One-Minute Book Reviews

March 18, 2010

The Perfection of ‘Anna Karenina’ — Quote of the Day / Elif Batuman in ‘The Possessed’

Filed under: Quotes of the Day — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:35 am
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Anna Karenina is probably the most popular 19th-century Russian novel in the U.S. today and certainly the only one tapped for both Oprah’s book club and a forthcoming steampunk-influenced mashup. But there is no obvious reason why it should have more appeal than others by Leo Tolstoy and his compatriots. Anna Karenina lacks the scale of War and Peace. It tells a tragic story when many readers crave happy endings, and it reminds us that love doesn’t conquer all, a theme that clashes with a cultural fantasy.

Why is Anna Karenina nonetheless so alluring? Elif Batuman suggests an answer in her quirky and amusing essay collection, The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 286 pp., $15, paperback). Batuman writes of finding a 1970s edition of the novel during a summer visit to her grandmother’s apartment in Turkey:

“Nobody in Anna Karenina was oppressed, as I was, by the tyranny of leisure. The leisure activities in Tolstoy’s novel – ice skating, balls, horse races – were beautiful, dignified, and meaningful in terms of plot …

Anna Karenina was a perfect book, with an otherwordly perfection: unthinkable, monolithic, occupying a super-charged gray zone between nature and culture. How had any human being ever managed to write something simultaneously so big and so small – so serious and so light – so strange and so natural? The heroine didn’t turn up until chapter 18, and the book went on for 19 more chapters after her death, and Anna’s lover and her husband had the same name (Alexei). Anna’s maid and daughter were both called Anna, and Anna’s son and Levin’s half brother were both called Sergei. The repetition of names struck me as remarkable, surprising, and true to life.”

May 5, 2008

The Best Chekhov Short Story Collection for Book Groups and Others

Filed under: Short Stories — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:41 am
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Chekhov hoped that his work would help people live more decently

Ernest Hemingway once said that “Chekhov wrote about 6 good stories.” Many titans of the form have disagreed, including Raymond Carver and Alice Munro.

But Hemingway’s words suggest a truth: Chekhov wrote seven- or eight hundred stories, and not all are good. And old and new collections abound.

I looked into a dozen or so and found that perhaps the best widely available collection for nonscholars is Lady with the Little Dog and Other Stories, 1896-1904: Penguin Classics (384 pp., $12, paperback), translated by Ronald Wilks, with an introduction Paul Debreczney. It gathers 11 stories that Chekhov wrote in the last decade of life, when he did much of his best work. The tales include such masterpieces as “The Bride,” “The Bishop” and “Lady With the Little Dog.”

These stories generally have uncomplicated plots, ageless themes and realistic characters living in Russia before the Bolshevik Revolution. In “The Bride” a young woman must choose between a fiancé she doesn’t love and a life of greater freedom than marriage would offer her. In “Lady With the Little Dog,” a married man and woman stumble into an affair while vacationing without their spouses at Yalta, then must live with the decision after returning home. And in “The Bishop” a dying clergyman realizes that his official role has isolated him from his mother and others he loved.

Chekhov said he hoped that by telling the truth, he would help people live “more decently,” as the translator Avrahm Yarmolinksy put it. That goal may have been a blue-sky goal. But it helps to explain why, 104 years after their author’s death, Chekhov’s best stories remain among the most admired ever written.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

April 16, 2008

Travels With Chekhov

Filed under: Classics,Short Stories — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:55 am
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1 p.m. Wednesday. A church book club I attend is reading seven Chekhov short stories in April. The group chose a 1,104-page Stephen King novel in March. Chekhov should be easy compared with It.

5:30 p.m. Wednesday. My library has several collections of Chekhov’s work, but none has all the stories I need: “Peasants,” “The Bride,” “The Bishop,” “About Love,” “A Visit to Friends,” “The Lady With the Little Dog” and “The House With the Mezzanine.”

Out of sheer loyalty I pick up Constance Garnett’s 1962 translation of 15 stories. I owe a lot to Constance for her translations of War and Peace and Anna Karenina, the first I read. Many libraries purge books that haven’t been checked out in a while to make room for new ones. I feel I must support Constance by checking out her translation – even though I probably won’t read it – to keep her spot from going to a Mitch Albom novel.

I also get from the library two books that, between them, have three kinds of tape peeling from their spines: duct, clear and Scotch. They give Chekhov’s name as “Tchehov” and “Tchekoff” and have cream-colored pockets in the back. The three books I check out have only one of the stories I need, “The Bishop.”

10 p.m. Wednesday. Search the Web for the six other Chekhov stories. Get distracted by John Gross’s fine review of V.S. Pritchett’s Chekhov: A Sprit Set Free in the New York Times. Gross writes:

“It is as a story writer, in Sir Victor’s view, that Chekhov stands supreme. He is unhappy to see the stories overshadowed by the plays, as they tend to be nowadays — they seem to him far richer in texture; and to a considerable extent his book is an attempt to redress the balance.”

