THE MAN IN THE SHELL (OR CASE, DEPENDING ON WHICH TRANSLATION YOU READ, BUT IT IS KIND OF INTERESTING HOW “SHELL” AND “CASE” MEAN ROUGHLY THE SAME THING IN RUSSIAN, APPARENTLY)
So here are three frame stories, linked by various recurring characters. The first one opens with two men, one inside the barn, one outside; Ivan Ivanovich agitated and smoking in the moonlight, and Burkin asleep inside; at the end of the second story Ivan is asleep, and Burkin agitated and awake. (“I’m just kind of noting some broad things, so we can come in and look at them later.”)
[From here on, in this heavily abridged transcript, George’s remarks are in bold and everyone else’s, including my own, are not—just to simplify, because the rest of us just felt like one big student.]
One of the benefits of this framing stuff… and this is sort of hard to talk about, but in a room full of artists, we have to. One of the delights of this Belikov guy is that he’s so unlikable. Right? It’s such a beautifully cruel caricature of a guy, and there’s something about it that’s really fun.
If you hear someone saying, “You know what? I really did something bad.” And you say, “Well… I’m sure it’s not that bad,” and then he tells you, and it is really bad. You know. There’s something fascinating about that. It really is a basic human curiosity… or it’s a basic human delight in mocking someone else, or being able to look down on someone else.
So that’s one of the arrows in our quiver. And if you can do it, like we all can, actually—some of us do it better than others—that’s a valid… valence. You can almost feel Chekhov rubbing his hands together when he gets on that riff about: “He’s a man in a case.” “Yeah, that’s right! He always wears galoshes and—you know what else? His penknife! It’s in a case.”
That’s a very simple pleasure. That’s actually what propels us through this story, is that there’s this despicable guy. Is he going to stay despicable? Yeah!—he is, actually. That’s kind of good.
Don’t you think that kind of necessitates the frame in a way? It’s easier to have one character tell a cruel caricature of someone else, than to have a narrative presence?
Now: how is it? I think you’re right, but how is this.
Because then we’re relieved of the burden of wondering like oh, is the narrator kind of a dick? Because ultimately, you enter other consciousnesses, but to some extent you want to trust the narrator the most. Absent “unreliable narrator” stuff. So here, you don’t have to worry about like: “Well, am I a bad person for laughing at this guy?” Because [a character in the story] is the one who’s doing it.
Yeah. Yeah. What it really is, is an unreliable narrator story with a sort of confirming device. You know, where the listener can go, “Oh, I don’t know! That’s a horse of a different color.” Or… he can kind of destabilize the main narrator. We’ll talk about this more, but it’s a really great technique, and Chekhov is the master of it…
That the stories are embedded, with another character telling it, everything becomes a little more acceptable: less trying to teach you, or preach to you.
Exactly. It’s like if I say, “I hate dogs.” You go, “Wow. What a jerk!” But if I say, “I hate dogs,” and this other guy says, “I don’t think you mean it”—already it’s a different rhetoric, you know.
The uber-narrator is saying he hates dogs—and we don’t know how we feel about that. As opposed to the uber-narrator seeming to say: “I hate dogs.” Maybe that’s the unreliable narrator, where we know the author isn’t the character. But this is a way of putting that right into the story. And it’s very, very powerful.
Other things about that central story that we should have on the map?
If he’s so unpleasant, why do all these chicks want to marry the guy off? I mean they pick the worst guy in town, and this beautiful girl?
[another student] … well, that’s the way it works.
That’s a good question; I mean, what was that—
I think it was something like—him getting married might fix him, or something? Like, as a solution to their problem, not a solution to his… get him a girl to focus on.
And he says, “he’d been in our town for ten or fifteen years,” I mean, that’s incredible.
She’s not exactly the most… um, marriageable… you know. I’m trying to say this in a nice way, but she’s “approaching thirty.”
The line was, “She was not young anymore, she was nearly thirty.” But these were, you know, they were different times.
But she was “a peach,” though! She was a peach.
Yeah, she’s a beautiful girl. She even walks with her arms akimbo! Which, to me… that’s it. Even though… I don’t even know what that means.
She’s a cyclist, though, he can’t get over the fact that she’s a cyclist.
Yeah. As in Tolstoy, one of the amazing things about this is the way that Chekhov can kind of peel off a very simple thing that we’ve probably seen millions of times in our own life and never thought of as literary.
There’s also the line about the women growing livelier and even better-looking, as if they’d found an object in life.
That “even better-looking” is a great addition to that, isn’t it.
And now… let me show you something in terms of just line-to-line stuff, the way this escalation might happen. Okay, so the marriage is suggested, and that great riff, that now Belikov is going to apply his same way of thinking to this marriage. Well, it’s very serious. We have to take this very seriously. “You don’t know what may come of it.”
They handed you a peach! And you still don’t know how to take it.
So then, on 363, you can almost feel the storyteller working here.
