Category Archives: Non-Fiction

January 27, 2022

Of Seasons

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Jill Talbot

Long past August in Texas, the heat hangs on, a stubborn guest. Outside, the trees—their branches heavy with green—sweep in the wind. No signs of autumn, no ochre-butterscotch-rust, no sounds of onion-skin crunch, only sweat and swelter, a suffocation. I lean against the doorframe to my porch, weary. A year ago, I stood here talking on the phone with my mother, the two of us misunderstanding each other.

Virginia Woolf described autumn this way: “The nights now are full of wind and destruction; the trees plunge and bend and their leaves fly helter skelter until the lawn is plastered with them and they lie packed in gutters and choke rain-pipes and scatter damp paths.”

There is no light in my closet, no switch, no bulb, no chain.

“Once, in a letter, Woolf realized: “I meant to write about death, only life came breaking in as usual.”

I am tired of the movements I make and make again, how I take the left turn on Hickory, how I come home to find that I forgot to start the dishwasher, how I pour a glass of wine at six, how I sort through the mail and throw most of it away, how I exchange the paper towel tube with a new roll, how I leap over the swelling stream of water in the parking lot outside my apartment as it storms, how I turn the comforter back on my bed hours before I get into it, and how I finger the soil of the hanging baskets on the porch, their pink periwinkles still cascading in October. Tonight, another obligation to check off the calendar. I set my wine glass on the end table and walk to my room, open the closet.

Once, in a letter, Woolf realized: “I meant to write about death, only life came breaking in as usual.”

A black dress, sleeveless, a dry cleaner tag pinned to the inside of its collar. I pull it from its slot between a pair of jeans and a gray skirt. The dress slips and drops to the floor. My fingers find it among the shoes.

“I bend toward the back of my closet for the black pumps and pull them from the dark.”

Last week I hesitated before taking the dress into the cleaners. I sat in my car, counting the months back to April (pressing the heavy fabric to my face, taking a deep breath), remembering how spring had drawn a sudden curtain of gray and drizzle and cold, how I teetered on the damp path toward a silver casket, how every mourner, including the preacher, offered a coat to my quiet refusals. My father already in the ground.

Grief lingers, a stubborn guest.

I bend toward the back of my closet for the black pumps and pull them from the dark. When I stand, I notice a crust of caked mud on the first inch of each heel.


The shoes like wilted flowers in my hands, and I remember the way my sharp heels sunk into the ground with each step I took toward my mother’s casket.

At the kitchen sink, I run the water. I wipe the mud away with a paper towel. Each sweep of my hand, each removal a betrayal.

Jill Talbot is the author of The Way We Weren’t: A Memoir and Loaded: Women and Addiction, as well as the editor of Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in AGNI, Brevity, Colorado Review, DIAGRAM, Longreads, The Normal School, The Paris Review Daily, River Teeth, and Slice Magazine and has been recognized by The Best American Essays. She teaches in the creative writing program at the University of North Texas.
April 12, 2021

My Beethoven

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Kelly Cherry

I have loved Beethoven’s music since before I was born. My pregnant mother, having read that the child in the womb can hear music, played recording after recording of what was then unashamedly referred to as “good” or “serious” music. She wanted to be sure that I would be a good-music lover, as was she. She and my father were violinists. Sometimes Dad gave solo concerts—my mother fell in love with him when he played the Brahms Violin Concerto at L.S.U.—and both of them played in the New Orleans Symphony, but their passion was for the Beethoven string quartets, especially the late quartets, and wherever they were, they formed a string quartet. If I remember clearly (I was under the age of six), in Baton Rouge, it was the Cherry String Quartet. In Ithaca, it was the Ithaca String Quartet. In Richmond, it was the Richmond String Quartet. If the violist was weak, which happened to be the case from time to time, my mother would move from second fiddle to the viola.

Did the record-playing work? I can’t remember a time when I did not love Beethoven. In any case, I heard music, and in particular Beethoven’s music, very shortly after I was born. I listened from my crib, which was in the room where the musicians rehearsed. As soon as I could crawl, I was crawling around the eight-legged creature that is a quartet, or the four-legged creature that was my parents making music together, or the two legs of my handsome father practicing. He liked to warm up on the Bach Chaconne. In Ithaca, where we moved when I was five, my bedroom was down the hall. The night my eardrum burst and pus poured out I waited until rehearsal was over before telling my parents. It would not have done to interrupt them. Rehearsals were sacrosanct. They didn’t have to tell us that; we, the children, knew it in our bones. On concert nights, my mother wore long gowns, heels, a little rouge, and lipstick; if it was cold out, she might wear her squirrel jacket. Dad dressed in tails. In a swirl of glamour they left the apartment, and when they returned, still in their elegant clothes, they sat at the small, linoleum-topped kitchen table, reviewing the performance mercilessly but with high spirits. If we were awake, we could join them.

I tell people about my parents and their music because I am still entranced by their dedication and their struggle and grateful for the luminous, limitless gift they gave their children—my brother and sister and me—but it is harder to talk about what listening to serious music, and especially Beethoven, means to me. And would it have meant the same to me if I had not grown up with this music? I think so—because of who I am—but of course it’s impossible to know. I do know that neither I nor my siblings blindly accepted what our parents said about music. We were rebellious kids, somewhat neglected, rivalrous, angry, and anxious. My brother, who had a terrific talent for the piano, was not about to conform to any parental wish. When my father started me on the violin (“fiddle,” we said at home), I complained that my arm hurt. Years later he told me that if I felt any pain at all when I played the violin, I must have been holding it wrong. I’m sure I did hold it wrong. Who could keep arms and shoulders relaxed in such a tense situation? For me, that lesson was life or death. When we moved to Virginia, I started on the piano. I practiced five or six hours a day, after school, but it was stupid practice: With each mistake I’d back up and take the music faster. If my parents had been home, I suppose they might have explained to me that this was not how to get better, but they weren’t, and didn’t, and then I’d slam the lid down and go to bed hating myself. Nor did I have the hands for the piano.

