The Power to be Moved: Part 2

At the time Chekhov was writing, Russia was enduring and beginning a tumultuous period of history by any country’s standards. The October revolution would begin just under twenty years later, but before this came the abolishment of serfdom in 1861, leaving Russia with large scales of emancipated peasant communities that was still enduring in Chekhov’s time. With this in mind, let’s look at Chekhov’s ‘Peasants’.

Nikolai Chikildeyev, becoming ill whilst in Moscow, decides that he should return ‘home’ to Zhukovo, the village that he grew up in. Although when he arrives:
“in his memories of childhood he had pictured his home as bright, snug, comfortable. Now, going into the hut, he was positively frightened.”

In the last post, we talked about this issue of blindness and occlusion that can sometimes be overtly obvious (ie.a mirage like in ‘The Black Monk’) or more subtle but personally powerful, like childhood memories. This is another occasion of expectations not being met, or of a person’s representation of something not corresponding to reality, or to a reality that occurred a long time ago (‘The Kiss’ operates the other way round – the representation becomes everything).The peasant hut is dirty, and Nikolai, back from the city cannot understand how they live in such a feudal fashion. Yet, there is something about the village, something transcendent, beyond the fact that it is a very religious village, and the passage deserves quoting and delving into extensively:

“Behind the peasants’ properties began the descent to the river, steep and precipitous, so that there were huge rocks here and there in the clay. There were paths winding down the slope close to these rocks and pits dug out by the potters, and there were whole heaps of fragments of broken crockery piled up – now brown, now red – while spread out there at the bottom was a broad, even bright-green meadow, already mown, on which the peasants’ herd was now out walking. The river meandering with wonderful curly banks, was a verst from the village, and beyond it there was, again, a broad meadow, a heard, long lines of white geese – then, just as on this side, a steep uphill climb, and at the top, on the hill, a village with a five-domed church, and a little further off, a landowner’s house.”

If that does not get you awing at Chekhov then I don’t know what will. It starts with an occlusion, a blindness, as we are ‘behind’ the peasant’s property and as a result there is a suggestion that we should see behind and beyond. One must willfully do this though as the passage subtly urges, and the overall feeling is that this will be a trying effort. And then what we’re shown is more images of fragmentation and breakage, with the broken crockery, now brown, now red as if we’re following this scene. Yet at the bottom of the image presented to us, there is a bright-green meadow. The contrast between the colours is remarkable, from suggested manufacture to natural wonder. People are working here though. This isn’t a meadow that is naturally green, somebody has had to labour to make it green, and we realise that is ‘already mown’ – the freshly cut blades are glistening and the peasant’s herd are starting to make their way across it. Then as we go further out, the scene starts to come together, the perspective allows us a cohesive picture. We can see the hill and the climb and the village on top, which notably finishes with that structure that for so long facilitated communal togetherness – the village church.

This is Chekhov is Tolstoyan mood. But where Tolstoy would suggest that this sense of naturalness is the dream, Chekhov is asking, is this unobtainable like a dream? It is a matter of perspective. Were we not in the village and were stood on that hill looking down, would we see a similar, rural pleasantness where the peasants are, like Nikolai had? And let’s not forget Nikolai started off with a desire to return here, based on his own childhood perspective, and now we’re already seeing the promise of something else. No matter how obvious the vision maybe for Chekhov, it always represents something that cannot be obtained, even when it may appear obviously real to the character. We’re in the moment though and Chekhov will leave it to the reader to answer the questions that Chekhov not only asks, but the questions the reader asks of Chekhov.

The light and the church become important motifs for the story, especially as this theme of fragmentation continues.Further on in the story “when the bluish morning light was already breaking through every crack” of the peasant’s house, and when the sister-in-law’s of the two separate families go on a walk together in the morning there “stretched a strip of light, the church was radiant and the rooks were calling furiously in the landowner’s garden.” There is the light again and there is the church. What do we make of this light? Here we have two families of different class yet are related. So we’re lucky to have all this splendour surrounding us, but are these gifts of God or of nature? This is made no more obvious when Olga recites Scripture, “pronouncing words,even ones she did not understand, her face would become compassionate, emotional and light”. She is enlightened but there are parts that she does not understand, so what are the enlightening forces?

