Recent links of note:
Adam Kirsch, The New York Review of Books
As The New Criterion’s Adam Kirsch writes in the New York Review of Books, before Anton Chekhov developed his eye for piercing social commentary, he made his living churning out cheap humor pieces and short stories for dodgy periodicals. Kirsch sheds light on this period of Chekhov’s “juvenilia” and the good doctor’s later turn towards more serious work; he also shows how, even in his darkest writing, Chekhov never lost his penchant for humor and the absurd. So many of Chekhov’s stories and plays leap back and forth between tragedy and comedy; he was a master of capturing the ambiguity of life’s emotions and the inability of humans to fulfill the various ideas and goals that consume them. In the story “Volodya,” for example, a misfit teenage boy makes a pitiable attempt at seducing an older woman to affirm himself as a tragic hero; met only with laughs, he commits suicide. As Kirsch writes, “Volodya” “is a tragedy about a hero who is unable to be tragic.” Chekhov’s cosmology contains neither Heaven nor Hell; Limbo, it seems, is a given.
“Remembering The Merchant of Prato”
Toby Guise, The Critic
Fourteenth-century merchant Francesco Datini was a fantastically successful dealer of art and weapons to the Italian and French elite. Nevertheless, the story of Datini’s life would almost certainly have been relegated to a small footnote in the history of the Middle Ages, if not for the remarkable discovery of a cache of five hundred account books and 150,000 papers belonging to him in a stairwell of his former mansion in Prato, Italy. These papers give an unprecedented, intimate glimpse into the inner life and thoughts of a medieval man. The writer Iris Origo, a British-born expatriate and a conspirator against the Axis in Italy, took on the herculean task of sifting through this collection, resulting in the 1957 biography The Merchant of Prato: Daily Life in a Medieval Italian City. With stunning psychological clarity, the reader is privy to Datini’s concerns about business dealings, the plague, war, illegitimate children, and even his long-distance relationship with his wife, played out over the course of countless letters, in which he struggles to come to terms with his restless pursuit of wealth and his conflicting duty to his spouse. Recently reissued by New York Review Books, the book is here reviewed by Toby Guise for The Critic.
“Lenin in the library”
Lesley Chamberlain, The Times Literary Supplement
In the years before the Russian Revolution, London was something of an international capital for stateless communists. Along with countless lesser-known agitators, agents, writers, and fugitives, Karl Marx lived the vast majority of his adult life in the city, and Lenin spent stretches of time there in 1902–03, 1905, 1907, 1908, and 1911. All availed themselves of the remarkably egalitarian intellectual atmosphere in London, and many found a daily home in the reading room of the British Library, as Robert Henderson writes in a new book on Communism’s gestational days in what was then the heart of global trade and capitalism. It is one of history’s great ironies that Lenin and his comrades, safe from the persecution of less tolerant minds at home, failed to see how that haunting specter was, in fact, their guardian angel.
“Music for a While #33: ‘Great are companions such as these’”
Jay Nordlinger, The New Criterion’s music critic, talks music—but, more important, plays music.
“Globalization 1.0,” by Paul du Quenoy. A review of The Year 1000: When Explorers Connected the World and Globalization Began, by Valerie Hansen.