My sister, the third-born, had begun ballet and would have been, her teacher said, a superb ballerina, but a cyst developed on her leg, and that put an end to her dream of dancing on stage. When our parents got home from work, she would turn on the radio just before they reached the driveway, blasting the house with early rock-and-roll or country music. She was also going steady with someone in the middle-school band. Mom and Dad concluded she was “boy crazy” and that there was no point in paying for music lessons for her. This was exactly the conclusion she had hoped to lead them to. It removed the pressure (though our parents would have sworn they didn’t pressure us). Some months later, at dinner, she announced that she needed flute lessons. Turned out the flute was what she was playing in the band. They still assumed that the boy was why she was learning the flute. A year or two later, she said she needed a better teacher. She had already decided she wanted to study with William Kincaid, then considered the best flutist in the world. Astonished and proud, Dad drove her to Philadelphia for an audition, and she became Kincaid’s youngest student. She began performing at fifteen.

I had learned to read music, of course, but at twelve I wrote a poem. Not for school; it simply occurred to me to write one, and in it I made a rhyme. The rhyme, however simple and obvious, electrified me. I had not realized that words were, or could be, music. No doubt I ought to have realized that, but I hadn’t, or it hadn’t meant anything to me before I committed a rhyme of my own. At once, I announced that I was going to quit piano and become a writer. This caused a considerable ruckus, and I’ve long regretted that I insisted on quitting piano, but in our house it was always essential, we thought, to do whatever we did with dedication. I can no longer read music at all; I might recognize middle C but, then again, maybe not.

Thus I became a listener. My sister and I had bought our first records on our own when we were nine and six or seven, walking barefoot beside the road to the store. The selection at Woolworth’s Five and Dime was thin, but I found Smetana’s Moldau and my sister chose Bartók’s Romanian Dances, or maybe it was Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies, for 67 cents apiece. I already had some records that my grandfather had given me, Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain, for one; Weber’s Invitation to the Dance, for another. (The latter were 78-rpm records.) There was a good-music station in Richmond; it ran all night, and I often stayed up all night to listen to it. My father checked out for me records from the Richmond Professional Institute, where he taught, including Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, and works by Elliott Carter, Paul Hindemith, Arthur Honegger, Sergei Prokofiev, Dmitri Shostakovich, and J. S. Bach (including the Glenn Gould recording of the Goldberg Variations).

As for the few crummy pieces, I say, Thank god for them. They remind us that Beethoven was human.

For a while, I was in love with opera, although I paid no attention to plot or character, only to the music. I sang along loudly, and when the notes outran my range, I dropped down an octave and kept singing. There was a time when I played a recording of Beethoven’s Missa solemnis over and over for weeks, for months. I did the same with Beethoven’s Christ on the Mount of Olives. Both brought me peace when ideas were boiling over in my head. My last year in college, feeling intellectually estranged from other students, I calmed myself—and reinvigorated my thinking—by listening to Bach’s B-Minor Mass; I listened to it with the same unquenchable thirst with which I had listened to other music. The Bach unaccompanied cello suites—recordings by Casals, by Rostropovich, by Fournier—mesmerized me. And so did the Beethoven string quartets—as performed by the Budapest, Hungarian, Juilliard, Amadeus, and Emerson quartets. (The Pro Arte Quartet, located at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where I taught for many years, traversed the entire Beethoven cycle while I was there.)

I love Beethoven’s piano sonatas and concertos and symphonies as well, and even the better-known trios. Beethoven had more musical ideas than any other composer. Probably I should say, less categorically, I believe that Beethoven….But when I listen to the great (and not so great) composers, that’s what my ear and brain are telling me: that Beethoven is richer in musical ideas than any other composer. That is, he is always doing something worth thinking about—some consideration or reconsideration of theme, orchestration, development, some lovely or lively moment. My interest never flags, because his mind never flags. Well, that’s not true—he wrote a few crummy pieces, but there are no lapses in his completed, great works. And there are dozens of them.

As for the few crummy pieces, I say, Thank god for them. They remind us that Beethoven was human.

He was human and he sweated over his themes. This heightens rather than detracts from his genius; he was genius enough to know he could do better than his early drafts. Genius enough to recognize that music needs to adhere to structural principles, the first of which, in my opinion, is that a slow movement needs to be supported by smaller moments of musical interest. A slow movement that is a suspension bridge will sway and tremble and trouble the listener trying to cross over it. In first and final movements, time passes, and the listener needs to believe that time is passing also in the slow movement.

I don’t mean to suggest that music is the same as narrative literature; I do mean to suggest that the excitement, the breath-taking excitement, of both lies in knowing that we are being led somewhere meaningful. Certainly we also enjoy meaningful moments along the way; they are what allow us to assume the whole will be meaningful. Music, it has been said, is linear, as is literature, or at least narrative, and Beethoven, with his dynamics and rhythms, and in his piano sonatas with the use additionally of sustain, creates a narrative that carries tension.

Meaningful? someone may ask. How can music that is not a pop song or program music be meaningful? Or, doesn’t something have to be translatable to words to have meaning?

How, I want to ask in return, can it not be meaningful? Music is patterning, and patterning is how we think. No, I can’t name all the patterns—fugues, canons, counterpoint, harmony, recapitulation; I never even took a music appreciation course, fearful I might earn less than an A. But I hear the patterns and rejoice in them, and surely it is true that the very existence of pattern registers in the mind as a sign of logic and even good faith. I understand why a contemporary composer might want to explode pattern, but the only way to do it is to create new patterns. Unpatterned music, whether electronic or instrumental, is music a listener will fall asleep to. It’s the patterns that make us think and feel and stay awake to the end.

His work still often sounds more contemporary than many contemporary works, and it will last for all time.

