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Christmas 2013 - Gifts from Writers

As the year comes to an end and holidays are celebrated, I would like to offer some gifts in a literary vein to anyone who enjoys good writers and good books.

Back in the days when art was the bastion of the elites in Europe, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was the large creative engine that could and did. This Romantic German writer was given to the extremes of emotion known as Sturm und Drang. He did not have to reject rationalism or feel constrained by it, but he did. The stresses and strains of trying to reconcile legal and literary careers may have added to the extremes of his emotions. Goethe was intensely profound, and he was consistent only in being contradictory. He wrote of his ballads:

“ . . . I had already carried them in my head for many years; they occupied my mind as pleasant images, as beautiful dreams, which came and went, and by playing with which my fancy made me happy. I willingly resolved to bid farewell to these brilliant visions, which had so long been my solace by embodying them in poor, inadequate words. When I saw them on paper, I regarded them with a mixture of sadness. I felt as if I were about to be separated for ever from a beloved friend.”

I know exactly how he felt!

Goethe then added:

“At other times, it has been totally different with my poems. They have been preceded by no impressions or forebodings, but have come suddenly upon me, and have insisted on being composed immediately, so that I have felt an instinctive and dreamy impulse to write them down on the spot. In such a somnambulistic condition, it has often happened that I have had a sheet of paper lying before me all on one side, and I have not discovered it till all has been written, or I have found no poem to write any more. . . .”

I understand that type of experience and sensation too. I write my poems unexpectedly, quickly, and all at once, until they are “written out,” and I rarely revise them.

Sound advice is offered by the French poet and critic, Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux, known simply as Boileau: “Expression always follows thought; before writing one should learn to think.” For decades now, I have placed on my desk a more direct form of his second statement in French, written on an index card:

“Avant d’écrire, apprenez à penser.” Before writing, learn to think.

Boileau also wisely stated, “A new thought is not one that no one has ever thought. It is a thought which must have come to everyone, but which someone first thinks of expressing.”

About twenty years ago, I typed a list of five rules to follow during the composition of any writing. The list is on a very high-quality paper, the sort that cannot be found nowadays. So the paper is almost as valuable to me as the list!

I do not always follow these rules. At times, rules must be broken, but these suggestions nonetheless remain the mainstays of fine literary composition:

Prefer the familiar word to the far-fetched.

Prefer the concrete word to the abstract.

Prefer the single word to the circumlocution.

Prefer the short word to the long.

Prefer the Saxon word to the Romance.

There are many, probably too many, rules for the composing of fiction, but this one, known as “Chekhov’s Loaded Gun,” is one that I never break regarding foreshadowing. There are, in fact, several variations of the rule of “Chekhov’s Loaded Gun.” The following are the two most likely versions from “Reminiscences of A. P. Chekhov,” written in 1889 by twenty-four-year-old Ilia Gurliand:

“If in Act I you have a pistol hanging on the wall, then it must fire by the last act.”

“If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following act it should be fired. Otherwise don't put it there."

The obvious conclusion to draw from either quote is that you must not put an element into a piece of fiction that will not advance the plot. Just because you happen to think that a certain description is wonderful, or an item “looks” cute, or you find it clever to include a favorite piece of art or clothing or bit of nature -- your personal wishes, desires, tastes, and pleasures do not matter when it comes to designing a work of art. If those preferences coincide with the needs of your fiction, then by all means, use them. But, please, leave your ego at the door when entering the world of fiction. The reader will thank you for it.

Quotes by Chekhov also abound about a loaded rifle on the wall that must be fired by the end of the play. In either case, the lovely use of firearms to explain this rule of foreshadowing is typical of Anton Pavlovich Chekhov. He was an artist of brilliant understatement; of the hidden, the unseen, the subtle, even of the lyrical. His literary art touched beneath the surface to linger and stir the senses long after the book has been closed. He was a master of the short story, of plays undergirded with skeptical humor and humorous skepticism. The skepticism rarely contained hope but it was capable of enduring beauty and the haunting compression of poetry that resulted from succinct precision in thought and writing.

Chekhov was a practicing doctor throughout most of his literary career. It was while training to become a doctor that Chekhov began to write comedic short stories and to receive publication of them. Thus, his medical training and his artistic talents were inextricably woven. He blithely stated, “Medicine is my lawful wife and literature is my mistress; when I get tired of one, I spend the night with the other.”

This doctor wrote of the complications of the human impulse and the even greater complications of the human response to life. He wrote of loss as if it were to be expected. Many of his characters display indifference, perhaps apathy, toward tragedy, but that response serves only to elicit from the reader or audience the depth of emotion that is seemingly lacking in the character.

