Sunday, November 15, 2009

Let's talk about Leskov and making love

Leskov is the neglected 19th century Russian writer. Surely he links Gogol to Bely. Surely Lady Macbeth from Mtsensk is one of the finest stories ever written. You don’t believe me? Read this paragraph. Katerina Lvovna, the Lady Macbeth, and her lover, her husband’s servant, Sergei, well known as the village Don Juan, are discussing the imminent arrival of the husband, who has been away on business. The discussion takes place in the back yard, “on a carpet spread under an apple-tree in blossom.” At first the two have tea, then Sergei pouts, then Katerina pouts, then they make up.

“An old clerk who slept in the shed heard through his sound sleep how the silence of the night was broken by whispering and soft laughter, as though mischievous children were conferring together how best to make fun of an old man; then came roars of laughter and merriment as though saucy mermaids were tickling somebody. All this came from where Katerina Lvovna, bathed in moonlight and rolling on the soft carpet, played and frolicked with her husband's young clerk. And the white flowers kept falling, falling, from the old apple-tree until at last they ceased to fall. In the meantime the short summer night had passed, the moon hid itself behind the steep, high roofs of the warehouses and stared more and more wanly at the earth; from the kitchen roof came a piercing feline duet; this was followed by spitting and angry snorts after which two or three tom-cats crashed noisily from the roof on to a heap of boards nearby.”

How can one do justice to a paragraph like this? Already, we have in the back of our mind a notion of trees, fruit, a man and a woman in a garden. We begin first with old age and we end with the squabbling of cats in heat. At the very center of the paragraph is a superfluity. The white flowers do not merely fall – they “kept falling, falling”. What role is played by this extra “falling”? In a sense, that extra “falling”, that luxurious fall of the blossoms, that impossible shower of blossoms on the lovers, is linked more to the sin, the fall, the sex, the series of betrayals that mark the story, than any description of copulation. Fucking and falling, falling – what happens here is both sense and music. It is in the music, the repetition of falling, that the fantastic, the saucy mermaids, beast and human, are released. Shklovsky, in The Theory of Prose, writes:

“Art is not a march set to music, but rather a walking dance to be experienced or, more accurately, a movement of the body, whose very essence is to be experienced through the senses.”

This satisfies me a bit – but only a bit, because is it true that the whole body moves? Does not this falling move the tongue? To write prose – to really write prose – is to feel a distant but distinct sensation in your tongue. Some, doubtlessly, write prose outloud – although we are so used to reading in silence that, when a movie shows a writer writing, he never writes out loud. To present what is written, the soundtrack imposes a voice-over. A more imaginative film director might simply supply what happens when, deep in the tongue, a quiver is felt. The words would be sounds, heard as though from underground, and not fall into the distinct semantic shape that is so confidently assumed by the voice. There would be an entangled murmur. This is the wind that blows over the page, and blows, even, over the page on the computer screen. And what does the tongue do, on this night when the apple blossoms are falling, falling? The tongue and the lips of the lovers touch, taste each other, like saucy mermaids they tickle each other. They lean upon the stronger sensation, but that sensation, that culminating chord of sex, is coaxed out of the smaller sensations, the pick up sticks of touches, touches. The extra fall is the real fall – there is this luxury in loving, or rather in making love, in the heartfelt surface of love, where all is sense and nonsense at once.

ps - of course, I know that the falling, falling is English, but - as a reviewer in the Slavic and Eastern European Journal recently noted of a new translation of Lady Macbeth - Leskov's prose is saturated with repetitions - which are silently erased in the new translation. So I stand by the larger spirit of prose that I am invoking, here.


Anonymous said...

Narry a punter!


Roger Gathmann said...

By the way, did I tell you how much I liked that Mekons link? Never heard that Mekons song!