Okay… we just got the beat that says Belikov is not overjoyed, he’s not really properly appreciative of this, he’s not a man in love, exactly; he’s sort of trying to be in love, but he’s too cautious. And Chekhov says, “And he did not propose; he kept putting it off, to the vexation of the principal’s wife and all our ladies.”
Okay, so now Chekhov’s got a little bit of a checkmate going—he’s on the beat called, “we’re delaying the proposal.” Now you can see one good story might be, if he just keeps delaying. In other words, if his timidity disables him, and he can never get the job done, and she drifts off to another man; that might be possible. But then somehow Chekhov goes in another direction: “a colossal scandal.”
Now—so first he’s got to put some things into play here. I’m guessing that maybe he thought of this colossal scandal. Maybe he heard about it. Maybe he rejected the thing I just said as being too standard. But as soon as he said, you know: “If it had not been for a colossal scandal,”—I think he knew where he was going. But then he looks around a little bit and he says, all right, what do I need to pull this off. Okay. What do I have. Welllll, I’ve got this brother [of the “peach,” Varenka], with the big booming voice. I haven’t used him yet. Hmm. Let me turn my attention to him for a minute.
“I must tell you that Varenka’s brother conceived a hatred of Belikov from the first day of their acquaintance and couldn’t endure him.” That’s an interesting thought. He’s there, but we haven’t thought about him.
And then the brother says what we’ve been saying. “I don’t understand how you can put up with that informer, that nasty mug.” There’s a little pleasure at that; our surrogate has kind of just stepped in. “The atmosphere you breathe is vile, stifling!” And you’re laughing, you know?
I think of this, where you know… “You’re marrying this guy? This is a lifetime of him sitting there going hmm. Hmm. This guy actually will take anything good in your life, and go hmm? ‘Are you sure you want to—oh, that’s—is that thing expressly permitted?‘“ You know? He’s death, actually. So Chekhov introduces the brother, lets the brother occupy our viewpoint, basically.
All right… Again, I don’t know how he does this, but first of all, look how deadly efficient it is. He’s got the brother calling Belikov a spider. Then he needs something else. You know, you can feel him thinking, all right, I’ve got to put the brother and Belikov in conflict. How do I do it? And some impulse of his says, I don’t do it directly. Let me reach for one other element. And he thinks up this brilliant caricature of “Anthropos in Love.” Just—it’s a perfect thing, because you know that’s exactly what would kill Belikov, to be publicly shamed. So somehow from the mystery of art, Chekhov comes up with that bit about that caricature. And that is like the catalyst for the explosion. That little illustration.
We might just pause at that moment and notice that most of us, myself included, would say, Oh, I’ve got the brother, and I’ve got Belikov; all I’ve got to do is get them in the same room. And that’s kind of true. Okay, once they’re in the room, what are they going to fight about? The obvious thing is the sister. But Chekhov somehow puts the [other] thing first; he comes up with that illustration, and puts it in the air first. Which then… I don’t know why that’s magical, but somehow it lets the confrontation feel more natural maybe… I’m not sure.
He was going to be in love, right? This was a guy who was ten, fifteen years being exactly the same. Now something happened in that guy’s life that creates mockery in this community. Who drew that caricature? And why didn’t he draw it five years ago?
No, that’s exactly… and I think you get the reason, one reason he did, is because, well, it’s “Anthropos in Love.” And this guy dared to budge. So the community’s a little bit harsh, I mean, this is not exactly a nice thing, either. So anyway, we’ve got that illustration; somehow, it’s a stroke of genius, he puts that in there before there’s any hint of a confrontation.
And then there’s the bicycle, which is a stroke of genius thing in that if he should be so outraged by the bicycle, it’s kind of the last straw for us, in a weird way. So again, we’re admiring, but there’s something about the constant escalation of this… also, notice how free of reality it is. Chekhov always gets called a realist, but this is as caricaturish or elemental as anything you’ll ever read, as elemental as Beckett, really. Chekhov doesn’t do soft edges. It’s kind of abrupt, and… okay, what else do you want to talk about here?
It’s kind of good to have the caricature and the bicycle, as well, because he’s kind of wronged by the caricature, whereas he’s definitely wrong, with the bicycle, so he goes into the confrontation armed and incorrect at the same time.
That’s right. And that confrontation is interesting because first Belikov says, basically, “I want to apologize, I want you to know that I had nothing to do with that caricature.” Well… duh. You know, then he wants to say—”This was very irregular, and I’m very sorry for my part in it and I apologize to your sister.” And then he segues and says: “And also. This bicycle.”
What I imagine is him at home, agitated by this double violation of his principles. One, he’s been caricatured—two, his fiancee! Is almost—is on a bike! Wait a minute! Wait a minute. Something’s going on here. I’m going to get myself together. I’m going to go take care of this… And he’s maybe not even sure what he’s going to say. And he says the first thing, and then he can’t help but slide into the second. Which is, “You know… you are wearing an embroidered shirt. Are you mad?” And then one more beat, into basically saying: “If the authorities found out about this!” And then the brother says, “Go ahead and inform.”