His short stories are meticulous studies (perhaps anatomies) of the irretrievable; the totally unexpected; the poignant; and of the repetitive illusion of love: an illusion so wondrous that one must repeat it simply to re-create the illusion through the atmosphere of love. In short, love must be tried for the sake of inhaling that rarified air. Such a sublime air will vanish, but one can still indulge in the vapors for at least a while!

The exquisite memories, embedded in the physiological universe of the body-mind, will endure as long as that body-mind endures, perhaps even longer, if one believes in the irrepressible, eternal spirit of that body-mind and in its ability to inspire the living and to breathe life into a dispirited soul. Chekhov created aura and ambiance with such subtlety within his writing that his artful literary techniques went largely unnoticed while the seemingly trivial became symbolic and powerfully evocative.

The cynicism of Chekhov is touchingly sad; his irony unparalleled, even by the French. For Chekhov, irony was more than irony. It was the irony of misperception (or missed perception), the irony of lost fulfillment, of hope that was doomed by the very wish that was the spark setting off the hope. The dream is usually doomed, but one must dream nonetheless: what is life without the dream? His irony was quintessentially, even robustly Russian. It was not playful in delight and double-entendre like the French, or too obvious like the American. (The American writer fears the reader may not “get it.” The French writer fears nothing and subsequently does not care if the reader “gets it,” and thus succeeds on every level.)

The intense hatred between doctors and lawyers evidently did not yet exist in Russia, but this doctor had an equally cynical opinion of each profession: “Doctors are just the same as lawyers; the only difference is that lawyers merely rob you, whereas doctors rob you and kill you too.”

In The Seagull, the first words spoken by Masha are in response to the question, “Why do you always wear black?"

“I am in mourning for my life.”

Some of Chekhov’s most Chekhovian quotes are as follows:

“If you are afraid of loneliness, do not marry.”

“Any idiot can face a crisis; it is this day-to-day living that will wear you out.”

“When a woman isn’t beautiful, people always say, ‘You have lovely eyes. You have lovely hair.’”

“I long to embrace, to include in my own short life, all that is accessible to man. I long to speak, to read, to wield a hammer in a great factory, to keep watch at sea, to plow. I want to be walking along the Nevsky Prospect, or in the open fields, or on the ocean -- wherever my imagination ranges."

And here are words of wisdom for any patient: “When a lot of remedies are suggested for a disease -- that means it can't be cured.”

Had the Russians not produced this writer, as well as other poets, dramatists, novelists, and composers, of such profound talent (and requisite tragic ending) the Soviet Union would have likely been considered just a large land mass of starving peasants, bloodthirsty Communists, and exiles on ice in Siberia. Even the death of Chekhov at age forty-four became a drama. Writer Janet Malcolm called his death “one of the great set pieces of literary history. “ Only a Russian writer could pull off that much drama after his death.

Chekhov wrote literary analysis in a direct, often compelling manner. On the subject of touching the reader’s heart, he stated:

“I have read your story ‘On the Road.’ If I were the editor of an illustrated magazine, I should publish the story with great pleasure; but here is my advice as a reader: when you depict sad or unlucky people, and want to touch the reader’s heart, try to be colder – it gives their grief, as it were, a background, against which it stands out in greater relief. As it is, your heroes weep and you sigh. Yes, you must be cold.”

The art of the surgeon was also the art of the writer. Chekhov knew his métier and his craft well:

“To fear love is to fear life, and those whose fear life are already three parts dead . . .“

“Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

“Here I am with you and yet not for a single moment do I forget that there's an unfinished novel waiting for me.”

On style, there was but one rule for Stendhal, the pen name of Marie-Henri Beyle. This 19-century French novelist of “realism” wrote to Balzac: “I see but one rule: to be clear. If I am not clear, all my world crumbles to nothing.”

I read once that Stendhal read aloud various sections of the Napoleonic Code before setting down to write to get his style going and flowing. I do not know if the anecdote is true, but it is most intriguing.

Blaise Pascal offers a treasure trove of truisms in his Pensées from the 17th century. (Blaise is pronounced Blɛz , not Blaze.) Many a plot and subplot are based upon these thoughts:

“Truth is so obscure in these times, and falsehood so established, that, unless we love the truth, we cannot know it.”

“Love knows no limit to its endurance, no end to its trust, no fading of its hope; it can outlast anything. Love still stands when all else has fallen.”

“We run carelessly to the precipice, after we have put something in front of us to prevent us from seeing it.”

“Too much clarity darkens.”

“It is natural for the mind to believe and for the will to love; so that, for want of true objects, they must attach themselves to false.”

“The nose of Cleopatra: if it had been shorter, the entire face of the earth would have changed.”

Et enfin, and finally, some profound words from the peerless Proust:

“ . . . And as art exactly recomposes life, an atmosphere of poetry surrounds those truths within ourselves to which we attain, the sweetness of a mystery which is but the twilight through which we have passed.”

Joyeux Noël et Bonne Année!

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!


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