As for the whole: Every one of Beethoven’s successful pieces is a whole world. I find it impossible to hear another work in my head—even a poem I’m working on—while listening to Beethoven; the work commands—not “demands”—attentiveness. It is cerebral, playful, tragic, beautiful, and beyond paraphrase. It may lift up, calm, delight—and yet none of these words adequately describes its effect upon me, and, I think, on other Beethoven fans. Yes, Mozart was a genius, with his singing line and chromatic harmonies; he influenced Beethoven’s early work, and his late work anticipates Beethoven’s late work. He died too young. And yes, Bach more or less invented music, turning out masterpieces along the way. And yes, both Mozart and Beethoven learned more than a little from Haydn. But Beethoven took music to places it had never been. His work still often sounds more contemporary than many contemporary works, and it will last for all time. Perhaps his greatest achievement was to express the concept and value of freedom in sound. His music expands—swells—my heart, for I learn from it that anything is possible; it instills hope and courage. But not at the expense of ignoring reality: his music entwines light with dark, bringing me to a crux where I cannot choose whether to cheer with unalloyed joy or to weep in concert with the poet Rilke, who spoke of beauty as “the beginning of terror.” This dilemma cannot be referred to as “bittersweet,” a commonly employed term in literary reviews and criticism; rather, it reflects a vision that recognizes dark and light as inseparable, perhaps even interchangeable (though Beethoven wanted light, wanted freedom, wanted, perhaps—we don’t know for sure—God).

Naturally, my family had a recording of the Beethoven Violin Concerto. I remember that once, when it was on the player in the next room, my father came to the doorway of the kitchen. “Oh, God,” he said. “It tears my heart out.”

Beyond paraphrase.

When I was fourteen or fifteen, I submitted a story to my high school’s literary magazine. It was about a man who planned to take his life. Walking down the street next to the Richmond Professional Institute, he heard someone practicing the “Waldstein” Sonata (Piano Sonata No. 21) in an upper room with an open window; the beauty of the sonata drifted down and lifted up his heart so that he resolved to live after all. The teachers gently informed me that they couldn’t allow my story to be published—it might put the idea of suicide in some student’s mind. I understood, but I also understood that the teachers didn’t understand Beethoven’s music.

A few years later I couldn’t get enough of the “Hammerklavier” Sonata (No. 29). These days I listen endlessly to Sonata No. 32. In the second half of that piece, high notes cluster with sustain, sounding transcendental. These measures seem to suggest a kind of liberation from the struggle of the real world and possibly freedom from the trials of life—by which I do not mean a longing or lust for death. It’s as if the composer has discovered a world freer and wider than the one we have. He has achieved mastery of his medium and is therefore free to write whatever comes to him. (This is true artistic freedom.) I can hear the Wilhelm Kempff recording in my head as I write this, the lighthearted and bell-like jazzy notes an efflorescence of perfection. I also recall hearing this sonata played by the astonishing Maurizio Pollini in concert twice: once in Italy and once at Lincoln Center. Pollini’s renditions struck me as a case of the performer becoming the music; he seemed to be at one with it, his interpretation as precise as if he had been Beethoven. After the crashing chords of the first movement, the second is like fresh air and sunlight—or no, like heaven, were there a heaven. And if it sounds like heaven, maybe it is heaven. Anthony Burgess, writing about his novel The Clockwork Orange, referred to “the vision of paradisal order which great music conveys.”

The “Grosse Fuge” is another piece in which the movement of the whole is onward and upward. Terrifically exciting, the quartet negotiates a double fugue in a single astonishing movement, intense, complex, and passionate measures rising to a transforming climax. I reflexively lean forward, the better to hear every note, contrapuntal encounter, variation, every design. Earlier critics called this piece “discordant,” but I doubt that anyone thinks so now. In his 1995 collection, Atlantis, Mark Doty justifiably, and lyrically, asked, in his poem titled “Grosse Fuge”:

What does it mean, chaos
gathered into a sudden bronze sweetness,
an October flourish, and then that moment
denied, turned acid, disassembling,
questioned, rephrased?
(Quoted with permission from the author)

What it means, I wish to suggest, is that, as a world unto itself, the “Grosse Fuge” responds to the light in the dark, the dark in the light. In a poem of my own, “The Memorial,” I envision the music as a ladder of strings: Beethoven climbs the steep, moving steps to a confrontation with the Almighty (or the universe). The poem first discusses the String Quartet No. 13 in B-flat Major, for which the “Grosse Fuge” was originally meant to be the last movement:

. . .the Beethoven,
Which one writer describes as “dark” and “near-
Impenetrable,” though it is neither impenetrable
Nor dark, the adagio gravely lovely, allegro
Electric with energy, both leading to,
Originally, the Grosse Fuge, in which
Beethoven climbs to heaven on a ladder
woven of strings to knock on God’s closed door
And have it out with him, man to man.

Music and poetry are ever entwined.

Beethoven’s work often reminds me of the color green. I’m not synesthetic (though my sister is) but—maybe because I imagine him striding through woods, or maybe because my husband and I frequently listen to Beethoven while driving through countryside, or maybe because Beethoven’s music is so filled with life, a sense of movement, of development—I see, with my mind’s eye, green, an abundance of green, of growth, feel surrounded by greenness, a burgeoning, as I listen to it. Not always, but often enough to associate great art with the idea of development. In a short lyric poem the development is of depth, layer upon layer; in longer literary works it is a series of changes—and those small moments that fortify the larger lines—and a sense of direction, for I also believe in ends. Contrary to many, I do not think that process is art. I think that process is process until it achieves an end, whereupon the work exists, and exists separately from the artist.

When I was ten, I asked my mother if there was a God. She said, “I don’t know, but there was a Beethoven and that’s good enough for me.”

Think of Beethoven’s endings! And his beginnings, too: how they declare themselves, how they notify us of the composer’s intent. He wanted listeners to know where he started and when he was done. What is between the beginning and the end is Beethoven, the incomparable composer. The beginnings and endings are themselves so distinct and characteristic that we know at once to whom we are listening. The Fifth Symphony’s four famous opening notes have become almost a part of our DNA, they are so well known. Listeners the world over recognize them. Similarly, the “Ode to Joy” that concludes the Ninth Symphony is acknowledged by all as a metaphor for brotherhood (and sisterhood) and freedom. But whether loud or soft, his beginnings and endings define the works as completed objéts d’art. This is not always the case within his works. One movement may advance attacca—without pause—to the next.

