Sunday, October 30, 2016

`The Shortcomings of a Tall Tree'

Advice is dangerous, whether heeded or ignored. Both parties set themselves up for hurt and resentment. I once ended an already tepid friendship by reading the draft of an opera libretto based on the life of Christopher Columbus. The author instructed me to be brutally honest, which should have been a clue as to his true sensitivities. I found the whole thing unintentionally funny, broadly reminiscent of Duck Soup. It seemed like a parody of a grand spectacle rather than a grand spectacle, which wasn’t what the author had in mind. I proofed the draft and submitted a detailed set of notes, and that was the last time I ever saw the author in person. We spoke once more by phone, very briefly and loudly. To my surprise, my conscience is mostly clear, after twenty-five years. My only regret is that my motive for taking on the job was flattery. I thought I was quite the smart fellow, and my friend was only being wise in recognizing my gifts (in fact, I did it gratis, which was his principal reason for asking me). I had no business being anywhere near a libretto.

Anton Chekhov was better at managing such things. In 1898, Alexi Peshkov, soon to be Maxim Gorky, sent Chekhov a selection of his stories and asked for his judgment. Chekhov opens with praise and encouragement:

“What do I think? You talent is not to be doubted, and it is a genuine major talent to boot. It manifested itself with extraordinary power, for instance, I love your story, `In the Steppe.’ I actually felt envious at not having written it myself. You are an artist and an intelligent man.”

Not bad. What young writer wouldn’t dance on the ceiling after reading such golden words? How honest was Chekhov being? Was he merely preparing young Gorky for the knockout punch? We’ll never know. Here it comes:        

“Shall I talk about your shortcomings now? That’s not quite so easy. Talking about a talent’s shortcomings is like talking about the shortcomings of a tall tree growing in the garden; the issue at hand is not the tree itself, but rather the tastes of the person looking at the tree. Isn’t that so? I’ll start by saying that, in my opinion, you lack restraint. You are like a spectator in the theater who expresses his delight with so little restraint that he prevents himself and others from listening.”

Gorky had a right to be both crushed and elated to be the object of such exquisitely surgical diplomacy. Seven years later, Gorky joined the Bolsheviks. In a footnote to the letter in Letters of Anton Chekhov (1973), translated by Michael Henry Heim and Simon Karlinsky, the editors note that early in the twentieth century, Gorky was better known than Chekhov in the West, and later he became Stalin’s pet. Karlinsky writes:

“The same Gorky who as a young man declared freedom to be the highest value in human life, whose very name symbolized liberation to countless young Russians at the turn of the century, now lent the prestige of his name to consolidating Stalin’s regime and helped formulate the restrictive, oppressive and entirely artificial doctrine of Socialist Realism, which is still officially the only possible mode of expression any Soviet writer may use. For all this Stalin rewarded Gorky in a way that no other government ever rewarded a writer. He was deified.”

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