The brother says: “Whoever meddles in my private affairs can go to the devil!” Now, he means Belikov; Belikov says, “He’s insulted our superiors!” and it escalates from there, and he says: “Well you know, I’m going to have to turn you in.” It’s a brilliant little escalation…
Doug Unger [who taught creative writing at Syracuse in 1983 – 91] used to talk about how, in dialogue—in good dialogue—people are never talking directly to each other. You ask me A, and I answer, A prime. You misunderstand A prime, and you challenge me with C. In bad dialogue, they’re always saying, well,
“How are you?”
“Do you have issues with your mother?”
“I do! She’s always…”
They’re trying to reach out, but they’re like, poking each other in the eye as they reach, you know. So the way Doug used to talk about it would be that if I’m talking to James, I have a thought bubble here, and James has a thought bubble, and most of what we’re doing is, we’re dumping out our thought bubbles regardless of what the other person is saying. So if I wake up that morning feeling wronged in my life, and James says, “That’s a nice shirt!”—I say, “Yeah, but nobody ever—no one ever appreciates it!”
So that’s a really interesting way to take your dialogue from—I mean, he makes it poetry, basically. It’s two solitudes, trying to connect, and they fail. This is not a fight that had to happen, actually. But each person had their own little issues that they were bringing to it, so.
It’s [Belikov’s] attempt to regain authority, though. Here he’s terrorized these people for ten years, they all have to be all worried about what’s he going to think. Now the bicycle thing… and that was true, too, I remember like, Shaw writing about that, how bicycling was super eccentric and wild, like being on a skateboard, when you’re supposed to be having all this dignity? You’re not having dignity, and this guy was so into that. So now he’s going to assert his authority again, and be back in charge, and tell everybody how they are going to behave—and it completely fell to pieces!
Yeah. It’s like when you’re trying to get a big animal back in the basket and you have to use too much force. Not that I’ve done that a lot, but.
But he becomes overtly an informer for the first time, in that moment. It’s very sad, and tragic. And yet… let’s also note how much fun it is when he goes down the stairs. When someone finally stands up to evil, it’s really a thrill, you know. And that actually is, you know, that’s part of our job, to make situations where that thrill can be introduced. It’s kind of a guilty pleasure. I don’t know, maybe it feels a little movieish or something, but that’s fun, you know. When he grabs him by the… and gives him a push. And when she walks in at that moment, that’s even better. “Ha-ha-ha!”
Before he’s been thrown down the stairs, he’s never been that offended in his life.
So he’s never been that offended verbally, he gets thrown down the stairs, and then the girl walks in and laughs. And all the Russian readers know that he has to die right away.
[Shocked laughter, here, but also acknowledging the justice of this observation.]
And then this narrator, at the bottom of page 368. It’s a tragic story, it’s a harsh story, it’s a little bit of an unbelievable story, actually, and you can kind of normalize it by saying, “I confess, it is a great pleasure to bury people like Belikov.” You kind of feel a bit of a shock, and you think, yeah it was! it’s a pleasure to get him out of the story, even. And that thing about him finding the case that he always wanted. Okay, that’s the story. Let’s see… so, when we sort of glance at that story, what’s coming off it, what are the themes, what vibe do you take from that story into what’s coming.
This is the thing about Chekhov. His themes are so photographic, that when you try to pin them down, you always reduce them.
One thing is that even the worst guy can be in love.
So even this lowly, terrible Man in a Shell has the desire for love. Now what Chekhov will always do is to present a duality. So… that’s true. And what’s also true is that that guy’s characteristics prevented him. So you see that it’s both possible, and impossible: a hundred percent.
Now at this point—the story, we’re done, right? And we’re reminded that there’s a frame. And this is a lovely little sequence, here:
The high school teacher came out of the barn.
Remember, we haven’t seen him yet.
He was a short, stout man, completely bald, with a black beard that nearly reached his waist.
That beard was kind of surprising: to his waist! Wow, really weird!
…two dogs came out with him.
Oh!—and he says:
“What a moon!”
You know. There’s that feeling of… what’s been in the dark, what’s been in the case, is out. And it’s a little crazy. We’ve got a long beard, and there’s two unexpected dogs, and you can see the moon. Just that kind of feeling. Now this is something very characteristic of Chekhov, which is [that] anybody reading that story, I think, is going to be struck at some level by that, right? It’s a story about compression, and closure, and darkness, and bluh. And when the story is done, and Belikov is dead—ding dong, the witch is dead—the barn door comes open, and Burkin comes out, and he’s kind of funny-looking, and he doesn’t mind, and the dogs come out… but. If we use our sort of, high-school minds and say, what’s the meaning? It’s a little beautiful… you know, it’s just a little beautiful. You can’t exactly say that it’s a metaphor… kind of, but… right?
