Reading Chekhov during the Malaise…

Doctors and kind-hearted relatives only do their best to make humanity stupid, and the time will come when mediocrity will be considered genius, and humanity will perish. – Anton Chekhov, “The Black Monk” 

Anton Chekhov (image courtesy Wikimedia)

Anton Chekhov (image courtesy Wikimedia)

There’s no escaping the hum of troubling discourse pervading America these days. Mouthpieces for the current PEOTUS and Twitter aficionado Donald Trump rally around their man and argue vociferously for positions such as “facts don’t exist anymore” while members of his base rail at anyone who isn’t just like them as “racists.” Meanwhile, supporters of Trump’s opponent Hillary Clinton vacillate between feverish (and likely unrealistic) hoping that a recount will miraculously create a reversal of fortunes and feverishly gathering and posting apocalyptic visions of the future of Trump’s America on social media.

Welcome to our America – land of Donald’s tweets and home of malaise.

As for me, I’m reading Chekhov’s short stories in in the Modern Library edition. Reading Chekhov feels right these days. His stories are populated by characters suffering their own malaise.   Continue reading

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The World’s 100 Best Short Stories, Sort of… Volume 10: Humor

Statistics prove that there are 25 bathtubs sold to every Bible… and 50 to every dictionary, and 380 to every encyclopedia… proving that while we may be neglecting the interior, we are looking after the exterior…. – Will Rogers

Will Rogers (image courtesy Wikimedia)

Will Rogers (image courtesy Wikimedia)

And now we reach the last volume in the collection The World’s 100 Best Short Stories. The subject/theme of this volume is humor. There are some well remembered writers such as P. G. Wodehouse, Will Rogers, George Ade, and, oddly enough, Emile Zola. There are some not so well remembered writers such as Emile Gaboriau, Charles Brackett, H. C. Witwer, and William Hazlett Upson. And there are some figures whose literary legacy is either based on a single work (Frank R. Stockton, mentioned previously) and Booth Tarkington, a writer extraordinarily popular in his time whose reputation is now all but eclipsed.

This is the weakest volume in the entire collection. There are reasons for this and we’ll explore them.

But first, a digression. Continue reading

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The World’s 100 Best Short Stories, Sort of…Volume 9: Ghosts

” There is neither ghost of earl nor ghost of countess in that room; there is no ghost there at all, but worse, far worse, something palpable….” “The worst of all things that haunt poor mortal men…and that is, in all its nakedness – Fear!” – H. G. Wells

Edward Everett Hale (image courtesy Wikimedia)

Edward Everett Hale (image courtesy Wikimedia)

This, the penultimate volume in The World’s 100 Best Short Stories set, takes as its subject matter/theme ghosts. As has been the case with other volumes in this series, the editor has chosen to interpret his choice broadly. Certainly in every story the characters find themselves haunted in some way, but this comes in most of the tales as a result of actions or circumstances rather than from any supernatural force.

The list of authors in this volume represents the most canonical or near-canonical group of any of the volumes thus far. Besides the above quoted Wells, Alexander Pushkin, Washington Irving, Sir Walter Scott, Prosper Merrimee, and John Galsworthy are all represented. There are some now forgotten (by contemporary audiences, anyway) writers, too, such as Johan Bojer, Stacy Aumonier, and James Hopper.  Then there’s the pictured Edward Everett Hale, known to generations of American school children for his story “The Man Without a Country” which is part of this collection.

Hale is the most fascinating of this latter group because he is known for a single work. Like Richard E. Connell (whose “The Most Dangerous Game” was discussed on my essay on volume 1) or Frank R. Stockton (known for “The Lady or the Tiger?” who will be discussed in the next essay of this series (though for  a different story), Hale’s literary legacy, though he was critically well regarded in his lifetime, hangs on that single story. This the topic for another essay, however, so let’s move on to the works in this collection. Continue reading

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The Consolations of Literature…

Life is a jest; and all things show it/ I though so once; but now I know it. – John Gay

It’s just words, folks, just words…. – Donald Trump

John Gay (image courtesy Wikimedia)

John Gay (image courtesy Wikimedia)

Friends ask me with some regularity why it is that I spend so much of my free time reading and contemplating and writing about literature. I forswore writing about politics several years ago. (I think it was about 2010 that I gave up trying to say anything useful on the topic. I may have let slip the odd veiled or not-so-veiled reference in the essays I write about literature, but my active days as a critic of this, that, or the other political activity or politician are over.)

Great days – or if the Chinese curse is more apt, interesting days – are upon us, however, and while I can and do find comfort at times in Lord Byron’s flippancy:

I would to heaven that I were so much clay,
As I am blood, bone, marrow, passion, feeling—
Because at least the past were passed away—
And for the future—(but I write this reeling,
Having got drunk exceedingly today,
So that I seem to stand upon the ceiling)
I say—the future is a serious matter—
And so—for God’s sake—hock and soda water!

