Cover of "Ulysses"
Cover of Ulysses

I have often thought of publishing stuff in hard-copy.  Friend’s works.  Stuff I like.  I think the place where I should begin is a collection of my favorite short stories.  There is, of course, a copyright issue to deal with since some of my favorites are not yet public domain.  In any case, here is my current list and I am always willing to hear suggestions for additions if I ever did this.

Anton Chekhov.  “The Witch” and “The Lady with the Dog.”

William T. Vollmann.  “Epitaph for Jaguar” and “The Handcuff Manual.”

? Duffy (I forget the first name).  “Payment in Kind.”

A small list for now, but I just read another one that would definitely make the list: Donald Barthelme’s “Alice”. (60 Stories. 68-75.  1981.  NY: Penguin Books.)  It is written oddly, almost a stream of consciousness style, but more accurate than Ulysses or any other attempt I have crossed.  Maybe I just find it accurate because I should be on ADHD medication.  Here is the openeing paragraph for clarification of what I mean:

twirling around on my piano stool my head begins to swim my head begins to swim twirling around on my piano stool a dizzy spell eventuates twirling around on my piano stool I begin to feel dizzy twirling around on my piano stool (68)

Barthelme’s style here does a good job of relating the dizzyness, but the rest of the story is also written like this.  I wonder then how unique the dizzy sensation is.  Does the narrator always feel like he is twirling on a piano stool?  While I think I have that feeling more than most, at least since being hit by the car, I can tell that it accelerates at times.

Here is one of the slower paragraphs to help demonstrate the haze riddled world of the narrator:

I maintain an air of serenity which is spurious I manage this by limping my limp artful creation not an abject limp (Quasimodo) but a proud limp (Byron) I move slowly solemnly through the world of miming a stiff leg this enables me to endure the gaze of strangers the hatred of pediatricians (69)

During high school I had a friend whose father walked with a pronounced limp.  The father was born in Ireland and I think something had happened to him there and he was unable to seek adequate medical attention for it.  The interesting part, though, was my friend’s younger brother who adopted the same limp without having had an injury.

Sometimes when I have been sitting for a while and I then stand and walk, as I am about to do here in my favorite coffee shop in Uptown, what a gorgeous day it is BTW!, I have a stiff leg and I walk with a limp.  I love that limp though. I imagine people see me and think that I earned it in some glorious spectacle.  In any case, Bartheleme’s story turns on a feeling, Byron’s pride, to which I can immediately relate and have never before shared with another writer.  Therin lies some of Barthelme’s magic: his keen eye.  I would recommend this book for anyone wanting to read some great short pieces of fiction.

I will leave you with a joke Ursa‘s cousin told me the other day:

A man in the area was walking and sees the neighborhood mentally ill man with a rabbit.  The man is crying and emotionally wrought because the rabbit is ill.  The original man thinks the rabbit is fine but knowing the character takes him to the neighborhood vet, where they ar eboth well known.  The vet talks to them and understands that all he needs to do is look the rabbit over and diagnose it as alright and the guy will be happy and content.  They are shown into an exam room and the vet leaves, saying he will return shortly.

The two men and the rabbit are in the exam room and a labrador retreiver runs into the room.  The men stiffen with anxiety, but the rabbit is fine and the lab just sniffs around some.  A woman enters, apologizes and retrieves the lab, exiting for the lobby.  The door remains open.

A black cat then runs into the room and also sniffs around.  Neither the cat nor the rabbit react as the men do.  Again the owner comes into the room, apologizes and leaves with the cat.

A few minutes later the vet returns and declares that the rabbit is fine.  he then hands a bill for $500 to the first man.  “Doc, I thought you’s just look him over and …you know,” the man says in hushed tones hoping to not give away the show to the mentally ill man.

The vet replies, “yes, but I have to charge you for the cat scan and the lab report.”

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Ironical monument to Anton Chekhov who visited...
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To-day’s short story was … short.  Written near the beginning of his career, it is the first story in the collection I have which is arranged chronologically, it looks like and feels like and might even smell like a Chekhov story, but it certainly does not hit like one.  The story is much like the tea I am drinking at the moment and the cofee shop I am in.  There is a great established place called Spyhouse here in Minneapolis and they recently opened a new one closer to where I live.  But it is too sterile, not funky (god how I hate that word) enough.  I feel as though I ought to be in a place called The Tea Garden.  The tea to-day is passion prairie, which almost made laugh out loud when I read it.  It is too sweet and lacking all the good punch of tea.

In any case the cook in the story is a young woman who is forced into a wedding.  We see her protest the wedding in the beginning of the story, then time passes and we see her wedding.  Then the next morning her husband takes advances on her wages, and we, of course, feel sorry for her.  And that’s the story.  All of it.

