banning books. I grew up among Palin’s people, I know them. They are intolerant, aggrived, and deeply anti-intellectual. And homophobic. Now it appers that, while the particular list may have been made up, Palin did attempt to get books taken off the Wasilla Public Library’s selves because she found them personally offensive.