Well… they start out, and they’ve gone outside, and they want to go shooting? And be in nature, and expose themselves to the beauty. And it’s also going to hurt you, maybe, to be outside. And that’s what happens to Belikov. He comes outside for a second, into the world, and it’s a disaster. So there’s this huge amount of shells, and inside, and outside, and exposing yourself to the elements or to feelings, or to life… it’s dangerous.
Right. So this is the way Chekhovian metaphor works is, you can say that this story is working with inside and outside. It’s in the barn, it’s in the story. But when your mind goes for the reduction, it can’t quite get it. It just knows that inside/outside is a thing. And that’s actually very sophisticated, because as we talk about those examples… sometimes the reading mind is just delighted by parallels, you know. Juxtapositions. It doesn’t really have to know what the juxtaposition amounts to. A good reader, where we are now, would be kind of aware that In and Out is working. Light and Dark is working. And I think that’s because of the barn. I mean, it’s not daytime: Chekhov goes a lot of trouble to point out that the barn is dark, and Burkin is invisible. That’s the subtlety of Chekhov; we feel that that’s a thing, but we can’t quite say why, and he’s not going to pause to tell us exactly.
The whole time I couldn’t stop thinking about the theme, like where fear makes humans animals? And that especially, like the Man in the Shell, I mean he was literally like a crab or something, in a shell. And thinking about in this period of dictatorship, and how sociological studies have shown that people hunker down and go into their family units, and are less on the streets, and have more privacy, and they’re more closed off.
I think that’s exactly right. I’m sure Chekhov at this time was feeling what was coming because what was coming was already happening. Which is that there were a lot of Marxists, and they were severe. I’m sure that there were already secret societies. And within the Tsarist regime, there were a lot of informers too. So this is something that he’s picking up on.
I was thinking well, yes, the story itself is a shell, but like, Chekhov and I—we know. We know what Ivan [the narrator of the story] doesn’t. I don’t know if anyone else felt that way.
Yeah, yeah, right. Well also because here, and at the end of “Gooseberries,” especially, we’re regarded as a sort of an accessory character. Which is a pleasure for reader and writer. So now, then, Burkin doesn’t want to hear that story. And Chekhov, for structural—for formal reasons, doesn’t want to tell it right here. So they went into the barn; now they’re both in the dark, they’re both covered up; and then they hear these footsteps—
[here you can hear the tick-tick-tick of the chalk against the board, as he draws the path of footsteps outside the barn]
—and that is Mavra, who started us off. So let’s not underestimate the pleasures of symmetry. Mavra is actually… she was the way we got into the story in the first place, if you remember. She’s the one who never left her town, and so on. There’s something—and it’s so simple, and I don’t know that there’s quote-unquote “meaning” in it. But there’s something really pleasurable about having her just come out there for a second. Again, this is subtle.
Now they’ve gone in. This is—in and out, they have both gone in now, and so that’s a change: one out, one in. And then… there’s something really sensual about the fact that she’s walking out there, this woman who’s never been anywhere is now coming to them a little bit, to see what’s going on, and it’s just symmetrical, which is very nice. It doesn’t make or break the story but it’s just a nice thing, that Chekhov remembered that that ball was up in the air. In a small way, Mavra was in her house, where she likes to be. And she came out, right? She came out why? Because she’s curious, I think, a little bit.
* * *
Okay so now we segue into “Gooseberries.” Burkin goes, “Last time we were in the barn, you were going to tell me a story.” And [Ivan] says, “Yes, I wanted to tell you about my brother.” And we feel a little bit like, “Okay, good, let’s hear it.” And we think: This is a response to “The Man in a Shell”—what’s it going to be?
He heaved a slow sigh, lit his pipe, but then it began to rain.
Now we notice—I mean structurally—that is a three-page digression; he’s going to tell you a story, and then he doesn’t get to it until 374. “We were two brothers,” he began. And you know, a bad workshop would say, “Why don’t you cut that out that whole thing?—’I wanted to tell you about my brother; my brother, who was two years my junior… I went in for a learned profession.”
This is a great place for you to find out about your narrative instincts. Because we’re reverse-engineering this story, basically. There’s a three-page digression. As you look at it, you should be asking: Why is this necessary? Why is it justified? How do you do that? So let’s look at it, starting from 372-373, what are the main beats in there—and I say “beats,” like in the Hollywood sense—what happens? What are the elements.
They’re wet and uncomfortable?
Right [writing at chalkboard] so they’re wet… For me—when I say “beats,” I think what I’m looking for is action. There’s actions—not so much mood or tone, but the specific action that we notice as we go through. They felt cold; they meet Alyohin; they go to the house; so… on 372, I’m not finding anything that feels beat-ish, this is all sort of just stage mechanics.
We go to the house, a large structure, he lived downstairs…
They see the maid.
Yes. Pelageya. Now, again, we notice, one of the reasons she stays in our memory I think is because that little thing is so cool, where the two guys go: Whoa. She’s one of the most beautiful women in literature, even though she is never described, and it’s because of those guys, literally, in a stranger’s house—you just walked in, and you’re a little bit rude, you go: Ohhh. So she’s suddenly on the page.
