Monday, February 9, 2015

There's nothing in the world better than Moscow! Let's go, Olya! Let's go!

IRINA. Yes, how petty our Andrey has grown, how dull and old he has become beside that woman! At one time he was working to get a professorship and yesterday he was boasting of having succeeded at last in becoming a member of the District Council. He's a member, and Protopopov is chairman. . . . The whole town is laughing and talking of it and he's the only one who sees and knows nothing. . . . And here everyone has been running to the fire while he sits still in his room and takes no notice. He does nothing but play his violin . . . [nervously]. Oh, it's awful, awful, awful! [Weeps] I can't bear it any more, I can't! I can't, I can't! [sobs loudly]. Throw me out, throw me out, I can't bear it any more!

OLGA [alarmed]. What is it? What is it, darling?

IRINA [sobbing]. Where? Where has it all gone? Where is it? Oh, my God, my God! I've forgotten everything, everything . . . everything is in a tangle in my mind. . . I don't remember the Italian for window or ceiling . . . I'm forgetting everything; every day I forget something more and life is slipping away and will never come back, we'll never, never go to Moscow. . . . I see that we won't go. . . [restraining herself]. Oh, I'm miserable. . . . I can't work, I'm not going to work. I've had enough of it, enough of it! I've been a telegraph clerk and now I have a job in the town council and I hate and despise every bit of the work they give me. . . . I'm already twenty-three, I've been working for years, my brains are drying up, I'm getting thin and old and ugly and there's nothing, nothing, not the slightest satisfaction, and time is passing and you feel that you are moving away from a real, a beautiful life, moving farther and farther away and being drawn into the depths. I'm in despair and I don't know how it is I'm alive and haven't killed myself yet. . . I kept expecting we should move to Moscow and there I should meet my true love. I've been dreaming of him, loving him. . . . But it seems that was all nonsense, nonsense. . . .

[Enter ANDREY.]

ANDREY. Where's Olga? [OLGA comes from behind the screen.] I've come to ask you for the key of the cupboard, I have lost mine. You've got one, it's a little key.

[OLGA gives him the key in silence; IRINA goes behind her screen; a pause.]

ANDREY. What a tremendous fire! Now it's begun to die down. Damn it all, that Ferapont made me so cross I said something silly to him. Your honour . . . [a pause]. Why don't you speak, Olya? [a pause] It's time to drop this foolishness and sulking all about . . . . You're here, Masha, and you too, Irina -- very well, then, let us have things out thoroughly, once and for all. What have you got against me? What is it? [greatly confused]. Don't excite yourself. I ask you quite calmly, what have you against me? Tell me straight out. I'll say what I have to say and then go. Directly. . . . First, you have something against Natasha, my wife, and I've noticed that from the very day of my marriage. Natasha is a splendid woman, conscientious, straightforward and honourable -- that's my opinion! I love and respect my wife, do you understand? I respect her, and I insist on other people respecting her too. I repeat, she is a conscientious, honourable woman, and all your disagreements are simply caprice. . . [a pause]. Secondly, you seem to be cross with me for not being a professor, not working at something scholarly. But I'm in the service of the Zemstvo, I'm a member of the District Council, and I consider this service just as sacred and elevated as the service of learning. I'm a member of the District Council and I'm proud of it, if you care to know . . . [a pause]. Thirdly . . . there's something else I have to say. . . . I've mortgaged the house without asking your permission. . . . For that I am to blame, yes, and I ask your pardon for it. I was driven to it by my debts . . . thirty-five thousand. . . . I'm not gambling now -- I gave up cards long ago; but the chief thing I can say in self-defence is that you girls -- you get a pension . . . while I don't get . . . my wages, so to speak . . . [a pause]. They won't listen. Natasha is an excellent, conscientious woman [paces up and down the stage in silence, then stops]. When I married her, I thought we should be happy . . . happy, all of us. . . . But, my God! [Weeps] Dear sisters, darling sisters, you must not believe what I say, you mustn't believe it . . . [goes out].
I have edited this scene down to a couple of long speeches because they illustrate an idea about fiction that I've been mulling over for the last I-don't-know-how-long. A couple of weeks, at least. In Chekhov's play "Three Sisters," from which I've snipped the above, the machine that is the plot and the machines that are the characters grind away at each other from beginning to end of the piece, slowly but inexorably, and the texture of the play, the tapestry of dialogue and situation, becomes increasingly thicker and more emotional. Chekhov constantly stirs more elements into the pot, adds more wood to the fire, etc write your own metaphor. In each scene, it seems that these characters have all reached the breaking point, beyond which it is impossible to go, and yet Chekhov pushes them on, down, forward as things keep grinding away. At the point I've jumped into the action above (the end of Act III), Chekhov has achieved an effect I think of as "taking all the air out of the room." Elizabeth Strout does much the same thing in the majority of her stories in Olive Kitteridge, her 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winning collection.

