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Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Question from Jamal: Do You Like Chekhov?

I'm still pretty ambivalent about Chekhov. I think what I appreciate most is his ability to make a story with some emotional impact without using any of the usual tropes or keywords writers tend to use for that effect. Then again the emotion conveyed is usually some kind of bleakness or fatalism, so maybe it's not so impressive.

The other thing is that, except for when people die, his stories never really conclude. In this sense, his stories are more realistic than many others, which all end at some point that's non-arbitrary, i.e. at the culmination or resolution of some strand of the plot. In Chekhov, on the other hand, this cohesion seems to be lacking. When you read a story like that, it's a little discomforting - but should this make us question the author or our assumptions about how stories ought to begin and end and proceed, and what they're supposed to do for us? In this sense, Chekhov reminds me of a bit of a painting (Rothko or Yves Klein or Duchamp, or Schoenberg in music) that makes you ask, "is this really art?"

The reason his stories are so boring is because there's little, if any, "morality" to them. No heroes, no victors, no villains, no great loves or great revenges, no grand schemes or speechifying. Of course, I've only read about 120 pages of stuff, so I'm generalizing. Nobody gets any comeuppance, no worldly justice is served, blah blah. Everyone just goes about their little lives, with their little happinesses and little pains and little troubles, and that's that. Not exactly the most exciting reading, but it seems to me to be a more accurate, if disillusioned, depiction of the way lives go.

So, do I like Chehkov? I don't really get any pleasure out of reading the stories. But they do express a certain take on the world that's interesting, even if not completely agreeable. Then again, I've long been sort of a literature-masochist. If it hurts to read, it's probably good for me. Unless it's written by Joel Osteen or Rick Warren. Then it's just bad for the planet.

A quote from Virginia Woolf, who's much smarter than me, so much so that she got herself put on the Chekhov entry in wikipedia (my ultimate aspiration):

"But is it the end, we ask? We have rather the feeling that we have overrun our signals; or it is as if a tune had stopped short without the expected chords to close it. These stories are inconclusive, we say, and proceed to frame a criticism based upon the assumption that stories ought to conclude in a way that we recognise. In so doing we raise the question of our own fitness as readers. Where the tune is familiar and the end emphatic—lovers united, villains discomfited, intrigues exposed—as it is in most Victorian fiction, we can scarcely go wrong, but where the tune is unfamiliar and the end a note of interrogation or merely the information that they went on talking, as it is in Tchekov, we need a very daring and alert sense of literature to make us hear the tune, and in particular those last notes which complete the harmony"

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