Monday, November 1, 2010

Up in the aerie, blueberry coffee cake is cooling fragrantly on the counter, individual meat loaves will soon go in the oven along with russet potatoes, and there's a small pot of collard greens on the stove, my first time ever cooking them, and yes I was a little annoyed that Chez Panisse Vegetables didn't include a writeup, collards aren't even in the index.

I've been thinking about the Chekhov story the last couple of days, The Lady with the Little Dog. Vladimir Nabokov deemed it one of the greatest stories ever written and I'm not saying it isn't. (The sacrilege of that! I imagine angels in heaven pitching backward in a dead faint that I should challenge Chekhov.) But the other night I woke up in the middle of the night, lay awake, and found myself completely reworking the story in my head. I don't relate, really, to Chekhov's two characters, Anna and Dmitri. They're both blank slates to each other, at which they project each other's fantasies. I certainly have no issue with that - I'm a champion at it myself. But Dmitri, as described, seems like an unrepentant habitual roué, not the type to suddenly have a change of character and fall in love in earnest - with whom, exactly? She's pretty, but so dull - all she does is weep and call herself a tramp. He's described as not yet 40 - and yet he's having some sudden epiphany that now he's aging and his hair's going gray and so now he falls in love in earnest? Sorry - I just don't buy it! Also, the lovers have the immense luxury of meeting with one another for a spell in a private room at the Slavyanski Bazaar Hotel. Am I supposed to feel sorry for them that they can't be together all the time? On the contrary, I'm downright envious. Those two have it absolutely made, right down to Anna's husband who "does believe, or doesn't believe" that she's periodically called to Moscow for vague female problems.

In my imagination, the story is reworked so that I'm Anna and you're Dmitri. As Anna I'm a cross between myself and Mabel Loomis Todd, who famously had a very long love affair with Emily Dickinson's married older brother, Austin. Mabel was married herself, to a philandering astronomer, David Todd, and the three of them in time formed an emotional (and, it seems, physical) ménage à trois. It's a hell of a story. I love that Mabel kept a careful log not only of her menstrual cycles, but of her orgasms. I would love to see a few pages from that journal. Do you know that I keep a log of your page hits? I know, it's crazy. I have a bit of a listmaking mania myself, I guess, though I'd much rather be tracking orgasms myself.

So anyway, yes it's me in a Mabel Loomis Toddish kind of way arriving briskly every few months (when my cycle is just so) at the S. B. Hotel, where I send the red-capped bellhop right over to summon you. The room is pleasantly furnished and light, but I draw the blinds and apply Japanese perfume, and arrange flowers on the dresser. You arrive. You are indeed in love with me! But there's no ambiguity there, no forced suspension of disbelief that you have long been a habitual philanderer, steeped in a lifetime of lies, denigrating women as the "inferior race" - with whom you cannot do without for so much as two days in a row. No, rather, and perfectly understandably - well let's just say that the human heart is multi-chambered and a long marriage whatever its compensations doesn't always over a long time sustain in the delight department. It's more that you're lonely, in other words, not that you're a cynical "player" who knows just how and when to seduce, muss up, cut, and run.

So you and I would count ourselves very lucky to have a night or two or a week together at the S.B. Hotel. We wouldn't handwring about it, expecting more - impossible in December 1899 Moscow, as impossible now.

Well, perhaps I've become a slightly jaded older woman myself. In the Chekhov story, Anna is about half Dmitri's age, so she's around 19 or 20. At that age I too couldn't stand long separations. But I think I could now. I think I would be grateful for the opportunity of planned encounters, as long as I could actually look forward to them, that they could become part of the rhythm of a year.

So that is how I would rework the Chekhov story for myself. It's a beautiful story, but it is of a certain place & time I think, as Nabokov points out in his lecture about Chekhov, Chekhov writes about a particular Russian type - who makes sense to Russians, but perhaps less so to this 21st century Polish-American woman.

So my dear, I'm so glad you were able to get away to my beautiful suite at the S.B. Hotel. Would you like an ice-filled glass of rosé? Do you like my new frock? It's got one of those newfangled things down the back, a zipper I believe they call it - you'll help me with it won't you, darling?


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