Of interior moments, I am particularly drawn to the Heiliger Dankgesang (Holy Song of Thanksgiving) in the Quartet in A Minor, Op. 132 (No. 15 according to publication, but number thirteen in composition). In a meditative mood, aware of how close he had come to death (an illness), grateful to be allowed to live for the nonce but knowing that he cannot live forever, Beethoven furnishes the quartet with five movements; the Heiliger Dankgesang occurs in the third. The high notes have a celestial quality like the high notes in the last movement of Piano Sonata No. 32. There is again a sense of the deep worthiness of life, of freedom as a result of self-discipline, and yet of playfulness.

Surely, the “Muse of fire” Shakespeare solicited to attend his play Henry V is at Beethoven’s side as he “ascend[s] / The brightest heaven of invention….” T. S. Eliot, writing to Stephen Spender, called the fifteenth quartet “inexhaustible,” and said of Beethoven, “There is a sort of heavenly or at least more than human gaiety about some of his later things which one imagines might come to oneself as the fruit of reconciliation and relief after immense suffering; I should like to get something of that into verse before I die.”

But I don’t think Beethoven was in the least masochistic, and Eliot does sound a bit, here. Eliot is toying with the idea of pain as a catalyst to artistic transformation; Beethoven, on the other hand, believes that he has an obligation to “artistic destiny” and is annoyed by any crisis that threatens to keep him from it.

At the start of the “Heiligenstadt Testament,” a letter to his brothers in which he acknowledged his thoughts of suicide, his fear that loss of hearing would capsize his career, and, finally, his determination to live, he notes, “I was ever inclined to accomplish great things.” Considering death, he writes that “only my art. . . held me back. . . . [I]t seemed to me impossible to leave the world until I had brought forth all that I felt was within me.” And I imagine this sentiment was not mere sentiment; he always had various works underway, ideas he wanted to explore; he may have had quite specific projects in mind.


When I was ten, I asked my mother if there was a God. She said, “I don’t know, but there was a Beethoven and that’s good enough for me.” I’m inclined to agree with her. In a poem (“What the Poet Wishes to Say”) I speak of

. . . Beethoven,
who, deaf and lonely, brought his art to such
sublimity, it is as if he wrote
his music among the spheres of music, working
at a desk of sky, the innumerable stars for lighting,
a gust of solar wind sending manuscript
flying. In the late piano sonatas,
you hear the composer placing his notes, solid
and silken as they somehow manage to be,
without hesitation but with deliberateness
exactly where they are supposed to go,
thereby fixing the apparatus of heaven
God had let fall idle.

My parents died in the eighties. The fiddles—my mother’s an Amati, I think; the Guadagnini, my father’s—for which they had scrimped and saved and gone into debt were auctioned at Sotheby’s. It is a joy to have found out that the Guadagnini, known in the literature as the Ex-Kingman, now belongs to a vigorous and impressively fine violinist in the Vienna Symphony Orchestra. My husband and I heard him draw his bow across the strings when he came to our hotel, and the sound was like lightning, the lobby suddenly brilliant and stark and gladsome.

Also in the eighties, I went to Germany and Austria for a couple of weeks. I turned that trip into something of a pilgrimage, visiting Beethoven’s birthplace in Bonn, the woods he walked in, and, in Austria, the house outside Vienna where he wrote the “Heiligenstadt Testament.” Whenever I came across a concert that included Beethoven, I went. Perhaps the trip was less pilgrimage than a desire to experience the conditions of his great creativity. Beethoven has always been my guide to life in art. From him I have learned that there is no law that obliges the artist to restrict herself to a single genre or form. That a work of art must be interesting at every point. That competence necessarily precedes maturation. That the artist works for the art, not for anything else. That beauty may seem to be simple—a field, a forest, a musical scale, a line of poetry with no difficult words—but is always complex, a union of contraries, of contrasts, of hard work and inspiration.

Walking in Beethoven’s steps, I was in some sense listening to him—to the echoes his life created. What do I hear when I listen to Beethoven? I hear him thinking. And feeling, yes, but thinking about what he is feeling. To be inside a mind like his is an immense privilege, enlightenment, and delight.

Always, delight.

Kelly Cherry is the author of twenty-five books, ten chapbooks, and two translations of classical drama. Former Poet Laureate of Virginia, she is Eudora Welty Professor of English and Evjue-Bacom Professor Emerita in the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. This essay appeared in the print edition of LitMag.
April 10, 2017

Seven Months

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Ravi Mangla

In a courtroom that doubles as a mobile office for the DMV, my parents marry for a second time. Under different circumstances this would be cause for celebration, a collective victory for all those kids who saw their childhoods undone by divorce. Under different circumstances I might have bought them a blender or breadmaker (or, more conveniently, a custom license plate). Yet we have only the attending circumstances, which cast the proceedings in an altogether different light. My niece sits on my lap as we watch them recite vows and exchange rings: plain, unadorned bands. Once the ceremony has finished and the papers have been signed, we commemorate the occasion with a breakfast at Denny’s.

Two nurses take turns feeling for a serviceable vein. Scar tissue has accumulated from the weeks of chemo treatment, which prevents the needle from advancing. Soon they will insert a port in his upper arm. For now they continue to poke and prod, without any success, while my father seals his eyes, suppressing the urge to wince. “This never happens,” one of the nurses, confounded, says. “Usually I’m much better at this.”

Portraits of grief are cheap. Writing as therapy is taboo.

When the doctor tells him that he is dying, that from now on time will be measured in months, we are sitting in a room decorated in sea tones. There aren’t enough chairs to accommodate the three of us—my father, my brother-in-law, and me—so I am forced to stand by the door. When the doctor tells him that he is dying, I am facing my father, watching his head quietly nod, the news settling in like a gentle salve.

Later that same day he asks my mother to marry him again.

