So writes David Myers in an email, bringing to mind a fantasy I’ve nursed in recent days – a nagging nostalgia for old troubles, what David calls “small cares.” With high-definition acuity I remember sitting at my desk writing a story for my high-school creative writing class. It was the first-person account of a blameless “prisoner of metaphysics,” the pretentious spawn of Kafka, Malamud and utter inexperience of life. The words came in a constipated sputter that amazes me today. I’m never blocked for words – the lasting gift of decades in journalism. But I remember the struggle, the halting creep of sentences, the histrionic despair, and think: “How romantic. How dedicated. How young and serious I was, how unaware of projecting my narcissism into the narrative.” I felt nostalgia for a time when trivia seemed important because importance otherwise seemed absent from life.
In defiance of the “unstinting propaganda,” the masters of depicting “small cares” mingle the serious and the comic – Chekhov, Joyce and Bellow. Each redefines drama with comedy. Misail Poloznev in Chekhov’s “My Life” dreams he will have a ring inscribed “Nothing passes” after his wayward wife has her ring inscribed “Everything passes.” Leopold Bloom is a cuckold who buys a pork kidney, fries and eats it. He moves his bowels, attends a funeral, tries to place an ad in a newspaper and meets an anti-Semite. Moses Herzog takes his name from a minor character in the “Cyclops” chapter in Ulysses. Herzog says: “We love apocalypses too much...and florid extremism with its thrilling language. Excuse me, no, I’ve had all the monstrosity I want.” A repudiation of the dramatic, the heightened and over-hyped, almost an endorsement of the prosaic. Herzog, too, recalls with aching fondness his childhood in the slums of Montreal. Dr. Johnson writes in The Rambler #68:
“The main of life is, indeed, composed of small incidents and petty occurrences: of wishes for objects not remote, and grief for disappointments of no fatal consequence; of insect vexations, which sting us and fly away; impertinencies, which buzz a while about us, and are heard no more; of meteorous pleasures, which dance before us and are dissipated; of compliments, which glide off the soul like other music, and are forgotten by him that gave, and him that received them.”