I find that as I contemplate the changes likely to be wrought in my country with the election of the author of one of the epigraphs that begin this essay, that I must find more – and healthier – consolations than the one the 6th Baron of Newstead Abbey proposes.

And so I turn to literature.  Continue reading

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The World’s 100 Best Short Stories, Sort of…Volume 8: Men

‘Shall I betray my best friend…? He is all that I have in the world. He saved me from the bear when its claws were already at my throat. We have suffered hunger and cold together. He covered me with his own garments while I was ill. I have brought him wood and water. I have watched over his sleep and led his enemies off the trail. Why should they think of me as a man who betrays his friend?’ – Selma Lagerlof

Selma Lagerlof (image courtesy Wikimedia)

Selma Lagerlof (image courtesy Wikimedia)

In my essay on volume 7 of The World’s 100 Best Short Stories, the volume devoted to stories about women, I bemoaned the fact that eight of the ten stories in that volume were written by men. In this, volume 8, a collection devoted to stories about men, only one of the ten stories is by a woman, the Swedish author and the first woman Nobelist, Selma Lagerlof. Lagerlof’s story is the best description of what male friendship is like in this volume.

Life is full of ironies, isn’t it?

Among the stories in this volume is one by another major literary figure, Fyodor Dostoevsky. That story, “The Thief,” is also an interesting depiction of male friendship, though its real focus is, as is often the case in the great Russian’s work, identity. And, as one might expect in a collection of stories about men, there are stories about sailors and cowboys and duels and war. So, as anyone who knows a little psychology and/or sociology would expect, these male centered stories are about men doing things together. You know, like fighting and shooting at each other….

It’s great to be a guy, for sure. Continue reading

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The World’s 100 Best Short Stories, Sort of…Volume 7: Women

“It was almost a miracle, her kind of death, because out of all that jam of tonnage, she carried only one bruise, a faint one, near the brow.” – Fannie Hurst

“I love her like a madman, and I would kill myself this instant to rejoin her, if she were not to remain unknown to me for eternity, as she was unknown to me in this world.” – Alexandre Dumas

Fannie Hurst (image courtesy Wikimedia)

Fannie Hurst (image courtesy Wikimedia)

Volume 7 of The World’s 100 Best Short Stories is devoted to women. The ten stories in this collection seem to be efforts to find a theme that explains who women are. The various tales depict women as self-destructive, as self-sacrificing, as helpless victims, as brilliant tacticians. And yes, the collection also gives women the all too familiar Madonna/whore treatment.

At least one reason for this particular set of views of women may come from the authorship of the stories. Of these ten stories about women, only two are written by women.  One is by the redoubtable Fannie Hurst, one of the great “women’s authors”of the 20th century (she is the author of great pot boiler melodramas such as Imitation of Life and Back Street, both have which have been filmed multiple times with stars ranging from Claudette Colbert and Irene Dunne to Lana Turner and Susan Hayward. The other is an author named Bernice Brown about whom there is scant information, though she seems to have written for magazines such as The Century and, if the example from this collection is an indication, is an interesting proto-feminist.

So, we have a volume of stories that mainly tell us how men saw women in the early 20th century with a couple of women authors trying to tell us how women saw themselves.  Continue reading

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The World’s 100 Best Short Stories, Sort of…Volume 6: Courage

“It can never be said…. Because there’s no guide for the search and no definition for the thing found. There’s only the necessity…for man to go beyond himself, to go beyond reason, even beyond truth….” – Dana Burnet

Nicolai Gogol (image courtesy Wikimedia)

Nicolai Gogol (image courtesy Wikimedia)

This, volume 6 of The World’s 100 Best Short Stories, has as its theme courage. I think that it’s the most frustrating volume of this collection that I have yet read. (With the exception of a classic tale by Gogol, none of the stories are memorable.) When I was searching for a quote, for example, to use as sub-heading, I probably spent the better part of two hours fumbling through the volume trying to find any quote that would work as a stand-alone. I had hoped to use a quote from the Gogol classic, “The Cloak” (you likely know it by its more common English translation, “The Overcoat”) mentioned above. No luck – whether it was the translation or the late hour when I was searching, no usable quote appeared from the only canonical author in this volume.

So I find myself using a quote from a popular author of the time, one Dana Burnet.

And here we go. You may, at this point, like those guys in Holden Caulfield’s Oral Expression class, begin yelling “Digression!”- but, as Holden says, “I like it when somebody digresses. It’s more interesting and all.”

I couldn’t find a picture of Dana Burnet. Burnet was a highly successful writer who wrote for Broadway and for Hollywood (including at least two screenplays for Jimmy Stewart movies). And so you see a picture of Nicolai Gogol.

Because you can’t find Dana Burnet’s picture. On the freaking Internet. Continue reading

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