Gross adds:

“If you want to sample [Pritchett’s] quality, try his account of ‘The Bishop’ (one of Chekhov’s finest achievements — it reads, he observes, ‘like a sustained anthem’ to the writer’s own death).’”

Must have Chekhov: A Spirit Set Free by the late Sir Victor, a brilliant critic and perhaps the nearest English counterpart to Edmund Wilson.

Thursday, 4 p.m. The library doesn’t have Chekhov: A Sprit Set Free. But it does have Pritchett’s Complete Collected Essays, which has 10 pages on Chekhov. The book has 1,319 pages, only 215 more than It, and is one of my favorite books of criticism. How can I resist? I check it out along with a) the volume on Chekhov in the Twayne’s World Authors Series of brief critical studies, and b) Philip Callow’s Chekhov: The Hidden Ground, the only biography at the library that analyzes most of the stories on my list.

I now have six books about Chekhov but only one of the stories I need.

Thursday, 5:30 p.m. Visit a tiny but wonderful independent bookstore. It has two fine Chekhov collections: The Portable Chekhov, edited by Avrahm Yarmolinksy, and Peasants and Other Stories, nine tales selected and introduced by Edmund Wilson. I want the Wilson. But it’s a hardcover book that seems to have only one story I need apart from “The Bishop.” (Later I find out that it has “The Bride,” too, under an alternate title, “Betrothed,” and is available in paperback.) I buy The Portable Chekhov, which has The Cherry Orchard, seven letters and 28 stories, four of them on my list.

Yarmolinksy says in his introduction:

“The most characteristic of Chekhov’s stories lack purely narrative interest. They no more bear retelling than does a poem. Nothing thrilling happens in them, nor are the few reflective passages particularly compelling. Some of the tales, having neither beginning nor end, are, as Galsworthy put it, ‘all middle like a tortoise.’”

This does not diminish their impact, Yarmolinsky suggests:

“A man of sober and naturalistic temperament, Chekhov was dogged by the thought that our condition in this uncomfortable world is a baffling one. He liked to say that there was no understanding it. And, indeed, his writings heighten that sense of the mystery of life which is one of the effects of all authentic literature.”

Thursday, 11 p.m. Read “The Bishop,” the story of the last week in the life of a bishop. The bishop rejoices when his mother, whom he has not seen in years, visits during Holy Week. Yet her presence recalls a time when his position had not set him apart and he could unburden his heart to others. At vespers, he listens to chanting of monks:

“He sat by the altar where the shadows were deepest, and was swept in imagination back into the days of his childhood and youth, when he had first heard these words sung. The tears trickled down his cheeks, and he meditated on how he had attained everything in life that it was possible for a man in his position to attain; his faith was unsullied; and yet all was not clear to him; something was lacking, and he did not want to die. It seemed to him that he was leaving unfound the most important thing of all. Something of which he had dimly dreamed in the past, hopes that had thrilled his heart as a child, a schoolboy, and traveler in foreign lands, troubled him still.

Callow calls the tale “a parable of repressed love,” yet there is more to it than that Freudian interpretation might imply. It implicitly asks: What is life “about”? Most short stories are about a community of people. No matter how beautifully they evoke it, they stop there. “The Bishop” goes deeper. It may read like “a sustained anthem” to Chekhov’s death, but its song is not that of its author alone.

Saturday, 10 a.m. I still have only five of the stories I need. But if I read only “The Bishop,” I can stop right there with a profit. It would be a brilliant idea for any book club to read to read even two or three Chekhov stories instead of a novel at a meeting.

The quote from “The Bishop” comes from Russian Silhouettes: More Stories of Russian Life (Scribner’s, 1915), translated by Marian Fell. The full text of the Fell translation of the story appears here www.ibiblio.org/eldritch/ac/bishop.html.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

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April 14, 2008

Chekhov’s Short Stories – Coming Soon to One-Minute Book Reviews

Filed under: Uncategorized — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:59 pm
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“I have recently re-read much of Chekhov and it’s a humbling experience. I don’t even claim Chekhov as an influence because he influenced all of us. Like Shakespeare his writing shed the most perfect light — there’s no striving in it, no personality. Well, of course, wouldn’t I love to do that!”

Alice Munro

Writers tend to revere Anton Chekhov for his short stories. But others may know him better for his frequently revived plays, including Uncle Vanya, The Seagull, The Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard. What do Chekhov’s stories offer to people who don’t hope to become the next Alice Munro, the Canadian titan of the form? One-Minute Book Reviews will consider the question soon.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

January 7, 2008

A One-Minute Book Review of ‘War and Peace’ Coming Wednesday

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:02 pm
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You think nobody can review the Mount Everest of literature in a post you can read in a minute? O, ye of little faith! Check back Wednesday for a review of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

Tomorrow: Another post in the occasional series “Backscratching in Our Time,” which calls attention to the trading of blurbs and other favors by well-known authors.

(c) 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.janiceharayda.com

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