In the essay “Freedom Is Overrated,” the theologian and scholar Sancrucensis contrasts the humanism of Jonathan Franzen with that of David Foster Wallace. A transcendentally beautiful and heartbreaking meditation on self and other.
I’ve enjoyed a number of essays from The American Conservative this year, but my favorite may have been Mike Lofgren’s “Revolt Of The Rich”. It’s a blistering reproof of our moneyed classes and their disconnect from the historic aspirations of our country.
The tagline of Andrew Sullivan’s blog, The Daily Dish, is “Biased and Balanced.” An earlier incarnation of the Dish bore another, equally good: “Of No Party Or Clique.” I consider Sullivan an indispensable companion, not least because his views so often diverge from my own. I can’t choose just one entry from his heady, rapid-fire mix of opinion, reporting, photographs, jokes, poems, ideas. But Sullivan’s great heart, his compassion and intellect, are a salutary test of my own convictions most every day.
The scholar Aaron Bady exposes the fatal weaknesses in the arguments of those promoting “massive open online courses,” or MOOCs, in a resoundingly persuasive and passionate essay in Inside Higher Ed. Absolutely crucial reading for anyone remotely interested in the academy.
Mike Konczal, known on Twitter as @rortybomb, led a breathtaking debate on debt relief at the Boston Review that blew my wiglet sky-high. In the lead essay, Konczal makes an ironclad case that a strong social safety net, including debt relief, is crucial to the economic health of the country. Splendid, limpidly clear, beautifully reasoned.
It’s scarcely too much to say that The New Yorker’s Amy Davidson single-handedly rescued my sanity from the maelstrom of this year’s election. I pretty much hop on Twitter and start banging out exclamation points every time she posts, but her recent column on the public confrontation of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia by a gay Princeton University student will serve as well as any to demonstrate her unwavering clear-mindedness, her sensitivity, fairness and brilliance.
The power of Allison Benedikt’s “Life After Zionist Summer Camp” (The Awl) derives from the purity of its point of view, which is that of one person’s lived experience, minutely and honestly detailed. Benedikt swings gracefully between humor and searing candor in this account of her growing ambivalence toward the religious, political and cultural institutions she’d grown up taking for granted. It’s a high-wire act of great elegance and sensitivity that will stay with me for a long time to come.
In “The Fire This Time” (Los Angeles Review of Books) Reza Aslan likewise makes a compelling case in opposition to conventional wisdom. I thought it by far the best of the 9/11 pieces that came out on the 10th anniversary of the catastrophe.
“American Marvel” (GQ), Edith Zimmerman’s profile of Chris Evans, the star of Captain America, upends everything one is accustomed to think about “movie stars” and celebrity, plus she blasts many assumptions about popular writing—and about reporters describing the world we inhabit—to absolute smithereens. Flesh-and-blood people suddenly appear on the screen where one had been expecting a cartoon. Steven Mikulan’s “Dr. Drew Feels Your Pain” (Los Angeles Magazine), by contrast, conjures a nuanced portrait out of the media fun-house mirror the old-fashioned way, via the painstaking layering up of detail through long and patient, keen observation. It has a similar payoff to the Zimmerman piece, in that you’re seeing a real world spring by magic out of the Potemkin one.
Spencer Soper’s Morning Call exposé of the sweatshop conditions at Amazon’s Allentown, Pa., warehouse came just as the Occupy movement was beginning to take hold. The disparity between the friendly face that Amazon crafts for public view and the abject brutality with which they treated their employees in Allentown demonstrated perfectly and at just the right time the terrible cost of profit-obsessed corporatism (and bargain-obsessed consumerism).
At Inside Higher Education, Steve Kolowich interviews Kathleen Fitzpatrick, a professor of media studies at Pomona College, regarding the coming digital revolution in academic research and publishing. Sounds a little dry, maybe, but check it out. Fitzpatrick and her forward-thinking colleagues have identified, and are carefully nurturing, the phoenix egg from which a new and improved academy is already beginning to hatch.
Fiction: George Saunders, Tenth of December (The New Yorker): best fiction of any length I read all year.
Humor: David Roth, Brief Interviews with Hideous Football Players (The Awl), a comic tour de force that fans of David Foster Wallace will particularly enjoy.
Share your own Top 5 Longreads of 2011, all through December. Just tag it #longreads on Twitter, Tumblr or Facebook.
Maria Popova is the founder and editor in chief of Brain Pickings, a writer for Wired UK, Design Observer, and The Atlantic, among others, and an MIT Futures of Entertainment fellow, spending far, far too much time curating the web’s interestingness as @brainpicker.
I’ve always found reading, writing, and thinking to be so tightly interwoven that, when done correctly, they become indistinguishable from one another. Like architecting your life and your social circle, architecting your mind’s life is an exercise in immersing yourself in an eclectic mix of viewpoints and directions of thought. In that way, longform is like the most intense of friendships, where the time dedication and the active choice to show up far eclipse the noncommittal acquaintanceship of soundbite culture. A healthy longform diet must thus include something that breaks your heart, something that gives you hope, something by someone you find a little self-righteous, something by someone with whom you’re a little bit in love—and, ideally, the inability to fully tell which is which. With this in mind, here are the five finest pieces I laid eyes and neurons on this year, which did for me all of the above, and then some.
A bittersweet story about Samuel Clemens, but really about something profoundly and universally human: love, timing, and the often tragic misalignment of the two. And in that story lies a subtle reminder that unless we pursue the heart’s desire with complete clarity of purpose and intention, we’re left forever playing out those could’ve-beens, as Twain did, in our dreams.