Then they go swimming. Alyohin, a little funny bit where he gets in the water and it turns jet black. “I haven’t bathed in quite a long time.” Then Ivan comes out, and jumps in with him, and I think this is a beat: Ivan is so delighted by this. It’s a very unforgettable image, and we’ve all done it, coming out of a cool lake: Ah, my god! Life! You feel so good. He swam to the mill…
So that’s a beat [writing at board], let’s just say he’s delighted, let’s just call it that, he’s having pleasure. Then that is complicated by Burkin. “You’ve had enough!”
I think it’s neat to introduce her that way and then to have him be so dirty, actually? Because I thought oh, she’s beautiful, maybe she’s his mistress. But like it just adds to the energy of this contradictory guy. Maybe she’s not, and that makes me like him more.
Right. Here’s how I see it. Everybody can see it differently, and you’ll all be correct. You could take a Chekhov story and say, I’m going to look at this in terms of gender roles, and it will fall open at your feet. You could say, I’m doing it in terms of light and dark. It will fall at your feet.
But in this case, the one thing that I notice is that Ivan is having this moment of pleasure—just sensual, happy pleasure and indulgence. Burkin says ahahhhhh—stop it. Now, we feel that Burkin is playing a Belikovian role. We also then, suddenly—pleasure becomes a thing, again. Like In and Out was a—pleasure becomes a thing.
And jumping ahead a bit, Ivan is about to give a big speech about how there shouldn’t be any happiness in the world. Right? There is no happiness and there never should be—a very beautiful, convincing speech, that his actions directly contradict.
He does say, “Lord, have mercy.”
So now we’ve got pleasure, is in the mix; there’s Pelageya, she’s a maid, but she’s so beautiful that they have to stop, you know, so there’s another beat of sort of, life. So now let’s get into the heart of the story here, to see if we can make more sense of this.
So he’s got a brother, they have a taste of the country, they’re little tiny petit-noblemen. His grandfather or father was a private, who just barely made it over the line into the nobility. Then they lose their money—so they’re not nobility.
On page 375, Ivan, there’s a little bit of an aside where he says—here Chekhov/Ivan is responding to Tolstoy—he’s got a story in which it says a man only needs six feet to be buried in. And Chekhov says, or Ivan says, “It is a common saying that a man needs only six feet of earth. But six feet is what a corpse needs, not a man.” And he makes a beautiful little speech that I totally believe, about what we need in the world. We need to be expansive and free. I think this is basically Chekhov talking; you know, you can read his letters and he says very similar things. But we just note that he’s attributed it to Ivan; this is not Chekhov talking, this is Ivan. Ivan gets on his soapbox there, a little bit.
Also, it recalls the last story.
Yes. That’s right. Right. Which is why he’s telling you, presumably.
So then, what happens. Oh, the guy kills his wife, right? The guy wants this land so much that it’s his single focus in life, and he gets married to a widow, and basically starves her to death and takes her money, and, you know—it’s really comic, the way it’s presented, and he’s looking through the ads, and he says, “Country life has its advantages,” and all this kind of thing. He draws a plan of the estate.
Now here’s a brilliant thing that Chekhov does, and it’s a habit we should all get into: When you find yourself in your stories asserting something general, then you always should be pushing, pushing to get to the objective throughout. “My brother loved the country life, and he had a big fantasy of getting a farm.” The inner editor in you should say, How so? Tell me more. Well, he always wanted an estate. What kind? Ah, well, different kinds, but always they had these four things. Da-da-da-da, gooseberries. Really? And then you push one more, and you say, Let’s just keep it simple. He wanted gooseberries. Let that be the emblem of everything that he wanted.
And somehow, you know, it bites.
They’re tart; they’re not the sweetest berries.
They’re not the sweetest.
When we get through this whole story, he gets his gooseberries, the brother comes to visit him. There’s that bit where everybody looks like a pig on his estate; that’s on 378. “It looked as though he might grunt into the quilt at any moment.” Because Chekhov knows that that’s where he’s going with these people. They are self-interested and selfish, piggish people.
Okay. So when we step away from that story, which actually is very sophisticated; the story is made a story by Ivan’s beautiful speech about the happy man. What do you take away from that?
Let’s make sure we have it truly right… At the end Ivan, who’s told the story, says, “Lord forgive us sinners,” and he pulls the bedclothes over his head—which again, evokes Belikov, a little bit—and goes to sleep. But he’s left his pipe on the table, right? And the pipe stinks, and keeps Burkin awake. And… but also, you remember that what keeps you awake is agitation, and so maybe Burkin is agitated, also… something like that.
Of all the things we’ll talk about this year, this is the most useful tip I can point out.
Get ready for this.
