Friday, May 30, 2014

Two Glasses of Vodka, an excerpt from "Antosha in Prague"

From the work in progress.
"I have come to see the Japanese girl, Fan."

Vera pouted and smoked her cigarette. "Fan is very popular of late," she said. "I’m sure by now she’s as worn out as an old sofa, all the cushions pounded flat, all the springs broken, and the silk rubbed threadbare. You can do much better than Fan, my darling Vladimir. Buy me a glass of port, what do you say?"

"Why do you call me Vladimir?"

"Are you going to tell me your name?"

"Of course not. Just as your name is not really Vera."

"Then why not be Vladimir? Vladimir Vladimirich, for this afternoon."

"As you wish." Antosha unbuttoned his coat and sat down on a wide sofa, holding his hat on his lap. "You may call me Vladimir Vladimirovich Vladimov, or any other name you care to invent. But I am not buying you a glass of port."

"Do you want some vodka, Vladimir?"

"I want to see Fan, the Japanese girl."

Vera sat beside Antosha and crossed her legs. Her silk gown fell open and exposed her naked calves, and her feet in silk slippers. She puffed on her cigarette and then called down a hall. "Proshitka! Bring two glasses of vodka to the parlor!"

"I am not buying two glasses of vodka," Antosha said.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Chekhov and Chernyshevsky in an historical dialogue about Turgenev: an advance warning

I'm reading Anton Chekhov's long story "The Duel" (one of the many novellas Chekhov left us, bless him, coming in at a little over 40,000 words). "The Duel" is possibly one of the greatest things anyone has ever written. I've read it a couple of times before, but this is the first time I've read it in the wake of having read Ivan Turgenev's Fathers and Sons, Nikolai Chernyshevsky's What is to be Done?, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Notes From Underground. And I am seeing new things in "The Duel," especially parallels with the Chernyshevsky novel, and a character who may be at least partially based on the Chernyshevskian revolutionary superman Rakhmetov. All of these ideas of mine are provisional at this point (I still have about 100 pages more of story to read), and I'm poking around to see if I can find out when Chekhov actually read What is to be Done?, so I'll just keep reading and thinking things over, and possibly next week I'll write some highly unoriginal thoughts here on the blog about "The Duel" as Chekhovian commentary on the Russian literary figure of the "Superfluous Man."

Friday, May 23, 2014

Bee in flight, invisible here

One of the many things I didn't know was that there were glassblowers working in the Roman empire. Here is a case full of delicate 3rd-century glassware that was preserved, apparently, only because it was placed in the grave along with the glassblower.

Not shown: any hint of the Miró exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum, which was quite fine.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

"Antosha in Prague" status update

I'm calling it Antosha in Prague, at least for now, the collection of Chekhov-inspired short stories which is my work-in-progress. The story for which the collection is named will be the centerpoint of the book, a novella-length tale set in 1901, featuring a famous doctor and a law student. What larks, Franz. The table-of-contents-in-progress for the collection:

"The Connoisseur" (written)
"Defending His Dissertation" (written)
"Under the Limbs of the Silver Birches" (written)
"Setting a Broken Bone" (hypothetical)
"The Suitor" (outlined)
"Ivan Ivanovna" (outlined)
"The Father of the Room" (hypothetical)
"Dressing for the Opera" (written)
"The Storm" (outlined)
"Antosha in Prague" (written)
"Sakhalin" (hypothetical)
"Caspian Terns" (hypothetical)
"It's a long time since I drank champagne" (outlined)
"A White-Crowned Sparrow" (outlined, one quarter-written)

and maybe some other stories to be invented, written and named in the near future. Possibly next week I'll post some snippets, to give you an idea of what this is all supposed to be. We'll see.

