Hidden talent

Phil Weinstein displays the short stories of master writers

Lecturer Phil Weinstein will kick off the "Islander Read the Classics" series with "Beloved." Courtesy Phil Weinstein.

Island readers can enjoy a harvest of guided tours through the short stories of the masters this fall with lit whiz Philip Weinstein as part of the “Islanders Read the Classics” (IRTC) series, sponsored by the Vineyard Haven Public Library, The MV Times, and Arts & Ideas magazine.

And if you’ve been daunted by the sheer volume of great novels by Tolstoy, James Joyce, Henry James et al., or unaccustomed to reading the short story genre, this seven-week series will open a fresh relationship with the authors above, and with Herman Melville, Anton Chekhov, and Franz Kafka.

The series begins at 7 pm on Wednesday, Oct. 4, at the Katharine Cornell Theater in Vineyard Haven. The complete schedule appears below.

The Times met this week with Mr. Weinstein, professor emeritus at Swarthmore College, to discuss his series on short story classics. Mr. Weinstein has been offering top-quality literary insights to Island audiences for nearly 20 years, and attracts upwards of 100 Island residents to his Katharine Cornell series each fall. He taught at top-ranked Swarthmore for more than 40 years, and is considered a foremost expert on the work of James Faulkner.


Why the short stories by these famous novelists and playwrights?

You can get into these writers without buying the big ticket (reading their epic and epically long novels). I think a lot of people don’t know that Tolstoy is a great short story writer. Kafka’s short stories are known perhaps. Kafka wrote three novels that became celebrated, but all were incomplete. His great form is the short story, and they are all complete. James, of course, wrote hundreds of short stories in addition to novels.


Many of the authors you’ve chosen are viewed as early modernists.

Yes, they offer a wonderful curve into modernism. We’ll begin with 19th century heavyweights, then, with Chekhov especially, and James, move into modernism. The stories are 100 pages or less. My rule is that short stories can’t be 200 pages. These are the indispensable short stories, but they could be a difficult slog without a guide.


Will we encounter the same writers in their short stories as in their novels?

The question of familiarity is not a problem. You encounter the author — that almost has to be the case. No, the form imposes its restrictions, They can’t do in 60 pages what they can in 400 pages in the novel form. Chekhov’s work is a great example. You can see in his plays that a revolution is coming. You find out why it’s coming in his short stories.

Melville wrote a plot-driven sea yarn in “Moby Dick.” But in “Bartleby the Scrivener,” we wonder what Bartleby’s doing. What Melville’s doing is throwing a monkey wrench into business as usual without using a rebel to do it.


What can attendees expect; what’s the format of a typical presentation?

Two things are different [from typical lectures]. One is in presentation, to allow people to see what they think they might not have seen. Second, we spend at least a half-hour asking people, “What’s in your mind now? Have new thoughts been provoked; do you have different thoughts from when you came in?”

As people move into greater confidence, they offer more and more [perceptions], which I really enjoy. The change in pressure, tone, and procedure is something people seem to welcome. I am lucky to live in a wonderful place with people who love to read.


The schedule of the Weinstein series at the Katharine Cornell Theater (sponsored by the Vineyard Haven library) follows. Each session begins at 7 pm.

Oct. 4: Herman Melville: “Benito Cereno,” “Billy Budd,” and “Bartleby the Scrivener.”

Oct. 18: Leo Tolstoy: “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” “The Kreutzer Sonata,” “Master and Man” (Pevear/Volokhonsky translation).

Nov. 1: Anton Chekhov, “Stories of Anton Chekhov” (Pevear/Volokhonsky translation), “Ward Number Six.”

Nov. 6: Chekhov: “The Lady with the Little Dog,” “In the Ravine,” and others to be announced.

Nov. 15: Henry James: “The Turn of the Screw” and “The Beast in the Jungle.”

Nov. 29: James Joyce: “Dubliners.”

Dec. 13: Franz Kafka: “The Judgment,” “The Metamorphosis,” “A Hunger Artist,” “A Country Doctor,” “Jackals and Arabs,” “A Report to an Academy,” and “In the Penal Colony.”