“Thus it was Sam’s stubbornness that foreclosed any further encounter with Laura Wright. Yet they did meet, time and again, over the years, in Clemens’ dreams. And dreams, Samuel Clemens came to believe, were as real as anything in the waking world.”
As both a marginalia obsessive and a hopeless bibliophile torn between the love of books and the mesmerism of the web, I spend a lot of time thinking about the future of books—or, more accurately, about the function books have traditionally served as a medium for arguing and teasing out ideas of significance and cultural gravity. Hardly anyone fuses a bibliophile’s profound respect for books with a designer’s sensitivity to the reading experience and a digital entrepreneur’s visionary bravery more fluidly, articulately, and thoughtfully than Craig Mod.
“Manifested properly, each new person who participates in the production of digital marginalia changes the reading experience of that book for the next person. Analog marginalia doesn’t know other analog marginalia. Digital marginalia is a collective conversation, cumulative stratum.”
Gopnik is one of my favorite nonfiction authors working today. And this is no ordinary book review of what eventually became my favorite history book of 2011—it paints a riveting connect-the-dots portrait of information’s history and future through such fascinating and surprisingly related subjects as African drum languages, the Morse Code, Marshall McLuhan, and Google.
“Yet surely having something wrapped right around your mind is different from having your mind wrapped tightly around something. What we live in is not the age of the extended mind but the age of the inverted self. The things that have usually lived in the darker recesses or mad corners of our mind—sexual obsessions and conspiracy theories, paranoid fixations and fetishes—are now out there: you click once and you can read about the Kennedy autopsy or the Nazi salute or hog-tied Swedish flight attendants. But things that were once external and subject to the social rules of caution and embarrassment—above all, our interactions with other people—are now easily internalized, made to feel like mere workings of the id left on its own.”
There is something magnificent and magical that happens when we open ourselves up to the poetry of possibility—of “overlookedness,” if you will. (Lesson #1.)
“The saltbox itself as an object is unremarkable. Alone, it communicates nothing. Says nothing about its role. Its intention. Its history as a gift born out of a romance between my maternal grandparents. Says nothing of its possibilities.
But add people, and it becomes a central iterative device. The license to change, to iterate, to test, to add, to make, to make over, to create (clearly, with food). It gives license and latitude to stray from what has been written (recipes) for those too shy to do. Therefore, it gives strength. It gives iterative powers to those not comfortable with version control. With its subtlety comes comfort in change.
One might say the saltbox, and access to it, is magic.”
Picking just one of Maria Bustillos’ many brilliant pieces was excruciating, but this meditation on the future of authorship, content curation, and intellectual innovation is simply exquisite, and tickles my own restlessness about the changing currencies and sandboxes of authorship in the age of information overload.
“All these elements—the abandonment of ‘point of view,’ the willingness to consider the present with the same urgency as the past, the borrowing ‘of wit or wisdom from any man who is capable of lending us either,’ the desire to understand the mechanisms by which we are made to understand—are cornerstones of intellectual innovation in the Internet age. In particular, the liberation from ‘authorship’ (brought about by the emergence of a ‘hive mind’) is starting to have immediate implications that few beside McLuhan foresaw. His work represents a synthesis of the main precepts of New Criticism with what we have come to call cultural criticism and/or media theory.”
Share your own Top 5 Longreads of 2011, all through December. Just tag it #longreads on Twitter, Tumblr or Facebook.
Below, our favorite stories of the week.
1. “The Genius of Taylor Swift’s Girlfriend Collection.” (Anne Helen Petersen, BuzzFeed Ideas, January 2015)
From holidaying in Hawaii with Haim to baking cookies with Karlie Kloss, Taylor Swift has amassed a powerful coterie of friends. While I don’t necessarily agree with Petersen’s conclusion in this essay, I appreciate her sharp insight into the world of brand maintenance, female friendship and celebrity status. Read more…
Last week, Maria Bustillos released a blockbuster Humanities Kit in which you can experience George Saunders teaching Anton Chekhov for yourself.
In Kate Harloe’s interview at The Rumpus, George Saunders reflects on the creative process for his new novel, Lincoln In The Bardo, bold compassion as the right course of resistance under a Trump presidency, and how his interviews, notes, and scenes coalesce into the “constellation of meaning” that inform his nonfiction work.
Rumpus: There are so many characters in this story. Did these characters flow out of you during the writing process or were they more of a conscious creation? Did you think, “I need a character that represents this or experiences this kind of suffering?”
Saunders: No, it was definitely the first thing. My general approach to writing fiction is that you try to have as few conceptual notions as possible and you just respond to the energy that the story is making rather than having a big over plan. I think if you have a big over plan, the danger is that you might just take your plan and then you bore everybody. I always joke that it’s like going on a date with index cards. You know, at 7:30 p.m. I should ask about her mother. You keep all the control to yourself but you are kind of insulting to the other person.
Rumpus: I don’t want to leave the topic of your book, but I love what you said about starting a piece with as few conceptual ideas as possible. Do you approach nonfiction the same way? For the New Yorker story you wrote about Trump, for example, did you begin with a similar kind of open-mindedness?
Saunders: It’s a different form of that. With nonfiction, I go in trying to be really honest about what my preconceptions are. In the Trump piece, I knew I didn’t like Trump and I confessed that to myself and also to my interviewees. I’d always say, “I’m a liberal and I’m left of Gandhi and I don’t like Trump and this article is me trying to understand why you do.”
