Thursday, February 01, 2018

`More Far Than Near'

The narrator stands on the bank of the River Goltva, waiting for the ferry. The coming of spring has swollen the river and flooded the surrounding fields and farms. The next day is Easter and the narrator of Chekhov’s 1886 story “Easter Eve”(trans. Constance Garnett, The Bishop and Other Stories, 1919) wishes to visit the monastery on the other side of the river:  

“The world was lighted by the stars, which were scattered thickly all over the sky. I don't remember ever seeing so many stars. Literally one could not have put a finger in between them. There were some as big as a goose's egg, others tiny as hempseed . . . . They had come out for the festival procession, every one of them, little and big, washed, renewed and joyful, and every one of them was softly twinkling its beams. The sky was reflected in the water; the stars were bathing in its dark depths and trembling with the quivering eddies.”

The narrator, if not always Chekhov, has a taste for whimsy. After the Easter service he observes: “The stars had gone out and the sky was a morose greyish blue.” In “Easter Eve,” Chekhov, not a religious man, relates an experience less spiritual than human. Call it communion. In the passage above, which begins with what must have been a common sight in pre-electrified Russia – a night sky dense with stars, with more stars than black emptiness – turns into a stellar parade: “washed, renewed and joyful.” It’s almost a cartoon, with promenading stars. That combination of awe and cartoons reminded me of “Far Out,” a poem about stars by Philip Larkin that he declined to publish during his lifetime:

“Beyond the dark cartoons
Are darker spaces where
Small cloudy nests of stars
Seem to float on air.

“These have no proper names:
Men out alone at night
Never look up at them
For guidance or delight,

“For such evasive dust
Can make so little clear:
Much less is known than not,
More far than near.”

Larkin completed the poem on this date, Feb. 1, in 1959. In Complete Poems, editor Archie Burnett notes what Larkin scrawled on the manuscript: “no, this is awful, really – worse than E[lizabeth] Jennings. Tripe, tripe, tripe, tripe, tripe.” He’s wrong. Unlike many poets – Elizabeth Jennings, for instance -- Larkin was scrupulous and refused to publish poems he judged inferior. The three volumes of poems he chose to see into print are nearly flawless. “Far Out” is worthy of their company.

Seeing them side by side, it occurs to me that Chekhov and Larkin have much in common. Both have been misunderstood. Both see nothing amiss in humorous grimness or grim humor. Both are endearingly funny but neither tells jokes. As Nabokov says in Lectures on Russian Literature (1980): “Things for him were funny and sad at the same time, but you would not see their sadness if you did not see their fun, because both were linked up.” Nabokov continues:

“Chekhov managed to convey an impression of artistic beauty far surpassing that of many writers who thought they knew what rich beautiful prose was. He did it by keeping all his words in the same dim light and of the same exact tint of gray, a tint between the color of an old fence and that of a low cloud. The variety of his moods, the flicker of his charming wit, the deeply artistic economy of characterization, the vivid detail, and the fade-out of human life — all the peculiar Chekhovian features — are enhanced by being suffused and surrounded by a faintly iridescent verbal haziness.”

1 comment:

Brian said...

Couldn't agree more with your assessment of the perfection of Larkin poems. This unpublished piece (a companion piece to "Ignorance") immediately calls to my mind Robert Frost's "Neither Out Far nor in Deep" which I have long enjoyed.

The people along the sand
All turn and look one way.
They turn their back on the land.
They look at the sea all day.

As long as it takes to pass
A ship keeps raising its hull;
The wetter ground like glass
Reflects a standing gull.

The land may vary more;
But wherever the truth may be---
The water comes ashore,
And the people look at the sea.

They cannot look out far.
They cannot look in deep.
But when was that ever a bar
To any watch they keep?

The thought occurs that Larkin objected more to his own echoing of this line from Frost. While no Nabokov, Larkin was stingy with his praise of other writers (as I recall, he allows Emily Dickinson only seven successful poems) as was Frost himself. It's been a while since I looked at "Required Writing" but I don't remember much on Frost. Still, he must have known this poem.

Btw, I made the mistake of posting a comment on Scott Adams' political blog today. There were over three thousand comments for one entry, with the inane and the insane well in the lead by a margin of about 10-1 over anything thoughtful or witty (which Adams can himself be). Comment moderation is a feature devoutly to be wished. I am, however, a bit surprised there aren't more comments considering the daily riches you offer up.