My job requires much involuntary reading during the workday, so when I’m asked what I’m reading lately, I’m a little abashed at what boring prose most of “what I’m reading lately” is. But in trying to give an honest account of the reading I enjoy lately, it occurs to me that whatever toll the related afflictions of a disorderly imagination and a frail attention span may be taking on my moral life, they’ve had agreeable effects on my leisure time. In the last few weeks that’s been mostly devoted to old, new and wildly variegated short stories.
An edition Anton Chekhov’s novellas in a translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky has been following me around the house and backyard and even in and out of bed for a while. It’s a splendidly bound and beribboned Everyman’s Library edition, the gift of my brother-in-law, who is, as Chekhov was, a highly literate doctor. I began the book in the middle with The Story of an Unknown Man and moved forward to The Duel, (and found myself doubling my pleasure by peeking online from time to time at the old Constance Garnett translations of Chekhov) and so only now have come to the first story in the collection, The Steppe. Whether or not Chekhov invented the modern short story, as the graduate students all say, I don’t care, but I do marvel at how The Duel, for instance, can recover a 19th century Crimean universe, illuminate a moral mystery and deliver a surprise ending all in 120 pages. Eudora Welty, not a bad short story writer herself, said that reading Chekhov was like hearing angels singing to her. I know what she means, and if I were a younger man, I’d try to learn Russian to tune them in a little better.
I’ve also been reading (rereading, really) Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, a book of short stories so wonderfully woven together that it might as well be a novel. Anderson’s placid Midwestern town is in sleepy counterbalance between an old rural and a modern urban America, but the interior lives of the men and women who inhabit the place comprise a sort of war zone of the spirit. Anderson’s Ohioans, like the Dubliners of James Joyce, are continually badgered and often overwhelmed by the insatiable cravings of their souls. In common with Chekhov and Joyce, Anderson expressed disbelief in God, which is hard for me to understand, as all three of them strike me as somehow God-obsessed. Their stories all involve characters astonished by the inbreaking of grace.
And then there are always — or there always will be as long as my wife keeps bringing them home from the library — the stories of Joyce Carol Oates. I have a real weakness for authors who can write Gothic historical novels in which Upton Sinclair, Woodrow Wilson, Mark Twain, academic politics, vampires, Princeton campus geography, Jack London and the Devil all have crucial roles to play, and when her 667-page The Accursed came out a year ago, I read it in far too few sittings. Now that my wife has returned to the library Oates’ High Crime Area, eight stories of terrified and terrorized women, brutal and fatuous men, and generalized despair, I’m left with two questions. Can nothing be done to cheer this woman up? And if she continues to tell stories in such a predictable and gloomy voice, why can’t I stop reading the damn things?
Michael Garvey is Notre Dame’s assistant director of public relations. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.