This is being an excellent project. The stories are coming along well and easily, and the writing is, I think, some of my best work. I am certain that this is the book, the one that all the agents and acquiring editors will fight for. I have that certainty about every book I write, of course.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Where I'm Calling From: a scattershot update from the writer

No, not from Raymond Carver, but from me. After all the fuss with reading Chernyshevsky and Dostoyevsky and then Chekhov (and then even more Chekhov), I have decided to take up as my next long-form writing project an idea I have had for a couple of years: a book of connected short stories centered around the fictional Antosha Chekhonte, a character loosely based on Anton Chekhov, medical doctor turned famous writer and playwright. I do not usually enjoy writing short stories, but I've discovered that to write Chekhovesque stories about a character based on Chekhov himself is a delightful pastime and even, I dare say, artistically rewarding. Readers might differ with that last opinion, but I'm sure happy with the two stories I've penned so far, and equally happy with the plans I have for three or four more stories. One of them will be more like a novella (that's the "Chekhov meets Kafka in Prague" story I have mentioned briefly here on this blog). Anyway, that's the new project chez Bailey.

Meanwhile, for those of you keeping score, I am typing up changes to my novel Mona in the Desert so that I can print the whole thing out yet again and revise it once more before, maybe, letting some folks read it and seeing if I feel like querying literary agents to represent it. I have mixed feelings about that, because I don't know if I know of any American literary agents who are representing any authors I actually like these days. One is not supposed to say those sorts of things publicly, but let's call a rabbit a hare, shall we? And why not?

I continue to query agents regarding my wonderful novel Go Home, Miss America. I can't seem to get the sense of the book into a query letter. Also, it's a novel of faith, as they say these days, about sainthood. That makes it a difficult sell, I'm sure.

Whenever I manage to shift myself and do the work, I'm going to be submitting the postmodern mystery novel The transcendental detective to a publisher. I am feeling quite short on time these days, so I keep forgetting to do that. It's not a lot of work, but it's something I keep not making time for.

What else? After I finish the volume of Chekhov stories I'm currently reading, and then finish the last 80 pages of Gargantua and Pantagruel (at last!), I'll be reading Weymouth Sands by John Cowper Powys. I have high expectations of weirdness. Pykk's posts about Powys have been quite intriguing (click the link in the sidebar to her blog, you). In other news, I might make this a Summer of Melville, reading Typee, Pierre, The Confidence Man and returning to the glorious Moby-Dick. We'll see. The best-laid plans go down the whirlpool with the Pequod, as they say. Spoiler, sorry.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Chekhov Writes A Dostoyevsky Story: "An Attack of Nerves"

How many of Chekhov's stories have I read? I have no idea. Hundreds of them. All 201 in the Ecco 13-volume set of Constance Garnett's translated tales. A bunch translated by Ann Dunnigan. Peter Constantine's collection of 38 stories from the young Chekhov. Lots more, though most translators mine the same vein of tales that Garnett worked. But let's say I've read some 300 stories by Anton Chekhov, and I can only think of one of those stories that seems to have been directly influenced by the works of Fyodor Dostoyevsky. I am going to claim that the 1889 story "An Attack of Nerves" (also known as "A Nervous Breakdown") is inspired by the fourth section of Dostoyevsky's Notes From Underground, the encounter between the Underground Man and the prostitute Liza.

I steal the following summary from the NYU School of Medicine "stories about doctors" website:
A night on the town with two friends turns into "an attack of nerves" for Vasilyev, a law student. The three students spend the night drinking and visiting houses of prostitution; Vasilyev is horrified and repulsed by the women, who he thinks are "more like animals than human beings." The social problem of prostitution becomes an obsession; he is so fixated on finding a solution that he is in moral agony. His friends, among whom is a medical student, are concerned only with his health; they take him to a psychiatrist who "cures" Vasilyev with bromide and morphine.
I will ignore the NYU School of Medicine's shallow comments on the story and give you my own.

While both the Dostoyevsky and Chekhov stories are part of a long and dense tradition of Russian "fallen women" fiction, I claim that they are more closely linked than by just that tradition. Notes and "Nerves" share important symbolism; Chekhov's formal structure pushes against Dostoyevsky's in an asymmetrical manner to form a kind of balance; Chekhov's protagonist is strikingly similar to the Underground Man; both tales end with frustration at the protagonist's inability to solve the problem of subjugation. I hope I remember to mention that Chekhov seemingly implies a sympathy with Chernyshevsky's idea that woman can only be freed when men become civilized enough to free them. We'll see how well I do. This entire essay might be beyond my abilities. You've been warned.

