Last week I wrote “Why C.S. Lewis?”
I still seem to be in a period of Inklings obsession (the Inklings were C.S. Lewis’s Christian writing group), and I’m about halfway through Grevel Lindpop’s Charles Williams: The Third Inkling. I’m enjoying it enormously, although I will be objecting to one aspect of it in today’s post. (For a little more information on Williams, look at my blog post here or Sorina Higgins’s whole lovely blog on him, but especially perhaps her introduction here.)
I, meanwhile, would like to start with Chekhov.
A professor, who, I believe, had assigned us “The Lady with a Lapdog,” said that people who dislike Chekhov are young and idealistic and haven’t seen enough of life. I wrote fiercely back, though I did not share it with anyone before this,
I don’t think I dislike Chekhov because I’m young and idealistic. I dislike Chekhov because it’s pretty much always been clear to me that you can’t count on life to be picturesque, and thus I don’t see anything especially deep about the fact that it often fails to be—especially when the nature of the abortive picturesqueness—and the failure—and the characters who are failing—are all unrealistically dull and depressing. I don’t like gray, even if when you look closely enough it is really the gray of a pigeon or a rainy sky with lots of subtle greens and blues and purples in it. I like bright happy colors. Or dark brooding colors, or colors that we don’t usually combine. Any kind of colors. And I am usually lucky enough to see in color.
This is undoubtedly an unfair and philistine reaction to a great author.
It also is based strongly on the way I actually feel (since I was a small child, ninety percent of everything has felt boring and depressing, and I tend to be very, very grateful for the parts that aren’t instead of very hurt and betrayed by the parts that are.)
What’s more, too many Chekhov stories have as a significant component the following plot: Young man falls in love with and idolizes young woman. She turns out to be coarse/insensitive/vulgar/poshlaya. He either is or should be utterly disenchanted, and life sucks, there you are.
Uncomfortably, I saw myself in these insufficiently delicate/ elegant/ refined/ cultured and hence utterly unsatisfactory women and felt I would much rather not have the writer of my narrative (or the person dating me) condemn me to a lifetime of disgust, contempt, and being regarded as a burden or an unfortunate circumstance rather than a human being because I gulp down my water coarsely like an animal, giggle stupidly, and am not as literate or intellectual as I’d like to think I am. (If you’re going to declare me a contemptible, disgusting non-person it should at least be for faults beyond the aesthetic.)
I looked at these young men. I looked at Charles Williams. I looked back at the young men and saw self-centered, short-sighted, chauvinist idiots…
Yes, I exaggerate a bit for effect. And if I’m to think of CW, here, the ladies have the same duty to put up with their lovers’ contempt that the lovers have to put up with the ladies’ lack of…mental or intellectual beauty, perhaps? I’m not sure what the right term is. But still, under that Mosemanian (ugh, that last name does not make a nice adjective) interpretation of Williams, the self-pitying contempt is something, at least in the big picture, to be put up with and not accepted as a deserved and dire fact (not that one can’t learn from it, but.)
OK. Let’s back up a little. I think this is based on (memory may serve me wrong) the beginnings of Outlines of Romantic Theology, beyond which I didn’t read, sadly. As I recall he wrote, passionately (and, I suspect, with a fair amount of personal experience) that of course the beloved is not at present the person you see in the height of passion (or rather that that vision is your beloved redeemed, eternal, in the eyes of God), and of course everyday reality falls short of high-flown romantic notions. He goes on to explain that literature of disillusionment misses the point. The gap between ideal and temporal reality is a starting point, not a bitter ending—and the ideal is perhaps, in a larger sense, at least as true as if not truer than the so-called reality.
The Place of the Lion, I think, illustrates this magnificently. I do not quite like Anthony Durrant’s accurate cruelty to Damaris. But I was nearly moved to tears when Damaris observes (I can’t seem to find the passage) that Anthony was there with her all along. I am sure the writing and structure is execrable compared with Chekhov’s, but I would rather read The Place of the Lion than “The Lady with a Lapdog” any day, and while this surely shows my bad taste, I don’t think that’s all that it shows.
I would argue that CW’s life shows this too, at least, to some extent. Lindpop illustrates to my satisfaction, at least, that neither of the loves of Williams’ life (his wife Michal or Phyllis, the librarian at the Oxford University Press where he worked) comes anywhere close to being someone Chekhov would even like. Both, like Gurov’s supposedly contemptible wife in “Lady with a Lapdog,” do not write correct English; neither seems to me particularly interested in Williams’s interests; the one has a temper and a tendency to say outrageous things (if we trust Williams’s family); the other was not faithful to anyone she loved and was, if we’re to believe Lindpop’s interpretations, emotionally manipulative (both of these things are true to some degree of Williams, of course; and I observe this not because I think her particularly awful for it but because it moves her away from what seems to me to be the implicit Chekhovian ideal). And yet the letters (To Michal from Serge) and what I’ve read of the biography show Williams stubbornly clinging (whatever one might say about how) to both the ideals and the facts of these women and doing his best to love them in truth. I was touched again when Williams tells Phyllis (during her brief marriage to a young man she’d been flirting with all along) that she will always be Celia.
Meanwhile…C.S. Lewis observed something to the effect that in Charles Williams the “lower” parts of life appeared, but the higher mocked at the lower and not the other way round. I wish Lindpop would listen more to the higher in CW’s writing as well as the lower—to the charm, the scrupulous kindness, the sense of play. My criticism of the biography so far is that Lindpop takes perhaps too Chekhovian (again, I suspect I am reading Chekhov abominably unfairly, so let’s say instead Straw-Chekhovian) an attitude toward Williams. This struck me most in the beginning, where Lindpop goes to great lengths to find signs that Williams’s marriage to Michal was strained, uncomfortable, and possibly loveless, that Michal was not a good match for Williams and that Williams was, perhaps, neglectful. It is evident that there were issues even before Phyllis happened, but I sense much more warmth in Williams’s letters and poems to Michal and Michael than Lindpop does, who seems to me to go out of the way to look for embarrassment, coldness, fear, and, at one point, “histrionics” (yes, Williams was being dramatic and negative, but he was doing so to make fun of himself, and he finished up that letter, to my eye, perfectly delightfully). I wish Lindpop responded more to Williams’s charm and kindness. I wish he offered more explicit respect for the efforts of both of these people to bring their lives closer to an ideal. I wish that I could have seen some interpretation of the good in that marriage, because I believe that it existed.
….Also, more insignificantly (see above about the advisability of not regarding people primarily as aesthetic objects or nothing but inspirations of emotion within oneself), CW himself has about ten times the vitality, “color,” and charm of any Chekhov character of any gender I have ever met. Even accounting for the fact (if fact it is) that truth is inevitably stranger than fiction, and the fact that I am a dreadful philistine, I do not like Chekhov.