The Shooting Party

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September 23, 2017 by AK

Simon Karlinsky wrote in Anton Chekhov’s Life and Thought: Selected Letters and Commentary (1973):

The other novel of Chekhov’s student years, the somewhat Dostoyevskian murder mystery The Shooting Party (the original Russian title was Drama During a Hunt) of 1884, had an even more distinguished career; its basic narrative structure was borrowed by none other that Agatha Christie for one of her novels and after World War II it was made into a Hollywood movie called Summer Storm.

I’ve read some Agatha Christie but barely remember anything. Apparently, the narrative trick in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is the same: towards the end, the reader realizes that, from the beginning, he’s been reading the murderer’s account of the events. According to Philip French (in The Cambridge Companion to Chekhov linked above), the Hollywood movie was a box office success but a critical disaster.

Simon Karlinsky couldn’t have known in 1973 that five years later, the Soviet-Moldovan director Emil Loteanu made another film based on The Shooting Party, called My Sweet and Tender Beast. (Philip French refers to the director as “Emi Lotianou”: a typo and an obsolete transliteration.) Loteanu cast first-rate actors but the result was of questionable quality. Eugen Doga’s waltz became enormously popular in the Soviet and post-Soviet domains, but its catchy kitschiness castt a shadow of suspicious over the whole production. Sasha Cohen skated to this waltz at the 2006 winter Olympics and won silver.

I’m not convinced The Shooting Party qualifies as a “potboiler,” as Karlinsky called it, but it leaves you with the question, “Why did he write this?” Most of the novel is a manuscript by a former investigative magistrate. At the start of his tale, he is woken up by someone crying, “A husband murdered his wife!” It turns out a parrot called Ivan Demyanych, like a man. In Ronald Wilks’ translation:

 

For no apparent reason, it suddenly struck that lazy servant of mine that my parrot’s beak closely resembled the nose of Ivan Demyanych, our village shopkeeper… Thanks to Polikarp the entire village christened my remarkable bird Ivan Demyanych; thanks to Polikarp the bird became a real person, while the shopkeeper lost his real name: to the end of his days he’ll be spoken of by country bumpkins as the ‘magistrate’s parrot’.

The investigator lives in the same apartment as his predecessor, who died prematurely. The parrot, the furniture and “all the various household effects” passed from the old magistrate to the new one, who bought them from the mother of the deceased. The narrator made no changes to the interior of his room:

To this day my walls are embellished with photographs of his relatives, and a portrait of the former owner still hangs over my bed. The deceased, a lean, wiry man with red moustache and thick underlip, sits goggling at me from his discoloured walnut frame, never taking his eyes off me while I’m lying there in his bed.

This is good and Chekhovian – it even seems to be looking forward to Céline – but this goodness soon gets watered down by pedestrian narrative. The magistrate is only an amateur writer with an unclear purpose, but that’s a poor excuse for making the reader suffer through his padded prose. By the way, Ivan Demyanych – the shopkeeper known as the “magistrate’s parrot” – makes another entrance towards the end, as the foreman of a jury that convicts an innocent man of murder. It’s Chekhov after all.


Chekhov’s Prank

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September 21, 2017 by AK

Chekhov started writing around 1880 to support his family while studying medicine and produced “more than 500 comic stories, spoofs, and vignettes for Moscow’s popular weekly magazines” in the 1880s. Some of them can be found in The Prank, the collection Chekhov himself compiled (and his brother Nikolai illustrated) in 1882, which was never published in the author’s lifetime but, translated by Maria Bloshteyn, appeared in the NYRB Classics series in 2015.

As Bob Blaisdell remarks,

At 19, Chekhov had the pluck of a determined writer, and he figured out how to get the format right while being funny, and how to dash off stories in a wink in order to earn enough to move his struggling family out of the red-light district… It’s fun to see him zipping and quipping in these earliest stories, most of which are unfamiliar to English readers.