My theory for nonfiction is that nobody can be free of some kind of conceptions about whatever story they’re writing. But if you can find a way to build those into the story, then the story becomes a process of deconstructing and heightening and sometimes changing those notions and that makes dramatic tension. The initial statement of your position, and then letting reality act on you to change it, is pretty good storytelling.
All I really know in nonfiction is that when I come home, I’ve got all these notes and I’m trying to figure out what actually happened to me. I usually kind of know what happened, but as you work through the notes, you find that certain scenes write well and some don’t even though they should. Those make a constellation of meaning that weirdly ends up telling you what you just went through. It’s a slightly different process, but still there’s mystery because when you’re bearing down on the scenes, sometimes you find out they mean something different than what you thought.
The Man in a Shell
This story, the first in Chekhov’s little trilogy, is a story within a story — all the stories in the trilogy follow this format — about a teacher named Burkin and a veterinarian named Ivan Ivanych who stop and spend the night at the home of a friend named Prokofy. The story, told by Burkin to Ivan Ivanych, is bookended by Prokofy’s wife, Marva.
Among other things, they spoke of the Elder’s wife, Marva, a healthy and by no means stupid woman, observing that she had never been beyond her native village, had never seen a city or a railway in her life, and had spent the last ten years hugging the stove and only going out into the street at night.
The moment they discuss Marva here, at the beginning, I knew the story she was going to somehow figure in at the end. Of course I could be lying about having known that – it’s something a Chekhovian character might do. That said, it’s not like it’s a terribly brilliant insight. I’d go so far as to say that if you took notice of the mention of the wife at the beginning and didn’t know she’d be shuffling around at the end you’re an idiot. I know that’s not very nice but I think Chekhov would have wanted me to tell you that, and furthermore, he would have wanted me to say it in that way.
That said, I did wonder: Did Chekhov know at the beginning that Marva would be shuffling around at the end? Did he sit down and map it out?
Maybe I am just really basic but this is how I saw the “The Man In a Shell,” stripped down to its essentials: Belikov is a loser who never gets laid and is uptight (in a shell). For a brief period of time he thinks an attractive woman might have sex with him. He is mistaken. He is mistaken because he is the kind of guy who fucks everything up by being himself (i.e., a person). He dies of some combination of shame and disappointment. His coffin reminds everyone of the shell he lived in in life.
If there is something more going on in that story I am open to hearing it but if an argument breaks out I will probably win.
After Burkin finishes his story, Ivan Ivanych hungers for further discussion. He wonders if this story of a man in a shell is not a story about a sad outlier, but about many people, even himself:
“Yes, that’s the way it is,” repeated Ivan Ivanych; “and isn’t our living in the airless, crowded town, our writing useless papers, our playing vint—isn’t all that a sort of shell for us? And this spending our lives among pettifogging, idle men and silly, unoccupied women, our talking and our listening to all sorts of poppycock— isn’t that a shell, too? If you like, I will tell you a very instructive story.”
Burkin is very attached to the sad outlier theory:
“No; it’s time to turn in,” said Burkin. “Tomorrow’s another day.”
I get it. Everyone is in shells. The narrator is in a shell and either doesn’t know or doesn’t want to know. His one-man audience is in a shell and and knows. And Marva draws the story’s finish line with her footsteps, walking along the borders of her own shell:
They went into the barn and lay down on the hay. And they were both covered up and had dozed off when suddenly there was the sound of light footsteps— tap, tap. Someone was walking near the barn, walking a little and stopping, and a minute later, tap, tap again. The dogs began to growl.
“That’s Marva,” said Burkin.
The footsteps died away.
Not much comes after that — just more of Ivan Ivanych wanting to discuss further and Burkin refusing. In the end, I sighed and was like, “Yeah, we’re all in shells, me, you and the next guy, get in line.” I felt dismissive. I thought “Leave it to a dude (in a shell) to write about a dude (in a shell) telling a story about another dude (who is also in a shell) to another dude etc.”
I bet Marva never talks such nonsense and doesn’t care if she’s in a shell. #imwithher.
* * *
“Now Listen to What Happened Next”
Nabokov once ranked the Russians. Tolstoy first (“tiger bright” being the unforgettable diagnosis.) Then Gogol. (For grotesque, focused comedy: When Barton Fink slow-pans past the staff and hallways at the Hotel Earle, you think: Gogol! This goes for lots of Coen Brothers product.) Third, Chekhov. Nabokov adds playfully that Dostoyevsky and the rest are probably “waiting at the door of my office to discuss their low marks.”
Another Nabokov-on-Chekhov observation offers a kind of challenge, as you lift book and plunge into the faded stream of outback Russia in the 1890s. Readers who failed to appreciate Chekhov, Nabokov says, were “not the right sort.”
So, on top of instructions from George Saunders and Maria Bustillos, I started with a social pinch. The one before a wine-tasting, a festival of foreign cinema, or meeting prospective in-laws: Who wants to not be the right sort?
Brilliant writers tend to be tactically brilliant readers. Nabokov has served as a sort of escalator down into the larger shopping concourse of Russian letters. He taught literature at Cornell for a decade, before Lolita liberated him from office hours and gravity. He taught books as writing how-to. (Courses may still be attended via his Lectures on Literature and Lectures on Russian Literature.) A semester-long magnifying glass, as he explained, “It should be clear that my course . . . is a kind of detective investigation of the mystery of literary structures.” He set students a paradox: “Curiously enough, one cannot read a book: one can only reread it.” First reads are a fog, all that Tindr anxiety: will the book thrill? Will it suck? Second and all reads subsequent are the asking yourself why: why did you make this book part of your life? Was it smile, style, drive, wit?
