Looking at my collection of unread and ignored volumes the other week made me feel guilty. All that talent going to waste. So I decided to meet the colour reading challenge head-on by taking an afternoon to digest some short stories (or novellas) with colours in the titles.
This is what I pulled from the shelves:
From bottom to top: Anton Chekhov – Anthology published by the Folio Society, Fighting It – Regi Claire, published by Two Raven’s Press; Collected Stories – Somerset Maugham, Everyman’s Library Edition; The Girl with the Golden Eyes – Honoré de Balzac, part of the Art of the Novella series published by Melville House Publishing.
1835 – The Girl With The Golden Eyes – Honoré de Balzac. (118 pages) I was left bemused by my first and (possibly my last) Balzac. Lush, extravagant language almost baroque in its flourishes. Savage biting criticism of “the fierce impulses of the proletariat … the depraved interests that crush the lower and middle classes ..the cruelties of the artist’s thoughts … the excesses of pleasure constantly sought by the upper class – all these explain the normal ugliness of Parisian physiogomy”. The story told is an ugly one too. From the dust jacket: “the story of a rich and ruthless young man caught up in an amorous entanglement with a mysterious beauty. His control slipping, incest, homosexuality, sexual slavery and violence combine in what was then, and still remains, a shocking and taboo-breaking work”. Had I read that before buying the book (which was purchased as I’m collecting the series), there’s no way it would have made it to my shelves. In any event the story is by no means as explicit as the synopsis suggests to a modern audience, resulting in a novella that manages to be seedy, surreal, melodramatic and boring at the same time and I certainly don’t see myself diving further into the depths of Balzac’s 100-volume Human Comedy any time soon.
1894 The Black Monk – Anton Chekhov (29 pages) Genius and madness are but a hair’s breadth from each other and that is certainly true in this story which charts the final two years in the life of artist Andrei Kovrin, a man blessed (plagued?) by the vision of a black monk who tells Kovrin that he is one of God’s elect and warns him that the accompanying traits of “exaltation, enthusiasm, ecstasy” will not benefit his health. The truth of those words unquestionable when Kovrin dies of a massive hemorrhage. Tuberculosis or madness? And the monk – is he a figment of an overactive imagination or an apparition with a 1000 year history. It’s significant that the monk first appears after Kovrin has been walking through an orchard in whihc “a thick, black, acrid smoke was creeping over the ground and, curling round the trees” saving them from the frost. I loved Chekhov’s control : the language, crisp and precise; the action vivid, three-dimensional; the meaning remaining ambiguous.
Clever, clever, clever man. I just had to read more.
As everyone who has spoken to me of Chekhov has mentioned The Lady with the Dog (1899) (15 pages) and there was a such beautiful illustration of such in my Folio Society volume, how could I not? And yes, I endorse all the recommendations made – this is a wonderful story, the first half of which reminded me strongly of Stefan Zweig’s Burning Secret (even if this was written some 15 years after Chekhov’s original). The second half, though, surprising in the change of heart of the aging lothario and displaying once more an ambiguity of meaning and interpretation. This is obviously a Chekhovian trademark and one I suspect that ensures the re-readability of his tales as does his use of language. I particularly enjoyed the use of colour to show both the changing spirits and feelings of the characters. The aging Dmitri’s hair is described as graying, and he often wears gray suits. Whereas the sea at Yalta, the resort where the lovers meet, is suffused with color as “the water was of a soft warm lilac hue, and there was a golden streak from the moon upon it.” Life is about to veer away from the mundane. There’s the promise of hope, optimism and enjoyment.
Got to say there’s a soft warm lilac hue in my heart when I contemplate reading the other 34 stories in this anthology. What’s your advice – should I just dive in and lose myself or save them as treasures to be stored safely and brought out only on special occasions?
(Colourful stories – Part Two to follow)