Portraits of grief are cheap. Writing as therapy is taboo. Stories of cancer are passé. A dime a dozen. The lees of serious essay writing. I promised myself I won’t appropriate my father’s pain for my own ends, that I won’t succumb to that lowest of impulse. Because writers seem to believe, out of some misguided hubris, that they feel more acutely than others, thereby entitling them to repurpose the pain of those around them. But this is not how I choose to grieve or hope to heal. This is how I remember.

There is a particular night embedded in my memory. I am five or six and afraid to fall asleep on my own. My mother is out of town and my father is sick with a cold. Despite his poor health, he sits in the doorway of my room, for what seems like hours, far enough away to protect me from his illness, but close enough that I can still see his silhouette.

Cancer, like acts in a story, has only three stages: a beginning, middle, and an end.

Once I was besotted with hospitals, particularly the way their self-replicating corridors simulated the dream state: the clean lines and unvarying design. Each door an enigma, a mystery of purpose. Yet after hundreds of dreams inside hospitals, there is no place more unpleasant to me, no place I would less like to be.

Three nurses are huddled in the corner of a darkened waiting room. This is not the start of a nursery rhyme. This is the room where I go to gather myself after long spells at his bedside. I don’t turn on the lights for fear of startling them. The nurses remain moored in their seats, taking a momentary break from their rounds to watch Maury deliver paternity results.

Months later, I meet with a new primary care physician. Changes to my healthcare coverage have delivered me here, to an office catering to the perennially underemployed. He is younger than my previous doctors, speaks in a unvarnished Bronx accent. He asks if stress could be contributing to my sleeping problems. I describe to him the last seven months. He nods and begins leafing through the questionnaire I filled out in the waiting room. “If I find out you’re a smoker,” he says, “I’m going to smack you upside the head.”

Cancer, like acts in a story, has only three stages: a beginning, middle, and an end.

The hospital where my father receives radiation treatment was once the site of human testing, performed without consent by an arm of the Manhattan Project. Over the course of two years, eleven patients were injected with plutonium, six with uranium, and five with polonium. Official records designate these patients with the letters “HP”—or “human product.” Now the hospital is among the most respected in the state, a leading employer in the region.

A candle is lit and placed on his casket. The act is a religious rite, akin to tossing a handful of dirt into an open grave. Before the body is lifted into the furnace, its final resting place, the director of the crematorium hastens over and politely asks that we extinguish the candle, fearing that it presents a possible fire hazard.

Three months before he passes, his third grandchild is born. The son of my sister and her husband. The boy is healthy (save for a spot of jaundice) and unusually composed for a newborn. My father spends hours with this child, who takes his name as his own, feeding him bottles and rocking him to sleep in his arms.

Agonal breathing refers to the intermittent gasps that happen when the body is not receiving the oxygen it needs to sustain itself. The term—like its counterpart agony—derives from agon, the Ancient Greek word for struggle. The gasps are the kind you might expect from a weak swimmer drowning in some rapacious sea. In most cases these respiratory spasms last for minutes; in rare ones, hours.

His hand is bloated and smooth, like a latex glove puffed with air. He has never asked me to hold his hand before.

Books I finish in the hospital: Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem, The Complete Poems by Elizabeth Bishop, Anne Truitt’s Daybook and Turn, Fare Forward: Letters from David Markson, Michelle Orange’s This is Running for Your Life, The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens. Why am I mentioning books? Because they are your greatest allies in moments of pain, a buffer against the certitudes of time.

My father wants to make it to his birthday, a date he adopted when he resettled in the country. For Indians of his generation, birthdays are an inexact science. We know he was born sometime in the late spring. Each year I would have to remind myself that the date we celebrated was guesswork.

He asks me to hold his hand. Time has slowed to a crawl. It is only a matter of days now. His hand is bloated and smooth, like a latex glove puffed with air. He has never asked me to hold his hand before. In fact, when I was a child, he spurned physical affection.

At night, unable to sleep, I wander the empty hallways of the hospital. The lights on the ground floor have been turned off. No announcements issue from the loudspeaker; no patients pass on padded gurneys. The gift shop is closed, its menagerie of care animals caged for the night. I search for hallways I haven’t navigated before, but each feels as familiar as the last. This isn’t a dream, though it doesn’t quite feel like real life either; it lacks some essential vividness. I walk with deliberate steps, trying not to break the spell of silence. Soon there will be no more hospital left to traverse, no more corridors through which to pass. My walk will have reached its end, in the way that all things end, and the only thing left to do will be to find my way back.

Ravi Mangla is the author of the novel Understudies. His essays have appeared in Kenyon Review, Midnight Breakfast, Cincinnati Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, and Paris Review Daily. He lives in Rochester, NY.
April 10, 2017

Misremembering Chekhov

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Rebecca Gould

There are tragedies and there are comedies…a comedy depends on stopping the story at exactly the right moment.—Siri Hustvedt

Chekhov was not my first love. More obviously delectable to a college freshman just returned from her first visit to St. Petersburg and discovering Russian literature for the first time were the thick novels of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. Those “great, baggy monsters” (as Henry James called them) buoyed me up through my first marriage, my frantic conversion to Christianity, and my equally hasty divorce. I imbibed the entire oeuvre of Dostoevsky on a reading binge, hoping to drown my tumultuous marriage in his tales of white nights, conniving detectives, and holy fools. Dostoevsky’s tortured heroines perfectly matched my overstrung mind, and his philosophical dialogues about the existence (or not) of God were the perfect object of reflection for my theologically conflicted soul. “I return my ticket,” Ivan Karamazov said directly to God (in the person of Alyosha). I won’t pause to consider it, but D.H. Lawrence’s interpretation of this scene (in a new translation of the “Grand Inquisitor” chapter published by the Hogarth Press in 1929) struck me as the inanest piece of literary criticism I had ever read, and I was certain I could do better.

Chekhov offered a different kind of pleasure.

