Anton Chekhov

3 posts

The Hidden Thoreau in Anton Chekhov

chekhov

If you come to an Anton Chekhov short story looking for a plot, you’ve come to the wrong place. If you read Chekhov and fret that nothing happens, you’d best reconsider your definition of “nothing.”

These thoughts reoccurred to me as I finished the Richard Pevear / Larissa Volokhonsky translation, Selected Stories of Anton Chekhov. I found it good medicine, especially for a poet, to swim in the Russian master’s pool.

Chekhov is a perfect example of my pet theory about literature: almost all of it is a riff on Henry David Thoreau’s famous line, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” I even used Henry’s line as an epigraph to my first poetry collection, The Indifferent World.

Less literary but surely related to Thoreau’s line from Essays on Civil Disobedience is a title from the Irish band U2’s song: “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.” To my mind, they go hand in hand. Man searches as if there is something — some source of happiness in life — missing, but it is always somewhere ahead of him, out of reach. It is, in fact, the source of his quiet desperation.

This afflicts even the characters we least expect it from. Contemporary story writer Peter Orner considers “The Bishop” to be Chekhov’s best story, and it is the penultimate tale in the collection I just finished.

And yes, even the bishop, a respected and revered figure in the Russian Orthodox Church, is visited by doubt in the night. Even the bishop is bedeviled by both the past and the future while musing on the present.

It seems we can find a paragraph like the one below in most any Chekhov short story. The moment of truth. Let’s jump into the mind of the bishop, who is listening from his sickbed to the singing of monks in the church. As notes to the story explain, the songs he hears are “words from hymns sung during the services known as ‘Bridegroom services’ celebrated on the first three days of Holy Week.”

 

In the evening the monks sang harmoniously, inspiredly, the office was celebrated by a young hieromonk with a black beard; and the bishop, listening to the verses about the Bridegroom who cometh at midnight and about the chamber that is adorned, felt, not repentance for his sins, not sorrow, but inner peace, silence, and was carried in his thoughts into the distant past, into his childhood and youth, when they had also sung about the Bridegroom and the chamber, and now that past appeared alive, beautiful, joyful, as it probably never had been. And perhaps in the other world, in the other life, we shall remember the distant past, our life here, with the same feelings. Who knows? The bishop sat in the sanctuary, it was dark there. Tears flowed down his face. He was thinking that here he had achieved everything possible for a man in his position, he had faith, and yet not everything was clear, something was still lacking, he did not want to die; and it still seemed that there was some most important thing which he did not have, of which he had once vaguely dreamed, and in the present he was stirred by the same hope for the future that he had had in childhood, and in the academy, and abroad.

“They’re singing so well today!” he thought, listening to the choir. “So well!”

 

I love how the abstract musings are bookended by the actual moment of singing. And how Chekhov hits on our habit of laundering our own pasts of all its ills until childhood seems like the perfect world it surely wasn’t. And how a man of faith in a high office is left, like the rest of us, with stark questions about the afterlife and the purpose of our existence.

In short, this bishop still hasn’t found what he’s looking for and never will, because that, Chekhov seems to say, is what life is all about. That is the quiet desperation we each inherit and wrestle with when we dare engage our thoughts with such thoughts.

You might be tempted to brand Chekhov a downer and say all these desperate characters are the products of a decidedly cynical man, and yet story after story provides glimpses of life’s beauty (see above, where moments from childhood are called “alive, beautiful, joyful”).

And then the ends of the stories come, often with inconsequential, quotidian observations about the setting or with a banal point about goings on around the character. Life goes on, Chekhov tells us, but neat endings and bow-tied resolutions are rarities.

And yes, we will be forgotten soon after we’re gone. And yes, others will experience the same joys and quiet desperations we did, but how many would trade the journey away?

For Chekhov, ultimately, life is worth its tribulations. It was also the wellspring of much of his art.

Chekhov’s Secret: Not a Gun on the Wall

chekhov

As is true with poetry, short stories are typically frowned upon by book publishers. To get a collection of short fiction accepted, you either have to be a well-known name or your stories have to be very, very (did I say “very”?) good.

