Thursday, March 22, 2012

"We must pay him...in coin."

I'm reading volume 6 of the Ecco Tales of Chekhov 13-volume set (translations by Constance Garnett). Whenever I read Chekhov--at least those stories he wrote once he was free of the length restraints his early editors put on him when he was writing short tales to amuse readers who were skimming through newspapers while waiting for trains--whenever I read Chekhov, I was saying, I feel that I'm encountering the ideas and observations of someone who honestly saw real life*. Chekhov's stories don't fit into any preconceived shapes that writers tend to use. If they seem at all familiar, it's because there's a school of modern writers who tend toward what's been called the Chekhovian story type, but by reducing Chekhov to a single pattern these modern stories have limited the possibility of the story and are missing what Chekhov was actually doing. He wasn't really writing a type of story and he didn't follow any single plan of action. I am rambling and I know it, but I'll continue anyway.

It's impossible to predict how a Chekhov story will develop. Many of his "mature" stories begin in an almost humdrum vein and the temptation is there to assume you'll be bored, that the story has nothing to offer. A traveling salesman watering his horses at a roadside tavern, talking for three pages about the discomfort of traveling by cart across rural Russia? Nothing's happening, you observe. And then a drunken peasant accosts the salesman, mistaking him for someone else. They quarrel, one of them is knocked down into the mud. Both men are revealed to be deeply unhappy for their own particular reasons. The story ends. Oh, you say. I know this story. It's real life. People are selfish idiots. Nothing is resolved, ever. People move through life, have their troubles and then die. Some people are better than others, except when they aren't. I know this story.

Chekhov is the writer of middles, of unresolved mysteries that are wholly knowable because they are the everyday mysteries of all our lives, the writer of lost characters, lost opportunities, mistakes, misanthropy, misogyny, hubris, etc etc etc. You can see where a writer like Samuel Beckett was influenced by Chekhov, but Beckett (and many writers who've followed Chekhov's lead, like Barthelme) lacked Chekhov's humanity, his sensitivity to the tragedy of life. Beckett laughed at humanity, but Chekhov is tender even as he is relentlessly honest about the failings of man. We are nothing, Beckett seems to say, and so we should laugh at our striving, because in the end there is nothing to say, nothing to do, nothing to care about. Chekhov, on the other hand, seems to say We are nothing, but we could be something, so we should laugh at our failures and treat one another better, because we are all we have. I prefer Chekhov's philosophy.

I'm not sure these days why I read anything but Chekhov. Possibly it's that I feel guilty ignoring all those other writers who've worked so hard and might have interesting things to say to me. Chekhov wrote no novels, and I'm a fan of novels, so I must read someone if I want to indulge in long-form fiction. And while there are uncountable good and even great novels out there, I find lately that whenever I return to Chekhov, I don't know why I ever left him. I don't know what any of this means. Nothing, probably.

* I am also reading his collected letters, and I recognize the irony that while Chekhov was a great observer of his fellows, he was himself a highly-strung, opinionated and at times mean-spirited fellow who hectored his brothers and constantly complained but seemed to view himself as a noble, intelligent and well-behaved fellow.

3 comments:

  1. * I am also reading his collected letters, and I recognize the irony that while Chekhov was a great observer of his fellows, he was himself a highly-strung, opinionated and at times mean-spirited fellow who hectored his brothers and constantly complained but seemed to view himself as a noble, intelligent and well-behaved fellow.

    Well, certainly, isn't this always the way we see our selves.

    As for Chekov's writing and why you return to it, it reminds me of mashed potatoes. I don't eat them often, but when I do, I wonder why I ever gave them up.

    Chekov is comforting to you, the same as Jane Austen is comforting to me. Their words put order in a chaotic world. Like a blankie, and rain and mashed potatoes. They touch your soul in a way that no other writer has. Like a piece of music that makes you cry (Okay maybe you don't cry, but I do). There are certain passages in Austen that make me weep, not because the writing is so powerful, but because of the imagery involved and what that invokes in me. In my soul.

    Isn't that what artists are -- just wandering through life trying to recreate our souls on the outside?

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  2. I don't know if Chekhov is comfort food. He can be a real downer, you know. Mashed potatoes never make me sad. I'm reading a long story called In The Ravine and it's basically about how life can have isolated moments of hope and promise of the future, but mostly it's just a big useless pit of despair because we're a selfish, short-sighted animal. Yes, that's Chekhov. What I love about him isn't any kind of comfort he gives; it's that he clearly loves humanity and has such hopes for us even though he knows his hopes will all be dashed because our actions are unworthy of his love. Poor sad Chekhov. He needed a hug. I should make a study and see if his stories became more hopeful after he fell in love and got married. But I won't, because I like to keep the artist out of my appreciation of the art.

    I don't actually have a clue what artists are trying to do. I don't know what art is, or what it's for. I have a strong sense that it's important, though. Which is enough.

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  3. So yes, I see that I've just restated what you say about art that makes one weep. All I do is paraphrase.

    Need moar coffee.

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