The whole passage becomes a frantic search for that cohesiveness, or more poignantly, meaning, and so anxiety becomes the compelling mechanism. Quoting at length again:

“Laid across the river were some unsteady log planks, and right underneath them, in the clear, transparent water, swam shoals of broad-headed chub. On the green bushes that looked at themselves in the water the dew was sparkling. There came a breath of warm air and a feeling of pleasure. What a splendid morning! And what a splendid life there would doubtless be in this world, were it not for the need – the terrible, incessant need from which you cannot hide anywhere! You had only to look back at the village now for everything from yesterday to come vividly to mind, and the enchantment of happiness that seemed to be all around to disappear in an instant.”

Constant movement external and internal, but this time it has gone from the picture of serenity on the outside, to the sense of breakage on the inside. The outside again is seemingly a world of togetherness (“the shoals of chub”) and positive reflection (“how the green bushes look at themselves in the sparkling water”). The splendid morning is an objective, declarative statement – no matter one’s standing, all the criteria are met for it to be a splendid morning, but this is irrelevant, in fact, makes the subjective position worse because of that need.

What is the need? We do not know where it comes from, but one can only say that this need is something that is ‘beyond us’, yet of this world. It is transcendent but humane. Kierkegaard wrote in The Sickness Unto Death (1849) that for the Christian “sin lies in the will, not in the knowing; and this corruption of the will affects the individual’s consciousness”. Chekhov’s characters are Christian characters, but the notion of being a Christian in a Christian world, or being a person living in a Christian world without a God, was now a conundrum. Schopenhauer, thirty years before Kierkegaard had published his work, The World as Will and Representation (1819), which brought a new light on this inexpressible thing that drives us but is not necessarily divine. Nietzsche would publish then Beyond Good and Evil (1886) where he moved these explanations of impulses beyond binaries of good and bad. Following this, Freud would publish his work The Intepretation of Dreams (1899) at the turn of the century. Look at the years of those publications. Chekhov’s first notable story, ‘The Huntsman’ arrived in 1885; the formalising of Chekhov’s brilliance happens in an implausibly short space of time, and arguably as rapidly as thought was changing in a period of global modernisation.

Looking at Chekhov in this context we get some answers posed by his work: here we see perhaps, why Chekhov perhaps didn’t write anything longer – it is about that moment that this will takes over, at the moment the will begins to asks questions of the world and the self. You could argue that nothing is explained in his elusiveness, but you could also say that everything is explained by it, the answers are not there to be answered. We get a brief glimpse of the human spirit, and Chekhov, although writing in extremely political times, does not suggest that this is anything to do with the rise of capitalism by the industrialisation of peasantry or anything like that; it is instead historical, something passed down the generations, explained in different terms by different generations, yet permanent and all too human. In this light he is ahead of the philosophers who were working around him.

If there is an answer  we’ll examine it by sticking with that notion introduced above by Kierkegaard – the sin lies in the desire, not the knowledge of it. Although philosophers like Nietzsche were aiming to philosophise without concepts such as good and bad, there is still sin in Chekhov’s world, as there still is now. Whether or not we ascribe the term guilt to that ravishing anxiety we can sometimes feel at the expense of the will, it does suggest that guilt is unavoidable. It is interesting that Paul Virno in his recent publication – Deja Vu and the End of History (2015) – described in the blurb as a ‘radical new theory of historical temporality’ uses St. Augustine’s Confessions for some support. He cites a passage from the Confessions to make his point:

“But even now it is manifest and clear that there are neither times future nor times past. Thus it is not properly said that there are three times, past, present, and future. Perhaps it might be said rightly that there are three times: a time present of things past; a time present of things present; and a time present of things future. For these three do coexist somehow in the soul, for otherwise I could not see them. The time present of things past is memory; the time present of things present is direct experience; the time present of things future is expectation.”

Confessions was a work obviously propelled by guilt, and whatever your understanding of guilt is, it arises out of the feeling of not knowing where something is located, or where something arises out of history to make itself known to be felt more urgently felt in the now, whether that be a feeling or a memory.