Some of Chekhov’s early, “lighter,” super-short stories are probably better known to Russian readers than, say, his depressing tales from peasant life. It’s obvious from some of these early tours de force than Chekhov was a great, probably ruthless observer and was unusually mature for his age. But he was also good at purely literary exercises, such as The Flying Isles, a Laputean parody of Jules Verne:

John Lund was a Scot by birth. He had not received an education anywhere, had never studied anything, yet knew everything. He belonged to the ranks of those happy types who attain the knowledge of all that is beautiful and great with their own mind… The Drilling-Through of the Moon with a Colossal Bore was the subject of Mr. Lund’s speech.

This great man of science is unforgettable.


Dewey on George

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September 18, 2017 by AK

John Dewey wrote in 1927:

No man, no graduate of a higher educational institution, has a right to regard himself as an educated man in social thought unless he has some first-hand acquaintance with the theoretical contribution of this great American thinker.

Of Henry George, that is.


“You are a little mistaken about all this.”

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September 17, 2017 by AK

Chekhov’s first published work was a short story, A Letter to a Learned Neighbor. It’s what the title say it is – a letter to an apparently retired professor from an old fool full of childishly absurd opinions. The professor has certain ideas à la Jules Verne, which his neighbor rebuts brilliantly:

… if people were living on the moon, they would have blocked from us its magical and enchanting light by their houses and ample pastures. People cannot live without rain, and rain falls downward toward the earth and not upward toward the moon. Filth and garbage would pour down upon our land from such an inhabited moon. Could people live on the moon if it exists only during the night and disappears during the day? Also, governments could never allow people to live on the moon because, due to reasons of great distance and inaccessibility, it would be very easy to hide there in order to evade compulsory military service.

The wisdom of the last sentence is deep and abiding. Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s logic in the article I discussed in the previous post is very much the same: the opposition should not seek to win the highest elective office because the winner would usurp dictatorial powers. Never mind that winning that office is about as practicable as flying to the moon was in Chekhov’s or Jules Vernes’ lifetime.

On a side note, I would probably use “obligations to the state” instead of the more narrow “compulsory military service.”


He Who Must Not Be Named

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September 17, 2017 by AK

For years, senior Russian officials avoided mentioning Alexey Navalny’s name on TV and in the press. It was hardly a sign of self-confidence and strength.

This last Tuesday, Mikhail Khodorkovsky’s op-ed appeared in The New York Times urging Russian “democrats” to adopt the goals and  priorities he favors (thanks to Tim Newman for pointing out this article). The author never once mentions the democratic elephant (he-he) in the room, as if these protests had never happened. Navalny must be truly He Who Must Not Be Named.

Khodorkovsky also writes:

This tendency to pursue a magnanimous ruler instead of democratic institutions forces ambitious political leaders to seek public support by relying on the force of their own personality rather than on a clear political program. To win, politicians need to create an image of a “strong leader.”

This is such an obvious jab at Navalny that not mentioning his name and the anti-corruption movement associated with it borders on indecency. In Khodorkovsky’s view, the movement’s transparency and accountability agenda does not count as a political program. I guess it doesn’t if you say so, Sir.

The challenge facing democratically minded Russians therefore isn’t simply to remove Mr. Putin from power; it’s to replace the authoritarian system he personifies.

If I remember correctly, Khodorkovsky has been in favor of a parliamentary system since before his arrest in 2003. I respect this view and the consistency with which the author has held it. However, to start replacing the system, the opposition has to start winning elections – unless the author has a less peaceful route in mind, which I doubt he has. In today’s Russia, winning elections against Kremlin-approved candidates is the art of the impossible – and a necessary condition for all the good things Khodorkovsky is writing about.

…democratic institutions will not spring up across the whole of Russia’s territory at once.

The process must begin with the political transformation of European-oriented Russia and its cities: Moscow, St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg and Novosibirsk, among others.

The process has begun: no point pretending it’s still waiting for the author’s blessing to get going. Khodorkovsky points out that “Russia today has tens of thousands of civic organizations defending civil rights,” and the spread of the anti-corruption movement, which he prefers to ignore, has been impressive. (No mention of last Sunday’s municipal elections, either.) To be blunt, Khodorkovsky’s message is “don’t elect Navalny or he will soon become a dictator.” Sure, there’s always this risk if the political system is over-centralized and power is concentrated in the executive. But once again, how do you decentralize it without getting in control first?


