Showing posts with label Fiction. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Fiction. Show all posts

10 June 2014

Lady with Lapdog and other stories by Anton Chekhov [1899]

This is a collection of short stories by an author that many people consider to be the master of this form.  

I last read Chekhov's stories when I was at school but I think my experience 20 years later was very different. There is an overwhelming and pervasive mood of melancholy hanging over these stories. I read them in English - there is no way I could read a Russian story for pleasure - but my recollection is that this mood is intensified when you read them in Russian. 

The standout piece in this collection is Ward 6 [1892]. It's a very dark long short story about how a director of a mental asylum transforms from being nominally in charge of the asylum to being committed as a patient. This is not just melancholy, it is a bleak nightmare. The point is that no-one can be in charge of the asylum: the institution itself shapes and devours those who come into contact with it. Ward 6 reads strikingly like Kafka, but predates Kafka by about 30 years, which is noteworthy when you consider how original Kafka's vision seems to us today. 
I think that this is the fundamental point I never appreciated 20 years ago - namely, what a modern author Chekhov is. The questions raised by Ward 6 about authenticity, truth and guilt are existential questions of the post-Great War era. What is also interesting is that the environment in which these questions are posed feels pre-modern. 19th century Russia seems foreign and distant in a way that 19th century France does not in Zola's novels, for example. 
I have been trying to work out why this should be since I read the stories a few weeks ago, and I think the answer is that Russia is not and has never been a European country and Europeans fool themselves to think that this might or could be the case. Even though Chekhov's bourgeois women wear similar clothes to their counterparts in Paris, there seems something asiatic or even oriental about the way they behave which makes them sit uneasily in the context of 19th century European literature.

I am really grateful that reading these stories made me think about Russia and Russian-ness. There is a broader point to be made here about Russia's relationship with the rest of the world and in particular with modern institutions such as democracy or the EU, but I have certainly not read widely enough to elucidate it. 

One final point is that certain really clever people like to point out what a funny author Chekhov is. I still don't see this - at no point did I even smirk during these stories. If anything, there were pretty depressing, which means I will be rationing my future consumption.

24 May 2014

The Gambler by Fyodor Dostoevsky [1867]

I picked this up because I recently spent a weekend in Baden-Baden, the German spa town which provided (some of) the inspiration for 'Roulettenburg' in this short novel.  The central theme is the contrast between life when gambling on the one hand and everything else. Through its intensity, gambling makes all other aspects of the characters' lives seem trite and monotonous. This creates a sense of existential despair which feels very modern.

The gambling scenes are not enjoyable to read - there is a mania which grips the players which is deeply disconcerting. The pleasures of occasional victory are incredibly transient and limited to within the gaming room. On the occasion that the main character Alexei Ivanovich does manage to leave the casino with a fortune, he does not enjoy spending it. The scenes in Paris when he is extravagantly blowing his winnings with his spendthrift mistress Madam de Cominges are peculiarly joyless and really just an intermission before he can start gambling again. In fact, the more one thinks about the book, the more one realizes is that the draw of gambling is not the winning but the losing, of going to zero. I can't work out whether there is a valid sexual metaphor here or not – it's the sort of image I would have had no compunction about using 20 years ago, but I am now a little more circumspect. 

There is a huge amount in this short book and I really enjoyed it.

One other point: one of the recurrent images in the book is of hordes of Russians swooping into this small German spa town; my experience in 2014 was not entirely dissimilar as there seemed to be big groups of Russians all over town. However, I understand that they gamble less now and are now more interested in getting their money out of Russia and investing in hard German assets.

23 February 2014

McSweeney's 45 - Hitchcock and Bradbury Fistfight in Heaven [2013]

I read this because I subscribed recently to McSweeney's.  

It's a collection of short stories from separate collections edited by Malcolm Bradbury and Alfred Hitchcock in the 1950s, together with some new stories.  Some of the stories are by well-known authors such as The Sound Machine by Roald Dahl and In the Penal Colony by Franz Kafka and I had read these before.  

Of the new stories, these are the ones which stay with me:

Julian May's Dune Roller is great science fiction.  Very pulpy but also very evocative of the dunes alongside Lake Michigan.  

For all the Rude People by Jack Ritchie is a tremendous vigilante fantasy in which rudeness is punished by murder.  Really satisfying in a slightly shameful way.

Sorry, Wrong Number by Lucille Fletcher and Allan Ullman reads like a Patricia Highsmith story with the same atmospheric immorality and inevitable escalation of suspense.  This was the story in the collection that I enjoyed the most, and when I finished it I thought what a great movie it would make.

This collection made me realise that I don't read enough short stories (or indeed, science fiction); it also made me appreciate how difficult it is to write short stories.  

The book is beautifully-made, with an amazing cover by Tavis Coburn.  I am really pleased that I picked it up.

15 February 2014

Middlemarch by George Eliot [1874]

I picked this up because I had never read it and it seemed a glaring omission and I'm really glad I did.  

Some interesting things which have stayed with me:

The character of Casaubon.  Eliot refers to him several times as resembling John Locke. This struck me as very apt but it was not until I finished the book that I looked up a picture of Locke and found that it exactly mirrors the mental image I had:  

Casaubon identifies himself with the creation of an all-encompassing theory of mythology; however, it becomes clear to the reader (and it becomes clear that Casaubon also realizes this) that he has no chance of executing this, and that in fact any publication of his ideas will expose his own inadequacy.  Casaubon allied himself and his identity to this lofty vision as a younger man, and then was unwilling to give it up when he realized that he could not fulfil his potential.  

The character of Fred Vincy. He initially identifies himself as an aristocratic sportsman of independent means but his expectations are dashed following a highly melodramatic bit of nonsense involving a will of a distant relation.  As a result, he is forced to work for a living by apprenticing himself as a land agent to Caleb Garth.  This resetting of his expectations and transition from a life of leisure to one of duty allows him to marry and achieve some sort of peace, in contrast to Casaubon.

Lydgate's marriage to Rosamond.  A really delicate and well-executed portrait of a marriage by an intelligent man to the wrong woman for the wrong reasons.  Unlike her brother Fred, Rosamond cannot reset her expectations.  Her refusal to acknowledge the household's growing financial problems felt strikingly modern to me.

However, the central character of Dorothea left me rather cold.  I also wish I had known more about the 1832 Reform Act before I read the book because I think this would have made my reading richer.  I will definitely read it again.

Reading Middlemarch made me think a lot about youthful ambition and expectation and the difficulty we have in moving beyond this.