Tolstoy struck a different chord. His ability to cut through racism and prejudice, in particular of the home-grown Russian variety, set him apart from any other Russian novelist I had read. Certainly, it placed him light-years ahead of Dostoevsky, whose novels swarm with hunchbacked Poles and snivelling Jews. Tolstoy did not pull at my heartstrings in quite the same way as did Dostoevsky, but he did speak to my social conscience, and to my desire to make a difference in the world. In the early years of the twenty-first century, amid the Russian air strikes on Grozny, Hadji Murad and the other Tolstoyan fictions set in the Caucasus read like political prophecies from a writer intimately familiar with the results of nationalist hate. I created a special shelf in my student apartment for Tolstoy, a writer I came to adore not for what he had to say about love, but for his vision of the social good. Thus did the pair whom Nabokov christened Tolstoyevsky enter my life: through my personal travails (in the case of Dostoevsky) and my desire to change the world (in the case of Tolstoy).

Chekhov offered a different kind of pleasure. I did not have the chance to taste him until my final semester at Berkeley, after a whirlwind tour of the Russian canon. I was in a class on the Russian short story. We had been assigned to read six carefully selected tales in the original, and scrutinized their lexis, morphology, and syntax intensively twice a week. For our first story, my professor had chosen Chekhov’s “Lady with a Lapdog” as the object for analysis. “Chekhov’s story is possibly the best short story in all of Russian,” she said, “some would say in all of world literature.”

There was indeed something magical about ”Lady with a Lapdog.” Unlike Tolstoyevsky’s baggy monsters, the story seemed to thrive on silences. What actually transpired in the story wasn’t in any way remarkable, at least not according to my memory from my reading as an undergraduate. What stayed in my mind was the author’s habit of not interpreting the events he disclosed. Like Hemingway, Chekhov never reported anything that could not be verified first hand. The narration was laconic, dry, and terse. It was also incredibly moving, in part because it left it to the reader to project onto the text almost all the emotions simmering in and between the characters. Gurov sees Anna’s eyes and thinks “there’s something pathetic about her,” and Anna tells Gurov “You will be the first to despise me now,” but in Chekhov’s world no omniscient author tells us what to think. Interpretation is left to the reader. Chekhov’s method seemed demanding, yet devastatingly close to the complexity and uncertainty of life.

Then he licks his voluptuous lips.

The most enduring impression I took away from that story, and which I carried with me in the decade that followed my graduation from college, was that, to a much greater extent than Tolstoyevsky, Chekhov was a cynic. After depicting the blossoming of love between a younger woman and her older lover, I recalled from my undergraduate reading, Chekhov showed how love is fated not to last. This is how I interpreted and remembered an unforgettable detail in the Yalta hotel room, after Gurov and Anna Sergevevna have sex for the first time: Anna laments her lost virginity while Gurov is overcome with boredom. He then glances around the room and spies a ripe, bright pink watermelon not far from their bed. Gurov promptly proceeds to devour the watermelon until only the rind is visible. Then he licks his voluptuous lips. This memory, of a man who has grown disgusted with the woman he has just penetrated and who is already on the lookout for new pleasures, remained with me for many years after my first reading of “Lady with a Lapdog.” All other aspects of the story had become dim.

Almost twenty years later, the Russian literary pantheon had lost some but by no means all of its glory to me. A long succession of other loves had intervened between me and Chekhov: Arabic, Persian, Georgian, not to mention my abiding passions for French, German, Italian, and Spanish literature. All of these literatures I have tried to know with some degree of intimacy. But, in spite of my promiscuous disloyalty to other literatures and languages, Russian kept cropping up in unexpected ways. Chekhov in particular, whom I never knew intimately during my undergraduate years, appeared without warning in places where I least expected to find him.

One of the most unexpected places in which Chekhov cropped up was on an online dating profile. To do justice to this memory I’ll use the historical present: A Brussels-based scientist lists Dostoevsky among his favourite authors. I, the author of a senior thesis on Dostoevsky, immediately “like” this scientist. An hour later, he does the same. I write back. It is 3:30 am, but since when was love measured in hours? I ask him, of course, about Dostoevsky. Which novel does he like the most? I then tell him about my late adolescent discovery of the Russian master, and how it changed my life. He replies: the same thing happened to him around the age of sixteen. We are synchronized! In our next exchange, we agree to spend the Christmas and New Year’s holiday together in Paris.

You will have guessed, have you not, that this was the beginning of love.

Paris is like a dream. We spend our first full day together strolling through the Jardin du Luxembourg, trading memories of the books that impacted our lives: Thomas Mann, Stefan Zweig, Thomas Bernard, Nathanial West, Richard Yates, John Cheever, and the neglected John Williams. It does not take long before we come around to The Brothers Karamazov and the mysterious Alyosha. My companion from Brussels has an impressive knack for remembering detail. Better than I could ever do without rehearsing, he delineates the ups and downs of the trial scene, recounts Alyosha’s wanderings throughout Skotoprigonyevsk, and speculates on the reasons for Old Karamazov’s murder. I am impressed.

In contrast to the analytical approach of my undergraduate years, we do not linger over the philosophical nuances of Dostoevsky’s fictions. We do not the ponder the existence (or not) of God. (As confirmed atheists, we know how such debates are destined to end.) We do not agonize over the problem of evil or commiserate with the sufferings of the children whose stories Ivan Karamazov had cut from a recent newspaper. Instead, we walk, hand in hand, over the pebbled pathways of the Jardin du Luxembourg, past its duck-filled ponds and the villa that crowns it at the end, towards a sun that is casting its golden halo along the Seine. We have not yet kissed.

You will have guessed, have you not, that this was the beginning of love. And you will not have been wrong. We were much like Gurov and Anna in Yalta. Thereafter I visited him twice in Brussels. We then convened in London and drove each other crazy. Our love was of a strangely short duration, that evaporated soon after it was born. Chekhov, I had thought, was the prophet of this evanescence. He foretold the entire story of our relationship in his “Lady with a Lapdog.”

