Suburgatory, Chekhov and Umberto Eco

“You never have to change anything you got up in the middle of the night to write.” ~ Saul Bellow

Anton Pavlovich Chekhov. Oil on canvas. From t...

Anton Pavlovich Chekhov. Oil on canvas. From the collection of the Tretyakov Gallery. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In “Brain Pickings” this week, Maria Popov wishes a happy birthday to Anton Chekhov. She publishes a letter the Russian writer wrote to his brother called “eight qualities of cultured people.” If he was living today, I wonder he would read “Twilight” or set a DVR to his favorite TV shows.

Popova asks, “Is it (being cultured) about being a good reader, or knowing how to talk about books you haven’t read, or having a general disposition of intellectual elegance?”

Popov links to a book called, “How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read,” by Pierre Bayard, a University of Paris literature professor.

Bayard quotes Umberto Eco on the nature of books, yet it applies to all forms of entertainment and study. Eco says,

“The book is an undefined object that we can discuss only in imprecise terms, an object forever buffeted by our fantasies and illusions. The second volume of Aristotle’s Poetics, impossible to find even in a library of infinite capacity, is no different from most other books we discuss in our lives. They are all reconstructions of originals that lie so deeply buried beneath our words and the words of others that, even were we prepared to risk our lives, we stand little chance of ever finding them within reach.”

Eco is the “cultured” literary intellectual that many fledgling writers aspire to be. However, there is a surprising and comforting irony in the story. In “Umberto Eco, The Art of Fiction No. 197” a “Paris Review” interviewer has the following exchange with Eco.

 INTERVIEWER: Are you still obsessed with television?

ECO: I suspect that there is no serious scholar who doesn’t like to watch television. I’m just the only one who confesses. And then I try to use it as material for my work. But I am not a glutton who swallows everything. I don’t enjoy watching any kind of television. I like the dramatic series and I dislike the trash shows.

INTERVIEWER: Are there any shows that you particularly love?

ECO: The police series. Starsky and Hutch, for instance.

Starsky and Hutch on Playboy Island

Starsky and Hutch on Playboy Island (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

INTERVIEWER: That show doesn’t exist anymore. It’s from the seventies.

ECO: I know, but I was told that the complete series was just released on DVD, so I am thinking of acquiring it. Other than that I like CSI, Miami Vice, ER, and most of all, Columbo.

I was relieved the first time I read that. I don’t shy away from giving, even “trash shows,” a chance to grab my attention. Eco, an inspiring intellectual of our time, uses the formula plot structure, predictable endings and trite dialogue of American television police dramas, sometimes, as material for his work.

Chekhov died in 1904 so we know he never saw a television. But as Eco puts it, everything we read is a reconstruction of old stories. Even Chekhov likely received some inspiration from unlikely sources and, living today, maybe he’d watch some TV for ideas.

ABC's Suburgatory. Wednesdays 9:30/8:30 c

ABC’s Suburgatory. Wednesdays 9:30/8:30 c

Today, Stanley Hudson from “The Office” and Ron Swanson from “Parks and Recreation” are similitudes of Chekhov’s bitter Uncle Vanya in the play with the same name, while “Suburgatory’s” Dallas Royce is the character Yelena– shallow but fascinating and seductive– in that play.

All things considered, do what you like to do for inspiration and keep writing. Ignore the pseudo intellectuals you know who believe it is important they tell you that the only television they watch is on PBS or the History channel. They are lying.

If “Starsky and Hutch” on DVD is good enough for Eco, then “Nashville” is good enough for my DVR and me.

One thought on “Suburgatory, Chekhov and Umberto Eco

  1. Pingback: Chekhov’s short plays on stage | Dear Kitty. Some blog

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