All right, so. We all know that one of the problems, when you’re young—younger than you are now—is that you always keep showing up in your stories. Your opinions keep showing up in stories. And at some point you’re told, that it’s not—the story is not just your opinion. The story is of you, but it’s not you, so let’s just…
On 381 there’s a beautiful speech. “Behind the door of every contented, happy man there ought to be someone standing with a little hammer and continually reminding him with a knock that there are unhappy people, that however happy he may be, life will sooner or later show him its claws”—I mean, to me that’s one of the most truthful statements about the purpose of fiction, maybe. But just, in general. Don’t, don’t—don’t you agree with that? And all he says about how, you know—most people are so happy, and it seems as if that happiness is supported by the misery of these silent masses, you know, it’s a really beautiful statement. And I’m going to say, that’s Chekhov. That if you go into his notebooks, and—that’s basically him. It’s pretty much his opinion.
So he embeds that in here. And I think anybody reading that goes, even if you didn’t like Ivan so far, you kind of go, well, you know what? I have to say… you’re right about that one, I agree with you on that. There’s something about happiness that’s a little… We’ve all felt that, too. You got everything you wanted, and you do feel a bit like a pig. It makes you actually insecure, when you get to have happiness…
But there’s something very comforting in it. Because life is going to come and show you its claws no matter how comfortable you are.
Well, that’s true.
So… it’s kind of this egalitarian, like—let’s all be quite comfortable that terrible things are coming, together.
Yeah. That’s right. But his thing here is, I don’t want to be happy. And he says, to his friend: You’re young! Do good, do good… he’s kind of a little bit obnoxious. So anyway, the mechanical move is simply, this is truth. Your truth. You go home right now and write two paragraphs that you really believe in. Your ethos, your manifesto, based on what you know so far. You know that that doesn’t belong in the story. People will yell at you for that, you know.
So this for me is a model. The thing is, okay. Are we limited people? We have limited imaginations.
Actually, no. Because if I say to you: defend Obamacare. You can do it. And if I say, I’ll give you a thousand dollars if you can tear Obamacare down, you can do it. Or if I said: come up with a scenario where abortion makes sense. You could do it. Come up with a scenario where you cringe when you read about abortion, that you feel so sad about it… you could do it.
We actually have quite unlimited powers of imagination. This is a little trick for allowing anything and everything you can make up into a story. And the trick is: attribute.
Anything you feel, if it’s an unholy impulse. You know. An evil thought. A naive thought. Just… if you say it clearly, then you just push it away from yourself, like Chekhov does. I just made a rant against the uh, Latvians. Whatever, you know. That’s not very nice. Do I really believe it? Well, no, but I said it. And I said it pretty clearly. Okay. Give it to somebody else, to say it, you know.
It’s a very powerful thing, because you have complete access to your imagination, in all the moods of you—you know? Your meanness, your idealism, your everything? You have access to it, because you don’t have to claim it. You make it and—that’s Dylan’s trick, actually. If you try to construct a coherent persona from Dylan’s body of work you can’t, it’s just an incredible multiplicity. But once you create it, then you can consider it an object to be used, as Chekhov does.
Let’s take a little break.
* * *
What Chekhov is doing is he’s stepping out, and he’s asserting at least two things on a given topic and then going, “Yeah.”
It’s very powerful, and it goes back to his statement that art doesn’t have to solve problems, it has to formulate them correctly. So the problem, one of the many problems this story raises: Can we trust our own pleasure, that is a simple way of saying it. Can we trust our own pleasure? And his answer is yes and no, and then he just walks. Because… he’s not here to answer that question, because it’s such a profound question that it’s not answerable.
But if you really look under the surface, you can manifest an unbelievable number of viewpoints. I mean… that’s called empathy, actually. Especially people who are as language-gifted as you are. You can do an exercise: Put in a box, fifty viewpoints. Even, onerous ones—it doesn’t matter.
Uh. Skinhead. OK. You could all do a skinhead, no question about it. But one of the moves is that you have to allow yourself to do it joyfully, without any kind of like… you know sometimes when we’re doing a viewpoint we’re not entirely sure of, we might undercut it as we’re doing it. But I would say do a full-out racist, crazy, xenophobic skinhead: just do it. You know. Now, it’s scary that you can. That’s a little scary; but then you have the text, then, what you do it from there. I mean, this is Shakespeare’s thing, right? Shakespeare can do anybody, and he has them talking to each other, you know. It’s very powerful…
But now let’s think about this in like, Tolstoy. Tolstoy is simpler; he’s more elemental, in a certain way, than Chekhov. Because Tolstoy will sort of build the opinion right into the story. Chekhov is a gentler soul, actually. There’s a great story that illustrates the two of them. Tolstoy was of course much older, and in youth a giant. Chekhov was also quite famous, but he was younger. And Chekhov was from peasant stock. His grandfather was a serf, and his father was this kind of brutal, I think he was some kind of church musician or something, but he beat the boys… Chekhov just barely made it out of the real difficult provincial life.