Let's start with the snow, which is an important symbol in both stories. Dostoyevsky's snow is the element which opens Part II of Notes, the element to which he returns in the tale of Liza:
Snow is falling today, yellow and dingy. It fell yesterday, too, and a few days ago. I fancy it is the wet snow that has reminded me of that incident which I cannot shake off now.
Chekhov's story is also set on a snowy night, but his snow is beautiful and mysterious:
The first snow had not long fallen, and all nature was under the spell of the fresh snow. There was the smell of snow in the air, the snow crunched softly under the feet; the earth, the roofs, the trees, the seats on the boulevard, everything was soft, white, young, and this made the houses look quite different from the day before; the street lamps burned more brightly, the air was more transparent, the carriages rumbled with a deeper note, and with the fresh, light, frosty air a feeling stirred in the soul akin to the white, youthful, feathery snow.
Dostoyevsky's snow is always "wet" and sometimes even "warm," and is never anything but part of the world's antagonism, another marker of the Underground Man's misery, pointing in the same direction as everything else in the Liza story:
The wet snow was falling in big flakes; I unbuttoned myself, regardless of it. I forgot everything else, for I had finally decided on the slap, and felt with horror that it was going to happen NOW, AT ONCE, and that NO FORCE COULD STOP IT. The deserted street lamps gleamed sullenly in the snowy darkness like torches at a funeral. The snow drifted under my great-coat, under my coat, under my cravat, and melted there. I did not wrap myself up--all was lost, anyway.
Chekhov's protagonist, on the other hand,
liked the snow, the pale street lamps, the sharp black tracks left in the first snow by the feet of the passers-by. He liked the air, and especially that limpid, tender, naïve, as it were virginal tone, which can be seen in nature only twice in the year -- when everything is covered with snow, and in spring on bright days and moonlight evenings when the ice breaks on the river.
Dostoyevsky, then, uses the snow to show that the world itself--including the weather--is a force set against man, whereas in Chekhov it is man who is the force of evil set against nature:
If one looked upwards into the darkness, the black background was all spangled with white, moving spots: it was snow falling. As the snowflakes came into the light they floated round lazily in the air like down, and still more lazily fell to the ground. The snowflakes whirled thickly round Vassilyev and hung upon his beard, his eyelashes, his eyebrows. . . . The cabmen, the horses, and the passers-by were white.

"And how can the snow fall in this street!" thought Vassilyev. "Damnation take these houses!"
these houses are bordellos, where Vassilyev has been dragged, from one to the next, by his friends. His friends are looking for a good time; Vassilyev is horrified by what he sees, by the objectification of the women, by the base nature of man--even of his good and beloved friends.

Which brings us to the next important similarity between the stories, the protagonist's disgust with man. Dostoyevsky shows us this by having the Underground Man insult Liza in as cruel a manner as he can, demonstrating to her that she is a slave to men, maybe less than a slave, and that he is no better; she cannot possibly look to him for salvation (this is a direct attack on Chernyshevsky's novel). The Underground Man sees no end to this slavery and baseness, but it's all one with the evil that is the world so it does not particularly matter more than anything else. Chekhov's Vassilyev, on the other hand, determines that he is going to save women, to end prostitution:
It seemed to him that he must settle the question at once at all costs, and that this question was not one that did not concern him, but was his own personal problem. He made an immense effort, repressed his despair, and, sitting on the bed, holding his head in his hands, began thinking how one could save all the women he had seen that day. The method for attacking problems of all kinds was, as he was an educated man, well known to him. And, however excited he was, he strictly adhered to that method. He recalled the history of the problem and its literature, and for a quarter of an hour he paced from one end of the room to the other trying to remember all the methods practiced at the present time for saving women. He had very many good friends and acquaintances who lived in lodgings in Petersburg. . . . Among them were a good many honest and self-sacrificing men. Some of them had attempted to save women. . . .
The problem, however, is too big for one student in Moscow to solve. Vassilyev, who has always been a sensitive soul, goes mad from the pressure of the world's evil. He becomes a version of the Underground Man:
Vassilyev lay down on the bed and, thrusting his head under the pillow, began crying with agony, and the more freely his tears flowed the more terrible his mental anguish became. As it began to get dark, he thought of the agonizing night awaiting him, and was overcome by a horrible despair. He dressed quickly, ran out of his room, and, leaving his door wide open, for no object or reason, went out into the street. Without asking himself where he should go, he walked quickly along Sadovoy Street.

