Wednesday, July 6, 2011

"All middle, like a tortoise"

Ivan Bunin recollects a conversation with Chekhov [from the forthcoming Memories of Chekhov, excerpted in the NYRB]:

“Do you write? Do you write a lot?” he asked me one day.

I told him, “Actually, I don’t write all that much.”

“That’s a pity,” he told me in a rather gloomy, sad voice which was not typical of him. “You should not have idle hands, you should always be working. All your life.”

And then, without any discernible connection, he added, “It seems to me that when you write a short story, you have to cut off both the beginning and the end. We writers do most of our lying in those spaces. You must write shorter, to make it as short as possible.” 

According to Peter Young's book Tortoise, this truncating habit of Chekhov's is where Galsworthy's line about C's stories comes from: that his stories are "all middle, like a tortoise." I'm not sure I follow the connection between Chekhov's two remarks either -- except that the more you write the more you can afford to throw away -- but this struck me as an unexpected parallel between the "Protestant work ethic" and that of someone like Flaubert. Truth-to-life is a less dandyish criterion than truth-to-language but the idea is the same at some level. (I don't read Russian but I have heard that Chekhov's prose is "workmanlike.") I guess the gloom is poignant in its way: if one is a perfectionist about one's work and is condemned, as Chekhov was, to a youth of hackwork:
Chekhov had to pay for his own education, which he managed by—among other jobs—private tutoring, catching and selling goldfinches, and selling short sketches to the newspapers. ...[ca. 1880] he wrote daily short, humorous sketches and vignettes of contemporary Russian life.

Cf. also Pope: "the last and greatest art, the art to blot." (I twice typed in "blot" as "blog" ...) And: "To write well, lastingly well, immortally well, must not one leave father and mother and cleave unto the Muse? It is such a task as scarce leaves a man time to be a good neighbor, an useful friend, nay to plant a tree, much less to save his soul."

NB: 1. the Tortoise book seems appealing but unreasonably pricey. 2. Had you heard of Ivan Bunin? Apparently he won the Nobel Prize.

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