These questions are George Saunders’ to his class: A class specifically for writers. The modest nods to academic decorum and the provost from Nabokov plop off, fenders and decals. This is a look at engine block and wheel design, by people meaning to strap on helmets and drive the course themselves. “How does a good story work? What do you value in a story?” Saunders asks. “What we really want to accomplish is to improve your fiction.” When Joan Didion decided to become a writer, she typed out whole Hemingway short stories: she wanted to feel how it felt, those words and narratives coming from under her fingers.
Saunders is the best writer of short fiction in America. The funniest, the most wrenching, most compressed, most entertaining. His best stuff (In Persuasion Nation, for this reader’s dollar) works by being incredibly stripped down. A thing he’s famous for saying is, “Humor is what happens when we’re told the truth quicker and more directly than we’re used to.”
So not surprising to learn he subjects his stories to drafts in the hundreds—slimming, exercising, putting them on the scale, sending them off for more laps round the track. Or that improvement derives from Nabokov-style rereading; thinking about Saunders, you realize people don’t talk enough about how rewriting is really a kind of activated rereading. As Saunders explains, clicking back to his own stuff again “with a fresh mind, every time.” (Another bonus via Maria is discovering that Saunders—whose in-person persona is all fuddled graciousness: why are you making such a fuss over piddling me?—is a hardass at the blackboard. “I’m not going to be accepting late papers,” his syllabus warns. In bold. Fiction-making is too serious for messing around.) So this is the Saunders shell I read this Chekhov trilogy from: how the stories worked, with the hope of meeting that minimum “enjoy” standard so Nabokov’s spirit wouldn’t be snubbing me at any ghostly parties.
Classroom anxiety, social and paranormal anxiety. I did not join Burkin and Ivan Ivanych’s muddy hike as an especially light-hearted reader.
The first reassurance. “Man in a Shell” books; it’s fast, which took out a third anxiety, with any literature predating the invention of the phone. Old literature is time travel. How much false liking/understanding will I have to produce for a world I can no longer really imaginatively grasp?
This starts in the first graf: our two hikers tarry at the barn of “the Elder, Prokofy”—is that a Russian honorific? They’ve “long been thoroughly at home in the district.” What would a Eurasian district even mean? The isolating thought—“Can’t know this universe”—finds you, there in the movie seat, popcorn cooling in your lap. Nothing to be done, except to anxiously trust.
So the modern jumpiness—no wasting of reader time—in the delivery of plot is great. An immediate and pleasant pre-echo of terse Raymond Carver: “They were telling each other stories.” In Saunders’ Syracuse workshop, he’d probably emphasize to students how quickly readers are tucked into a story. (Tolstoy got stymied between his two Nabokov blue-ribbon novels, War and Peace and Anna Karenina. So he reached for the standard lost-writer’s trail map: another writer. For him, a collection of stories by Pushkin. Tolstoy came across one opening: “The guests were getting ready to leave for the country house.” He exclaimed to his wife, “That’s the way for us to write! Anyone else would start by describing the guests, the rooms, but he jumped straight into the action.” He began Anna Karenina that day. There’s a line in Italo Calvino about twin populations of habitual readers. Those in it strictly for the kicks; and those—each one harboring the J. J. Abrams gene—condemned to “use books to produce other books.”) Chekhov does not chance reader boredom. It’s as if he’s got two internal clocks: one revolving at his personal Chekhov brain pace, then a stopwatch ticking out just how long readers can wait.
The second thing that calmed me down—fiction of the past offering an opportunity to sightsee—was noticing the pre-moderns were just as dumbly reassured by stuff like evolutionary psychology as we are. Burkin, “the high school teacher,” points out to Ivan that the tendency to withdraw into shells is general. Potentially a remnant from “the time when man’s ancestor was not yet a gregarious animal and lived alone in his lair.” Just as shipwrecked, just as curious about the millennia of sunken fleets that marooned them on the island.
By page two we’re inside the shell-dweller’s story: the little high school Greek teacher Belikov, told by Burkin to “the veterinary” Ivan Ivanych, whose “rather queer double surname—Chimsha-Himalaisky—did not suit him at all.” (An additional read reveals this Gogolian joke also providing economic set-up for a larger point in the next story.)
Burkin lays out the unappealing character of this Belikov who is now two months dead. Belikov would “always laud the past and things that had never existed . . . ‘Oh, how sonorous, how beautiful the Greek language is!’ he would say, with a saccharine expression.” Liveliness of observation wakes us up, too. (In the Alice Munro story called “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” readers activate when they hit one early verb: “. . . rugs crooked on the floors and cup rings bitten into the table varnish.”) This is how people talk about the dead great writers: a plummy solemnity—formal clothes that don’t really fit that well—and the nod that comes too quick. When people discuss Chekhov, it’s sometimes in that same saccharine voice.
And there’s a structuring reassurance: By telling us that Belikov is recently gone, we know the story has an end; we’re curious, too, if shell preference had anything to do with demise. Belikov was self-cloistering, always protecting himself from influences. Wearing galoshes, toting an umbrella for all weathers. “The only things that were clear to him were Government regulations and newspaper notices in which something was forbidden.” Readers are moved to some evolutionary psych speculation of their own. This type of person, who responds to any development—tea shop, drama club—with “It’s all very well, but you can’t tell what will come of it,” seems at first a branch of humanity that went dry and extinct.
Now the Saundersizing: first character, then story-making. (In Saunders’ work, the order is reversed or electrically mingled.) We’ve got the fearful and dominating, sniveling and aggressive Belikov—Chekhov winds him towards a story. This little man’s personality is posed as a problem for others. A character whose bent shadow falls across every doorframe. In one sentence Chekhov starts with character—and then shows that touch chilling neighbors. This is the kind of speed and direction you find in a great Saunders story like “Jon.”