Snow was falling as heavily as the day before; it was thawing. Thrusting his hands into his sleeves, shuddering and frightened at the noises, at the trambells, and at the passers-by, Vassilyev walked along Sadovoy Street as far as Suharev Tower; then to the Red Gate; from there he turned off to Basmannya Street. He went into a tavern and drank off a big glass of vodka, but that did not make him feel better. When he reached Razgulya he turned to the right, and strode along side streets in which he had never been before in his life. He reached the old bridge by which the Yauza runs gurgling, and from which one can see long rows of lights in the windows of the Red Barracks. To distract his spiritual anguish by some new sensation or some other pain, Vassilyev, not knowing what to do, crying and shuddering, undid his greatcoat and jacket and exposed his bare chest to the wet snow and the wind. But that did not lessen his suffering either.
That particular scene closely echoes a scene in Notes From Underground. The other strong sign that "An Attack of Nerves" is related to Notes From Underground is the ending, atypical of Chekhov. It is atypical in that it is an actual rounding off of the through-action of the piece, which Chekhov rarely does, and it strikes a negative, cynical note which Chekhov rarely uses. It is not subtle, and its comedy is a cheerless sort of joking: "He had two prescriptions in his hand: one was for bromide, one was for morphia. . . . He had taken all these remedies before." Chekhov implies that the problems of civilization cannot be solved; they can only be pushed away and ignored. His own profession, or at least psychiatry, cannot cure depression caused by the shape of society. It is society which is sick, but we can only treat the individual, not the society.

And so on, in the same general style, as Chekhov would say. There are other Chekhov stories that deal with prostitution, but none which so closely echoes the form and content of Notes From Underground. So that's my attempt to extend the literary influence of Nikolai Chernyshevsky's What is to be Done? through Dostoyevsky's Notes From Underground and into Chekhov's oeuvre. Even if I'm wrong, "An Attack of Nerves" is a great story, written in beautiful language. I don't know why I ever read anything but Chekhov, I say yet again.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Clerihew from underground (for Marly Youmans)

Nikolai Chernyshevsky
said to Dostoyevsky,
"So what's to be done
with Anton Chekhov's gun?"

Is that sufficiently awful? I can try again.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

"It would be necessary to describe him, if he had not already been described."

Tom over at Wuthering Expectations has begun posting about Dostoyevsky's 1864 novella Notes From Underground, and thank goodness for that because I was afraid I'd have to go first and I was stuck for anything to say, frankly. If nothing else, I can pad my blogging with lengthy responses to whatever Tom says on his blog. It's like the Republic of Letters, but quite quite watered down on my end. Excitement to commence!

I will begin my own assault on Notes by quoting myself, a comment I made on Tom's post in which I say who and what I think Dostoyevsky's Underground Man--the narrator of Notes, that is--is supposed to be.
My opinion, today anyway (I finished my rereading of Notes last night, about 10:00), is that the Underground Man is the result of Dostoyevsky's testing of Chernyshevsky's theory that mankind would be happy were he rational. Suppose man were given only rational options, FD says, and the Underground Man is what would result. He is forced underground, beneath the feet of the Rational Man as it were, because at heart man is irrational and the more you attempt to force rational behavior onto him, the more irrational man will become. Then FD puts his test subject into versions of scenes from What is to be Done?.
The pieces of Chernyshevsky's novel that are parodied in Notes From Underground are, more or less and in order of appearance:

1. The introduction and numerous subsequent passages where Chernyshevsky the author character directly addresses the reader, often verbally abusing "the perspicacious reader," who may in fact be the Tsar's censors, or at least the censors at the Peter and Paul Fortress in which Chernyshevsky was imprisoned when he wrote the novel.

