Stuff I’ve Been Reading: November 2004
- Deception—Philip Roth
- Wonder Boys—Michael Chabon
- The Essential Tales of Chekhov
- Ward No. 6 and Other Stories, 1892–1895—Anton Chekhov
- The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories—Leo Tolstoy
- On and Off the Field—Ed Smith
- A Life in Letters—Anton Chekhov
- Reading Chekhov: A Critical Journey—Janet Malcolm
- Oh, Play That Thing—Roddy Doyle
I have been meaning to read a book about cricket for awhile, with the sole intention of annoying you all. I even toyed with the idea of reading only cricket books this entire month, but then I realized that this would make it too easy for you to skip the whole column; this way, you have to wade through the cricket to get to the Chekhov and the Roddy Doyle. I’m presuming here that very few of you have ever seen a cricket match, and if you have, you are almost certain to have been both mystified and stupefied: this, after all, is a game which, in its purest form (there are all sorts of cheap-thrills bastardized versions now), lasts for five days and very frequently ends in a tie: five days is not quite long enough to get through everything that needs doing in a cricket match, especially as you can’t play in the rain.
The funny thing is that we actually do like cricket here in England—it’s not some hey-nonny-no phony heritage thing, like Morris dancing (horrific bearded men with sticks and bells), or cream teas. Thirty or forty years ago it was our equivalent of baseball, an all-consuming summer sport that drove football off the back pages of newspapers completely for three months; now Beckham and the rest of them get the headlines even when they’re lying on Caribbean beaches. But big international matches still sell out, and every now and again the England team starts winning, and we renew our interest.
Ed Smith reminds traditionalists of a time when cricketers were divided into two camps, “Gentlemen” and “Players”; the former were private-school boys and university graduates from upper-middle-class backgrounds, the latter horny-handed professionals who weren’t even allowed to share a dressing room with their social betters. Smith is a Cambridge graduate who reviews fiction for one of the broadsheet newspapers. He’s also good-looking, well-spoken, articulate, and he has played for England, so perhaps not surprisingly, On and Off the Field, his diary of a season, attracted a fair bit of attention, all of it, as far as I can tell, admiring. Where’s the fairness in that? You’d think that if critics had any use at all, it would be to give our golden boys and girls a fearsome bashing, but of course you can’t even rely on them for that.
To be fair to the critics, Smith didn’t give them much ammunition: On and Off the Field is terrific, exactly the sort of book you want from a professional sportsman but you never get: it’s self-analytical (even if, after the self-analysis, he attributes some of his early-season failure to sheer bad luck), wry, and honest. The sports memoir is such a debased form—George Best, the biggest football star of the sixties and seventies, has “written” five autobiographies to date, and he hasn’t kicked a ball for thirty-odd years—but On and Off the Field is different: the photo on the back depicts Smith slumped against a wall, the very epitome of defeated misery. Defeated misery is what all sport is about, eventually, if you follow the story for long enough; all sportsmen know this, but Smith is one of the very few capable not only of recognizing this bitter truth, but acknowledging it in print. I know you’re not going to read it. But let’s say I’ve read it on your behalf, and we’ve all enjoyed it.
To my surprise, I managed to read, in its entirety, one of the many books of collected letters I inexplicably bought last month. Why I read it, however, is almost as mysterious as why I bought it in the first place; or rather, I’m not sure why I felt I had to read every word of every letter.After a little while, you get the pattern: letters to his feckless brothers tend to be fiercely admonitory (and therefore fun); letters to his mother and sister tend to be purely domestic, functional, and a little on the dull side (“Tell Arseny to water the birch tree once a week, and the eucalyptus”); letters to his wife, Olga Knipper, are embarrassingly slushy, and the letters he wrote to Alexey Suvorin, his publisher, are the letters I was hoping for when I started the book: they’re the ones where you’re most likely to find something about writing. I should have stuck to the Suvorin letters, but you get addicted to the (mostly sleepy) rhythms of Chekhov’s quotidian life.