This truth, as self-evident as Thomas Jefferson’s were supposed to be, struck me yesterday while reading Peter Orner’s collection, Maggie Brown and Other Stories. In one called “Ineffectual Tribute to Len,” Orner goes on an Anton Chekhov riff.

As I read parts of this story, I found myself replacing the word “story” with “poem” because, whether good old Chekhov knew it or not, a lot of his philosophy holds in both genres. In this particular story, the narrator wants to write about his friend, Len, and has had a novel in mind all along. Then suddenly, it strikes him. Len is a story-in-waiting, not a novel, and Chekhov is the key. Read along and see what I mean:

“All hail Chekhov. If done right, he tells us, a story never ends. A story: lurks. A story, a good story, is just out of reach, always. Wake up in an unfamiliar darkness, in a room you don’t seem to recognize. Flip on the light. Nothing there. It’s your room again. But didn’t you feel a presence in the dark? The presence of someone you once knew? Someone you once loved? All these years I’ve been deluding myself, carrying around this folder as if one day it would grow covers and a binding. So simple, Len’s a story.”

Then the narrator decides to write his publisher, Little, Brown and Company, about his revelation:

“You say stories don’t sell, and God knows I have no reason to doubt you (I’ve seen the numbers on my story collections and they aren’t pretty; I know I’m basically a charity case), but don’t you see? It’s what Chekhov teaches. The last period of the last sentence of a story isn’t a full stop; it’s a horizon. It’s not about word count or pages. That’s a smothered way of thinking. We’re talking about the quest for infinity here. Horizons can’t ever be reached no matter how many words you lard on a novel. The attempt at closure is inherently dishonest. But a story! One that ends but doesn’t end, that’s infinity, immortality, right there…”

A short story master, Orner found inspiration in an earlier master. The master. And I love how he puts it here: “The last period of the last sentence of a story isn’t a full stop; it’s a horizon.”

I love even better how changing “story” to “poem” should make would-be poets realize that a poem’s ending cannot be a “full stop,” either. It must be a “horizon,” one that causes its reader to feel a certain resonance bringing both satisfaction and yearning.

Note, too, how Orner follows “full stop” with a semi-colon instead of a period. I particularly liked that touch, the semi-colon not quite being a full stop itself. The punctuation echoes the sentiment.

So, yes. Chekhov can teach practitioners of short writing—be they stories or poems—a thing or three. Think about that challenge the next time you sit down to write.

Hell with the Chekhovian gun on the wall that must be fired by the end. It’s the horizon that matters.

“Murder Your Darlings”

terry-mcdonell

Murder your darlings. Famous words in writing, where the judge (that’s writers like me) tends to grant words clemency a bit more often than advisable.

In reading famous editor Terry McDonell’s The Accidental Life, I came across a small section that serves as wisdom not only for prose writers but for the non-prose sorts in his audience as well, the poets and the dreamers.

Let’s listen in:

“Avoid clich├ęs like the plague, and no matter how amazing or incredible or unbelievable anything is, know how challenging it can be to raise the bar–even when you are writing about icons living in La La Land or Tinseltown or on the Left Coast.

“Likewise it is prudent to take Kurt Vonnegut’s advice: ‘Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.’

“Think like Mark Twain: ‘When you catch an adjective, kill it.’

“‘Kill your darlings’ means cut anything precious, overly clever, or self-indulgent. It is a stark, brilliant prohibition attributed most often to William Faulkner but also to Allen Ginsberg, Oscar Wilde, Eudora Welty, G. K. Chesterton, Anton Chekhov and Stephen King, who used the phrase in his effusive On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft: ‘Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.’

“When the 2013 biopic of Allen Ginsberg, Kill Your Darlings, came out, Forrest Wickman on Slate tracked what is probably the best attribution to Arthur Quiller-Couch in his 1914 Cambridge lecture ‘On Style.’ The prolific poet, novelist and critic railed against ‘extraneous Ornament’ and emphasized, ‘If you here require a practical rule of me, I will present you with this: ‘Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it–wholeheartedly–and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.

“Wickman’s research also brought him to an even more important rule for journalists: ‘Check your sources.'”

— p. 70 “Editcraft”