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Better, Melancholy Things

A while ago, on a trip to Sydney, I bought “Reading Chekhov: A critical journey” by Janet Malcolm. I was humbled by the ease with which Malcolm guided me into the depths of Chekhov’s writing. As the blurb says, “after reading this book, it is impossible not to want to go and re-read [Chekhov]

However, in the end it was Malcolm’s observations about her Russian journey in Chekhov’s footsteps, and the references she encountered, that stayed with me. She describes the suffering of poet Anna Akhmatova:

Her fortitude in the face of suffering and loss – her first husband was shot by the Bolsheviks, her only son was imprisoned three times, for a total of thirteen years, her friend and fellow poet Osip Mandelstam died in a labor camp, as did her third husband…

Charcoal and Pastel

Malcolm quotes Nadyezda Mandelstam, the widow of the poet:

Of everything that happened to us, what was most significant and powerful was the fear and what it produced – a loathsome feeling of disgrace and impotence.

Malcolm describes the context in which these people lived:

the stoicism and courage and consistent good conduct during a period when just being decent was to take your life in your hands.

Oil on Canvas

Winter again in New Zealand. The gray weather drives me to the studio and back to Fernando Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet. Reading Pessoa as the rain falls on a wintry Saturday, grey all around, coffee brewing, inner darkness becomes fruitful.

Oil on Canvas

I understand why so many people loathe Pessoa’s explicit hopelessness. Yet I am drawn to his prose in the same way as to the beautiful Nothingness of deep meditation. One sinks in and becomes aware of being contained – in all aspects of life and death – by something infinitely open:

Divided between tired and restless, I succeed in touching – with the awareness of my body – a metaphysical knowledge of the mystery of things…To cease, to sleep, to replace this intermittent consciousness with better, melancholy things, whispered in secret to someone who doesn’t know me!

Fernando Pessoa “Book of Disquiet”

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