316. (Anton Chekhov)

Some Notes on Chekhov:

–The doubleness of the short story as he writes it: amazement at the vista of a life that could fill an novel; relief that we are not asked to read a novel about that life. (Analogous to staring at the sublimity of a hostile landscape).

–Each story a formal invention to register habit and routine as both the source and consequence of change.

–Any character in Chekhov is capable of wisdom, but their wisdom is inseparable from something selfish, petty, self-involved, warped; it does not just break through, or out of, those tainted self-reckonings (as in Tolstoy, perhaps) but is completely at one with them.

— In “A Boring Story,” one of Chekhov’s greatest works and also one that is set apart from others in its formal leanings–first person, retrospective, contemplative–the narrator, an aged, esteemed, but fairly run of the mill, professor comments on how strange he feels at family dinners, his wife and daughter inaccessible to him: “An abrupt change has taken place in them both, I missed the long process by which this change came about, and it’s no wonder I don’t understand anything.” His words seem to come into contact with something at the heart of Chekov’s understanding of the world–something perhaps akin to faith: changes happen, but are themselves the sum of many other, smaller, imperceptible changes, each fleeting before us before it can be grasped, and so much in others and ourselves defies understanding.

–Chekov’s bittersweet owes to the fleetingness he sees at the core of things; he too wants to recapture and hold on the page lost time, but whereas Proust transfigures lost time into something else, so that its recovery is also its redemption, a nexus of moments fused into a self that encompasses all of them, Chekhov would hold lost time as the time that is inseparable from dissolution, where every point of arrival is a point of departure also, and where identity is that which endures changes, as routine and habit, rather than containing or reconciling them. Like Proust, he is a great writer of habit as well as time.

–Chekhov’s stories are occasioned by, and center upon, the moments when identity asserts itself through and against fleetingness, when the desires, actions, and memories that usually merely happen to people as they go about their lives are suddenly proof of self, of personhood, which otherwise are lost from view in time.

–Chekhov is not much bothered by, or perplexed by, identity; the self that endures unnoticed, unaware, without self-consciousness or self-reflection, until it is noticed, made aware to others and itself, or attempts to thus make others aware: that draws his imagination.

–It feels entirely foreign and unsuitable to speak of “revelation” of anything in Chekhov; there is a sudden coalescence or appearance of self, but it does not pierce through a veil of life, but happens on the surface of it.

—The color of light in a Chekhov story is late morning sky-blue. The temperature is 38 degrees. Enough to make bare fingers uncomfortable but not enough to freeze the puddles.


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