A lot of Chekhov’s characters we have determined, are always moving; forward, back, their physical manner usually antagonising their psychological desires. Chekhov often focuses on the males, but there is always a strong female presence. They both have their needs (they need each other), and they’re aware that they have them, but not all that clever on knowing how these desires manifest and operate. In ‘The Lady with the Little Dog’, which really is as good as it gets, the lady in the title, finally comes to terms with the liaison that she is embarking on with the man:

“But here still was the same diffidence, the gaucheness of inexperienced youth and an awkward feeling; and there was an impression of bewilderment, as if someone had suddenly knocked at the door. Anna Sergeyevna, this “lady with the little dog”, regarded what had happened in a special sort of way, very seriously, as though it were her fall – so it seemed, and it was strange and inappropriate. Her features had drooped and faded, her long hair hung sadly down the sides of her face, and she had fallen into though in a doleful pose, like a sinner in an old painting.”

Perhaps it could be argued that Chekhov missed a note with his use of the adverb ‘sadly’ (translations though), but the terminus of that inner will has never looked so futilely affecting as now. You can pick out Augustine’s classifications of ‘time-presents’ from that passage, but look how the passage ends. She has gone from a feeling of movement, the resurfacing of her inexperienced youth at the start, but has been pushed too far – she feels like she has fallen. It almost feels as if Hitchcock stole that closing moment for the impetus of Vertigo, but that image is extremely powerful. We are aware of her, not just as a woman, but now as a piece of art; whilst she may feel the sin in the will, all we have left of her, in that moment, is the static rendering of her as a sinner. In this case, she has been rendered immovable.

 

Image result for vertigo painting

From Hitchcocks’s Vertigo (1958)

Chekhov’s works, like his life, were short. Most of them are elegiac in tone, and the one thing that does feel tangible is a descent into delusion or death. We could argue then that it is death, or the knowledge of it that is driving the pieces, that is driving the character’s self-awareness. But death is always in combat with something else.

Carver was heavily influenced by Chekhov and even wrote a story about Chekhov in his final hours, but Carver’s most famous collection and story was What we talk about, when we talk about love. Chekhov’s characters are always finding ways to deal with their fickle emotions and fragile existence, are always finding that whatever lies beyond death, there is only one way to get there, through living and trying to love. There can’t be any love the Huntsman said but all too often there is. I think even when they’re not talking about love, they’re talking about it.

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Review: A Game of Chess and Other Stories by Stefan Zweig

A Game of Chess and Other Stories
by Stefan Zweig (translated by Peter James Bowman)
Alma Classics: 320pp.: £4.99

Mihail Sebastian’s For Two Thousand Years, which was discussed recently, proved that there is no estimating the if and when an artist will receive their due recognition, considering that Sebastian has been translated into English 82 years after original publication. This discussion continues to an extent here with Stefan Zweig.

One must be wary though of being ethno-centric, and it points to the problem of ‘generalising’ and measuring success; even though the world’s languages may be homogenising, with several languages becoming universal mediators, we’re becoming inclined to think that anything outside of that linguistic sphere is not worthy. For instance, although we might think Hollywood as the pinnacle of the film industry, its takings are eclipsed by India’s Bollywood, yet it doesn’t have much of a market over here. Language, as Wittgenstein said, really is the limits of our world.

Zweig’s fate was arguably completely opposite to that of Sebastian’s. Zweig parallels somebody like Dickens, in that he was enormously successful in his lifetime, and was reportedly one of the first ‘star authors’. Zweig’s death was treated with the attention and opprobrium that our celebrities and stars receive today. The man was globally known and traveled, fleeing his homeland of Austria, once the Nazis invaded.

But all this is well known; one only has to do a quick Google search to find this out. It’s worth mentioning however, because where his home may have been decimated, the world eventually became his home, finally ending up in Brazil before his death by suicide. Like Dickens though, the equation of fame and artistry does not necessarily mean quality is discounted. Popular can still be artful. And like Dickens Zweig almost disappeared, left in the annals along with many authors who were victim to the rapid modernisation that the second world war brought, quickly becoming outdated and out of tune.

The problem and accusation levelled at Zweig seemed to be that he didn’t really ‘have anything to say’. Nicolas Lezard in the Guardian has written about how when Zweig came to London he wouldn’t comment on the Third Reich, saying that constant denunciations wore themselves out by repetition. Any maybe they do, but as a man from Vienna, Zweig will have known that not having anything to say is not the same as not wanting to say anything.