And what do you think, with his sighs, his moping, the dark spectacles on his pale little face, a little face like a polecat’s, you know, he weighed us all down, and we submitted.
Before our eyes, character has grown a complication. The story has expanded: no longer just about shitty Belikov. About how one person’s relentless attention can compress everything into shittiness. Now we have a story. (Reassuringly and fascinatingly for us—since as the future’s readers we can’t help but be tourists, noting what Chekhovian customs got adopted—this is now a story in the first-person plural. A story narrated by the school’s “we”; long before Faulkner’s town narration in “A Rose for Emily” or Jeff Eugenides’ daring suburb-narrated first book The Virgin Suicides. This noticing helps, as an orienting point.)
In our middle section, Chekhov slyly extends Belikov’s fecal reach. “He had a peculiar habit of visiting our lodgings,” Belikov says. “Would you believe it . . . this little man, who always wore rubbers and carried an umbrella, had the whole high school under his thumb for fully fifteen years!” (All those littles, repeated enough to give us the odd flake-by-flake power of the negligible.) Then Chekhov escalates: a school, he senses, might not be big enough. There’s more exaggeration in stories than we think, shouting to get you heard above the din. “The high school? The whole town!”
Saunders is himself a tactically brilliant reader. Saunders’ background is—of all things—engineering, mining. He attended the (apparently four-star) Colorado School of Mines. He brings excavation and schematics to his reading approach. If you want to see how a story precisely works, check his essay “The Perfect Gerbil,” from his collection The Braindead Megaphone. It makes a charming, perfect blueprint out of Donald Barthelme’s story “The School.” And in the most generous way possible—to Barthelme, readers, writing workshops—lays bare its flanges and pistons.
So here’s what the Saunders I know through that essay might say about this moment: Chekhov understands he’s built Belikov’s shitty little character (little being the operative word—note how often Chekhov’s been repeating it). Now a story has come into play. His oppression of an entire town. That raises a question, whose answer the reader can now begin to anticipate: how does an entire town shuck off an oppressor?
And now our anxiety about being polite future-time tourists, doing the public-spirited work of keeping the library visited, falls away. We’re residents: we’ve dropped our bags and will stay. We are reading a story about Twitter. About the fear of public correction—how the fear of having daily behaviors uncharitably examined and publicized can in-shell everyone. (You could call this “Town in a Shell.”) And this is the face-in-the-mirror surprise of reading the past’s stuff. It’s still alive because people and problems are the same—the desire to be oneself, to not be thought too terribly of, to learn what the world will tolerate and the rewards or punishments of staying within that tight or wide lane. It’s the strange thing about fiction: pick up a newspaper from 1898, it’s dead. The problems faced feel dead. Even the rhythm of the prose and thought feels hopelessly embalmed. But good fiction, the real writing, of 1898 will feel as alive as an unposed photograph. People and their anxieties seem remarkably, comically, and even depressingly consistent. So the headlines don’t yellow. people unnerved by fear of outside uncharitable opinion. A link you’d always read, since it’s one you’re likely to find yourself stuck inside.
Saunders once wrote he’d internalized John Updike as a short-story writer. Updike “was capable of finding stories everywhere,” he said, “—like Chekhov.” Updike spoke about this finding-everywhere process. There were, he’d decided, two kinds of fictional suspense. One was circumstantial suspense: the appetite, from comics on up to the tiger-bright, “to know the outcome of an unresolved situation.” Two was gnostic suspense, “the expectation that at any moment an illumination will occur.” (“Plot caters to the first; style, wit of expression, truth of observation [and] all the commendable rest pay court to the second.”) Updike threw in his lot with circumstantial, the less “dispensable” commodity. “I try instantly to set in motion a certain forward tilt of suspense or curiosity,” Updike wrote, “And at the end of the story or novel to rectify the tilt, to complete the motion.” The forward tilt now is the overthrow of this little man.
You can tell Chekhov feels this. For the first time, he cuts from the story being told back to Elder Prokofy’s barn: to the veterinary Ivan Ivanych, coughing, relighting his pipe, gazing at the moon—a pause to mark the change of acts.
From here Chekhov demonstrates how to tell the active part of a story. Burkin, the teacher, once shared a house with Belikov. Think how economic Chekhov’s been with Belikov, really. We see: littleness, galoshes, umbrella, self-protection, hear a favorite phrase, which Chekhov has Belikov repeat: “Oh, you can’t tell what may come of it!” This is—in the language of standups and the South Park writers room—callback, a reassuring commodity in fiction reading. It tells readers you slipped them the initial detail on purpose, and so helps you pass a kind of readerly in-control test. Stating an idea, then restoring it, is a way that fiction writers can rhyme in prose. As readers, we’re satisfied by the return of thoughts, images, behaviors, just as in poetry by hearing a sound return in the couplet’s rhyme. The poet shows enough control to qualify for our continuing attention. Saunders might remind his class a reader doesn’t know them yet: this gives them confidence you are telling thing on purpose. (And on second draft—the writer’s reread—you make this effect deliberate. If Chekhov discovered the dialog he liked later, he could go back and insert it towards the beginning. Drafts allow you to make the accidental, the improvised, the afternoon of unbelievable keyboard luck, feel on purpose.) And this kind of management of effects is I think what Nabokov meant when he said we can only know a book we’ve lived through twice: those repeat times, we experience it through the writers’ eyes.