Chekhov, as you probably know (I don’t know why, but I always think of you lot knowing everything, pretty much, apart from the rules of cricket) started life as a hack, a journalist who wrote short comic articles for various Russian periodicals while training and then practicing as a doctor. And then, in 1886, when he was just beginning to take his writing more seriously, he received the sort of letter most young writers can only dream of getting. Dmitry Grigorovich, a respected older novelist, wrote out of the blue to tell him he was a genius, and he should stop pissing around.
I know from personal experience that these letters have a galvanizing effect at first. But once you’ve had twenty or thirty of them, you start to chuck them straight into the bin once you’ve checked out the signature. I had a rule that I’d only take any notice if the correspondent had a Pulitzer or a Nobel; if you get involved with every two-bit literary legend who wants to be your friend, you’d never get any work done. Some of them can be a real pain. (Salinger? Reclusive? Yeah, I wish.) Anyway, Chekhov’s reply to Grigorovich is every bit as humbled, as sweetly thunderstruck, as you’d want it to be.
“Everyone has seen a Cherry Orchard or an Uncle Vanya, while very few have even heard of ‘The Wife’ or ‘In the Ravine,’” says Janet Malcolm in her short, moving, clever book Reading Chekhov. Perhaps this isn’t the right time to talk about what “everyone” means here, although one is entitled to stop and wonder at the world in which our men and women of letters live—not “everyone” has seen a football match or an episode of Seinfeld, let alone a nineteenth-century Russian play. But she’s right, of course, to point out that his stories languish in relative obscurity. In his introduction to the Essential Tales, Richard Ford writes about tackling the stories before he was old enough to realize that their plainness was deceptive, and though I hate that “writers’ writer” stuff (after a lifetime of reading, I can officially confirm that readers’ writers beat writers’ writers every time), I can see what he means. When you’re young and pretentious, you want your Greats to come with bells on, otherwise you can’t see what the fuss is about, and there are no bells in those stories.
What’s remarkable about the letters is that the drama hardly comes up at all. Every now and again, Chekhov tells someone that he’s just written a rubbish new play, or that he’s hopeless at the craft. “Reading through my newly born play convinces me more than ever that I’m not a playwright,” he says when writing to Suvorin about The Seagull; Three Sisters is “boring, sluggish and awkward.” He’d have been staggered at the way things have turned out. His working life was about prose—and money. He tells just about anyone who’ll listen how much he got for this, and how much they could get for that.
The letters are full of useful advice—advice that holds good even now. “Sleeping with a whore, breathing right in her mouth, endlessly listening to her pissing…where’s the sense in that? Civilized people don’t simply obey their baser instincts. They demand more from a woman than bed, horse sweat and the sound of pissing.” He’s right, of course. There’s no sense in that, at all. But that pissing sound is sort of addictive after a few years, isn’t it? If you haven’t even started listening to it, then I can only urge you never to do so.
Apart from the peculiar obsession with the sound of pissing, there’s a modern writing life described here. There’s the money thing, of course, but there’s also gossip, and endless charitable activity, and fame (Chekhov was recognized everywhere he went). He’s also the only genius I’ve come across who had no recognition of, or interest in, the immensity of his own talent.
As a special bonus, you also get some of those bad biopic comedy moments thrown in. “I went to see Lev Tolstoy the day before yesterday,” he writes to Gorky. “He was full of praise for you, and said you were a ‘splendid writer.’ He likes your ‘The Fair’ and ‘In The Steppe,’ but not ‘Malva.’ ”You just know that there’s only three words in this letter Gorky would have registered, and that he spent the rest of the day too depressed to get out of bed.