Of course the advent of film means that books and authors can suddenly see their name subject to guerrilla marketing, being branded across film posters and bus-sides, and recently Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) drew from Zweig’s life and works. Anderson was unashamed in his admiration of Zweig, claiming to have plagiarised him, and certainly Zweig’s presence is felt throughout, both physically and spectrally, appearing at first as a bronze monument, and then a potential character in what had become a drab hotel, relaying the glory years to another writer.

Different levels and stories within stories is certainly Zweig’s influence even though Anderson’s film probably says more about film than it does about Zweig (as film always does, closer to Nolan’s Inception maybe?). Zweig never published a novel (Beware of Pity comes closest), but Zweig was concerned with the story. Alma have republished four of them, including his final one before his death. All of these effectively involve a narrative framed within another narrative.

There is reason to see why Zweig might have faded out of critical quarters. The most apocryphal a stories’ title gets is ‘The Invisible Collection’, and almost seem purposefully dull and suggest they’re catering for a particular audience at a particular time. A world that has witnessed its second war and one of the worst humanity crimes in history might not be so hooked by something like this:

“Two stations beyond Dresden, an elderly gentleman entered out compartment, made a polite general greeting and then, raising his eyes, nodded to me in particular as if to a firm acquaintance”

Pre-war, diminishing Victorian social mores would likely to, and did respond to this, but it looks quickly antiquated.

Quality and commercialism are not necessarily polar opposites. George Orwell began a resurgence of Dickens and he hasn’t been forgotten since. To understand the importance of Zweig is again, is to understanding the idea of having and resisting to say something. Zweig was in tune with his world ; he traveled, conversed and was from one of the great cultural hotspots of its time, where as already mentioned, Freud, and the likes of Mann were working, liaising and arguing.

And so beneath this tempered prose, his embellishment is perhaps a kind of repression threatening to break through: Zweig is an adept psychologist as much as he is a writer. Take “24 Hours in a Woman’s Life”. It’s reportage like, first person account, a clinical, yet casual mise-en-scéne of a well-ordered society (as they usually are). In a guest-house on the Italian Riveria, the narrator who could be Zweig (who could always be Zweig), is witnessing a discussion almost boil over into an argument. There are several different nationalities and types of people in the guest-house, but there is at least one thing that unites them all:

“Thus it was the day in our thoroughly bourgeois group of regular diners, who otherwise stuck to innocuous small talk and mild little pleasantries and usually went their separate ways after the meal was over: the German couple to their excursions and amateur photography, the portly Dane to his tedious angling, the refined English lady to her books, the Italian couple to their escapades in Monte Carlo, and I lolling in the garden chair or to my work.”

These are not stories about stories, and even though it does tell us many things about the guest-house, it inadvertently tells us something about the narrator. It is ironic, yet not self-conscious, and the author is unconscious of themselves if anything. It’s a mine of details. Look at those telling Jamesian modifiers; ‘thoroughly bourgeois‘; tedious angling’; ‘refined English lady’. . All this is blown apart when one of the wives runs away with a mysterious Frenchman that had just been staying at the guest-house. But it is the refined English lady that becomes the focal point. The lid is lifted, and whatever desires those people have been suppressing in order to maintain the society are unscrewed and dispersed.

Zweig is able to observe it acutely from that bourgeois position- “The testiness began, I think, with both of the married men instinctively wanting to dismiss the possibility that such perils and abasement might befall their own wives”– naturally. Harlot and wanton most of them describe the woman’s infidelity, but the English lady supports the woman’s actions and in turn, relays her repressed secret. It takes one to know one.

The narrator though describes the husband’s meltdown as “it’s natural that all this, striking like lightning before our very eyes…” and this image of lightning recurs throughout the stories, as both a physical and metaphysical phenomenon. But note the use of ‘natural’ as well. There is a constant feeling that, although on the surface life may be natural and normal, but either beneath or beyond, there always something supernatural, superhuman threatening to break through.

Although a story is not literally re-told in ‘Incident on Lake Geneva’, it is effectively a failure of this, when language is a barrier rather than a bridge. And again, it has that less than emphatic title and opening, yet there is something threatening to disturb the normal order; in this case a “a curious object on the surface of the water”. This object transpires to be a Russian man, and again we have the image of somebody fleeing, pertinently adding to the contemporaneity.