So Tolstoy was sort of bragging about what a player he was. He says something like—and Chekhov’s very goodlooking, you know—he says, “I bet you are a real,”—and in the translation it has an f and then a line, so you don’t know what the word is. And you think, I bet you are a real fucker, basically, or something. And Chekhov blushes, and he doesn’t answer. And Tolstoy says, “Ah, when I was young…” and Chekhov just kind of… you know, he’s actually more genteel than, uh, impulsive.
But I think Chekhov always—I think he was sort of a guy who was always having strong opinions, and then reconsidering. You can kind of feel that in his work. He’s able to put up these very strong, fiercely drawn caricatures, and then kind of say to the reader, “I know. I feel the same way, kind of. So, let me put this dirty pipe on the table. Now you know where we stand with him…” Then he says, “But also, didn’t he have kind of a good point?” There’s that constant back and forth which is very… That’s—that’s why we love him, I think…
Maybe we should start with this: What’s the thumbnail version of this one, this story here?
Like in a Hollywood version, like can you say it in one sentence, you know: “In a world where…”
Guy loves this woman that he can’t have…?
Yeah. Guy loves his best friend’s wife and does nothing about it. Right? And that’s basically it.
He gets taken in by this couple, falls in love with the wife, seems like the wife maybe falls in love with him. But he also kinda falls in love with the husband, right? He falls in love with the friendship. And in the end, it’s like a Waiting for Godot. They are attracted and they don’t do anything about it. Except at the last minute there’s a little burst of kissing in the train and then he gets in the next car, right, and rides a whole town down, gets off and walks home. That’s it. Very simple.
It seems to be a medium though… in the first story, under the guise of total deprivation in the other one people turn into pigs, right?—and here it’s like there’s a bit of indulgence in the love and the feelings. There’s also restraint and respect for the marriage, maybe.
I feel that very strongly. I always find it very moving when he doesn’t, you know, when his respect for the friendship is enough to counterweight his attraction; for him to say, “In this life I won’t have full love…” because it would be so damaging and that very… that practical consideration, about would her life be better?… I find that very moving.
A lot of times, if you were to bring up… you know, I saw on the news today, these people were convicted and I think they were innocent. A lot of people. because they don’t want to have to deal with the fact that the system is kind of broken, they say, “Oh no, it couldn’t be, couldn’t be.” I think that was really realistic.
And you know one thing that’s worth mentioning is that that, I often remember this story as being, a very good marriage, very good people, and this sort of possible interloper. But actually the husband in that story is a little bit less good than the narrator, he’s got that shut-down mentality, he’s a little dull, and yet he’s a good friend and so they don’t…and the thing about this story too is that there’s a cost, right?
You can see that they’re in love in a way that the husband and wife, I’m going to say, weren’t ever, maybe, would you say? So do they the right thing, which is to not pursue it and it’s not free… It’s corrosive. She starts snapping at him. Like, I love that whenever he would drop something, she’d say, I congratulate you.
She got nervous prostration. So that didn’t work out.
They both knew they’d missed the boat. They’re sweet, I guess.
Ok, let’s cut to the chase. I think this is a beautiful story and a beautiful ending of the trilogy. What is it that, if you were moved by the story, what moved you?
It’s like the ideal love is the one that doesn’t get satisfied, kind of like… the moment in the theater where their shoulders touch. It’s not going to get better than that. Like, that’s it.
And for me, like, I’m supposed to root for him…but the problems, I thought, were so… I’m not so sure there was a way for him to be happy, even if he had acted on it… I don’t know what they would have done. That’s a scandal, like to do something with his best friend. There’s so many things that go with that. Oh we’re in love, but …our lives are still ruined. In that sense, I was kind of happy. He kind of did the right thing. I kind of did not want him to do the other thing.
That’s what Chekhov does. He takes the argument at its highest level on both sides, and he puts them there and they both sit there. And I don’t think you can really…I never walk away from this story sure of what they should have done. As I’m getting older, I’m happier that they did what they did, I noticed. You can always think, “Oh, that’s so painful.” And also when you get older you think: imagine! He breaks off this marriage, she probably loses her kids. They go back to this house that we’ve been hearing about, and they’re living with Nikanor and Pelageya in this shithole. He’s gotta work 24/7 to keep the thing afloat. And then there’s that thing between them, where he’s always looking at her to see if she’s happy, she’s always looking… you know, it gets very complicated. I don’t feel like it’s gonna go very well.
But he doesn’t even remember why he liked her so much. That was what made me think: OK, you’ve dodged a bullet. Or at least, you’re now saying to yourself that you dodged one. Because this is all happening many years later, you’re hearing the—and he’s all fat and doesn’t bathe now. So, he’s remembering something, who knows how well or clearly. But because he doesn’t remember—if you really fall in love with somebody you know all the reasons why, you know? I think. I mean, I do. The ideas and stuff that a person had that attracted you to them? And it doesn’t really exist in her. She was just this beautiful, elegant, charming… those are the adjectives that keep coming up. But it’s not like, this is the one person who could make sense of the world for me, it’s not like that.
