Tuesday, February 05, 2008

The Black Monk, Saving Orchards from Frost, and Lensky's (or Kovrin's) Aria

Dear Anton Chekhov,

I was fascinated by a couple of things while reading your short story, The Black Monk. The first is a criticism. The other, I'm not sure. The first is something about horticulture. It is about living in an orchard.

Early in my married life I lived in orchard country, more specifically, in the middle of orchards of apples and peaches. Have you ever eaten a ripe peach, picked warm from a tree, ripened wholly on the branches? Oh, how divine the taste, the sweetness. I have never eaten a "store-bought" peach that even closely compares. I don't even buy peaches. My palette has been ruined.

But, back to the subject, the farmer who worked that land, who like Tania's father works from love and attachment to land and plants, is full of knowledge and solutions. The solution you described in the opening pages of The Black Monk is one that was used at the time of your writing, and is used yet today. However, the weakness in your portrayal of Kovrin, upon returning to his adopted home one frosty spring night, is that he was surprised and full of questions at the process of burning debris to save the budding trees of the orchards. Frankly Anton, he would have known. He could not have grown up near an orchard ignorant of such fires and the stoking of such smoke. April, says Eliot, is the cruelist month. At least it is for the farmer. He or she just begins to breathe deeply the sun stroked gusts of blossom-scented air when it freezes in his/her nostrils.

So Yegor Pesotsky and Tania and Andrei Kovrin too, all would have known from hard experience the drill of long nights tending fires on the evenings of spring that had played them false. I, too, have known the phantom clouds, not appearing as a whirlwinding Black Monk but wafting from piles of burning trash and used tires with the rubber emitting acridity as well as makeshift cumulus forms.

The second element I noticed was the song from Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin that Kovrin chose to hum to Tania when first he noticed her, not as a child, but as a woman.

Interestingly, one of my favorites of late, Vladimir Nabokov, translated a version of Pushkin's Eugene Onegin in which I found this passage:

Or when a falling star along the dark sky flew and dissipated, then Tanya would hasten in confusion while the star still was rolling her heart's desire to whisper to it. When anywhere she happened a black monk to encounter, or 'mongst the fields a rapid hare would run across her path, so scared she knew not what to undertake, with sorrowful forebodings filled, directly she expected some mishap.
So is this where you found inspiration for your eerie Black Monk? I notice that here Pushkin pictures Tanya as being frightened by a falling star. You used that image, too, in your story about an artist. You must have liked Pushkin's novel/poem very much, so I can imagine that you were among the first, at the opening nights of Tchaikovsky's operatic version of Onegin to listen and love the music. From Pushkin you secreted away the name of the leading lady for your tale. From Tchaikovsky's Onegin you took a little musical reference. But that is where I tripped, for though you had your Onegin-like hero hum a tune from the opera, the reference doesn't quite work. That tune was not one that Onegin sings to Tanya. Instead, Tchaikovsky's Lensky sang it of Olga. "Olga how I loved you." In the example below though, I'll let you hear Fritz Wunderlich sing it, for he was one of the great Lenskys!

Apart from such particularities and snobbery of detail, I liked your story very much and it carries with it great pathos.



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