Here’s Saunders on that Barthelme story—working as “Man in a Shell” has. “He sets up a pattern,” Saunders says, “then escalates it.” From Belikov in a shell to colleagues, then indeed whole town, shelled. Saunders writes that Barthelme finds he’s “gone about as far along that axis as he can.” As Saunders feels this out with him, Barthelme “understands that, to continue escalating, he has to leap to another axis.”
This is where Chekhov’s story finds itself. Just at moment where you’ve mastered the pattern—Chekhov needs a new one to carry you towards the end.
“And imagine,” Burkin says, “this teacher of Greek—this man in a shell—came near to getting married.”
As with our previous act break, we mark it by a cut to the present-day barn. The veterinary Ivan Ivanych scoffs. Burkin must be joking.
So now Chekhov brings in the story’s last act. We understand that Belikov wears soul galoshes. That he insists on keeping himself, teacher’s lounge, a whole school, a town (Saunders would call this the escalation) under a very tiny umbrella, inside a tightly buttoned coat. He now brings in characters from outside—the Ukrainian Varenka Kovalenko, her history teacher brother, Mihail. (Let’s assume that “Ukrainian” presented some special free-spirit meaning to the 1898 reader—we glimpse it, accept it, this far in we’re past worrying about all this now.) Chekhov gives another lesson in quick vivid character-making. Mihail is “a tall, dark young man with huge hands”—pretty much all we need. All the modern and great thriller writer Lee Child gives us of his Jack Reacher, who’s played in the movies by Tom Cruise. “Reacher was six feet and five inches tall and had hands the size of supermarket chickens.” Our brains take in and translate: big and potentially mashing. His sister Varenka is presented as Belikov’s opposite, as Heath Ledger’s chalky Joker is the strict gruff Batman’s. (“Man in a Shell” gives Batman and the Joker the chance to finally kiss.) “She was tall, well built, with black eyebrows and red cheeks . . . and so lively, so noisy,” Chekhov writes. “At the least provocation, she would go off into ringing laughter: Ha-ha-ha!”
She sings Little Russian (we can assume this means Ukrainian) songs like “The Winds Are Blowing.” And here’s another Chekovian Federal Reverse-like demonstration of economy. We really do know only a few specific things about Belikov. There’s the Greek language, protective gear, that fake saccharine-excremental word “sonorous.” Belikov takes a liking to Varenka. Expresses it in Belikovese: “He sat down beside her and said with a saccharine smile: ‘The Little Russian tongue reminds one of ancient Greek in its softness and agreeable sonority.’” With repeating details this far-off outback world becomes real, shares the gravity of ours.
A picture confirms the mismatch and everything we’ve know about two characters. Varenka and Belikov share a theater box. “Varenka would be sitting in it, fanning herself, beaming and happy, and beside her would be Belikov, a twisted little man [again!], looking as though he had been pulled out of his lodging by pincers.” The pincers excitingly bring back the man’s shell, and are a writer following and trusting his brain, letting it make lightning connections: Belikov is disgusting, and extraction would be managed by something scientific, antiseptic and effortful.
Another bit of callbacking—Belikov “used to call on Kovalenko just as he did on the rest of us.” From a universe of behaviors, we get an illusion of selecting; Chekhov just happens to find ones we know. “He would sit quietly, and Varenka would sing to him ‘The Winds Are Blowing,’ or would stare at him pensively with her dark eyes, or would suddenly go off into a peal of laughter—Ha-ha-ha!” (The story suggests that character-making is a strategic lack of variety.) When Belikov considers marriage, Chekhov reuses again. Marriage, Belikov says, is serious and must be carefully weighed, “so that nothing untoward may come of it.”
And our problem’s unforeseeable solution. Belikov is Twitter. Twitter costs us stuff: Freedom, lightness. Twitter has made lots of people into roadkill. Amy Schumer, Joyce Carol Oates, Stephen King: every so often, Twitter decides to roust them from town. The solution was always before us: We just need to get Twitter hitched. And bearing in mind Saunders’ classroom advice, we build a sense of how the story works. Character; then problem; then potential solution. Will the solution hold?
“Now listen to what happened next,” Burkin says in the story. In his 1962 story “Packed Dirt,” Updike uses the same formula. We can assume he wasn’t thinking about Chekhov—on the tiny off chance he was, not of “Man in a Shell.” But it’s the same formula, at the same point in a story: “It happened this way.” It’s why the Saunders and Nabokov detective approach makes such sense. The problems of being a person, and reading, and telling a story persist, way after the particular story or national styles or living styles molder—and what’s left is the bright thing, preserved human thought, shining and alive. We’re inside the story, Chekhov’s built a world lightly and solidly. Because of this, I can with relief pass that Nabokov test: I’ve loved something by Chekhov. “Now listen to what happened next.”
* * *
“Now listen to what happened next”
Why do we tell each other stories? For entertainment? To pass the time? To explain ourselves, or other people, or the world? To live?
Two men settle into a barn after a day of hunting. Or, rather, one is inside the barn, in the darkness, and the other man is outside it, “smoking a pipe in the moonlight.” The man inside the barn, in the darkness, is a high school teacher named Burkin. The other is a veterinarian named Ivan Ivanych. Although Ivan Ivanych has another name, too, which, we’re told, does not suit him at all. Everyone calls him Ivan Ivanych. Ivan Ivanych and Burkin stay up into the night telling stories. They comment on a woman, Mavra, the wife of the man who owns the barn they’re staying in. Mavra has never left the village, has never seen a city or railway, and has “spent the last ten years hugging the stove and only going out into the street at night.” Mavra reminded Burkin of someone else, a former colleague named Belikov. “You have heard of him, no doubt,” Burkin says to Ivan Ivanych, then launches into Belikov’s story, the story of the man in the shell.