Or so I thought until I read the story again, after the breakup with my Brussels lover, almost twenty years after I read it as an undergraduate, hungry for a story that could explain to me how what had blossomed so beautifully between us in the Jardin du Luxembourg could have been poisoned so rapidly. I opened up my college textbook and flipped to the familiar Chekhov story. I soon discovered that I had misremembered Chekhov. Although the cynicism was indeed the story’s opening gambit, Gurov’s indifference to Anna Sergeevna soon yielded to an entirely different affective horizon. “Lady with a Lapdog” ends with the two lovers unable to extricate themselves from their love, and able to feel alive only when they are together. Each experiences true love for the first time in their otherwise monotonous lives, a love that must be kept secret because both of them are married.

I had misremembered Chekhov. I then re-read “Lady with a Lapdog” again, in search of even more illumination in the aftermath of my recent romantic fiasco, and I discovered that I had not only misremembered Chekhov’s plot, but also misremembered his tone. As an undergraduate I had taken Chekhov for an unadulterated cynic, when in fact his story depicts the gradual emergence of a love so intense that the world cannot contain it. The narrative’s apparent ruthlessness results not from love’s inconstancy, or his hero’s womanizing mentality, as my memory had told me. Rather, the story’s tragedy consisted in the suppression of love by the marriage bond. Chekhov was not merely parodying Anna Karenina’s adultery plot, as critics have often commented; he was propagating a new romanticism, which insisted on the ability of love to overcome social conventions. The story ends with Anna crying and Gurov “clutching his head,” both of them trying to devise a solution that would allow them to live a “new and splendid life” that was not secret, “and it was clear to both of them that they had still a long, long road before them, and that the most complicated and difficult part of it was only just beginning.”

Unlike Dostoevsky, Chekhov is rarely a first love.

In misremembering Chekhov, I had simplified my task, really mis-simplified. I had turned this Russian writer into a simple-minded cynic, and thereby shielded myself from Chekhov’s most important lesson for my own life. I had made short work as well of the emotions that had just imploded in my personal life. With its open-ended conclusion and its denial of closure, the Chekhov story as I reread it for a second time corresponded more closely to the actual trajectory of my life. My circuitous path towards love was more like the the “new beginning” that pierced me upon my second re-reading than it was anything like the Don Juan parable I mistakenly conjured in my undergraduate imagination when I read the story for what was then an adventurous Berkeley class in Russian literature. Much of “The Lady with a Lapdog” is about how a person can grab adventure in an otherwise monotonous life. Adventure is what both Gurov and Anna seek independently when they go to Yalta. Both were unhappy, and after their first rapturous taste of each other, Anna says: “It’s wrong…You will be the first to despise me now.” She has not lost her virginity, as I misremembered, but her virtue. Chekhov links adventure to the loss of virtue, and monotony to the chains of social norm that bind them into further unhappiness. As Gurov and Anna sit listening to “the monotonous hollow sound of the sea rising” in Yalta, there is the understanding in both of them that this sound “will sound indifferently and monotonously when we are all no more. And in this constancy, in this complete indifference to the life and death of each of us, there lies, hid, perhaps, a pledge of our eternal salvation, of the unceasing movement of life upon earth, of unceasing progress towards perfection.” This a moment in which the omniscient third-person narrator fuses the perception and understanding of the two lovers. Us here is Gurov and Anna, it is every human being who ever lived, and thus it is also us, the readers. Chekhov, I came to realize, was every bit as profound, and every bit as tragic, as Tolstoyevsky. The major difference between Chekhov and the Russian novelists is that Chekhov chose to end his stories before they falsified the uncertainty of life.

During my undergraduate years, I met many people who recounted falling in love with Russian literature through the novels of Dostoevsky. Within a few years of graduating, they had forgotten those novels and moved onto areas of study far removed from Russian literature: biology, chemistry, and mathematics were all favoured by these apostates of the Russian canon. Unlike Dostoevsky, Chekhov is rarely a first love. Perhaps few decide to become Russianists, or literature specialists, based on their reading of his stories. But also unlike Dostoevsky, Chekhov tends to keep the devotion of those who have fallen in love with him for the rest of their lives. Perhaps the reason for this lies in Chekhov’s peculiar way of representing the world, or more specifically the way he both writes about and engages the extremes of remembering and forgetting. “The Lady with a Lapdog” is a story about an inability to forget what is too memorable. Both Gurov and Anna flee Yalta to their polar cities, St. Petersburg and Moscow, not only with an intention to forget each other but also a strong confidence that they can do so. But they can’t. Time passes, but Gurov’s “memories glowed more and more vividly.” They were vivid to such a point that “he was tormented by an intense desire to confide his memories to someone.” Anyone who has experienced Chekhov’s revelation of the antagonism between memory and forgetting will find it difficult ever to consider the relationship between love and memory without remembering “The Lady with a Lapdog.” We remember, after reading the story, that Guvov, upon his arrival at Anna’s house in St. Petersburg, cannot remember the name of the dog, and he worries “irritably that Anna Sergeyevna had forgotten him.” She did not, and when she sees him she turns pale, because she could never forget. I turned pale because I forgot Chekhov’s story. But in my case, even though I misremembered Checkhov, I was drawn back to him, much as Gurov is drawn back to Anna and Anna is drawn back to Gurov, for a new chance on a “long, long road” that is long mostly because it is “the most complicated and difficult part” and is “only just beginning.”

Rebecca Gould’s books include Writers and Rebels: The Literatures of Insurgency in the Caucasus, After Tomorrow the Days Disappear: Ghazals and Other Poems of Hasan Sijzi of Delhi, and The Prose of the Mountains: Tales of the Caucasus. She teaches comparative literature and translation studies at the University of Bristol in the UK.
April 10, 2017

Jesus in Berkeley

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Sarah Wang

My mother came to America from Taiwan in the early seventies. Her only impression of people in the west was derived from a single source: Jesus. Representations of Jesus were everywhere in Taiwan. As statues, in pamphlets, on hand-painted wood amulets that the devout wore around their necks. Upon arrival in Berkeley, California, her expectations were met with great delight. All the men indeed looked like Jesus. Long hair parted in the middle, beards, flowing robe-like shirts, sandals. Even the women looked like Jesus, though without beards.

