Saturday, September 12, 2015

what papa exists for is unknown - Chekhov makes it strange

Twenty-five stories in The Cook’s Wedding & Other Stories, seventeen about children in one way or another, five about animals in ways that are thematically relevant to the childhood stories, and then the last three, one a gag story about fishing, one about the creation of religious art and the other a screwy murder mystery, that as far as I can tell have nothing to do with children.  All but one story from 1883 to 1888.  The exception, “Whitebrow” (1895) is about a wolf and her cubs and her accidental adoption of a puppy – this is what I mean by thematically relevant, nothing more than that.

Given that they are almost all little – six, eight, ten-page – stories cranked out on a weekly basis for newspapers, pure ephemera, there is no reason they should even be readable anymore, much less works of art.  Hacks of genius are different than other hacks.

Some stories are from the perspective of children.  They are full of fine make-it-strange moments.  They are written for those moments.

Nurse and mamma are comprehensible: they dress Grisha, feed him, and put him to bed, but what papa exists for is unknown.  There is another enigmatical person, auntie, who presented Grisha with a drum.  She appears and disappears.  (“Grisha,” 50)

The story practically ends with a Joycean epiphany, but at the level of a child who is not yet three.

This next one rips off a classic Yiddish joke.  “I learned my name is Irving.”  Look it up; it’s a good one.

The assistant asked each one his name. and his father’s name, where he lived, how long he had been ill, and so on.  From his mother’s answers, Pashka learned that his name was not Pashka, but Pavel Galaktionov, that he was seven years old, that he could not read or write, and that he had been ill ever since Easter.  (“The Runaway,” 36)

It’s Pashka’s first trip to the hospital, one of many Chekhov compassionate but exasperated stories about the ignorance of peasants.  The child’s perspective makes the ignorance more forgivable.  Like it’s his fault.

In other stories, the point of view is that of an adult, so it is the children who look strange.  In “Home,” a father knows he should punish his son for smoking (the boy is seven).  But although an educated and kind man he does not quite understand his son:

From daily observation of his son the prosecutor had become convinced that children, like savages, have their own artistic standpoints and requirements peculiar to them, beyond the grasp of grown-up people…   Thus he [the boy] would depict the sounds of an orchestra in the form of smoke like spherical blurs, a whistle in the form of a spiral thread…  To his mind sound was closely connected with form and colour, so that when he painted letters he invariably painted the letter L yellow, M red, A black, and so on. (74, first set of ellipses mine, second Chekhov’s, or Garnett’s)

In other words, the boy has synesthesia.  He is Vladimir Nabokov, twelve years before his birth.  Nabokov’s colors were different – L white, M pink, etc.  I can’t remember Nabokov mentioning this story, but internet research tells me that Tolstoy especially liked it.  The father solves the problem by telling a moralistic story – “[t]his ending struck Yevgeny Petrovitch as absurd and naïve, but the whole story made an intense impression on Seryozha” – how Tolstoy must have agreed – but then ends on am impressionistic detail that would have made me date the story much later if I were guessing.  This is a great one.  Now usually translated as “At Home,” I think.

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