Whatever the reality of their relationship would have been, I think there was something that was sort of devastating about this that reminded of both moments of “In the Cart” [another Chekhov story] and “The Overcoat.” [Gogol] For me, the emotional core of the story was at the bottom of 393, when he says, “I would take the opera glass from her hands without a word and feel, at that moment, that she was close to me, that she was mine, that we could not live without each other, but by some strange misunderstanding, when we came out of the theater we always said goodbye and parted like strangers.”
And something about misunderstanding, there, is like in “In the Cart”, that sort of beautiful moment at the end. And then, in “The Overcoat”, there’s a sense, there’s this brief glimpse of an idea, of a life that you think could be yours. And it’s just, like, in this road that’s right next to where you are, and you can’t quite bridge it…
Now, we might, technically we might just notice this is a story—that’s exactly it—and that is something that doesn’t happen. You know, we always think we have to make drama. Well, you know, when you make a desire as beautifully as Chekhov has made it here, that’s the energy you have to work with. And at that point it’s kind of your choice. You know, you can do whatever you want with that energy. The only thing you can’t do is forget that you made it. So what he does is, he says is, they’re there, and at that moment they know. There’s like a mutual confession that, yeah, OK, all this time, yes: yes. And Chekhov just knows that there’s energy in that. And he does a very sophisticated thing, which is to have them not act on it.
That’s really hard to do, and to take away from the story. I feel like this is something I really would have loved when I was in high school, or something… and just like totally missed the point, insofar as I would have been like: “Oh, you can have a story where nothing happens! I want to write a story where nothing happens.” But that’s not what happens.
Right, and what it does though, maybe, is that it redirects our minds, because…it’s not really about what happens, but it’s about the energy that gets created by those things. The energy of the first story gets made by that delicious description of a jerk. The energy, you can feel it, the energy gets made. So in a certain sense, what you’re trying to do in prose, by any means necessary, is make that energy. I’m just calling it energy, you know. It’s just kind of a fullness that gets made. Once you make it, you have to be aware that you’ve made it, and then you somehow have to dispense with it.
It’s almost like… in a simple way, it’s a sort of three-ring circus where he raises the issue, here. Isn’t it terrible when people oppress one another? Yes.
Isn’t over-caution terrible? Yes it is.
Shouldn’t you be open-hearted? Yes.
All right then, come over to the second ring: let’s make it a little more complicated. Here’s a guy who, the brother, who’s very energetic in pursuit of what he wants. He loves, he has a great love in his life, which is his farm. Unfortunately, he killed a lady to get it, and when he got it, he turned into a pig! Well, what do you think now?
And then the reader might say, “Well actually, that’s true, you know.”
“And so how do we feel about pleasure? That swimming, that was pretty unclean, wasn’t it?”
“No, no, I didn’t mean that.”
Or maybe you come out of this saying, “Right, so what we need to do is be moderate in all things, and shoot for the greater good.”
Good! Come over here.
“You’re the guy who’s very moderate about love. How’s it working out for you?”
“Oh, you’re right, so he probably should have, you know, gone for it, right?”
“How would that work out for him?”
I sometimes think Chekhov’s stories work like that. You get to the end and, the whole time you feel this moral presence: “Anton, what should I believe? What do you want me to believe? ‘Love is good.’ ‘No, it’s not good.’“ And he’s constantly guiding you by the shoulders. Every time it gets too simple he goes, “No no no no no…no no…no no no no…no no.” And at the end he just kind of drops you off a cliff.
So there isn’t any—he’s not gonna have—last week I sent that thing, you know, his “holy of holies” is freedom. So even freedom from being statically connected to any one idea, which is pretty…and also the freedom of not being connected to that one either, you know. He’s remarkable.
There’s a really, there’s a very symmetrical thing. That’s what resonated for me from your Hollywood idea, because there’s always a freedom speech in the movie. There’s a freedom speech in each of these stories, and it’s all against conventionality. It’s not that it’s necessarily going to work out for you, but there’s an underlying moral message of, “Consider taking a shot at freedom. Maybe it doesn’t work out for you, but it’s something to think about, rather than just like, hiding in the conventional bullshit.” And he talks about this, too. There’s a really good potted biography in the front of this book about how Chekhov escaped serfdom, and almost didn’t become a human being. Like—almost didn’t achieve the awareness. You know, he got enough education to bust out of conventionality.
For all the subtlety, all of which is present, there’s a very, very simple thing underneath there. You know, to be aware and to try to be free if possible.
And he talks about that, that his life has been a process of trying to wring the peasant blood out of himself. But even there—and I think you’re absolutely right—freedom, for him, he says, is “my holy of holies”…but then he does this very adult thing, which is say, “OK, you guys, be free.” And then see that you—that you’re not.
Freedom is also to choose not, too.
Right, but it’s laden with cost.
There’s that line in the first story: “Ah freedom, freedom! A mere hint, the faintest hope of its possibility gives wings to the soul. Isn’t that true?” Yeah.
* * *