Sunday, October 13, 2013

"Nature abhors a garden," my father would say.  Weeds.  Encroaching vines, errant invasive species...  Humbly I think of Chekhov on the topic.  "The Black Monk" begins with a father's garden, smudgepots keeping the fruit trees warm as a frosty night falls, introducing us to the theme that will involve the daughter and the visiting student who will fall in love before he goes mad with the hallucination brought on by his illness, leading all to ruin.  A great theme rises up and takes Chekhov upon his mature explorations, "Ward no. 6," "My Life," with a confidence he cannot err from, in which he does no wrong.

I wonder if there is not some rule of physics governing barrooms and the like, perhaps similar to nature and the garden.  Something like Newton's laws of equal and opposite reaction.  If there is a good thing, a flower of a visit, a good conversation, inevitably it is visited upon by weeds and overdoing.  One cannot stop things of a barroom just as they are when they are going well and encase them in glass.  Beauty brought together in time, in the moment of wine's relaxing powers, will, if dragged out, begin to rot, and then it's time for everyone to go home.  The lasting beauty is in the longer term relationships, of give and take, that occur organically over periods of time.

But there is, of course, worth mentioning, the lasting beauty of the story itself, in all stories, but perhaps particularly in the almost shy understatement of Chekhov who does not overwhelm us, who leads our eye beyond to mysteries greater than the ones that seem to be directly before us, sometimes in areas of a story that are under-told.  What plots he has are often hidden, leading the reader to gaze at meanings beyond the normal ken of understanding, often with the element of ambiguity allowing a suspension from our usual set terms and moral judgments, etc.  These beautiful elements of Chekhov, like the schoolboy who must cross The Steppe to go off to school, like the pioneering doctor whose story is barely told as wives and artistes dally about in the social set, gently emanate, coming in from off the radar almost.

Chekhov tells us something about great storytelling, and makes us think of all kinds of story telling, political and otherwise.  One might prefer the subtlety, the laid-back quality of Lincoln, to a more self-righteous kind.  And subtlety, our abilities for it, represents the highest of our intelligence, though sometimes enabling louder voices less high come and tell cruder versions.

Carver is a disciple of Chekhov, often aped for his spare language, his middle class curiosity.  His gift is to not be overbearing, even when he sometimes is, to let things appear off scene.

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