"It's too darn hot." —Cole Porter
"It's like a heat wave, burning in my heart." —Martha and the Vandellas
"Hot town, summer in the city, back of my neck gettin' dirty and gritty." —The Lovin' Spoonful
Day after day of 90+ degree heat seems to melt our brains into neuronic mushes far too soggy for heavy reading, and we become capable only of lazing through lighter-than-air fare. A memorable New Yorker cartoon tells the story: a stern cop, looming over a sunbather reading Crime and Punishment, says, "I'm sorry, sir, but Dostoyevsky is not considered summer reading."
Well, so far this summer I haven't spent hours lying on a towel at the seashore engrossed by David Baldacci's latest. Instead I've been riding the #1 train from muggy Manhattan to the bucolic Bronx to play folk music at a day camp, utterly engrossed by Anton Chekhov short stories.
Before you dismiss me as a hopeless prig, I'll confess that I've also been reading P.G. Wodehouse's Aunts Aren't Gentlemen for at least the tenth time and, despite all these re-readings, having only the vaguest idea of the plot — a mash-up of Bertie Wooster and Jeeves and a cat and a race horse and a pretty girl named Vanessa Cook — but enjoying the many idiocies along the way. Here Jeeves informs Bertie that a horse loving a cat is not as rare as one might think, "though more often it is a goat or a sheep which engages their affection":
That was quite new stuff to me. First time I'd ever heard of it.
"A goat?" I asked.
"Or a sheep?"
"You mean love at first sight?"
"One might so describe it, sir."
"What asses horses are, Jeeves."
"Certainly their mentality is open to criticism, sir."
I've also found time, as I do every year, to re-savor Summer Lightning, another Wodehouse masterpiece that paints the benign and blustery faces of an English August with equal economy and grace:
Blandings Castle slept in the sunshine. Dancing little ripples of heat played across its smooth lawns and stone-flagged terraces. The air was full of the lulling droning of insects. It was that gracious hour of a summer afternoon, mid-way between luncheon and tea, when Nature seems to unbotton its waistcoat and put its feet up.
That grey, threatening sky had turned black by now. It was a swollen mass of inky clouds, heavy with the thunder, lightning and rain which so often come in the course of an English summer to remind the island race that they are hardy Nordics and must not be allowed to get their fibre all sapped by eternal sunshine...
And I've been dipping into The Newcomes, a rambling Thackeray novel, and enjoying William Makepeace's many cynical asides:
No people are so ready to give a man a bad name as his own kinfolk; and, having made him that present, they are ever most unwilling to take it back again.
Yet The Newcomes is so long, 806 pages of tiny type in a 1906 edition I found in an old library, and its narrative pace so lackadaisical, that after a few pages my eyelids begin a slow and drowsy descent that I'm powerless to resist.
What has kept me awake as the subway train rattles along, stopping twenty-five times in two hundred blocks, has been a battered Signet Classic paperback, Ward Six and Other Stories by Anton Chekhov. My wife must have bought it in her college days, because until I grabbed it off a bookshelf while rushing out to camp one morning, I hadn't known that Chekhov wrote anything but the plays--The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, The Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard — that have made him immortal.
The Signet Classic contains six of Chekhov's many stories. "The Name Day Party" is the shortest and the earliest, written in 1888 when Chekhov was 28 and a rising young writer; "A Dull Story" in '89 comes next, then "The Duel" in '91, at 100 pages by far the longest story, followed by "Ward Six" in '92. When Chekhov wrote "My Life" in '96 and "In the Ravine" in 1900, he was already a celebrated playwright.
What do I find so engrossing? These are good stories, well-plotted, suspenseful, and surprising — "The Duel" had me on the edge of my seat. I love Chekhov's clear-eyed realism. He describes every locale in detail, always choosing plain words and phrases so we can quickly see what he sees, whether that be the common bedroom of an insane asylum:
The walls are painted a muddy blue, and the ceiling, as in a peasant's chimneyless hut, is black with soot — obviously the stoves here smoke in the winter, filling the room with charcoal fumes. The windows are disfigured by an iron grille on the inside. The floor is grey and splintery. The place stinks of sauerkraut, smoldering wicks, bedbugs, and ammonia, and for the first moment, this stench gives you the impression that you are entering a menagerie. ("Ward Six")
— or an evening boating party on a spacious estate:
The white cloudy sky, the trees on the riverside, the reeds and the boats with their passengers and sculls, were all reflected in the water as in a mirror; under the boats, far below the bottomless depths, was another sky with birds flying across it. The bank on which the house stood was high, steep, and covered with trees; the other bank was sloping, and green with broad water-meadows and simmering coves. ("The Name Day Party")
His character portraits are similarly exact, both visually, here a provincial doctor:
He is heavy, coarse, and boorish in appearance; his face, beard, and flat limp hair, and his rugged, ungainly figure suggest a gruff, overfed intemperate innkeeper. His stern face is covered with blue veins, the eyes small, the nose red. ("Ward Six")
— and psychologically, here man terrified by impending death:
I felt for my pulse, and unable to find it in my wrist, felt my temples, then my chin, and again my wrist, and wherever I touched my body it was cold and clammy. My breath became more and more rapid...I had the sensation there were cobebs on my face and bald spot. ("A Dull Story")
Chekhov practiced as a physician through his writing career, and that surely contributes to his clinically detached tone. He does not flinch or look away from agonizing scenes:
Her sobs alternated with terrible pains, each more violent and prolonged than the last. At first she held her breath and bit the pillow when the pains gripped her, but later she uttered shameless, harrowing screams. ("The Name Day Party")
— yet he openly marvels at the treacherous twists and turns life can take:
The barrel of the pistol, aimed directly at his face, the expression of hate and contempt in von Koren's stance and whole body, the murder that was about to be committed by a decent man in broad daylight...the unknown power that compelled Layersky to stand still and not run — how mysterious, how imcomprehensible and terrible it all was! ("The Duel")
Okay, okay, I admit it: this is just the sort of writing outlawed on the New Yorker cartoon's beach, and with good reason. Summertime is time-off time, time to chill, kick back, sip tall cool drinks, and to worry, if we worry at all, only about our tan lines. Russian misery is best served with a mug of kvass on winter nights when snow piles up outside outside our dachas and a roaring fire blazes in the fireplace.
Yet anytime is a good time for good writing, writing like Chekhov's, writing with bite, insight, and soul. In the short and the long run, I find good writing both more stimulating and more relaxing than fluff that I've forgotten a half hour after I've reached "The End." Sadly, Bertie Wooster, an avid reader of detective novels, may never agree with me. In Aunts Aren't Gentlemen Vanessa tells him he must stop smoking and quotes Tolstoy who said that "as much pleasure can be got from twirling the fingers." All Bertie knows of Tolstoy is that he's "someone I had not met."
My impulse was to tell her that Tolstoy was off his onion, but I choked down the heated words. For all I knew the man might be a bosom pal of hers and she might resent criticism of him, however justified.