Saturday, 21 May 2011

Reviews Of Books I've Never Read

Lady With Lapdog and Other Stories by Anton Chekhov
 Well, my bookshelves are bulging once again, brimming with books I have never read, nor shall I ever read, for that matter. I'm positively giddy with the prospects that these books hold for me after such a fruitful haul at the local community centre has supplied me with enough material to keep me busy reviewing well into the next century. Now, when I left you last in my book reviewing life, I was smiting silverfish with some of the heftier tomes of literature, but now I wish to sing the praises of slighter volumes of work. That's not to say these smaller books carry any less an impact than their weightier cousins, not, of course, when it comes to smacking silverfish, but when it comes to stirring the mind and the senses with the enlightening thoughts contained in their pages. Although, let me be blunt, these works play no second fiddle in the silverfish smacking department--it's just that, due to their lighter weight it takes a second or even a third or fourth strike to obliterate the vermin. But, no more beating around the silverfish, let's get to the book. Anton Chekhov was a Russian writer, famed for his short stories, plays and sousaphone technique, which he picked up while on a visit to the States where he'd gone to oversee the production of his play, The Titmouse. Here's a still from the play showing Act 3, Scene 5, the house of lead character, Stumpson Divalichek, in complete disarray after the titmouse has wreaked havoc upon his family and his Thursday night card game.

It is these themes of alienation, despair, hopelessness and titmouse devastation visited upon a house, and the resulting strain it places on the residents, that are beautifully foreshadowed in the earlier stories of Chekhov and eventually take wing, much like a tufted titmouse in the spring, with the full weight of his maturity in his three, final great plays; The Titmouse, Don't Look Under That Rock and Coffee Cake With Bilragaard. But to understand these plays, it's the stories that must be examined first. The title story should probably have been called, Lady With A Lapdog On Her Face, for as you can see in the Angliotti Falucci painting that begins this review, a painting commissioned by Chekhov himself to accompany the story, the main character of the piece, Mrs. Paplinkovavlodistock, has an excessively hairy face. So hairy in fact, that her husband, at one point, mistakes her for their pet schnauzer, Ogden, and gives her a bone to play with. She retires to their country home on the Siberian border where she takes to wandering the countryside, distributing heavily-brined pickles to the peasantry. "Vladimir," she writes to her husband, back in Moscow. "It is with a heavy heart and hairy face that I write this letter to you, on this day, the day of our wedding anniversary. I remember when we first met and how you said I looked like a rolled up plump and tasty blini and now you treat me like schmaltz herring. No, I take that back. Even schmaltz herring gets more love from you than I do.
I refuse to be treated like this. It's as plain as the hair on my face that your love for me is as empty as our vodka bottle after your Aunt Smooladavitch has paid a visit. And I have fallen in love with another. His name is Grigor Popopogavodovodovitch, a widowed peasant with a mustache like the tail of Catherine The Greats' horse and when he snorts, rutabagas from here to Vlavlidostock are shaken from the earth." It is in this letter (which, by the way, can be seen being held by the hairy-faced woman in the aforementioned painting), that the mastery of Chekhov's refined writing and the art of his subtle, descriptive details illustrates his full range of emotional force seething beneath supposedly calm surfaces and spiritual recalcitrance in the face of religious persecution. Take, for example, the rutabaga metaphor. Is it anything more than a show of Grigor Popopogavodovodovitch's phenomenal strength (because, believe you me, it isn't easy pulling a rutabaga out of the ground let alone shaking a whole bunch of them out of the earth with just a couple of snorts), or is it, instead, a sign of the rising tide of the peasant class heading towards revolution, the rutabaga a symbol of the hardened heads of these hardy proletariats and the snorts really a reference to all the dirt they get stuck up their nasal passages as they roar across the filthy landscape of the Siberian outback on their horses and kangaroos, charging towards the capital to slice off the heads of the Czar and his family and his accountant and his personal chef and his barber, Ludmilla Frobisher. By the way, you might be shocked to find I dropped kangaroos into my analysis but I've done a great deal of research on this subject and have found that kangaroos actually were originally from Siberia where they were tamed as domestic beasts by the Cossacks but then crossed the great ice bridges that spanned the Eastern Hemisphere, via Hong Kong, the Philippines and parts of Muncie, Indiana, before reaching the great continent of Australia, where the kangaroos settled but became wild again and have remained that way ever since.
In fact, this bit of animal husbandry history was immortalized in the great poem, A Cossack And His Kangaroo, by famed poet, Gromolodov Gasparvilitiblotch, which begins:
Listen; what is that harkening
Thundering on the flattened hooves
Of a darkening horizon,
Aloof, avast, the beat of a thousand
Kangaroo feet pluming the dust
Where before there was no dust but only gooseberries,
And now carrying on the wind
The promise of the pouches of doom
Where steadfast hold their young,
Eyes fixed in stony stares
And forever ready with runny muzzles of damnation.
And if that doesn't convince you of the whole Russian-kangaroo connection, then just let your peepers have a gander at this poster:
It's no secret that years later, Stalin, Lenin, Marx and Engels would get together to box kangaroos in the basement of the White Palace, the loser being the one to have to write out The Communist Manifesto. I rest my case. Anyway, back to the story. It's also noted that in her reference to her own excessive facial hair, Mrs. Paplinkovavlodistock is understating the case that it is obvious she feels her husband's mustache and beard are a paltry endeavour compared to her own, and that it is she who wears the pantaloons in the family, she who can drain the samovar with one gulp and she who the Cossacks turn to when they need advice about milking goats during the drunken Cossack games they play between pillaging villages and raping kangaroos and sheep. And that's just the tip of this Russian iceberg that Chekhov touches upon with his gifted touch. There's also a story called The Grasshopper, about a man who gets headaches after gazing at grasshoppers and his wife, Olga, tries to kill him by taking him to see the Great Locust Exhibition that took Stalingrad by storm during the summer of '86 and so captivated the Slavic race that for a while the grasshopper replaced the bear on the Czar's coat of arms and also on the arms of his coat.
The fact is, Chekhov had a fascination for hopping things as evidenced by many of his works, including A Boring Story, also part of this collection, in which a man hops on one foot for ten pages until he collapses and then everyone sits around and has tea and apple cake. Chekhov, though, was mordantly afraid of rabbits, and even their incessant hopping couldn't deter his fear that their tiny pink eyes were a sign of the rise of Communism. This is where the term 'pinko' was born, a derivative of the original Russian phrase, 'pink eyed with proletarianism', or just 'pink eye' for short and is why people say in schools everywhere, "the pinkeye spread through the classroom like communism", and the term, pinko, still survives to this day in certain trailer parks and gypsy caravans where no car part, wallet or chicken is safe. Here is a rare photo of Chekhov with his friend, Leo Tolstoy, posing for the camera with the dreaded creatures of communism. Chekhov is the one with the carnation in his lapel, Tolstoy in bib overalls in homage to the Russian peasantry. The look on Chekhov's face has been attributed to being told, only moments earlier, that both friends and foes referred to him as Old Hoppy behind his back.
To sum this all up, from Bolshevism to borscht, Cossacks to Kalashnikovs, Stalin to smoked sturgeon, Chekhov, in his fictional world, never strayed from the true Russian state of mind and if he'd lived long enough to see the Soviet Union launch a dog into space, he would have thought, "Hell, I thought of that back in 1886. Of course it would have been a lapdog and sitting on a lady's face." Take that, silverfish. A little Russian morality upside the antennae and all that in less than 300 pages.

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