Who cares? Why am I writing this? I am working on a theory. Not a theory really about fiction or art, but more a theory about exhaustion and what sort of fiction I personally like, and maybe the sort I write. I have read books (and stories and plays) where the writer stops being interesting (I actually use the term impressive rather than interesting when I think about it) midway through the book and things dissolve, rather, and reading the piece becomes a pointless exercise in completion. Some writers get interesting ideas for premises or characters, but don't actually have anything to do with those premises or characters. For example, I was given Gene Wolfe's four-book series Claw of the Conciliator for Christmas. I don't read much in the way of science fiction, but I have to admit that the writing in the first fifty or so pages is pretty darned interesting, and I was drawn into the book. Eventually, however, it all became flat and stale and pointless, and when I reached the last page of the first book in this four-book set, I found that I had no interest in reading the remaining 750 pages of the saga. Wolfe packed his story with world-building extravagances, mysteries, violence, romance, language-play, weirdness, and still nothing was moving, Wolfe had stopped impressing me. I was unmoved and counting the pages remaining to be got through.

I seem to be evading my point, which I think is that I like a story where a writer keeps working as he goes along, rather than sets up a game board and then simply unspools the plot. This is why I don't care much for detective fiction, unless the detective character is a hoot or the writer digresses into interesting subjects (which explains my addiction to Christie's Poirot books). Gene Wolfe pushes things in the first fifty pages, and then he stops pushing. Chekhov, in his plays and his best stories, never stops pushing, never stops impressing with where he can go with his fictional elements. The sudden speech from Andrey where he declares the shallow and deceitful Natasha to be a loving wife, when everyone knows she is having an affair with Andrey's employer Protopopov, is a surprise that seems inevitable (or perhaps unavoidable is a better word), and it is deeply moving. Irina's disillusionment about work and adult life is no surprise, but it's fuel on the fire of the story, and grinds against her expectations and her desire to engage with the world (and to move to Moscow).

Who else? I have been meaning to write more about Marly Youmans' latest novel Glimmerglass, the second half of which features an adventure that is part fever dream, part mystical experience, and part thrilling escape. The protagonist of the tale encounters characters from scripture, myth, from literary history, and from her own subconscious. There is an admirable angel character who may or may not be Satan; it works either way, which is some trick. Some day soon, hopefully, I'll write about Glimmerglass, but for now I want to say that this is a book where the writer continues to push things, to work with her materials and find something new all along the course of the narrative. Yes, that's what I want to say, and that's what I want to find in a story. I get bored otherwise. I'm easily bored. Look: I've managed finally to condense this whole post into three little words.

40 comments:

  1. As someone who does not write much (not like you do) but reads a lot, I also have a theory: If a reader can open a book to anyplace within the book and be "hooked' in a few dozen sentences, then the writer has succeeded. (Note: the same concept works for plays.) The writer should be guided by that concept when writing and revising. Does that make sense?

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    1. I've heard that advice. I have to admit that as a writer, it's not particularly useful, at least not for me. I think in terms of what works (a very very broad term for me) for the piece, and not ever about any theoretical reader. When I'm writing (and I include revisions under that head), "the reader" never exists. "The reader" has no place within my process, except at the very end, when the work is frozen. Maybe that's because if I wasn't already interested/fascinated/captivated by what I was working on, I wouldn't be writing it in the first place.

      But yes: everyone writing novels, stories or plays right now needs to constantly ask themselves, "Will Bailey be bored by this?" That's an excellent rule, for one and all. A great many writers could just stop now and find a new hobby.

