Tuesday, February 12, 2013

She had got out of the habit of thinking of her past

I am reading Chekhov again, and I tire my reader with the same old comment: I don't know why I read anything else. Chekhov was brilliant. Yes, it took him a couple of hundred stories before he was able to consistently be brilliant, but once he got there he was there. He was brilliant.

I noticed something for the first time about Chekhov's writing last night. We all know that as Chekhov got better as a writer (or maybe just older), his stories became more realistic and the endings became more indeterminate, open and unresolved. Many people label these endings as miserable endings, because characters walk onstage unhappy and are generally found, at the end of the stories, standing center stage even more unhappy than they were at the start, or maybe just more aware of their unhappiness. What I hadn't seen before last night is that, while Chekhov is working out how to write an indeterminate and realistic ending, his sympathy for his characters deepens and the stories become richer in love for humanity. Yes, Anton Pavlovich learned to write detailed, carefully-observed tales of sadness and existential crisis, but he wrote with such kindness, really; I can't think of any writer so accepting of his characters' failings, so able to perform the miracle of uniting his reader's empathy with his own. That sentence fails to say quite what I mean. Chekhov loved humanity deeply, I think, and his later stories display that love and open the world of the story up to the reader's love for humanity, possibly a little forcefully. Which is what gives Chekhov lasting value. What I mean is that while Chekhov's awareness of craft improved, his awareness of the humanity in his stories deepened at the same time. There was a parallel development happening. Have I belabored this point enough? Good.

Right now I'm reading Volume Nine of Tales of Chekhov, translated by my beloved Constance Garnett. I was well pleased to open the volume and see that the first story is "The Schoolmistress," one of my favorites. The opening is an example of amazing writing:

At half-past eight they drove out of the town.

The highroad was dry, a lovely April sun was shining warmly, but the snow was still lying in the ditches and in the woods. Winter, dark, long, and spiteful, was hardly over; spring had come all of a sudden. But neither the warmth nor the languid transparent woods, warmed by the breath of spring, nor the black flocks of birds flying over the huge puddles that were like lakes, nor the marvelous fathomless sky, into which it seemed one would have gone away so joyfully, presented anything new or interesting to Marya Vassilyevna who was sitting in the cart. For thirteen years she had been schoolmistress, and there was no reckoning how many times during all those years she had been to the town for her salary; and whether it were spring as now, or a rainy autumn evening, or winter, it was all the same to her, and she always -- invariably -- longed for one thing only, to get to the end of her journey as quickly as could be.

Do you see what he did there? Such lovely writing about nature and the first edge of springtime, all soured by the appearance of our protagonist, Marya, whom we learn to love and pity. What does she want of the thawing landscape? To be out of it as soon as possible.

Later, the prose opens up the world to infinite possibility in a passage I'd steal if I could:

And she began crying, she did not know why. Just at that instant Hanov drove up with his team of four horses, and seeing him she imagined happiness such as she had never had, and smiled and nodded to him as an equal and a friend, and it seemed to her that her happiness, her triumph, was glowing in the sky and on all sides, in the windows and on the trees. Her father and mother had never died, she had never been a schoolmistress, it was a long, tedious, strange dream, and now she had awakened. . .

Chekhov learned the technique of internal writing, of closing the emotional distance between narrator/reader and his characters until the reader was inside the characters. Interestingly, Chekhov was more successful at this internal writing when he used a third-person point of view and the narrator moves from outside the characters to inside, as if zooming in on details of a painting. It's the shift of perspective that gives a lot of power to the emotional emphasis Chekhov's providing. When he wrote first-person narratives, the narrator's claims about his own emotions are less moving. Chekhov can only get his reader to feel the emotion when there's irony in the situation, the narrator not seeing what's really happening. I don't know if Chekhov ever solved that particular narrative problem. Maybe it didn't present itself as a problem to him.

Also, of course, statements about feelings sound more true when spoken by an impersonal voice than when spoken by the person doing the feeling. "She was miserable" is more easily believed than "I am miserable." I don't know why that is. Possibly we've all been trained to doubt when folks bear witness to their own emotions. What's that say about us?


  1. It says we are experienced readers of fiction.

    By the way, feel free to steal that passage. It is public domain, and its use lets you call your work a collage.

    By the other way, a copy of your book that is supposedly published on March 1 is supposed to arrive at my house today.

  2. But we're not supposed to acknowledge the artifice inherent in art. Except when we are. Unreliable narrators have spoiled us.

    I know that all of Garnett's translations are out of copyright now, but what I want from Chekhov, really, is the artistic sensitivity to write those such passages when I require them. I'm working on it.

    That's exciting about my supposed book. Supposedly people are buying it already. It's getting good reviews, though there is no way it lives up to Ben Thompson's hyperbolic blurb.

    Official pub dates are just another fiction.

  3. Is your use of "collage" a David Shields reference?

  4. Yes, a reference to his latest unreliably narrated work of fiction.