November 30, 2012
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, David Peace, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
About Love: Three Stories by Anton Chekhov is the year's most beautifully designed work of fiction with its cover artwork and illustrations by Seth and careful attention to typography. The most impressive thing about this volume, though, is David Helwig's fresh translation of these linked stories by Anton Chekhov.
Middle-aged and seeking a challenge, I had decided to learn some Russian. I knew that Queen's University would allow me to audit a course for a token fee. So on a sunny September day in 1987 (or maybe it was 1988) I walked into a classroom.
And there was Zal Yanovsky.
I'd met Zalman when he moved to Kingston, Ontario sometime around 1970, after the breakup of The Lovin' Spoonful. I'd often eaten in his restaurant, Chez Piggy. For a while we were next door neighbours. And here we were, two old guys sitting in the front row, keeners, checking each other's work to see who was getting the best marks. (Zal left the course early to watch the Blue Jays in spring training.)
Hooked on the classics early in my life I have had popular music on my mind mostly in certain very specific periods. For a while in the late Sixties I locked on to a handful of performers. One of them was Joe Cocker. The records I owned included Cocker's cover of a Lovin' Spoonful song, "Darling Be Home Soon". I quoted a line from it, "for the great relief of having you to talk to" in the dedication to a book of poems in 1972.
A big chunk of my life has passed since then. Zal is gone and Rose, his wife and business partner, but Chez Piggy goes on and that song is my musical footnote to the study of Russian, sitting in the first row, competing with Zalman.
The translations that became my new book, About Love, began in 2007, a return to Russian fifteen years after my first project, Last Stories of Anton Chekhov. It was another five years before they were completed and the book published with its vivid design and illustrations by Seth. If I go back to it now and search for music appropriate to the three related tales, what do I hear?
The first composer I think of is Modest Mussorgsky. The three narratives in About Love are connected by the presence of two hunters, Burkin and Ivan Ivanych, who are wandering on foot through the Russian countryside; in the course of their travels they tell stories.
I imagine their footsteps to the promenade from Pictures at an Exhibition, in its original form, played on piano. The memorable tune is written in an odd metre, 11/4. Modern in that way, experimental, and yet with a hint of Russian folk music. Both modern and traditional: Chekhov's manner exactly.
So our two hunters promenade in the Russian landscape, struck by its beauty, the peacefulness of night, caught in a rainstorm the next day: but such lyric moments in their travels are set in apposition to other, slightly grotesque characters. To start with, Burkin narrates a tale about his colleague Belikov, an eccentric schoolteacher, "a man in a shell". Russian eccentrics? Scriabin, I thought, and dug out a couple of disks; one contains the complete études but I've never liked the performance. However I have an Anton Kuerti sampler with one Scriabin étude, (Opus 65, number 1) finely played, and with its mixture of the lyric and the goblinesque it evokes the mixed tone of the Chekhov story.
In one scene of the tale, Chekhov provides his own musical footnote as the lively and vivacious Varenka sings Ukrainian romances, charming the dreary, wary Belikov, drawing him out. To destruction ultimately, death by embarrassment. His funeral is held on a rainy afternoon (the choir perhaps performing the Russian Contakion of the Departed, which I once sang in a small male choir in Montreal on the feast of All Souls), and after the story of Belikov's downfall is completed, the two hunters, about to bed down in a haystack, take a moment to observe the beauty of the moonlit landscape.
A nocturne would be perfect, the obvious composer John Field. Irish by birth, Field performed and composed across Europe, then fetched up in Russia and lived there for years. He invented the nocturne as a musical form and was famous for the poetic delicacy of his performances. My recording of Field`s haunting Nocturne number 10 in E minor is a fine version by Benjamin Frith.
The nocturne, another promenade, then the two hunters are caught in the rain. Do we hear Chopin's raindrop Prelude? Maybe. The next scenes, as the two hunters take shelter from the rain at the farm of an acquaintance, Alyokhin, show Chekhov at his most brilliant. As mere translator I can allow myself unstinting praise for work which is only in the smallest way mine. From my postscript to the book: an extraordinary passage describes the aging veterinarian Ivan Ivanych swimming in a cold mill pond, unwilling to stop, in the grip of some inexplicable joy; then at a paragraph break the story modulates in a single line to a quiet sitting room where the framed portraits of soldiers and fine ladies evoke a past gentility, and Ivan Ivanych begins to talk about his brother's life, its obsession, the coarse and joyless littleness of his achievement.
No doubt somewhere in Beethoven's late quartets or Schubert's posthumous piano sonatas there is a musical moment of equally startling depth, but I can imagine no closer analogy.
The final section of the book is a love story about Alyokhin's passion for the wife of Luganovich, Chairman of a District Court. Musically I'll stay with piano; after all, husband and wife play duets. Un Sospiro, a short virtuoso piece by Franz Liszt, evokes the period and the kind of intense romantic longing that Alyokhin describes. Performer? Marc-André Hamelin. This final story is without grand drama except one scene of lovers parting. The love is never consummated. Yet the acute articulation of emotional detail puts the story almost into the territory of Chekhov's best known short narrative, "The Lady with the Little Dog".
The rain ends. The lovers, lacking the necessary daring or conviction, separate. The two hunters are ready to move on. To end the musical score, I listen to the Scottish tenor Kenneth McKellar sing Robert Burns' "Ae Fond Kiss". McKellar's version of the song was first played to me one sad autumn afternoon many years ago by a wonderful poet. If it's not exactly in Chekhov's measured and always slightly ironic tone, it does evoke the high anguish of the lovers' farewell in the carriage of a departing train.
David Helwig and About Love: Three Stories by Anton Chekhov links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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