Random Thoughts

That festive pop

... a choice of words.

by Ed Boyd

There are certain words and phrases that grab me. When they do, I can feel a tickle that begins in the base of my spine and wends its way to the back of my neck. It’s a great feeling, almost like a lover’s traveling fingers. I’m a word lover, seems fair to say. I remember being intrigued, years ago; when during an English course I was introduced to the idea expressed in French as le mot juste, the quest for the apt word to fit exactly the idea, event or occasion.

Catherine gave me two great books as she knows I am fascinated with both Anton Chekov and Raymond Carver. These are, ANTON CHEKOV’S SHORT STORIES: texts of the stories; backgrounds; criticism and READING CHEKOV: a critical journey. The Chekov stories by Ralph Matlaw were published in 1979. READING CHEKOV: a critical journey and was just published, 2001, by Janet Malcom. I have been immersed in both. I was especially intrigued by a section of Malcom’s book where she discusses the various characterizations of Chekov’s death that have been published from time to time. What captured my interest, especially, was the characterization of Chekov’s death described by Philip Gallow, CHEKOV: the hidden ground, published in 1998. Malcom reprints several paragraphs of Gallow’s because she remembered that Gallow’s description of Chekov’s death read almost identically to the fictional story by Raymond Carver, “Errand”; a reverent sentiment about Chekov’s death. As Malcom compares Gallow’s with Carver’s story there is little question that Gallow “borrowed” from Carver’s story. I leave that matter to those who like to chase down evildoers.

As a word lover, though, I want to dwell on a choice of particular language in both. In both stories there is talk of how the doctor orders a bottle of champagne and his style of dispensing it. First, Gallow, “And perhaps because he thought it unseemly he eased the cork out so as to soften the loud pop.” Carver, in “Errand”, telling of the doctor “…working the cork out of the bottle. He did it in such a way as to minimize, as much as possible, the festive explosion.” Carver’s choice of words seems far superior as he describes, and not guess at the doctor’s intention. To say “… he thought it unseemly” offers a moral judgment. To say, “minimize”, as Carver does, leaves a reader open to interpret.

Interestingly, too, is that a similar phrasing will appear in another Carver story, “Careful”. The story is about a man who is separated from his wife, living alone. The description of him suggests low mood and struggle with his excessive drinking. His wife has just briefly visited. He feels no better from the visit, maybe worse. “He still had the better part of the day ahead of him. He went into the kitchen, bent down in front of the little refrigerator, and took out a fresh bottle of champagne. He worked the plastic cork out of the bottle as carefully as he could, but there was still the festive pop of champagne being opened.”

All narratives of Chekov’s death agree that Chekov drank a glass of champagne and almost immediately expired. The contradiction of celebration with death is altogether obvious. This, of course, is why, in “Errand”, the Dr. “…worked to…minimize…the festive explosion.” A toast of champagne is a tribute to Chekov, while acknowledging his immediate, inevitable death.

Lloyd, the lead character in “Careful” is on the edge of despair. It is not coincidental that champagne is the chosen as a way to wash away hurt. It seems even more likely taken along with the similar style of opening a bottle of champagne as described in “Errand”. The meaning in “Careful” is quite different, “…but there was still the festive pop of champagne being opened.” Instead of tribute as in “Errand”, Lloyd works hard to suppress the possibility of joy. Typical of Carver, with marvelous economy of words, “…but there was STILL the festive pop of champagne…” speaks volumes of such a dejected soul. Champagne in both stories is associated with death.

In “Errand” Chekov’s last drink is champagne. In “Careful”, Lloyd is awash in it, toward self-destruction.

In both stories, “festive pop” is le mot juste.

July 1, 2011

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