Thoughts for Thursday - Doctors who are writers

Doctors who are writers. (Or is it the other way around?) Anton Chekhov, Milan Kundera and Ethan Canin. Pam Houston can keep her cowboys: these are my weakness.

I tell you, I always dreamed of opening the door to my Mystery Date to a guy with a stethoscope around his neck and a quill in his hand.

This is a man who can heal you physically and spiritually. A man who can take your pulse and raise it at the same time. A man who understands the intricacies of Celiac disease—and knows his way around a thesaurus.

You can keep your lawyer/writers, like Scott Turow, or your veterinarian/writers, like James Herriot. Give me the literary physician.

Comments on The Lady with the Dog

Cross-posted at A Curious Singularity

Sorry I am not more discursive on this post, but I wanted to share, in light of our reading of The Lady with the Dog. Excerpted from “Chekhov: A Biography,” Ernest J. Simmons:

The Lady with the Dog is the first literary fruit of Chekhov’s Yalta life and the beginning of the tale is penetrated with the atmosphere of this resort—its sights and sounds, its dusty roads, eating places off the esplanade, the stately cypresses, the soft warm lilac color of the sea under the bright sunlight and the golden band of moonlight across it at night. Turgenev might have written a whole novel on this theme, in this story of adultery, which begins on a note of casual philandering and mounts through a series of intensifying emotional experiences to a crescendo of profound but hopeless love. Though the conclusion may be anti-romantic, Chekhov’s sympathy—as so often in his fiction—with these helpless, illicit lovers, whose star-crossed fate is not of their own making, is plainly apparent at the end. Gorky, with his characteristic ebullience, declared after reading the story that he wanted to change wives, and to suffer and swear in the same spirit. Everything else seemed written not with a pen but with a fencepost. “No one can write so simply about simple things as you can,” he told Chekhov. “Your tales are exquisite phials filled with all the smells of life…”


Ending Swann's Way

I finished “Swann’s Way” several weeks ago, reluctantly, as it was a great read. I loved it. I am eagerly awaiting a Proust biography now from Amazon.com, to supplement me as I go along, but I wanted to experience “Swann’s Way” without knowing much about Proust or without reading too much criticism. I’m glad I did. I feel I learned something valuable by reading the book “on my own,” as it were. I learned that I can take on a challenging read, even when working at a challenging job. I learned that a few pages each evening, regularly read, do miraculously add up. I learned that I bring a certain element of unique reading to a great book. And, perhaps most importantly, I learned I could again be excited, down to tips of my marrowed-bones and quiver of my soul, about words.

I rediscovered the thrill of reading, just as I did when I was a small girl who fell in love with the world of “Little Women” (the book that made me a lifelong reader). I feel as if I stumbled upon a secret, that was always there, out in the open.

Proust, in fact, has spoiled me permanently as far as junk reading is concerned. Not that I really ever read much trash. But, having read Proust, I am like a sensitized tuning fork and cannot tolerate the imprecision of mediocre writing.

“Swann’s Way” is a beautiful thing, though I find the experience of reading difficult to describe (especially now that my job is entering the proverbial busy season and my brain has tempered into the consistency of a three-minute egg cooked for 10 minutes). This terrible busy-ness is making it difficult for me to slow down and analyze, though I am dying to share some unique insight with other readers. For now, I simply say: Read.

Here are some impressions as I crossed the finished line:

Proust led up to the ending by indulging (inexplicably but enjoyably to me) in some extremely catty prose. Witness this quote from Mme. des Laumes, toward the end of Swann in Love, referring to Swann:

“I do find it absurd that a man of his intelligence should suffer over a person of that sort, who isn’t even interesting—because they say she’s an idiot,” she added with the wisom of people not in love who believe a man of sense should be unhappy only over a person who is worth it; which is rather like being surprised that anyone should condescend to suffer from cholera because of so small a creature as the comma bacillus.

