Daily Archives: May 26, 2008

The Kiss, by Anton Chekhov – Review

The most ill at east of them all was Ryabovitch – a little officer in spectacles, with sloping shoulders, and whiskers like a lynx’s. While some of his comrades assumed a serious expression, while others wore forced smiles, his face, his lynx-like whiskers, and spectacles seemed to say: I am the shyest, most modest, and most undistinguished officer in the whole brigade!” -From The Kiss-

I read this masterful short story of Chekov’s for The Russian Lit Yahoo group, and found it accessible and enjoyable.

Ryabovitch and his officers are billeted in a small town and find themselves invited to tea at a General’s home. They go reluctantly, feeling perhaps they have been invited out of obligation and nothing more.

In a house in which two sisters and their children, brothers, and neighbours were gathered together, probably on account of some family festivities, or event, how could the presence of nineteen unknown officers possibly be welcome? -From The Kiss-

But once at the gathering, they begin to enjoy themselves – talking to the ladies, drinking and dancing. All, that is, but Ryabovitch – a shy, naive man who feels uncomfortable in the presence of women. When he leaves the main room and wanders into a darkened library, however, Ryabovitch is astonished when a woman rushes up to him and kisses him on the cheek. Obviously having mistaken him for a secret paramour, the woman leaves without a word – and Ryabovitch is left to wonder who she is as the darkness of the room has prevented him from recognizing her identity.

Chekhov takes this singular event and weaves a story of obsession, expectation and disappointment. Although written in the early part of the twentieth century, The Kiss feels like a modern story of intrigue and romance. Chekhov’s skill at creating character and dialogue resonates with the reader.

I read this story as part of a collection from The Essential Tales of Chekhov, edited by Richard Ford – and plan to read the rest of Chekhov’s short works before the year is out. I can highly recommend The Kiss to readers – it is a simple story, but one that delights.

Other Voices, Other Rooms – Book Review

But the walls of Joel’s room were too thick for Amy’s voice to penetrate. Now for a long time he’d been unable to find the far-away room; always it had been difficult, but never so hard as in the last year. -From Other Voices Other Rooms, page 83-

Truman Capote’s first novel is gothic and mysterious. Thirteen year old Joel Knox (I couldn’t help making the connection between Joel’s last name and the saying: ‘The school of hard knocks.’) is sent to live with a father he has never met, deep in the south and among bizarre people. Joel travels alone, arriving in the town of Noon City where he is eventually retrieved by an elderly black man named Jesus Fever. Together they travel the gloomy, dark night road behind the stubborn mule John Brown, until they reach Skully’s Landing – the home of Joel’s father.

The first half of the novel introduces most of the main characters – from Idabel (the strange little girl who dresses like a boy) to Amy (Joel’s stepmother who likes to kill birds) to cousin Randolph (the effeminate relative with a dark history) to the likable Zoo (the black servant with an angry red scar slashed across her throat). Joel does not meet his father immediately, and when he does it is a shocking discovery. This part of the story engaged me with its gothic images, ghostly sightings and vivid dialogue. Capote’s description of Skully’s Landing was sharp and creepy:

A dormer window of frost glass illuminated the long top-floor hall with the kind of pearly light that drenches a room when rain is falling. The wallpaper had once, you could tell, been blood red, but now was faded to a mural of crimson blisters and maplike stains. -From Other Voices Other Rooms, page 50-

But as the book passes the midway point, it begins to waver and become nearly impossible to comprehend. The characters warp into strange and frightening people. Cousin Randolph spends a lot of time telling Joel stories that seem to have layers and layers of meaning. A lesbian midget shows signs of being a pedophile. A long night, involving a cottonmouth snake and a carnival ride, ends with an unexplained illness. And I began to wonder whether Capote was dropping acid while he wrote. The imagery is circular, dreamlike and unconnected to the story line.

I like gothic novels with creepy story lines and suspense. Other Voices Other Rooms had the potential, with Capote’s gift of stringing words together, to be a breathtaking work…but it fell short for me. It was too convoluted and confusing. Reviews and analysis I have read about the novel suggest it is a story about coming of age – but, it is a rough ride…and seemed to be more of a look through the pages of an abnormal psychology text.

I had a hard time rating this one. Capote’s prose is sometimes beautiful – he is an exacting writer – yet the plot was too weird for my liking. I don’t know many (if any) readers to whom I could recommend this one.