Jellyfish In the Sun

“But how can I put a name to what it is that I want? How am I to know that I really don’t want what I want, or that I really don’t want what I don’t want? These are intangibles that the moment you name them their meaning evaporates like jellyfish in the sun.”
Andrei Tarkovsky, Stalker: un film de Andreï Tarkovski

Broken Concrete and Rebar, Dallas, Texas

 

I took a day of PTO today (I am still working, I am essential) to try and heal my knee which I hurt in a fall outside my shower on Sunday. Someone reminded me of RICE – Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation (Would like to try RICED – with the addition of Drugs… but no luck there) and that sounded good for me. I made a spot where I could stretch out with a flexible ice pack on my knee. To kill the time I watched a movie on my laptop which I had seen over three decades ago – Stalker by Andre Tarkovsky.

Tarkovsky is, as I’m sure you know, an unmitigated genius – a master of idiosyncratic film making.  I’m glad I saw the film again – I noticed a lot that I missed the first time.

One aspect is the Russian technique of adding very deep philosophical soliloquies spouted by characters in the story – the plot becomes a scaffold to present these musings on faith, desire, and humanity. It is like Dostoevsky or Tolstoy where dramatic action illustrates deeper issues.

Here’s an example – the long monologue by the character known only as Writer after he narrowly escaped death in the room of dunes (you’ll have to click through and watch it on YouTube).

Look at this closely… who is he talking to?

And, like all of Tarkovsky’s films… what images! I hadn’t noticed (or remembered) the Wizard of Oz trick of having the day to day life in black and white (or at least de-saturated sepia tones)   and only have the full luscious color spring out in the Zone itself (when you see the film note carefully what other subject is shown in color). The burning rocks on the shore. The room of dunes. The dust devils on the dried up undulating swamp (apparently this scene and others involved carcinogenic chemical wastelands that may have eventually led to the death of the director and others involved in the film). The catalog of items in the long shot through the shallow water. The stalactite festooned tunnel of horror, the meat grinder. The way he films faces….

It is a feast for the eyes as well as the brain.

Let everything that’s been planned come true. Let them believe. And let them have a laugh at their passions. Because what they call passion actually is not some emotional energy, but just the friction between their souls and the outside world. And most important, let them believe in themselves. Let them be helpless like children, because weakness is a great thing, and strength is nothing. When a man is just born, he is weak and flexible. When he dies, he is hard and insensitive. When a tree is growing, it’s tender and pliant. But when it’s dry and hard, it dies. Hardness and strength are death’s companions. Pliancy and weakness are expressions of the freshness of being. Because what has hardened will never win.

Andrei Tarkovsky, Stalker

Short Story Of the Day, The Overcoat by Nikolai Gogol

There is nothing more irritable than departments, regiments, courts of justice, and, in a word, every branch of public service.

—-Nikolai Gogol, The Overcoat

Poppies, by W. Stanley Proctor
Liberty Plaza
Farmer’s Branch, Texas
(click to enlarge)

Yesterday, I wrote about George Saunders and his story – The Red Bow

I included this Youtube video of George Saunders and some writing tips.

The first question is “What is your favorite short story?” and he answered “The Overcoat” by Nikolai Gogol. He said, “It’s funny and sad and I think it’s the way that God actually thinks of us if he in fact does.”

I have had the story “The Nose” by Gogol as one of my short stories before.

Like “The Nose” – “The Overcoat” is written in an older style – more telling than showing – but it is as genius, funny, and shattering as Saunders says it is. I had read “The Overcoat” before – long ago – but didn’t remember all the details… only the sadness and feeling of helplessness. Reading it again it was even more heartbreaking, knowing what was going to happen to the hopeless protagonist.

Read it here:

The Overcoat by Nikolai Gogol

from East Of the Web

The next question on the interview is “Best piece of writing advice?”.

He replies that a mentor Tobias Wolff told him, “Don’t lose the magic.” Great advice.

I am a huge fan of Tobias Wolff – if you ask me Wolff’s story “In The Garden Of The North American Martyrs”  is my favorite short story (or at least one of them) and one of the best ever written.