Houellebecq and the Karamazov family

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September 14, 2017 by AK

In a review of Michel Houellebecq’s H. P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against LifeLee Rourke quoted the opening lines of the French author’s 2001 novel Platform:

Father died last year. I don’t subscribe to the theory by which we only become truly adult when our parents die; we never become truly adult… As I stood before the old man’s coffin, unpleasant thoughts came to me. He had made the most of life, the old bastard; he was a clever cunt. ‘You had kids, you fucker…’ I said spiritedly, ‘you shoved your fat cock in…’

I’m cutting him off in mid-sentence. The beginning is a reference to L’Étranger, and there’s probably a drop of Céline in Houellebecq. One might also think of the poem by John Betjeman where he imagines, with disbelief and disgust, his parents conceiving him (I can’t find it now). But the narrator in Platform envies his father and appreciates his hedonism in addition, perhaps, to despising him. Larkin and Betjeman, the laureates, didn’t envy their old fools or see them as role models.

Now consider this extract:

…if I were struck by every horror of man’s disillusionment—still I should want to live and, having once tasted of the cup, I would not turn away from it till I had drained it!

Father doesn’t want to turn aside from his cup till he is seventy, he dreams of hanging on to eighty in fact, so he says. He means it only too seriously, though he is a buffoon. He stands on a firm rock, too, he stands on his sensuality—though after we are thirty, indeed, there may be nothing else to stand on…. But to hang on to seventy is nasty, better only to thirty; one might retain ‘a shadow of nobility’ by deceiving oneself.

This is Ivan Karamazov (via Constance Garnett) speaking of Karamazov père, Fyodor Pavlovich. When the father has died at the hand of a son, Ivan (reportedly) tells his big half-brother:

Fyodor Pavlovitch, our papa, was a pig, but his ideas were right enough.

One of his memorable ideas was that no woman is not worth seducing, no matter how repulsive to the average male of Fyodor Pavlovich’s peer group. In the old lecher’s words:

You children, little sucking-pigs, to my thinking… I never thought a woman ugly in my life – that’s been my rule! Can you understand that? How could you understand it? You’ve milk in your veins, not blood. You’re not out of your shells yet. My rule has been that you can always find something devilishly interesting in every woman that you wouldn’t find in any other. Only, one must know how to find it, that’s the point! That’s a talent! To my mind there are no ugly women. The very fact that she is a woman is half the battle…

Ivan is only 23, indeed a suckling by his father’s standards, but hardly a pig or a milk-blooded sissy. A gifted, hard-working, well-educated, independent young man, he is not a Houellebecqian loser either. He’s capable of filling his own cup all right – he’s just not interested at the moment.


The Purple Death

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September 12, 2017 by AK

From Eliot Weinberger’s Not Recommended Reading in the London Review of Books:

The Purple Death (1895) by William Livingston Alden

Professor Schmidt, a bacteriologist, believes that the way to bring about economic equality is not by assassinating the capitalists, who are easily replaced, but by eliminating millions of workers, thereby creating a labour shortage that would increase wages. To this end, he concocts a deadly plague, the Purple Death, but dies before it can be set loose in the world.

This reminded me of a book review I had read a couple of weeks earlier. The book in question is The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality From the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century by Stanford historian Walter Scheidel. In his own words:

Throughout history, only massive, violent shocks that upended the established order proved powerful enough to flatten disparities in income and wealth. They appeared in four different guises: mass-mobilization warfare, violent and transformative revolutions, state collapse, and catastrophic epidemics…

The first pandemic of bubonic plague at the end of antiquity, the Black Death in the late Middle Ages, and the merciless onslaught of smallpox and measles that ravaged the New World after 1492 claimed so many lives that the price of labor soared and the value of land and other capital plummeted.

Gregory Clark, the author of The Son Also Rises, summarizes Scheidel’s book in his review:

The author believes that settled, stable societies have an inevitable tendency toward greater inequality. The only substantive countervailing forces are all bad news: mass-mobilization wars, social revolution, plague and state collapse.

