Monday, July 25, 2011

Still With Chekhov

I continue to read Chekhov short stories. Last night before bed it was "Gusev" and I wanted to phone everyone I knew and read them the last two pages because they are glorious and beautiful and all the things that literature aspires to be. A wondrous thing indeed. In about 1889 Chekhov began to write longer stories of greater indeterminacy and greater beauty and perhaps, if I believed in an interventionist God, I would point to the existence of Anton Chekhov as proof of that God. Goodness, what a fucking genius he was. I've read "Gusev" several times over the last 20 years or so, and every damned time I am swept up, or away, or slain maybe, by those last two pages. Brilliance.

Where's this brilliance coming from? Partially from beauty of language, sure. The images are so lush and intense and startling and piled one atop the other that your breath is snatched right from your lungs, but what gives these later Chekhov stories their real power is, I must say, their lack of a focused ending. It's not that they fade out or don't know where they're going, it's more that where they go is a very specific point in space/time that doesn't in any way resolve or analyze what has come before. The ending doesn't "justify" the beginning and middle, it throws the whole thing into the air where it spreads out, is blown to the four winds and parts of your soul are caught on bits of the scattering tale and carried away with it and you don't know what it means but your knowledge of the life of the mind (of your very own mind) has been expanded in a way you can't define but is nonetheless real. Yes, that's sort of what it's like.

I shall have to look around and find out if Seamus Heaney has read Chekhov (odds are) and what he has to say about it, because there is a similarity between their works that I have just decided to have seen. I know he wrote one poem explicitly about Chekhov. Maybe I make up this link, but I think it's real. We'll see. Like I have time to read Heaney now and look for Chekhovian influence. Like I have time for anything.


  1. Rob Thornton (jr)July 25, 2011 at 1:02 PM

    Heaney wrote a poem called "Chekhov on Sakhalin" in his Station Island collection. I can't seem to find the text online, so next step will be the library.

  2. Rob, it's in Opened Ground, which I have on the shelf at home, so I'll have a look-see tonight. I'm willing to bet your mother has a copy there at Tumbledown Manor.

  3. Rob Thornton (jr)July 25, 2011 at 8:47 PM

    Ah, thanks--no wonder I couldn't find it. I'll see if I can't dig it out around here.

  4. I read the poem last night and I'm going to have to say that it's not my favorite poem of Heaney's. The image of the writer smashing his empty vodka glass is good, though. I liked that a whole lot. I ended up reading other poems for about an hour and completely forgot about looking for Chekhovian influence. Except that there was one bit about poetry where the narrator of the poem, a dead poet, was being accused by his widow of having been distant during his lifetime, and of having an even-handed moral outlook in his poems or something like that. That sort of nonjudgmental writing is, maybe, a mark of Chekhov. Not sure. I now officially abandon this line of thought.