Die of a Sort of Creeping Common Sense

“Nowadays most people die of a sort of creeping common sense, and discover when it is too late that the only things one never regrets are one’s mistakes.”
― Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

Sculpture, Tree welded from cable, DCCCD Bill J. Priest Institute for Economic Development, Dallas, Texas

Oblique Strategy: Honor thy error as a hidden intention

After a long day of not getting much done I found myself bereft of ideas. My computer has thousands of text files that I have typed up to remember things, going back twenty years, and I decided to peruse them and see if I could find something useful.

I came across this quote about a Chekhov short story by one of my favorite writers, Tobias Wolff:

There’s a wonderful story of his about a soldier who’s returning from Manchuria, dying on a troop ship, but too ignorant to realize he’s dying. He was a brute, and that comes through, but he also has a very tender side. So he dies, in this state of longing and unredeemed ignorance, and most stories would end there. But Chekhov has the burial at sea, and then he follows the body, the weighted body going down and down and down. And a shark comes up, and nudges it, and swims away. And then he moves the vision back up to the sea and the sky where just at that moment the sun is breaking through the clouds and he talks about the light dancing on the water — and I’m trying to get this right — with a sort of joy for which there is no word in the language of men. So you get this tragic thing, this man dying in complete ignorance, a man with all the goodness in his heart that was never realized, so you have that incredible focus on the individual. And then suddenly he opens it up so we can see where we fit into this and how small it is. It doesn’t diminish your feeling for the character, but it gives you a sense of the finitude of our duration here and our problems. He’s an amazing writer. I love Chekhov. I could go on all day about him.

What an amazing story review. I, too, love Chekhov, but I doubt that the story will be as good as this review.

I don’t know, maybe it’s better. A quick Google search and I found the name of the story is Gusev.

It’s readily available online. Here’s one translation:

Gusev by Anton Chekhov, translated by Constance Garnett

I’m going off to read it now – I suggest you do likewise.

Short Story Day 6 – Gooseberries

6. – Gooseberries
Anton Chekhov
http://www.eldritchpress.org/ac/gooseb.html

This is day six of my Month of Short Stories – a story a day for June.

After a string of modern and post-modern works, we swing back to a classic master – Anton Chekhov. He wrote a prodigious number of stories on a wide variety of subjects, but all of them were uniquely his own unmistakable style. Often known more as a playwright, his masterly short stories may be his greatest achievement.

I have always been a fan of his famous story, The Lady with the Dog -(audio version). A few days ago, I wrote about Joyce Carol Oates. She produced a story, The Lady with the Pet Dog, which was a modern adaptation of the same tale, told from the point of view of the woman (with the dog). Together, the Oates and Chekhov versions make for some good reading and an interesting comparison.

Today’s story, “Gooseberries” is one of Chekhov’s later works, and is full of his characteristic ambiguity, moral questioning, and general good cheer. It is very attentive to the minutiae of daily life and the author manipulates these details to define and enrich the message and morals that he wants to convey.

Three men spend the day talking, and one tells a long “story within a story” which, on closer inspection has a very close relationship to the outer, framing story. The inner tale fails to interest the listeners, which makes the outer story that much more subtle and effective.

In the end, nothing much happens and nothing is decided… the rain continues to fall and the odor of spent tobacco keeps a character awake late into the night. The moral ambiguities are not resolved – the brother, eating his gooseberries that he thinks are delicious while the narrator confides are bitter – acts like a pig, but is undeniably happy in the way that a person can when his dreams come true.

I think that Checkov is ultimately telling us that this in how life is – there are no guarantees and victory is simply a slight shade away from defeat – happiness is elusive, but so are good works. Selfishness is evil, but charity is an illusion. All you can hope for is to muddle through – but maybe this is a miracle in itself.

“If I were young.”

He suddenly walked up to Aliokhin and shook him first by one hand and then by the other.

“Pavel Koustantinich,” he said in a voice of entreaty, “don’t be satisfied, don’t let yourself be lulled to sleep! While you are young, strong, wealthy, do not cease to do good! Happiness does not exist, nor should it, and if there is any meaning or purpose in life, they are not in our peddling little happiness, but in something reasonable and grand. Do good!”

Ivan Ivanich said this with a piteous supplicating smile, as though he were asking a personal favour.

Then they all three sat in different corners of the drawing-room and were silent. Ivan Ivanich’s story had satisfied neither Bourkin nor Aliokhin. With the generals and ladies looking down from their gilt frames, seeming alive in the firelight, it was tedious to hear the story of a miserable official who ate gooseberries. . . . Somehow they had a longing to hear and to speak of charming people, and of women. And the mere fact of sitting in the drawing-room where everything — the lamp with its coloured shade, the chairs, and the carpet under their feet — told how the very people who now looked down at them from their frames once walked, and sat and had tea there, and the fact that pretty Pelagueya was near — was much better than any story.

—-Gooseberries, by Anton Chekhov