The man has left his war-stricken homeland, but has no recourse to language. Here is also where Zweig deploys his ability to evoke the swift, fickle changes in human emotion and perception:

“Without moving, the fugitive gazed after him, and the farther off the one person who knew his language went, the more the brightness that had entered his countenance faded away”.

Hope then despair in a breath.

It is about perception though, literal becoming metaphoric as is the case with the ‘curious object’ above. The gaze attaches to something and inadvertently transforms and becomes transformed in itself. This is why Zweig is a thoroughly modern writer and perhaps indicates why there was an academic abandonment of him at the turn of postmodernity, narratives and meta-narratives, rather than the humble story itself.

‘The Invisible Collection’ has a melancholic feel as an antiquarian art dealer in search of more stock goes through the list of his old customers and visits one he knows to have prints of Rembrandt and Duras. Following his trail he arrives at another provincial, rich setting “full of petty-bourgeoise junk”. The collector is blind, and believing that he still has these prints, his daughters actually sold them during the war to generate some income, but replaced them with blank sheets of paper. Obviously he cannot buy these prints now, so he becomes complicit in the deception. Upon meeting the man however, he states:

“Ever since childhood I have always felt ill at ease in the presence of the sightless. I can never get over a sort of shame and embarrassment at perceiving a living person in front of me and knowing that he cannot perceive me in the same way.”

Perception doesn’t happen in the eyes but in the brain, and they don’t just happen, they are constructed with more than just visual stimuli. Look how the man on the surface was at first an object. What goes on beneath visual perception? Is the mind that feeds it sanctity or sanatorium? Noble in a quest for truth or just another layer of deception? The stories seem to culminate in suggesting the latter to those questions, in the long, final story ‘A Game of Chess’.

Back on the water, a cruise-ship bound for Buenos Aires. The narrator sees a frenzy of photographers and media frenzy around the world chess champion Mirko Czentovic. Ironically, while the inner workings has been something of intrigue, and knowing that Chess Grand-masters are usually highly intelligent people with an ability to process and anticipate many moves ahead in advance, Czentovic “cannot even write a single, properly spelt sentence in any language”.

The language barriers means that the narrator cannot approach the Grand-master for a game, but attracted by his enigma, he lures him into a game by setting up a chess table, a ‘primitive trap’. He observes that Chess, “as in love, a partner is indispensable”. There it is again, the unacknowledged begging to be acknowledged, much like love but also like war, no? This is what makes Zweig’s writings  modern and important; the internal battle beneath the external one, the dialectic of mind and madness, and what can and cannot be suppressed. Are these really the stories of characters Zweig meets or just his need to expel a story, tell a lie with a lie and choosing what not to say?

In ‘Chess’ the importance of within probably presides and why it takes a darker, ulterior tone, and more obviously. What happens externally though is that the narrator teams up with a Scottish man also travelling on the boat, who, thanks to his insatiable competitive desire, they continue to play him, and eventually, with the help of a mercurial stranger, earn a draw. As a result they want to set-up a game with the Austrian stranger and Czentovic, but when the man refuses claiming not to have sat at a chess-board in twenty-five years, it takes another therapeutic offloading before he will sit for a game.

He reveals that when the German’s swept through Austria he was tortured for information by being left in a room that was completely bare, and nothing to stimulate the mind. As a way of combatting the solitude, the man, after stealing one of the guard’s books (a collection of one hundred championship matches moves and results), recreates in his mind, games of chess. He does it to alleviate the torture but it becomes a form of torture in itself, as he states that it is a ‘logical absurdity’ to play chess against oneself, to split and deceive ones own mind:

“If black and white are one and the same person, a preposterous situation is produced in which a single mind is supposed both to know something and not to know it, so that its white self should, by self-command, forget all the aims and intentions of its black self a minute earlier.”

Whether it is actually impossible or not to deceive your self would require a life-work mediation, but even though we constantly tell lies to ourselves a part of us knows the truths. This is Zweig at his best. Constantly, cognitive scientists tell us how the mind is like a computer, but a computer lacks the essential part and essence – consciousness – it’s exceptional mystery but also its folly. Why is the brain the only part of the human anatomy that is said to work like something else rather than the other way round? Regardless, the black and the white are of the same body, the dark underside to existence.