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    2. Speaking as a reader, I'm guessing that this advice comes from the same writing teachers who say, "Don't start your novel with a description of the landscape -- open with two characters hitting each other!" and other bits of vile depravity that're designed to turn books into a merger between a pop song and the Collected Artaud. I personally demand the right to be extremely bored at all times, in all ways. I want my characters to think, not talk, I want no action whatsoever, and I want miles of scenery going on for pages.

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    3. "I want my characters to think, not talk, I want no action whatsoever, and I want miles of scenery going on for pages."

      But that's the exciting stuff. Who could be bored by that? I long to write a novel that contains intricate descriptions of landscapes and endless interior monologues. Or even the other way around, like Beckett and his "what tedium" and nothing happening and nothing possible and no point in it, no bones about it. Great stuff. Top-shelf writing.

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    4. If I wrote a book and it was nothing but scenery and interior monologue I'd be happy as a clam. I'd be prancing around and calling myself the second Proust. There was a genius. Oh hell. Nothing but suspense while the protagonist tries to work out whether he's actually woken up or not. He has. Is the sun up? Oui! Wait, no. Not up yet. Not sun. Hall light. Curses.

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    5. Proust buzzes with activity. Shadows on the wall, waves breaking on the beach, the anticipation of room service, the slow colors of the afternoon. I don't have that kind of chops. I really wish I did.

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    6. That would be brilliant. Now I'm wondering what it would be like to read a long manuscript that was, a) nothing but landscape, and b) in the style of that fictional fragment that Nabokov quoted.

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  2. I'm going to quote you, of course--you always write the most interesting things about my books, and make me look back over my shoulder and see them anew. And I like your theory-under-construction.

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    1. Too many narratives are merely the appropriate cliches in the appropriate order. It there's no mystery, no discovery (by which perhaps I mean something like "art") going on at any level at all, why is something written? That's what I don't get.

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    2. I'd agree with that, and add that there ought to be some sense of a residue of mystery remaining to/in the story after we're done reading.

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    3. Yeah, the best books don't leave us alone, don't put us back where they found us at the beginning. They give us a puzzle to work out after we've closed the book and shelved it. One reason I haven't written more about Glimmerglass is because I'm not sure what I am to do with some episodes from that adventure in the hill. Bedazzled, yes, but also bemused. So I'm still thinking. I am complimenting you, even if it doesn't sound like it!

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    4. I am sure your bemusement/bedazzlement will lead to something of interest...

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  3. I am constantly bored but do not mind much. Thus, my approach to literature.

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    1. I keep reading books where the writer stops doing any hard work halfway through, and I grow discontented and increasingly annoyed. It's as if...I don't know...as if da Vinci had painted the table and the food, and the interior of the room, and had drawn in stick figures for Christ and the disciples because, you know, you get the idea. Though I have a high tolerance for boredom if I think the author is working towards something later on in the book.

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    2. I assume it went a lot like that, actually, except that Leonardo painted the faces while his assistants painted the table and food (and interiors and most of the clothing and much else) over Leonardo's chalk sketch.

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    3. Hmm, you take me in too literal a sense.

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    4. I'm subtly suggesting that "Last Supper" is not such a good example for your point. Leonardo is not a good example. He often got bored and stopped working halfway through. That's why we have so few complete Leonardos, why so many of his ideas never got out of the Notebooks.

      It has been twenty years since I read those Wolfe novels, and I do not remember them much, but his fans sure think he was working towards something. They think there is a big puzzle to solve, or an allegory, or something like that.

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    5. I don't know enough about Leonardo, clearly. But that's okay, I don't need him or any stinking analogy.

      The Wolfe novels were in fact pressed onto me because of the Christian allegory they're supposed to contain. Ma femme would say that Wolfe is trying too hard, though.

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  4. Scott et al . . . there has been a bit of dancing around an issue that suggests a question (not asked with tongue in cheek or in an attempt to be provocative): Does a writer write for himself, or does a writer write for readers? I think the answer matters a great deal. Perhaps, Scott, the question and answer(s) are fodder for separate posting(s).