This month, my bookshelves functioned exactly as they are supposed to. I’d just finished the Chekhov and dimly remembered buying Janet Malcom’s book when it was first published. And then I found it, and read it. And enjoyed it. You forget that the very best literary critics are capable of being very clever about people and life, as well as books: there’s a brilliant passage here where Malcolm, who is travelling around Russia visiting Chekhov’s houses, links her feelings over the return of a lost bag to her feelings about travel: “[Our homes] are where the action is; they are where the riches of experience are distributed… Only when faced with one of the inevitable minor hardships of travel do we break out of the trance of tourism and once again feel the sharp savor of the real.” I can’t understand, though, why she thinks that the letters between Chekhov and Olga Knipper “make wonderful reading.” I’ve only read Chekhov’s side, but she seems to have reduced the man to mush: “My little doggie,” “my dear little dog,” “my darling doggie,” “Oh, doggie, doggie,” “my little dog,” “little ginger-haired doggie,” “my coltish little doggie,” “my lovely little mongrel doggie,” “my darling, my perch,” “my squiggly one,” “dearest little colt,” “my incomparable little horse,” “my dearest chaffinch”… For god’s sake, pull yourself together, man! You’re a major cultural figure!
Knipper and Chekhov were together only rarely in their short marriage (she was acting in St. Petersburg, he was trying to keep warm in Yalta) and Malcolm seems to suggest rather sadly that famous men and women with more conventional relationships rob biographers of future source material, because they have no reason to write to each other. On the evidence here, all couples should be compelled by law to spend twenty-four hours a day together, three hundred and sixty-five days a year, just in case either partner is tempted to call the other a chaffinch, or a perch, or an aardvark, in writing.
Malcolm, however, is one of those people so sweetly devoted to her subject that she won’t recognize flaws as flaws, but as strengths—or, at least, as characteristics. There’s this pedestal—I don’t know anyone who’s even seen it, but it’s there—and once you’re up on it, people stop telling you that you can’t do this, or you’re useless at that, and start wondering why you have allowed something that looks like uselessness to appear in your work. Christopher Ricks did it in his recent book Dylan’s Visions of Sin: he becomes very troubled by a ropy rhyme (“rob them”/“problem”) in “Positively Fourth Street,” and then nags at it until the ropy rhyme becomes yet another example of Bob’s genius: “It must be granted that if these lines induce queasiness, they do make a point of saying ‘No, I do not feel that good.’ So an unsettling rhyme such as problem/rob them might rightly be hard to stomach…” The notion that Dylan might have just thought, “Oh, fuck it, that’ll do” never crosses Ricks’s mind for a moment.
Malcolm does her own, perhaps more self-aware version of this when talking about the troublingly “abrupt” and “unmotivated” changes of character in Chekhov’s stories:“ after enough time goes by, a great writer’s innovations stop looking like mistakes.” See, I’m at that early stage, where everything still looks like a mistake, so I would have liked Ms. Malcolm to be a little more precise with the figures here. What’s “enough time”? Just, you know, roughly? Are we talking six months? Two years? I don’t really want to have to wait much longer than that.
I’ve known Roddy Doyle for a while now. I read him before I met him, and the Barrytown trilogy was an important source of inspiration for me when I was starting out: who knew that books written with such warmth and simplicity could be so complex and intelligent? On this side of the Atlantic, at least, Doyle single-handedly redefined what we mean by “literary” fiction. Oh, Play That Thing is the second part of the trilogy that began with A Star Called Henry; it’s set in the United States during the twenties and thirties, and features Louis Arm-strong as a central character, so I’ve been reading it while listening to Hot Fives and Sevens on my iPod.
Reading reviews and interviews with him over the last few weeks, one is reminded that there’s nothing critics like less than a writer producing something that he hasn’t done before—apart, that is, from a writer producing more of the same. One reviewer complained that Doyle used to write short books, and now they’ve gone fat; another that he used to write books set in Dublin, and he should have kept them there; another that he used to write with a child’s-eye view, and now he’s writing about adults. All of these criticisms, of course, could have been based on the catalogue copy, rather than on the book itself—a two-line synopsis and information about the number of pages would have received exactly the same treatment. You’re half-expecting someone to point out that back in the day he used to write books that sold for a tenner, and now they’ve gone up to seventeen quid.
What he’s doing, of course, is the only thing a writer can do: he’s writing the books that he wants, in the way he wants to. He wants to write about different things, and to add something to the natural talent that produced those early books. I wouldn’t want to read any-one who did anything else—apart from P. G. Wodehouse, who did exactly the same thing hundreds of times over. So where does that leave us? Pretty much back where we started, I suppose. That’s the beauty of this column, even if I do say it myself.