Is the story of the man in the shell a comedy or tragedy? Drama or farce? A love story or…what? It’s all these things and also, mainly, not any of them. It’s a story to get through the night, about a pretty sad and unlikeable man who reminds another man of a sort of sad (maybe?) woman nearby. But then, it’s also a story with a much different, much deeper meaning to its recipient, Ivan Ivanych.
There are funny moments in Burkin’s story of Belikov. When Belikov sees his love interest and her older brother rolling by on bicycles and goes from green to white, aghast at such impropriety. That’s a funny moment. There’s Belikov himself, always wearing rubbers, a warm coat and an umbrella “even in the finest weather.” He’s constantly all covered up, like a nevernude. Then there’s what happens soon after the bicycle incident, when Belikov confronts the older brother and the older brother tells him off, grabs him by the collar, gives him a shove, and Belikov rolls “noisily downstairs” before feeling his nose “to see whether his spectacles were intact.” As he’s tumbling down, all Buster Keaton-like, his love interest and her friends walk in and see him falling and burst into laughter: “Ha-ha-ha!” Also funny. And not funny at all.
Things quickly turn for Belikov. The laughter—laughter directed at him, from the woman and her friends—puts “an end to everything” for him. He goes to bed and never gets up again. After a month like this, Belikov dies. Of shame? It’s never really clear.
So much about Belikov’s internal life is unclear to us, filtered through the eyes of Burkin and delivered into the darkness of the barn as this story he’s crafted. Then, the observations that make up this little parable are received through the ears of his companion, sitting out under the moonlight (and of course us, on the page). We’re constantly aware that this is a story being delivered,—Chekhov carefully works in moments of Ivan Ivanych commenting on Burkin’s story, putting us back into the scene at the barn, adding in the timeless phrase of the spoken tale: “Now listen to what happened next.”
Now listen to what happened next, after Belikov dies, at his funeral. We’re at the end of Burkin’s story, and we haven’t been made aware of the barn scene in quite awhile, but suddenly we are made very aware of the storyteller, his interpretation, his reading of the events he has witnessed. We hear Burkin describe Belikov, dead in his coffin, with an expression that is “mild, pleasant, even cheerful, as though he were glad that he had at last been put into a case that he would never leave again.” Burkin confesses that “it is a great pleasure to bury people like Belikov.” And he and his colleagues all return from the cemetery in good humor. Time passes, and life goes on, “stupid as before.” The end of Burkin’s story, which he repeats for Ivan Ivanych, is “how many more of them there will be!” He’s talking about men in shells, men like Belikov who cover themselves up, feelings and all, and can take to bed and die after being laughed at. He’s also talking about Mavra, the woman who only goes out at night and never leaves the village. What sad small lives many people lead, all these people in their shells.
Ivan Ivanych sees it that way—“Yes,” he says, “that’s the way it is.” He says this twice. But then he seems to disagree, or at least deepen or broaden the meaning of Burkin’s tale. The “airless, crowded town” they live in, “the useless papers” they write, this “talking and listening to all sorts of poppycock—isn’t that a shell, too?” He offers to tell Burkin “a very instructive story.” But Burkin says no, “it’s time to turn in…Tomorrow’s another day.”
As they lie down in the barn, they hear Mavra walking near the barn. Ivan Ivanych goes on a sort of rant, despairing over all the lies, the insults and humiliations one must put up with and smile in the face of, just to get by. This man who has one name but was given another “more suitable” name seems to be talking about Belikov and Mavra, all the people in shells, but also himself, Burkin, everyone. Burkin, the teacher, brushes him off. “That’s a horse of another color, Ivan Ivanych,” he says. Ten minutes later Burkin is asleep, and Ivan Ivanych, sighing and turning, gets up, goes outside into the moonlight, and relights his pipe.
The power of a story, and this story in particular, lies in our interpretation of its ambiguities. We get to see how the messenger can fail to grasp the meaning of his own message, and why that doesn’t, in the end, really matter. We tell ourselves stories for so many reasons, but in the end we’re really only telling them to ourselves, even when someone else is listening, and giving us something different to consider. Chekov shows us a story told and heard, and how it can mean two—or more, or many more—things at the same time and be equally true.
* * *
“All forms of not playing are playing.”
That is a phrase I once heard attributed to that old charlatan, the founder of est, Werner Erhard (né John Paul Rosenberg), though I think he might never have said any such thing, since I’m the only person cited in Google searches on this phrase. As I recall, though, I heard both the phrase and its attribution from my brother, who was by way of being what we used to call an “est-hole” and therefore might have had it from “Werner” himself, or from one of his acolytes, in lovely La Jolla where they all used to snort outrageous amounts of blow and congratulate themselves by the sea because they’d “Gotten It”, all the livelong day and night.
All this by way of saying that the bone-deeply familiar feeling imparted by reading “The Man in a Shell” is the same as this coke-addled 1980s est message, namely, that there is no escaping the world, however thick the coverings you try to shield yourself with, however much you hang back from it in fear: it’s coming to get you anyway. A message weirdly apropos with respect to my brother, who gave up est ages ago in favor of Bible-thumping, Rush Limbaugh and so on. My brother is one of the smartest and most talented people I’ve ever met, but he became scareder and scareder as the years ground him down; nowadays he just listens to Fox News and Rush, and rails against the End Times. That kind of fear makes people horribly judgmental, whether they are my brother or poor Belikov. Such people always give me the feeling that they are hurtling toward some especially bad end.