Dostoyevsky structures Notes as a long unbroken lecture to the reader by the Underground Man.

2. This scene, where Chernyshevsky tells us what sort of man Lopukhov is:
One time he was walking in a shabby uniform on the Kammenoi-Ostrof Prospekt, on his way from his lesson, for which he got fifty kopeks an hour, though he had to go a distance of three versts from the lyceum. A distinguished somebody, of imposing mien, met him, motions him out of the way in the manner of men of imposing mien, and bears straight down upon him without giving way. But Lopukhof, at that time, had a rule, not to be the first to turn out for anybody except a woman. They bumped against each other with their shoulders, and the distinguished somebody, half turning about, said, 'What a pig, what a hog you are!' but while he was preparing to continue the lesson, Lopukhof made a full turn towards the distinguished somebody, took the distinguished somebody by the body, and deposited him in the gutter very tenderly ; then he stood over him, and said, 'Don't you move, else I will drag you farther where the mud is deeper.'
Dostoyevsky shows us what happens when the Underground Man meets a distinguished somebody on a bridge and the question of right-of-way comes up.

3. The many scenes in What is to be Done? where educated revolutionaries get together, talk politics and arm wrestle, acting civilized and progressive and with excellent bonhomie.

Dostoyevsky shows us what happens when the Underground Man joins a party of young gentlemen he knew from school. Hijinks ensue.

4. The central domestic drama of What is to be Done?, of Lopukhov marrying Vera to rescue her from her greedy, common family and then letting her go when Lopukhov realizes that Vera is in love with his best friend Alexander Kirsanov. Releasing Vera from her obligation and gratitude is the function of the Lopukhov character.

Dostoyevsky gives us the story of how the Underground Man confronts the subjugation of women.

That's Notes From Underground in broad strokes. Tomorrow I might quote from each of these sections, comparing and contrasting, etc. Or I might just go for the jokes, because there are a lot of jokes in Dostoyevsky's novella. Or I might just let Tom do all the work and save myself for the essay I'm planning about Anton Chekhov's version of one section of Notes From Underground. We'll see.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Tea and Vitriol

On Sunday it rained, so we stayed in and had tea. We do tea right at our house:

photo credit: Mighty Reader

There were dessert items as well as sandwiches.

photo credit: Mighty Reader

On Sunday I also began my re-read of Fyodor Dostoyevsky's 1864 long magazine article Notes From Underground. I've just read Nikolai Chernyshevsky's 1863 long novel What is to be Done?, to which Notes is a partial response (and parody). That experience makes Dostoyevsky's piece seem quite a different thing than it was the first two times I read it. More about that, possibly, tomorrow. But I will say two things about Notes:
  • It's typical disorganized Dostoyevsky, and
  • It seems to be pretty hard on old Chernyshevsky, digging quite hard. I would like to remind Fyodor that Chernyshevsky, after all, was not hoping for the creation of the Gulag or Stalin; he was hoping for a happy and benign utopia. An impossible, fundamentally inhuman utopia (in this I agree with Dostoyevsky), but still a place where people would be free and happy. Parody is risky business.
Biggest laugh line so far:
Once you have mathematical certainty there is nothing left to do or to understand. There will be nothing left but to bottle up your five senses and plunge into contemplation. While if you stick to consciousness, even though the same result is attained, you can at least flog yourself at times, and that will, at any rate, liven you up. Reactionary as it is, corporal punishment is better than nothing.
Also! I am pleased to remember to mention that there is a Chekhov tie-in with Notes From Underground that I will hopefully remember to write about later this week. I've been wanting to read some Chekhov again in any case.