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    1. For whom does an artist make art? What demands may people make upon artists, and what gives them the right to make those demands? My personal view is that art is made by people who desire an intimate and meaningful relationship with the act of creation, and the artifact (the novel, the play, the sculpture, the cathedral) are byproducts of the artistic drive. Clearly that oversimplifies some types of art, but I stick with that basic claim. That people find these artifacts aesthetically pleasing or otherwise personally meaningful is nice, but that don't give me the right to tell Antonia Byatt how to write her darned books, does it? My published novel has been read by people who absolutely hated it. What do I owe those particular readers? Why do I owe them anything? "No art," Ezra Pound said, "grows by looking into the eyes of the public."

      A writer writes. If readers find his books, that's great. But a writer writes in the absence of readers. Writing is a solitary act, performed for the writer. I'm free to complain about any book I like, but the author of that book should stop his ears and never listen to me. I am secondary to his work. Maybe not even that important.

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  5. Consider this: a playwright writes a play, a production is performed, and no one attends the performance(s). Is that art? Now that is probably an unfair example because theater is very much a community aesthetic. But then there is the example of a musical composer; if the music is not performed -- remains only notes on the page and/or in the composer's mind -- what is the result? I understand your POV regarding writing of imaginative literature. You see it as personal expression that need not be received by anyone. Still, if the writing remains in the desk drawer, what is the result? Doesn't art always require communication? Creation in a vacuum seems to neutralize the creation. Hey, I'm just "thinking out loud" via the keyboard. I know this has been articulated much better by many others, but I'm just wondering.

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    1. "Is that art?" Depends on the play, doesn't it? I will ask you this: When a painting is taken out of a gallery and put into storage for whatever reason, does that painting cease to be art? When it's put back on display, does that suddenly confer the status of art upon it once again?

      Do you believe that when Chekhov was writing "The Seagull," he thought of himself as engaging in a community project?

      If a local community mounts a production of "Hamlet" and nobody comes, does that mean that "Hamlet" is not art?

      Why would art require communication? Art is a one-way process. What do you communicate to Michaelangelo when you stand gaping at "David?"

      A masterpiece in a drawer is still a masterpiece. Creation is primarily a solitary act, but that solitary act is never a vacuum; the audience is however not part of the atmosphere in which most art is made.

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    2. I'm confused by the claim that "theater is very much a community aesthetic." What's that mean? When I go to a play, I sit in the audience, mostly in the dark, and watch a performance that has been written, designed, directed, interpreted, rehearsed and memorized without a single second's worth of my input. Either I like it or I don't, either I think I understand it or I don't, and there's an end to it. Is a symphonic concert also "a community aesthetic?"

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  6. Perhaps my claim is colored by my background: B.A. and M.A. (ABT) in Theater, and my time in community and regional theater companies (Fresno, Pittsburgh, and Minneapolis). An actor on the stage is very aware of an audience's presence and attentions. A certain kind of aesthetic harmony occurs when everything works well. This is not only in comedies and musicals. This happens also in the most serious of dramas. The harmony (for lack of a better word) never occurs in a rehearsal. I will end with something will sound flippant but is not intended to be rude: I guess you'd have to be there to understand. And here is another way of looking at my notion of "community aesthetic." People in theater do not prepare productions for themselves; audiences must be involved, and the "community aesthetic" can be achieved. If you are looking for a more esoteric explanation, look into performance theory. You might change your mind about certain artistic endeavors.

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    1. I am certain that it might feel that way on the stage. I am less certain it feels that way in the audience. But how often does an actor change his lines based on his interpretation of the audience's response? How often does the outcome of the story change? How often is a scene jettisoned or replaced? You see what I mean, I hope: the artistic decisions, the machinery of the narrative, are all worked out in the absence of the audience. What if I stood in the middle of "Hamlet" and cried to Gertrude, "Claudius murdered the king! You have to have him arrested! And the Fortinbras threat is serious!" Would the players write me new scenes?

      We likely make a mistake conflating performance with literature. You seem to imply that writers should write for readers. How would that even work? Should all novels be focus-grouped?

