Friday, August 29, 2014

the prize awarded to a dancing girl

It's not as if the books I've been reading are lackluster; Graham Greene is always good and The Heart of the Matter is satisfyingly grim, Chekhov is always a pleasure (and The Shooting Party, Chekhov's only novel, a book typically written off as "lightweight juvenilia," is actually a pretty dandy crime novel that--while certainly not being Chekhovian in the sense of Chekhov's mature works--is funny and Gogolian and worth a read), and I like Angela Thirkell's Barsetshire novels the more of them I read. No, it's just been busy and frankly August has been a damned stressful month this year. Despite the birthday cake.

I continue, despite the damnable heat and the damnable life and deaths, to work on my latest project, Antosha in Prague. The title story is nearly complete, I think, despite the way my prose seems in the last year to have expanded into a digressive crawl that takes me forever to get from one plot point to the next. I write and I write and I write and my protagonist manages to stand up, maybe, and put a hand in his pocket. I have become possessed by Henry James, maybe. Which isn't so bad. Though that's probably going too far, the Henry James claim. Still, there's a lot of good stuff in this story but I hope to have the "Kafka" section complete in the next day or so. There's just one final event to relate, but relating it will entail discussing Christian versus Jewish ideas of confession of sin, and church bells and birds must be invoked, as well as out-of-tune fiddle music on a bridge, and that sort of thing. So I have some way to go before I'm done with this story and I can go on to the other tales that will make up this book. After I finish writing this collection, I may not work on anything new for a while. I am exhausted, and I should make an effort to sell some of the other novels I've got lying around the house, right?

Other people out there have been doing some fine blogging work. See my sidebar for recommendations. Pykk is having an argument with a dead poet, very exciting. I keep looking for places to jump into the conversation, but neither she nor the dead poet need my assistance, so I remain on the sidelines holding my breath. Marly Youmans' latest book is about to be born, and that's also exciting.

Today is the feast of the martyrdom of John the Baptist. Remember that we are all called to witness our faith, if we have any. Keep the faith, children, and play nice. No loving God demands that you kill for Him. If anyone tells you differently, he is either gravely mistaken or a damned liar.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

"Bestir yourselves, good Christian folk, in such a terrible mischance!"

She was sorry to part from the village and the peasants. She remembered how they had carried out Nikolay, and how a requiem had been ordered for him at almost every hut, and all had shed tears in sympathy with her grief. In the course of the summer and the winter there had been hours and days when it seemed as though these people lived worse than the beasts, and to live with them was terrible; they were coarse, dishonest, filthy, and drunken; they did not live in harmony, but quarrelled continually, because they distrusted and feared and did not respect one another. Who keeps the tavern and makes the people drunken? A peasant. Who wastes and spends on drink the funds of the commune, of the schools, of the church? A peasant. Who stole from his neighbours, set fire to their property, gave false witness at the court for a bottle of vodka? At the meetings of the Zemstvo and other local bodies, who was the first to fall foul of the peasants? A peasant. Yes, to live with them was terrible; but yet, they were human beings, they suffered and wept like human beings, and there was nothing in their lives for which one could not find excuse. Hard labour that made the whole body ache at night, the cruel winters, the scanty harvests, the overcrowding; and they had no help and none to whom they could look for help. Those of them who were a little stronger and better off could be no help, as they were themselves coarse, dishonest, drunken, and abused one another just as revoltingly; the paltriest little clerk or official treated the peasants as though they were tramps, and addressed even the village elders and church wardens as inferiors, and considered they had a right to do so. And, indeed, can any sort of help or good example be given by mercenary, greedy, depraved, and idle persons who only visit the village in order to insult, to despoil, and to terrorize? Olga remembered the pitiful, humiliated look of the old people when in the winter Kiryak had been taken to be flogged. . . . And now she felt sorry for all these people, painfully so, and as she walked on she kept looking back at the huts.
This is from Anton Chekhov's long 1897 story "Peasants." Apparently the Tsar's censors hacked away at this tale of poverty, ignorance and local government corruption in the wake of the Great Decree. Chekhov found himself in the middle of a very public debate about the future of Russia when "Peasants" was published. The Marxists praised the story, while their opponents condemned it. It is, I think, possibly Chekhov's most overtly political story, though the censors only said that it painted peasant life in too somber a manner. What "Peasants" does is depict an entire subculture in Mother Russia populated by illiterate, impoverished, irreligious, drunken, unthinking and lazy people who have neither use nor reason for hope, and "none to whom they could look for help," which is a finger pointed directly at government, which means His Imperial Majesty the Tsar. A bold story from Dr Chekhov, then. Allegedly (though there is no evidence aside from anecdotes) Tolstoy condemned "Peasants," claiming that Chekhov had betrayed the life of the people. As if Tolstoy knew the life of the people.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

In a tabernacle

Today is of course the Feast of the Transfiguration, a day which almost always reminds me that we live in a miraculous world. So bear that in mind as you go about your business.

I write today's post primarily to remind myself of a few things: first, that I am nearly finished with the first draft of the long long story "Antosha in Prague," which will be the title story, probably, of the collection I'm currently writing. "Antosha in Prague" seems like a pretty good story to me. In a day or so I'll begin working on the final pages, which comprise the "Kafka" section. I'll be interested to see how I solve the formal problems of that section.

I have also decided to drag poor Vladimir Nabokov into the book, in a story I'm calling "A White-Crowned Sparrow." Working on this new story has made me aware of Nabokov's prose in a new way, which has been an interesting experience. I am attempting, I tell myself, to in some manner invoke the style of Nabokov's later prose in a few passages of the story I'm writing:
Arrayed carefully across the small desk behind which Vladimir sat were a sheet of plain white typing paper, a sharpened pencil that terminated in a pink button of rubber crimped into a brass ferrule, a fountain pen with a fine tip and a reservoir full of dark red ink, a wooden ruler, and a pair of sharp scissors.
Things like that. The description of the pencil's eraser is Nabokovian, I think. I'll have to do some more work on the fountain pen, changing the reservoir into a belly and that sort of thing. I'm also working on the fictional Nabokov's attitude:
A hack writer, Vladimir thought, would open a story with "It all began when he turned off the radio." A pistol would doubtless be quickly introduced into the narrative, and then would appear a woman with a slightly open mouth, her lips crimson with waxen color, her golden hair in disarray. The pistol and the open mouth were always in close proximity in those sorts of tales, everything as vulgar as the mean imagination of the hack would permit. Vladimir did not trust stories that required the casting of such cheap reticulate cliches designed to catch the attention of a reader. A reader in any case, he believed, should leap bravely into a tale with a sense of wonder, prepared to encounter whatever forces the author placed before him. Else why read at all? There is an art to reading, Vladimir had relentlessly reminded his students during those long years when he'd lectured on literature. Learn to be an artist among lecteurs, he'd told them, or they could go home and learn how to read the TV Guide.
And so on in the same general style, whatever that is. The trick is to also make this story feel like a Chekhov story. I believe I've solved that problem with the ending. Don't ask; spoilers, you know.

I also write to exhort you all to go to the Melville House website where they've got a heck of a sale going on. Melville House may have passed on one of my novels, but I still think they're an admirable independent publisher. The sale to which I've linked is one in which you must appear in person, but I also believe they've got something like a 40% off thing going right now. Melville House books are cheap at full price, so you cannot lose. And now it's time for my afternoon coffee break.