Hoo-hah—there’s a bitch-slap heard across the century! Proust continues that kind of verbal whip lashing for a number of pages before he waxes prosaic over Swann, Odette and the musical phrase that so captures Swann. Here is a passage that took my breath away, describing “the beautiful dialogue which Swann heard between the piano and the violin,” which, of course, echoes Swann’s love for Odette and all romantic love by extension (and is an exquisite description of musical harmony to boot):

First the solitary piano lamented, like a bird abandoned by its mate; the violin heard it, answered it as from a neighboring tree. It was as at the beginning of the world, as if there were only the two of them still on the earth, or rather in this world closed to all the rest, constructed by the logic of the creator, this world in which there would never be more than the two of them: this sonata.

In the third and final part of the book, Place-Names: The Name, Proust returns to the “I” narrator, back to the insomnia in the bedroom, and back to the boy walking with the family servant, Francoise, and then into his love for the girl Gilberte. Finally, using time compression, Proust moves the reader into the future, when the narrator is a man (clearly middle-aged or older) reflecting on his past, and all of the images harmonize, ending on a perfectly balanced and satisfying note:

They were only a thin slice among contiguous impressions which formed our life at that time; the memory of a certain image is but regret for a certain moment; and houses, roads, avenues are as fleeting, alas, as the years.



Hear Whitman read (yeah, we mean Walt)!

A very quick post to steer anyone who is interested to this CD set, Poetry on Record. Naturally, I indulged, and I absolutely love it. I get chills listening to Walt Whitman's voice! And who would've thought we'd be able to hear Alfred Lord Tennyson reading The Charge of the Light Brigade?


A mildewy armpit and other stinky prose

A plaintive mew from Ms. Kitten. Mew. Mew. Please read the following excerpt and tell us truthfully: Is this bad writing or what? I mean, if you are going to foist an armpit-smelling scene on the reader (especially on the first page), at least describe it accurately (when was the last time you smelled a mildewed armpit? After it sat out overnight in the rain?). Something stinks, all right, and it ain't just an armpit.

We are both irritated and despairing that this was a book highlighted by the Quality Paperback Book Club—irritated, because there are so many better books to highlight than this one, and despairing, because, well, frankly, how does such doo-doo get published anyhow? This woman came to the United States from India when she was 21, so perhaps English is her second language; however, that doesn’t excuse any editors who may have been working on this book (I’m sparing the author publicity, bad or otherwise, by not mentioning the title). We suppose it takes a village to publish crap.

Well, this excerpt is probably just what we deserve, since we joined this book club primarily to bait the Bush-supporters in the Speaking Out forum. All we can say is thank heavens for Rohinton Mistry—now there’s an Indian writer with chops!

From Chapter One

Although it is dawn, inside Bhima's heart it is dusk.

Rolling onto her left side on the thin cotton mattress on the floor, she sits up abruptly, as she does every morning. She lifts one bony hand over her head in a yawn and a stretch, and a strong, mildewy smell wafts from her armpit and assails her nostrils. For an idle moment she sits at the edge of the mattress with her callused feet flat on the mud floor, her knees bent, and her head resting on her folded arms.

In that time she is almost at rest, her mind thankfully blank and empty of the trials that await her today and the next day and the next . . . To prolong this state of mindless grace, she reaches absently for the tin of chewing tobacco that she keeps by her bedside. She pushes a wad into her mouth, so that it protrudes out of her fleshless face like a cricket ball.

Bhima's idyll is short-lived. In the faint, delicate light of a new day, she makes out Maya's silhouette as she stirs on the mattress on the far left side of their hut. The girl is mumbling in her sleep, making soft, whimpering sounds, and despite herself, Bhima feels her heart soften and dissolve, the way it used to when she breast-fed Maya's mother, Pooja, all those years ago.

Propelled by Maya's puppylike sounds, Bhima gets up with a grunt from the mattress and makes her way to where her granddaughter lies asleep. But in the second that it takes to cross the small hut, something shifts in Bhima's heart, so that the milky, maternal feeling from a moment ago is replaced by that hard, merciless feeling of rage that has lived within her since several weeks ago. She stands towering over the sleeping girl, who is now snoring softly, blissfully unaware of the pinpoint anger in her grandmother's eyes as she stares at the slight swell of Maya's belly.