“I think of all the weapons in a house: knives, cooking forks, ice picks, hammers, skillets, cleavers wine bottles, and I wonder if I’ll be one of those women.”

anton chekhov once observed it is not the writer’s job to solve problems and draw conclusions:

In my opinion it is not the writer’s job to solve such problems as God, pessimism, etc; his job is merely to record who, under what conditions, said or thought what about God or pessimism. The artist is not meant to be a judge of his characters and what they say; his only job is to be an impartial witness. I heard two Russians in a muddled conversation about pessimism, a conversation that solved nothing; all I am bound to do is reproduce that conversation exactly as I heard it. Drawing conclusions is up to the jury, that is, the readers. My only job is to be talented, that is, to know how to distinguish important testimony from unimportant, to place my characters in the proper light and speak their language.

—Anton Chekhov, in a letter to Alexei Suvorin, May 30, 1888

. . . a century later andre dubus illustrated chekhov’s credo this way:

“Leslie in California”

WHEN THE ALARM rings the room is black and grey; I smell Kevin’s breath and my eye hurts and won’t open. He gets out of bed, and still I smell beer in the cold air. He is naked and dressing fast. I get up shivering in my nightgown and put on my robe and go by flashlight to the kitchen, where there is some light from the sky. Birds are singing, or whatever it is they do. I light the gas lantern and set it near the stove, and remember New England mornings with the lights on and a warm kitchen and catching the school bus. I won’t have to look at my eye till the sun comes up in the bathroom. Dad was happy about us going to California; he talked about sourdough bread and fresh fruit and vegetables all year. I put water on the stove and get bacon and eggs and milk from the ice chest. A can of beer is floating, tilting, in the ice and water; the rest are bent in the paper bag for garbage. I could count them, know how many it takes. I put on the bacon and smoke a cigarette, and when I hear him coming I stand at the stove so my back is to the door.

‘Today’s the day,’ he says.

They are going out for sharks. They will be gone five days, maybe more, and if he comes back with money we can have electricity again. For the first three months out here he could not get on a boat, then yesterday he found one that was short a man, so last night he celebrated.

‘Hey, hon.’

I turn the bacon. He comes to me and hugs me from behind, rubbing my hips through the robe, his breath sour beer with mint.

‘Let me see your eye.’

I turn around and look up at him, and he steps back. His blond beard is damp, his eyes are bloodshot, and his mouth opens as he looks.

‘Oh, hon.’

He reaches to touch it, but I jerk my face away and turn back to the skillet.

‘I’ll never do that again,’ he says.

The bacon is curling brown. Through the window above the stove I can see the hills now, dark humps against the sky. Dad liked the Pacific, but we are miles inland and animals are out there with the birds; one morning last week a rattlesnake was on the driveway. Yesterday some men went hunting a bobcat in the hills. They say it killed a horse, and they are afraid it will kill somebody’s child, but they didn’t find it. How can a bobcat kill a horse? My little sister took riding lessons in New England; I watched her compete, and I was afraid, she was so small on that big animal jumping. Dad told me I tried to pet some bobcats when I was three and we lived at CampPendleton. He was the deer camp duty officer one Sunday, and Mom and I brought him lunch. Two bobcats were at the edge of the camp; they wanted the deer hides by the scales, and I went to them saying here, kitty, here, kitty. They just watched me, and Dad called me back.

‘It wasn’t you,’ Kevin says. ‘You know it wasn’t you.’

‘Who was it?’

My first words of the day, and my voice sounds like dry crying. I clear my throat and grip the robe closer around it.

‘I was drunk,’ he says. ‘You know. You know how rough it’s been.’

He harpoons fish. We came across country in an old Ford he worked on till it ran like it was young again. We took turns driving and sleeping and only had to spend motel money twice. That was in October, after we got married on a fishing boat, on a clear blue Sunday on the Atlantic. We had twenty-five friends and the two families and open-faced sandwiches and deviled eggs, and beer and wine. On the way out to sea we got married, then we fished for cod and drank, and in late afternoon we went to Dad’s for a fish fry with a fiddle band. Dad has a new wife, and Mom was up from Florida with her boy friend. Out here Kevin couldn’t get on a boat, and I couldn’t even waitress. He did some under-the-table work: carpenter, mechanic, body work, a few days here, a few there. Now it’s February, a short month.

‘Hon,’ he says behind me.

‘It’s three times.’

‘Here. Let me do something for that eye.’

I hear him going to the ice chest, the ice moving in there to his big hands. I lay the bacon on the paper towel and open the door to pour out some of the grease; I look at the steps before I go out. The grease sizzles and pops on the wet grass, and there’s light at the tops of the hills.

‘Here,’ he says, and I shut the door. I’m holding the skillet with a pot holder, and I see he’s wearing his knife, and I think of all the weapons in a house: knives, cooking forks, ice picks, hammers, skillets, cleavers, wine bottles, and I wonder if I’ll be one of those women. I think of this without fear, like I’m reading in the paper about somebody else dead in her kitchen. He touches my eye with ice wrapped in a dish towel.