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  7. Scott, re: performance theory . . . consider this blog posting by someone I do not know (but the posting makes sense as a Cliff's Notes version of the theory):

    http://andresmonzon.blogspot.com/2008/11/performance-terminology.html

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    1. "A performance does not require a spectator separate from the performer"

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    2. Which is what writing is, more or less. You buy a book and you've paid to read the record of a writer writing for himself. The writing, the act of making the novel, is the performance. Reading it is not being a spectator to the performance. Readers are a step behind; the performance has already ended and the tents are all closed up. A movie works the same way.

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    3. If the presence of an audience constitutes an aesthetic then the absence of an audience, where one was expected, is a form of the same aesthetic.

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  8. You think like a writer. I think like a performer and a reader. You might be surprised how much one performance differs from another. The lines may remain the same, but the inflections, tempo, and hundreds of other factors are always different. There are subtleties the performers understand but audiences do not (unless the same audience shows up at every performance, and even then there will be cognitive gaps). I think we are both right. So we are at an impasse. Bring down the curtain.

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    1. Are you being humorous? Or are you insisting that I am wrong?

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    2. I mean it as a joke. But I maintain that you haven't convinced me that your possible claim about writers being obliged to write for readers is anything but moonshine. Also, I think like a reader.

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  9. I am trying to go back to the original question - is it that a writer can or cannot write for himself? The linked source specifically says a writer can write for himself.

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  10. Well, let's shift gears. The book that I read is never the same book that everyone else reads. (Insert different subjects and verbs for films, plays, art exhibits, concerts, etc.) Moreover, the book that you write is never the same one that readers read. The more you think about these matters, the more it doesn't matter. Remember Keats: "'Beauty is truth, truth beauty'--that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know." Simply substitute art for beauty, and we really need not say anything else.

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    1. Yes, at some level of abstraction, it becomes impossible to say anything meaningful about anything. And yet look how we all do go on talking!

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  11. As discussions (arguments) like these unfold, I am reminded that I need to keep an open mind about all things. That is what I expected of students. I should expect no less of myself. Then I am reminded that my personal circumstances (mentioned in past postings but not being repeated here in any detail) dictate that I need not expend energies on these kinds of disputes. So, conscious of my encroachment upon a dimming sunset (i.e., early phases of Alzheimer's/dementia) and my other glorious issues (the malignancies abound and will not be reversed), I make myself a pledge: I shall not be drawn into arguments masquerading as discussions, certainly not those in which someone must be right and someone must be wrong. In other words, life is too short (really!), and . . . well, so it goes.

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    1. I do you the courtesy of treating you like an adult by disagreeing with you. I believe my claims. I assume you believe your own claims. My belief in my claims leads me to think that, when you disagree with my claims, I am in the right. You could, if you were so moved, work your way from a premise to a conclusion and demonstrate how I am in the wrong, but you do not. So I am at a loss over this comment of yours. When you make a claim to challenge something I have written in a post, I will either see the error of my ways or I will disagree with you if I find myself in disagreement with you. If, after discussion, I still disagree with you, I will of course think that I'm right. And I'm likely to say so. I'm not sure what you mean by "arguments masquerading as discussions," unless you mean by "discussions" disagreements where we don't actually acknowledge that we disagree. But this is what always happens, Tim. We disagree, it goes on a while, and you swear petulantly to never speak again, as if you've been somehow wronged, as if people deliberately disagree with you in order to be mean-spirited. I don't enjoy saying any of this, but there it is.

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    2. We have different approaches to discussions, probably due to our different personalities (or -- how shocking -- our similar personalities). Moreover, I do not very well pick up on social cues and subtleties, either in postings or in person, which has been a lifetime problem, but you may write that up to me being, indeed, rather flawed. I use that term quite seriously and honestly. Perhaps I am both abrasive and defensive. Again, I am being serious and honest. I would point out, however, that I think only you and I have these impasses in blogging. I apologize. I do not quite understand why I react so inappropriately. Again, I am quite flawed. So it goes.

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    3. I don't know quite why it is that we have such vexing exchanges. I think quite well of you, yet we have these clashes wherein I feel my personal shortcomings race to the surface. It's the same feeling I get a few hours into gatherings where I've had a glass of wine too many and have argued with in-laws or even strangers. I was unhappy for hours.

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