Like the denouement of Anderson’s film suggest, beneath all the beauty, artistry and wonder, there is the dark-side that even the greatest minds don’t want to acknowledge at times, yet even when they don’t, it leaks through. Zweig’s compatriot and friend, Freud, understood this. You can see the global tragedy behind the veneer of fiction, and when Zweig  finally acknowledged it, he embraced it tragically.

Thank you to Alma for providing a review copy. 

Review: A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing

Eimear McBride’s novel heralds onto the scene. The ‘coming of age’ is hardly an under-cooked format, but it’s hardly ever going to stop being interesting. McBride though is tackling it in a startling new way. This is the first line. And what a first line to start your published career with.
“For you. You’ll soon. You’ll give her name. In the stitches of her skin she’ll wear you say. Mammy me? Yes you. Bounce the bed, i’d say. I’d say that’s what you did. Then lay you down. They cut you round. Wait and hour and day”
Naturally we’re thinking of Joyce’s Portrait… and those first lines of the father teaching his son about the ‘moo-cow’ and the ‘baby tuckoo’. But unlike Joyce’s classic text, where Stephen Dedalus gradually mature’s from those juvenile perceptions, McBride’s protagonist (nameless like the other characters) stays with this immediate conception.

The allusions to Joyce come naturally, but it becomes apparent that there is not a necessarily Joycean narrative to her work, despite, like Stephen Dedalus, the trajectory is from infancy to the early twenties. Her brother’s illness boils away in the background whilst the protagonist must tackle with the identity crisis of her emerging years. But where Joyce (at Portrait…stage at least) was dipping in and out of Dedalus’ consciousness, Macbride fully immerses the reader into the chaotic, reactionary mind of this female. Dedalus’ mission was to break free from the religious dogma to become the artist, A Girl is a… is striving for something with a much greater pretext and fluid – her identity despite religion being a constant presence throughout her life. The ‘Holy Family’ as she refers to it in her early days has her,
“Such worshipping behind the bedroom door. With their babies and babies lining up like stairs. For mother of perpetual suffering prolapsed to hysterectomied. A life spent pushing insides out for it displeased Jesus to give that up.”
Gradually though, the religion that she is forced to live under, accept and live by enters her processing consciousness and leaks out into her frantic thoughts. When she starts coming into her sexuality in her early teens, it poses the kind of questions a life under religion does. It almost becomes scathing.

Yet there is another dimension that is more disturbing. McBride introduces the girl’s Uncle, who throughout constantly manipulates and exploits his niece for sex. It is brave, bold, and unflinchingly graphic at times.
“Two stairs. Three at a time if I can. Leave it. Sitting room. Watching there the telly all of them. I’ll be on my own. Be quiet insides. Don’t be fucked up. I will wait. This out. He’ll [Uncle] be gone. Quite soon. I’ll be pure to then. I will. It’ll be. It’ll be. Fine”
The big other of religion and the Uncle become entwined and confused and rather than it being about religion per se it is those oppressive things that can become enwrapped in that sense of the big other. There are at times, because religion is the thing she has grown up in, it is also her resort. And so we have the kaleidoscopic elements of life that serve and oppress us, constantly skewing the picture. Despite this, it is distinctly chronological in a linear coming of age way (Beckett is perhaps there closer contemporary). Eros and Thanatos are duelling it has an almost Baudelaireian view on sex and is difficult to view it as beautiful or destructive.

Noticeably, there is a constant allusion, and return to sea imagery, which is more reminiscent of Woolfe as if a metaphor for her equilibrium and state of mind: “Strange. Pushed out to the ocean of school. Wave back occasionally to her shore”. This is an wide-ranging metaphor to explore when the narrator is trying conceptualise her life, but it sustains and provides some poetic images, and is particularly powerful towards the end of the novel. In fact, the last part of the novel is one of the strongest I have read this year. It also provides respite from the immediate cluttered perceptions of the narrator, and is not only escape for her, but for the reader as well of this damaged life.

A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride is out now (240pp), published by Galley Beggar Press (£11). Thank you to them for providing a review copy.