I’ve used a couple of online Tobias Wolff stories for my stories of the day before:

Bullet in the Brain

Hunters in the Snow

On both of those entries I wrote about my favorite Tobias Wolff story:

I remember one time, years ago, he was giving a talk at the Dallas Museum of Art as part of the Arts & Letters Live series. Well, I’m poor and can’t afford the full price ticket to these lectures, but, for a lower price, you can attend and sit in an auditorium off to the side where the lecture is beamed in on a screen. I was sitting there, waiting with a few other people (the main room was packed) when I looked up and there was Tobias Wolff, walking between the rows talking to us. He said he didn’t think it was fair that we had to sit in the other room and had arranged for an extra row of seats to be installed down across the front. We all marched into the big room and saw the live lecture, right up on the first row, thanks to the author.

It was really cool and thoughtful of him – and I’ll never forget it.

Short Story of the Day, The Peasant Marey, by Fyodor Dostoevsky

I liked to lie like that; a sleeping man is not molested, and meanwhile one can dream and think. But I could not dream, my heart was beating uneasily, and M.’s words, “Je haïs ces brigands!” were echoing in my ears.

—–Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Peasant Marey

The Wild Detectives in the Bishop Arts District.

Dallas Streetcar

Reunion Tower, taken from inside the Dallas Streetcar. On my way to Bishop Arts for a discussion of Gravity’s Rainbow.

Signs at one end (downtown) of the Dallas Streetcar

 

Starting in January of this year, every Wednesday after work I took the DART train downtown, then rode the Streetcar to the Bishop Arts district – arriving at the bookstore The Wild Detectives. I was part of a group called the DRBC (Difficult Reading Book Club) and were slogging our way through Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. It was a ton of fun, and when we finished up in the summer, it was announced that the next Difficult Book was going to be a trilogy by Virginia Woolf. I thought hard about it (even bought the books) but at the end decided that I didn’t want to give up the time to criss-cross the city… plus I had my own long/difficult reading project to complete (which I’m still working on after well over a year).

Today, though, I received an email outlining the next DRBC book – The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky. In theory, I read that book in college, but have no memory of it (at the time I was mixing literature and writing studies with Physical Chemistry classes – and the combination almost broke me) and suspect I might have made too liberal use of the study guides. But now, I want to read it, and read it in a diverse group, and maybe get a bit more out of it.

This will start up in January… sometime. In the meantime I thought I’d do some research on the deeper meaning of Dostoevsky’s work (without reading any of The Brothers Karamazov before it’s time) and maybe brushing up on some of his shorter works.

Thus, the short story of the day:

The Peasant Marey, by Fyodor Dostoevsky

available along with a number of Dostoevsky short stories at Project Gutenberg.

Here’s an audio version, if you prefer:

This is a (on the surface) simple story of a man in a Siberian Russian prison reminiscing about a slight incident from his childhood. There is a lot there beneath the surface, however. Worth the read.

 

A Month of Short Stories 2015, Day Twenty Four – The Servant

The last two years, for the month of June, I wrote about a short story that was available online each day of the month… you can see the list for 2014 and 2015 in the comments for this page. It seemed like a good idea at the time. My blog readership fell precipitously and nobody seemed to give a damn about what I was doing – which was a surprising amount of work.

Because of this result, I’m going to do it again this year.

Today’s story, for day twenty four – The Servant, by Sergey Terentyevich Semyonov

Read it online here:

The Servant

S. T. Semyonov was born to Russian peasant parents and lived a life of menial manual labor. He used that tough life as fodder for his stories.

I’m not too familiar with his writing – and am not sure if they all are like today’s selection – but I would imagine they are. It’s a simple story, a moral tale, that starts with a young man down on his luck. He has lost his position due to having to return to his village for military duty. He has been walking the streets of Moscow, hungry, for days – looking for work – any work.

When he runs across a silver tongued old friend, he has a ray of hope and a bit of good fortune. But he learns about the cost of his good fortune and has to make a decision. It seems that he chooses wisely.

“What’s the use of wasting words? I just want to tell you about myself. If for some reason or other I should ever have to leave this place and go home, not only would Mr. Sharov, if I came back, take me on again without a word, but he would be glad to, too.”

Gerasim sat there downcast. He saw his friend was boasting, and it occurred to him to gratify him.

“I know it,” he said. “But it’s hard to find men like you, Yegor Danilych. If you were a poor worker, your master would not have kept you twelve years.”

Yegor smiled. He liked the praise.

“That’s it,” he said. “If you were to live and serve as I do, you wouldn’t be out of work for months and months.”

It’s a short, straightforward tale – but a fine humans story about making the best of a difficult life.

The author, Semyonov was killed by bandits at the age of fifty five. It doesn’t get any more difficult than that.

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