Victor Davis Hanson (see the first link above) offers this summary:

Scheidel argues that history offers few peaceful antidotes to the accumulation of property, money, and leverage in the hands of the few… [He] notes that large estates and monopolies, and the wealthy classes that control them, collapsed only during relatively rare times of chaos. The “massive and violent disruptions of the established order” encompass the four horsemen of the redistributive apocalypse, which Scheidel collectively describes as the “the Great Leveler.”

In other words, The Purple Death should be, or have been, recommended reading.


A parody of the Flying Dutchman finale

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September 10, 2017 by AK

I’ve been trying to find a YouTube comment that I enjoyed greatly after first reading it, years ago. Only a few months back, I could easily find it but now, no luck. I hope my retelling does justice to the commenter.

The clip was a scene from Wagner’s first mature opera, The Flying Dutchman, or Der Fliegende Holländer (1843), – most likely the ending. (Senta, the heroine, flings herself from a cliff into the sea to save the Flying Dutchman’s soul.) The commenter recalled a scene at a private party in Los Angeles, if I remember correctly, in what I took to be the late 20th century. A rather tipsy lady walked out, bottle in hand, onto a second-floor balcony overlooking a pool, and bellowed forth, completely out of tune: “Preis deinen Engel und sein Gebot! Hier steh’ ich, treu dir bis zum Tod!” The next moment she jumped down into the pool beneath. The commenter was probably the only witness to understand – up to a point, I should add cautiously – the meaning of that flight.

A scene like this would fit naturally in a movie or a novel. I’d be surprised if it had never appeared in one.


“My niece got weed”

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September 9, 2017 by AK

According to Wikipedia,

“Love Me Two Times” is a song by the American rock band the Doors. It first appeared on their second studio album Strange Days

The song was written by guitarist Robby Krieger.

Written, recorded and issued in 1967.

A comment on YouTube:

When I first heard this song as a teen, I thought he was singing ‘Yeh my niece got weed…’, but it’s actually ‘Yeh my knees got weak’, lol.

Phonetically, the two lines only differ in two consonants: s-z and v-k. The first two sounds, s and z, mostly differ in voicing and can sound alike in a sung text. Also, Jim Morrison’s ending consonants sound slurred and elusive. One might as well mishear that line as yemmonèes gahwèe or some such nonsense.

Now, “my niece got weed” is a perfect mishearing, phonetically close and fitting the context. Apart from its goodness, it could have happened because one doesn’t expect clichés from Jim Morrison. “Love Me Two Times,” however, was written (if Wikipedia is to be trusted) by Robby Krieger, the band’s guitarist, although all the Doors members were listed as co-authors on the original LP disk.


“The Emperor of Ice-Cream” revisited

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September 7, 2017 by AK

This week, I’ve been re-reading Aaron Haspel’s excellent blog, God of the Machine. In May 2003, he anatomized The Emperor of Ice-Cream by Wallace Stevens (1922).

On thing struck me in going through the poem. “Let be be finale of seem” reminds me of the first line from Mignon’s last song in Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship. Thomas Carlyle translated it bluntly as

Such let me seem till such I be…

Mignon sings of her imminent death and a new life after a brief rest. The opening line in the original German is richer and more subtle than Carlyle’s, although still simple at first glance. “Scheinen” means both “to appear” and “to shine,” and “werden” is “to become,” which philosophers often contrast with “to be.” In Cynthia Hampton’s analysis of Plato’s Philebus, one short chapter has an improbably relevant title: “Ontological argument against hedonism: becoming vs. being.”

Another, pedestrian observation. If ice was used to preserve the body for the funeral, it could also be used to make ice cream: a practical bridge between the two rooms and worlds in the poem. (One or two years after The Emperor, Khodasevich wrote of a dead worker lying in his room in a Paris apartment building: “Today, into the ice; tomorrow, into the fire.”) The cigar-wrapper in Stevens’ first line makes the setting vaguely Caribbean; they say ice cream is commonly served at Key West funerals. But I wouldn’t be surprised if the author didn’t have this custom in mind.


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