Friday Jan. 29, 2016

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Middle age refers more
to landscape than to time:
it’s as if you’d reached

the top of a hill
and could see all the way
to the end of your life,

so you know without a doubt
that it has an end—
not that it will have,

but that it does have,
if only in outline—
so for the first time

you can see your life whole,
beginning and end not far
from where you stand,

the horizon in the distance—
the view makes you weep,
but it also has the beauty

of symmetry, like the earth
seen from space: you can’t help
but admire it from afar,

especially now, while it’s simple
to re-enter whenever you choose,
lying down in your life,

waking up to it
just as you always have—
except that the details resonate

by virtue of being contained,
as your own words
coming back to you

define the landscape,
remind you that it won’t go on
like this forever.

“Foreseeing” by Sharon Bryan from Flying Blind. © Sarabande Books, 1996. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Today is the birthday of Russian novelist, playwright, and physician Anton Chekhov (1860) (books by this author), born in the seaside town of Taganrog to his father, Pavel Chekhov, a struggling grocer, and his mother, Yevgeniya. Chekhov’s father was abusive and forced his children to work in his shop and sing in the church choir. Chekhov attended the town gimnaziya (school) for 10 years, though he was an unimaginative student. His father went bankrupt and moved the family to Moscow, leaving Chekhov behind to finish his studies and do menial labor to support himself. Chekhov sent his meager payments to his father in Moscow. Of his childhood, he said, “Our talents we got from our father, but our soul from our mother.” He later used much of his miserable childhood in his fiction.

By 1892, Chekhov had finished medical school in Moscow, though he was still supporting his family. He was writing, too, partly to supplement his income. He started with short, humorous pieces, using the pseudonyms “Antosha Chekhonte” and “Man Without a Spleen.” His articles became very popular among the “lowbrow” crowd, but he was also trying his hand at more serious writing, exploring the subjects of human misery and despair, which he saw daily in his practice as a doctor. Chekhov treated peasants as well as aristocrats. He wrote, “Aristocrats? The same ugly bodies and physical uncleanliness, the same toothless old age and disgusting death, as with market-women.” Chekhov never made much money being a doctor; he treated the poor free of charge.

Chekhov published his first major work, the novella The Steppe, in 1888. He was also working on a play he called Wood Demon, about a long-winded, bitter man named Ivan Voynitsky. Chekhov worked tirelessly on the play, which eventually became Uncle Vanya (1899). In the midst of completing the play, Chekhov also churned out another play, The Seagull (1895), which would make his name. He wrote the play at his Melikhovo farm, a three-room lodge with one bed and a writing table. About The Seagull, he wrote, “It’s a comedy, there are three women’s parts, six men’s, four acts, landscapes (view over a lake); a great deal of conversation about literature, little action, tons of love.” The premiere of the play was somewhat of a disaster; the audience was confused by the subtleties of the play and booed vociferously. Chekhov hid behind a curtain. A friend chided him for his “womanish” behavior.

During this period, he also completed The Three Sisters (1900) and proposed a writing theory he called “Chekhov’s Gun”: “Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter, it absolutely must go off. If it is not going to be fired, it should not be hanging there.”

In his short stories and plays, Chekhov was constantly seeking new ways to describe the human condition. He particularly was concerned with the structure of literature, especially the endings of a work. He said: “Either the hero gets married or shoots himself! Whoever discovers new endings for plays will open up a new era.” His plays and stories are less about change than about the failure to change.

Some of Chekhov’s most famous short stories are “The Lady with the Dog” and “The Huntsman.” Discussing the complexities and pleasure of a Chekhov short story, Virginia Woolf once said, “We have rather the feeling that we have overrun our signals; or it is as if a tune had stopped short without the expected chords to close it.”

It’s the birthday of novelist and essayist Edward Abbey (books by this author), born in Indiana, Pennsylvania (1927). When he was 17 years old, he saw the desert for the first time as he hitchhiked and rode the rails across the country. He returned east to work for a short time as a caseworker in a welfare office, but then he went back to the Southwest to work as a fire lookout and ranger in Arches National Park. He worked there for three years and turned the experience into the book Desert Solitaire (1968). He’s best known for his novel The Monkey Wrench Gang (1975), the story of four irreverent, beer-drinking, gun-wielding, fun-loving characters who will do anything it takes to stop developers from coming in and destroying the West. The Monkey Wrench Gang was a best-seller, and its popularity made Desert Solitaire a best-seller, as well. His other novels include The Fool’s Progress (1988) and Hayduke Lives (1989).

It’s the birthday of the man who said “Comedy is a serious business” — actor W.C. Fields, born William Dukenfield in Darby, Pennsylvania (1880). He also wrote screenplays, including for the films The Bank Dick (1940), Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941), and You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man (1939).

He ran away from home as a child, stole to survive, got in a lot of fistfights, and was arrested often. He was a fabulously skilled juggler, and at 14 he honed his juggling act and joined the carnival. He went from juggling to doing a witty comedic routine, and then to acting in films. He toured a lot, and the more famous he became, the more he drank. When he was filming movies, he kept a flask of mixed martinis near at hand, referring to it as his “pineapple juice.” He often quipped about his drinking, saying things like, “Once, during Prohibition, I was forced to live for days on nothing but food and water.” And, “Everyone must believe in something. I believe I’ll have another drink.” And, “If I had to live life over, I’d live over a saloon.”

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