It is very odd and I am not too sure what to think other than seeing Chekhov working through the mechanics of how to write a short story.  There is talk about Chekhov as an objective writer and this story is pointed to as proof of that.  I think that notion is crap, for there are two portions of this story where Chekhov does pass judgement on the situation: at the end when the 7 year old hands the cook an apple to try and supplement her now garnished wages and second when the same 7 year old imagines the cook’s unhappiness on her wedding night.  That imagining makes the reader turn to darker places than a 7 year old does because the 7 year old does not know about wedding nights and what goes on, even though his imaginings can exist in both worlds:

“The poor thing is crying somewhere in the dark!” he thought.  “While the cabman is saying to her ‘shut up!'”

What a brilliant mechanism!  The innocent horror of the 7 year old is held to and yet Chekhov successfully takes us to a palce where the child imagines correctly, just not in the full context.  There is nothing objective about Chekhov, which is good, writing should challenge us and should level normative judgements.

Why then is there so much confusion about Chekhov as objective, because objectivity is easily mistaken for restraint and discipline.  This is the same conflation that is made about realism.  Ted Gioia has a good piece about the problem with realism as a genre.  Good literature should be an intervention and hence already disqualified from a realistic assesment, but beyond the impossibility of the genre there is also the danger of such a genre.  The dangers are well known and Gioia does a fairly good job of it, but Chabon’s Maps & Legends is a better read and more developed argument.

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Anton Chekhov and Olga Knipper, 1901
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I find myself on this gorgeous Minneapolis day in a Caribou Coffee downtown.  Since the debate season is recently over I find myself in this odd period where there is little that demands my time and I just do not know how to handle the lack of any rush.  So, here I am in a coffee shop being stereotypically hipsterish with my two t-shirts, the long sleeved one under a short sleeved, ripped jeans (my only remaining pair of jeans somehow ripped over the thigh this weekend) and my cloth dark sneakers.  So it seems only natural that I should pull out my collection of Chekhov’s short stories and read one to which I keep finding references.

The story begins with Gurov visiting a resort, Yalta before Yalta became famous for geopolitics, and being utterly bored.  Chekhov’s brilliance in both writing and observation is first apparent in his description of this boredom: “One did not know what to do with oneself.”  Its brilliance is so obvious that I am unable to even explain why it affects me so.

When discussing Gurov’s and Anna’s marriages he describes both in the passive voice which is a brilliant stroke becaue it prepares us for the satisfactory and yet the unhappy natures of their marriages.  We then feel little, or at least less than normal, judgement for the affair they have.  It’s a clever turn that I at first did not want to attribute to Chekhov, marking it instead as translation or coincidence, but upon reflection I think that would be an unfair reading.

Gurov has had affairs before but this one marks him differently and the remainder of the story is then his attempt to reconcile this difference.  Chekhov makes another observation which I do not find novel, but sadly unknown to many people.

And he judged others by himself, not believing in what he saw, and always believing that every man had his real, most intersting life under the cover of secrecy and under the cover of night.

This is the problem of the analysand in the most succint rendering I have ever encountered.  As I walked downtown this morning I was carrying this Chekhov book and I wondered why I was doing that.  I did reach my stop sooner than expected so I did not have time to put it in my backpack, but there was more than that.  I thought it made me look cool.  I then thought what would happen if someone stopped me on the street (yes, I am that self-centered) and called me out on trying to look cool.  I thought about my response, and I had settled on this very criticism of the analysand.  “You think I’m trying to look cool?  No, I just didn’t have room in my backpack.  But what does that interpretation say about you?”  It seemed more compelling and Oh-Snap!-ish in my head.  In any case, I rarely see the problem of the analysand rendered in anything but scholarly works, which is sad given fiction’s necessity for interpretative theory.

One place I find Chekhov weak, however, is in the process of memory.  Gurov thinks back to his past (all, not just adulterous) affairs and how he was never once in love.  I do not doubt this judgement as a final product, but the judgement is not necessarily accurate and Chkhov could be reflective here, he has demonstrated the erudition to be so.  When looking back at past relationships it easy to rationalize away the love and affect felt during those relationships.  It is easy to be melancholic and self-loathing, to render moments of love into a deceptive remembrance.

This again begs a question I keep returning to (I am formulating a lengthy response to Sebold’s The Lovely Bones) about the division of the mind from the body in fiction and culture.  Chekhov uses Gurov to look back on past moments, past moments described like the affair with Anna, and to deny the body’s affection with those women.  We know that he was in love because he loves Anna, his body seizes his mind and forces him to act in ways he knows are risky and probably futile.  And yet Chkhov does not reflect on the past relationships and the memory of them.

Those are my initial thoughts.  I really enjoyed the story and I was impressed with Chekhov’s ability to easily convey complex thoughts and feelings.  I can only hope that my thoughts are read with such ease.

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