Friday, September 09, 2011

A post suitable to the Friday of what has been a very long week, with too much work and not enough piano playing, but at least the right number of martinis

I originally intended to build tonight's post around a passage from the wonderfully cracked, cascading, brilliant lunacy of Marguerite Young's Miss Mackintosh, My Darling (1965), the subject of the World's Least Popular Book Club (New Members Welcome!). A passage like this, for example:
He could not be easily persuaded, he believed, even by the intoxicating, contagious madness of an angelic, lawless woman he had always compassionately, profoundly loved, one for whom he would have sacrificed his life, his own best interests, having loved her just as much as his dead brother had hated her, scorning impatiently her love, not returning it, even making light of it in a most high-handed manner, even saying she had only pretended to be insane. Perhaps Mr. Spitzter loved her even more than his brother had hated her. His brother had been insolent, a gambler, a spender of borrowed money, a quick suicide, a four-flusher with a quick come-back, a ready apology or the banal dismissal of the need for apology, very different from cautious Mr. Spitzer, who claimed never to have placed a bet on even that which he had been most certain of. His brother had been worldly, but Mr. Spitzer had always been, if he might sometimes say so, unworldly and abstruse.

Though she tormented Mr. Spitzer endlessly, sometimes implying that he did not exist, it was perhaps because, after all, in spite of the fact that she could be committed to no one, her imagination floating through unknown amplitudes, she had become grudgingly fond of him, this one faithful caller, he at least providing her a rare amusement.
The suggested searches in this 1,000-page novel at Amazon? "Suffrage captain," "great shiek," opium lady," "black king," "little shadow boxer," and "ghost buggy." (Did I mention that the book club is accepting new members? We'll waive the initiation fee!)

But then, on the bus heading home from work, a soft autumn rain plickering the windows as the gray of Lake Michigan roiled in the distance, I read this passage, from Chekhov's The Duel (1891):
"And last night, for instance, I comforted myself by thinking repeatedly: Oh, how right Tolstoy is, how unmercifully right! And this made me feel better. In point of fact, brother, he truly is a great writer! Regardless of what anyone says."

Samoylenko, having never read Tolstoy but spent each day preparing to read him, felt embarrassed and said:

"Yes, all writers write from the imagination, but he's straight from nature . . ."
Which brings to mind this passage from Chekhov's letters, sent to A. S. Suvorin on May 4, 1889:
Nature is an excellent sedative. It pacifies--that is, it makes one indifferent. And it is essential in this world to be indifferent. Only those who are indifferent are able to see things clearly, to be just and to work. Of course, I am only speaking of intelligent people of fine natures; the empty and selfish are indifferent enough any way.
Chekhov, even when he's being intentionally provocative, as seems likely here, always comes across as fundamentally decent, an opinion which has thus far been borne out by everything I've read about him. Lilian Hellman, in an introduction to a collection of Chekhov's letters, wrote,
Chekhov was a pleasant man, witty and wise and tolerant and kind, with nothing wishywashy in his kindness nor self-righteous in his tolerance, and his wit was not ill-humored. He would have seen through you, of course, as he did through everybody, but being seen through doesn't hurt too much if it's done with affection.
Tolstoy, on the other hand, was, as is well known, nearly as horrible, at least to his family, as he was brilliant. Berryman's assessment of Rilke would suit: Tolstoy was a shit. As a husband, he calls to mind the end of Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man Is Hard to Find": Tolstoy would have been a good husband, "if it had been somebody there to shoot [him] every minute of [his] life."

So for Friday, my love to Tolstoy's work, my admiration to Marguerite Young's ambition and singularity, but a seat at my bar for Chekhov, who need do nothing more than sit quietly, listening to the piano and nodding, perhaps pausing once in a while to wipe the foam from his mustache.

 Enjoy the weekend, folks.

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