Continue reading

morley callaghan: the turgenev of toronto? the chekhov of canada?


The great American critic Edmund Wilson observed that “The Canadian Morley Callaghan, at one time well known in the United States, is today perhaps the most unjustly neglected novelist in the English-speaking world. . .”

 And: “The reviewer, at the end of this article, after trying to give an account of these books, is now wondering whether the primary reason for the current underestimation of Morley Callaghan may not be simply a general incapacity—apparently shared by his compatriots—for believing that a writer whose work may be mentioned without absurdity in association with Chekhov’s and Turgenev’s can possibly be functioning in Toronto.”  

—from Edmund Wilson, O Canada: An American’s Notes on Canadian Culture (1960)  

Some comments on Callaghan, recently found online:


Book Lover July 10, 2009, 8:05 P.M. ET

 Why Do Some Writers Disappear?

 By Cynthia Crossen

Morley Callaghan is my favorite 20th-century novelist. His “That Summer in Paris” is among the best of memoirs. His writing is splendid, but he is forgotten. Every book lover can list authors who were wonderful and maybe even great (John Marquand, John Dos Passos, Erico Verissimo) but who are gone. Why do exceptional writers disappear?

—John Adams, Mobile, Ala.


For those (like me) who had never heard of him, Morley Callaghan was a prolific, commercially successful Canadian author who died in 1990 at the age of 87. Among his friends were F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce and Ernest Hemingway, whom he is said to have flattened once in a boxing match.

Yet even in the 1960s, Mr. Callaghan was “perhaps the most unjustly neglected novelist in the English-speaking world,” wrote Edmund Wilson, who hypothesized that Mr. Callaghan might have been the victim of geographical snobbery. Critics seemed to doubt that even a literary genius comparable to Chekhov or Turgenev “could possibly be functioning in Toronto.”

Margaret Atwood (another great Canadian author) also tried to make sense of Mr. Callaghan’s literary oblivion. He was “a literary misfit,” she wrote; “people never knew what to make of him.” He was also something of a prodigy—he published three novels before the age of 30—which can start a dangerous trajectory of expectations.

While Mr. Callaghan may seem invisible now, paradoxically he may never have been so accessible. Many of his novels can be sampled on Google Books, and many online book dealers have used copies for sale. So Mr. Callaghan isn’t gone. It’s just that he was once one of a few thousand published authors, and now he’s one of millions. He’s invisible the way Waldo is in the pages of “Where’s Waldo?” — lost in a crowd.

For other examples of lost treasures, see “100 Great American Novels You’ve (Probably) Never Read” by Karl Bridges. I was happy Mr. Bridges’ list included “The Wrong Case” by James Crumley; “Professor Romeo” by Anne Bernays; and “Stones for Ibarra” by Harriet Doerr, but most of his suggestions were new to me. “What America Read” by Gordon Hutner also offers an interesting analysis of how the literary academy decides which books will be remembered.

A very fine Web site, neglectedbooks.com, has many links to lists of lost classics as well as its own ruminations on the subject. But a site search showed not a trace of Morley Callaghan.

—from The Wall Street Journal



writing advice from doctor chekhov


“it is not the writer’s job to solve such problems as the existence of God, pessimism, etc.”



“Witness, Don’t Judge”


Letter to Alexei Suvorin, Sumy, May 30, 1888


In my opinion, it is not the writer’s job to solve such problems as the existence of God, pessimism, etc. The job of the artist is only to record who under which circumstances said or thought what about God or pessimism. The artist must not judge his characters or their words; he must only be an impartial witness. I overhear two Russians carry on a muddled, inconclusive discussion on pessimism; I am duty bound to transmit this conversation exactly as I heard it. Evaluating it is a job for the jury, that is, for the reader. My job demands only one thing of me: to be talented, that is, to distinguish between relevant and irrelevant evidence; to illuminate characters, and to speak in their language. Shcheglov-Leontyev criticizes me for ending one of my stories with the sentence, “You can’t really explain why things happen in this world.” In his opinion, the writer who is a psychologist must explain, otherwise he has no right to call himself a psychologist. I disagree. It is high time for writers—and especially for true artists—to admit that it is impossible to explain anything. Socrates acknowledged this long ago, as did Voltaire. Only the crowd thinks it knows and understands everything there is to know and understand. And the more stupid it is, the more open-minded it thinks itself to be. But if an artist whom the crowd trusts admits that he understands nothing of what he sees, this fact alone will make a great contribution to the realm of thought and will mark a great step forward.



—from How to Write Like Chekhov: Advice and Inspiration, Straight From His Own Letters and Work. Edited and introduced by Piero Brunello and Lena Lencek; translated from the Russian and Italian by Lena Lencek. 1st Da Capo Press edition, 2008.