“Don’t discuss the writer’s life. Never speculate about his intentions.”
Such were the imperatives when writing literary criticism at school and university. The text was an absolute object to be dissected for what it was, with no reference to where it came from. This conferred on the critic the dignity of the scientist. It’s surprising they didn’t ask us to wear white coats.
Meantime, the individual reader was never mentioned. The fact that people disagreed about literary works, or reacted differently to them, need be of no concern. Critics consider the object, not the consequences.
Does this make sense? Did it ever? To emancipate the literary text from the realities of its production and consumption, to talk about what is essentially an act of communication without reflecting on the partners in the exchange?
One problem was the crudeness of the biographical approach as actually practiced by some outside academe, but above all as stigmatized by the professors. “Biographical fallacy” the University of Houston website warns its students: “the belief that one can explicate the meaning of a work of literature by asserting that it is really about events in its author’s life. Biographical critics retreat from the work of literature into the author’s biography to try to find events … which appear similar to features of the work, and then claim the work “represents those events…,” an over-simplified guess about Neo-formalist ‘mimesis.'”
The biographical critic is a phobic simpleton. Who would dream of engaging in such an enterprise?
When we read a novel, or better still many novels by the same author, we can’t help but be aware of an authorial presence, a particular cast of mind that, for all their differences, these books share and that readers enter into relation with as they read. This is why literary biographies are so much more popular than literary criticism. Readers want to know more about the mind they have been in touch with. For years I have been looking for a way to give some system and intellectual respectability to a criticism that remains aware of both the author’s life and individual reader responses, an approach that embraces the whole process of writing and reading from conception to consumption.
The place to start, perhaps, is with the reflection that the way an author writes will be in relation to patterns of behaviour in his or her life, will indeed be part of that behaviour, part of the way the writer positions him or herself in the world. The writing and publication of a poem or novel is itself an event in the life, not separate from it, an event that can shift the relationships that constitute the author’s world.
But enough of abstract preliminaries. Let me try to give you Chekhov in a nut, or blog-shell. Excluded from his family between 16 and 19, Chekov got back into the centre of it by writing stories. And pushed out the father who had been the cause of the trouble. Fleeing debts, his authoritarian father had taken the family to Moscow leaving his third child (of six) to sort out his messy affairs in the provincial port of Taganrog. Three years later, Chekhov rejoined his siblings in a damp basement flat and, as it were, wrote them out of there.
Between ages 20 and 28, he published 528 stories using the income to buy his family a big house in the country. He was now head of the household. All his life would be spent with his mother and younger brothers and sister; all his writing would be about belonging and exclusion, freedom and imprisonment. In a relationship, a family, a group, his characters fear exclusion from it, or yearn to be free of it. Free, they find solitude a prison.
In the country Chekov felt bored and headed for Moscow. Company was so desirable. In Moscow he felt overwhelmed and headed straight back to the country. Company was so vulgar. Then he invited friends to the country. Then he built himself a small house near the big house so he could be free of his friends. In his stories the turning point occurs where the desired relationship or desired freedom is perceived as equally imprisoning as the previous state. Or worse.
Chekhov had started writing as a stopgap while he studied to be a doctor. Then he oscillated between the two professions. Medicine put him in touch with life, but life was overwhelming. Chekhov could find no stable position with regard to belonging, groups relationships. The writing simultaneously dramatizes this instability and brings its author a form of safe belonging: his work is hugely popular, but he remains separate from his admirers.
Chekhov says he wants “to be free, nothing else.” But he also wants to be married. He fears marriage: “every intimacy, which at first so agreeably diversifies life … inevitably grows into a regular problem of extreme intricacy.” So he flirts, has affairs. The short story is a flirtation, a brief relationship. The longer a Chekhov story, the more melancholy it becomes. He tries novels but can’t finish them. They are a prison. Now he starts writing plays, which give him a closer contact with actors and public. On the brink of marrying in 1889, Chekhov cuts loose and flees to the penal colony of Sakhalin Island where for three months he interviews 160 prisoners a day, preparing a file card for each and taking notes on forced labour, child prostitution, and floggings. All his life he never stopped recalling that his father beat him. We can think of his 600 plus stories as file cards of prisoners or those who risk imprisonment, in love, in work, in parenthood, in politics. Essentially, writing had become a survival skill, a form of freedom and solitude that nevertheless put him in a gratifying relation with others.
Needless to say, a reader’s reaction will largely depend on where he or she stands in relation to the question of belonging.
Featured image: Books education school literature by Hermann. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.