No English, was the only English she spoke. This was a useful phrase, one that she utilized as greeting, response, explanation, excuse, and exclamation. She taught the two words to my sister, who was then eight years old, in the months preceding their departure from Taiwan. This was before my time.

Yet during their first week in America, neither my mother nor sister had the opportunity to speak these words, the language of their new land. My mother’s first husband, a man who was not my father, was a louse. He did nothing to provide for his family. The only food in the apartment was single loaf of bread that a neighbor had given him as a welcome gift. He sat in front of the television all day and refused to leave the apartment. For a week, my mother and sister sat in the apartment with him, not knowing what to do. Where did they begin? They needed food. They needed jobs. They needed to go to school. They needed to learn English. And that was only the beginning.

Too ashamed to admit to her eldest brother who called nightly to check in, my mother lied to save face. Everything’s great, she proclaimed. The city is so big and beautiful. The food is not as flavorful as Chinese food, but what can we do? We must eat it anyway. Had she ridden the trolley? Why yes, it was fabulous. Had she seen the Golden Gate Bridge? Yes, of course. Had she seen the hippies on Telegraph Avenue? Most definitely. Her eldest brother was the one who had brought them all to America: parents, siblings, their children and spouses. He picked up my mother and sister from the airport in San Francisco, but had to travel straightaway to New York on business for two weeks.

The money he had given her husband for food and clothes—where had it gone? On the way to their new apartment from the airport, my mother’s eldest brother had mentioned this money. Yet no evidence of it was present at the apartment, which contained only a little black and white television the previous tenant had left behind.

Hearing my mother’s narrative of this account when I was a child, I asked her why she didn’t speak up, why she didn’t ask about the money or tell her eldest brother what was really happening.

I was shy, she said. I was stupid. I didn’t want to throw my face away.

After a week of subsisting on bread, watching sitcoms and news reports in a language that she didn’t understand, my mother was desperate. She had to do something. When her husband was sleeping, she felt his pockets and found a small handful of change. In the morning, she took my sister and walked down the alley past the 76 gas station. My sister had to go to school. They had to learn English. My mother had to get a job. Buses were everywhere in the streets; only she didn’t have any idea about which one to take. She had no idea about anything, actually. No idea about where the school was, how she would learn English, or what job she could possibly obtain when she wasn’t able to speak the language and had a small child to care for.

She saw a bus stop at the end of the block. Running over, she boarded the first bus that opened its doors to her. In one hand, she held out the handful of coins. In the other, she held out a map that her eldest brother had given her. The bus driver asked her a question, which she did not understand. Finally she was able to use the only language she had. “No English,” she said. She pointed to various buildings on the map that resembled schools. The bus driver shrugged. She pointed to my sister and then to the map. She spread her hands, the sides of her palms hinging open, miming a book. She scribbled on one palm with an invisible pen. Again she pointed to my sister and the map. The bus driver looked at my sister. No English. He took a few coins from my mother’s hand and pointed at her. He took a few more coins and pointed at my sister. Then he pointed to two seats directly behind him.

Ten minutes later, the bus driver stopped and waved at my mother. He gave her two slips of paper and pointed to another bus across the street. From my mother’s hand, he took the map that she had been clutching, scrutinized it, drew a circle on it, and handed it back. He pointed at the bus across the street. Hesitantly, she stepped out of the bus, into the street, and looked back at the bus driver. He nodded. At the bus across the street, she repeated the same actions, this time holding out the slips of paper along with the coins and the map. No English. This bus driver took only the slips of paper and the map. My mother pointed to the circle. The driver nodded and pointed to two seats across the aisle.

They passed many streets full of cars and Jesuses. The driver indicated that they would be getting off at the next stop. At a street corner, he pointed to a building where children could be seen inside the windows of a room facing a playground. My mother and sister clapped, overjoyed that they had arrived.

On the other side of the school’s fence, a woman approached them. My mother smiled. No English. She pointed at my sister. The woman seemed to understand, and led them to an office. Japan? the woman asked. My mother shrugged. No English. China? the woman asked. My mother bobbed her head. Yes! The woman raised her hand and paused before going into another room. When she returned, my mother was surprised to see a Chinese woman with her.

Now, language overflowed from my mother’s mouth. My daughter needs to go to school. She needs to learn English. I too need to learn English. Do you think I can find a job? Where do I look for a job?

The woman explained that first, the school my sister would attend was determined by where they lived. Where did they live? My mother scratched her cheek. By the 76. Right behind the orange ball. The woman bit her lip. But there are many 76 gas stations. Which one do you live behind? Shame flooded my mother’s cheeks. She didn’t know. How will you get home? the woman asked. My mother pulled a piece of paper from her pocket. The woman called the telephone number written on it.

Fortunately, my mother’s husband answered. Unfortunately, he didn’t know their address either. The woman told him to go out in the street and copy the letters of the street signs.

He could not read English but he knew the alphabet. A few minutes later, he recited the letters he had copied, and in this way he relayed the cross streets where their apartment was situated.

The woman drove my mother and sister to the right school. She showed my mother which buses to take. Breakfast and lunch are provided for free, she said. And you can eat breakfast at the school too, to begin the day with a full stomach. But isn’t that embarrassing, to eat the children’s food? my mother asked. You are allowed, the woman replied.

After breakfast (which my mother knew she’d never eat no matter how hungry she was) you will take another bus to the adult school, the woman instructed my mother. There, she would learn the basic skills needed to live in America, such as: how to take public transportation, how to speak English, and about customs, holidays, and traditions.

Can you believe what the Chinese woman did next? my mother asked me.

She called the police to take your husband away, I guessed.

No, my mother said. The woman drove us to the adult school, translated, helped me enroll, and then drove us home. In the span of one day I experienced kindness from so many people. Are you listening?

I nodded.

Good. Because this is an important story about how you can come to a new country, full of Jesuses in the streets, with a wooden head and a stinky egg of a husband and somehow find your way.

Sarah Wang was runner-up for the 2016 Chicago Tribune Nelson Algren Literary Award. Her work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, Conjunctions, Story Magazine, The Third Rail, and other publications. She lives in Brooklyn, NY.