Thursday, April 30, 2009

Peasants and Other Stories - Anton Chekhov (Russian)
I never appreciated Chekhov fully – now I do. Edmund Wilson, who edited this collection, writes in the introduction that Chekhov intended his stories to be grouped in specific ways. But his work is usually presented haphazardly, undermining his overall concept. Wilson is faithful to Chekhov’s intent. These are late stories by an author who died in his forties (in 1903); the majority are very long – two are almost a hundred pages. All classes in a society in the throes of an economic and social transition are represented. Though Chekhov has sympathy for the plight of peasants (especially helpless women and children), many are portrayed as brutish, malicious, ignorant, dishonest, drunken. As for the wealthy, some are buttressed by hypocrisy and callousness; others are afflicted by the feeling that their lives have no purpose. Hope exists, but in a nebulous form; a path to fulfillment is difficult to discern. Good people are to be found in these pages, though there’s little happiness (nor happy love). I was a bit perplexed when I finished some stories – they had no definitive ending. But they explore the human condition so deeply that the inconclusiveness becomes a statement. Life doesn’t have tidy conclusions. Pity for us poor humans – that seems to be the point. *

The Magnificent Ambersons - Booth Tarkington
I believe that Tarkington had complete knowledge of where he was going when he started this novel. George Amberson Minafer’s comeuppance (which, when he’s a boy, is deeply desired by the people of the town) comes about through flaws in his character. At the end he gets his comeuppance – he gets it “three times filled and running over” – though by then no one cares. (One of the novel’s themes is the passing of all things – wealth, fame, life.) This psychological study is not only about the consequences of overriding pride, but of overriding love. Isabel loves her son too much, to the point of destroying his ability to recognize that he might not always be right. This results in tragedy. The book, for all its lightness of touch, is a tragedy. At the end George sees his faults – he perceives with clarity the terrible crime he has committed, and he knows he can never be forgiven for it. I felt these things, which is a tribute to the author. The book is written simply, it glides along. Tarkington can turn a phrase deftly, but he uses this ability sparingly. He’s not that interested in scene-setting; his main purpose is to get to the core of his characters. Lucy is a strong and appealing presence; she loves George but cannot give herself to him because she sees his faults too clearly. Yet she – and I – could also see George’s virtues. I never hated him; and, after he recognizes his fallibility and accepts the burden of guilt, I wanted him to be granted some form of redemption. *

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