After all, the End Times are coming for each of us, one by one, and in the meantime all we have is the world, and ourselves, and one another. Maybe the Belikovs of the world are especially sad because, while they share the same doom as everyone else’s, they are denied the comforts of companionship, and of optimism, which are I think the main things that can at least soften the blow.
Please forgive me for understanding nothing whatsoever about how stories this compactly powerful are structured, or about formal academic literary criticism, come to that. But even I can see that there is great subtlety in the narration of this story. Chekov himself, in a way, is a Man in a Shell, covering his own ideas with the voice of Burkin, the high school teacher. Then Burkin conceals his ideas about the main story of Belikov, Varenka and her terrible but highly sympathetic brother, Kovalenko, by presenting without much comment the questionable reports of the principal’s wife, and of Belikov, Varenka and Kovalenko themselves.
These assorted raconteurs all left a great deal out—many of the principal things I most wanted to know. The foremost lacuna: exactly what was Belikov thinking, when he put the photograph of Varenka next to his bed? How could he have gotten to age forty without a girl ever being kind to him? On the other hand, how could Varenka be kind to him when he was such an old stick-in-the-mud? Could anyone on earth ever have gotten that man onto a bicycle? (I remember reading that bicycling was considered scandalous in London at that time as well, it was for wild, uninhibited people, maybe like skateboards are now.) If the wedding had come off, what would have become of the bicycling?
But. If this super inhibited middle-aged guy Belikov went so far as to speak out loud to his neighbor about marrying someone, and he put her photograph near his bed, was he in his private moments filled with a nameless longing, with burning passion, with ideas of this girl naked and trembling in his arms? Surely he has to have been? Was he in love, was he thinking about maybe really trying to live his life? About “playing”, maybe—playing openly—assuming his place at the table, instead of hiding in one of the not-playing methods of playing? Or was Belikov so completely bundled up, so covered with rubbers and umbrellas, so pre-coffined, that he didn’t really feel much? Beyond the bare understanding that Varenka liked the idea of getting married (Ha-ha-ha! she must have been out of her mind! I get that the 19th century notion of marriage was utterly different from our own, but why on earth did she think that this cold fish, this anti-bicyclist, would make any better of a companion than her noisy, rambunctious and yet weirdly sympathetic brother? Probably I love that guy because I am as exasperated with all these people as he is! Okay, obviously, he is “on the side of the honest and the free.”)
Is it Chekhov or Burkin who won’t tell us what was really going on with Belikov? Furthermore, how does either of them know what Varenka was thinking when she saw Belikov falling down the stairs—that she thought it had been an accident, and therefore comical? How does either of them know exactly what Belikov thought about this laughter—that it was mockery? It’s important if this is fact, rather than surmise.
Nobody really disagrees with Kovalenko about what a poor prospect for a brother-in-law the “informer” Belikov is making; Chekhov, Burkin, everyone appears to agree. I was sad that Belikov got pitched down the stairs, though—that’s “explicitly forbidden”, I think, pitching people down the stairs. It is a little embarrassing to me to be so certain that Kovalenko was in the right, but that was the impression that Ivan Ivanych was left with, as well. It’s kind of co-signed, that way.
Another thing: Who made the caricature of Belikov? Am I really dumb, and it’s obvious and I missed it? This person must have known that Belikov would be driven plumb loco by the caricature! So it seems like a terrifically malicious thing to do—I didn’t think we met anyone in the story who’d be mean enough to do that—certainly not Kovalenko. Offhand I would say it has to have been a student? Or a cynically-inclined colleague, someone possessed of a blacker sense of humor than anyone we got to know. If the caricaturist knew about “Anthropos” (which please, that is hilarious, who knew less about Anthropos than this Belikov?) then he must have known about his victim’s humorless, fearful, martinet-like character. It really gives you the creeps, thinking about that kind of cruelty.
So in the end, it turned out that Belikov was right to be so scared, right? “That which you most fear shall surely come upon you.” (I can’t remember who said that—my brother again, probably! Sounds like him.) But Belikov—standing before this scary thing, paralyzed by the possibility of a new life, like a child before a turning jump-rope who just can’t leap in. Who knew what would come of it? Something terrible, that’s what! Something that made him curl up and die for real. Why, for god’s sake? Is it possible even in the frail 19th century that anyone could be terrified enough to die of bicycles and a little snort of laughter?
* * *
“Gooseberries” opens with an oppressive gray sky that turns to rain. There’s a respite of coziness – dry clothes, and a pretty woman bearing tea and food – before Ivan Ivanych leads us into the utterly black story at its core.
The story starts out mildly. There are two brothers who take different paths: “I [Ivan Ivanych] went in for a learned profession and became a veterinary; Nikolay [Ivanych] at nineteen began to clerk in a provincial branch of the Treasury.” The boys grew up in the country, and Nikolay Ivanych yearns to return to that life, while Ivan Ivanych has some scorn for it, which seems particular to that time – it might be something like us rolling our eyes when people move from New York or the Bay Area to the Hudson Valley or Sonoma and raise chickens and hang antlers on their walls.
But that’s just punditry. Ivan Ivanych’s actual words: “To retire from the city, from the struggle, from the hubbub, to go off and hide on one’s own farm—that’s not life, it is selfishness, sloth, it is a kind of monasticism, but monasticism without works. Man needs not six feet of earth, not a farm, but the whole globe, all of Nature, where unhindered he can display all the capacities and peculiarities of his free spirit.”
(As I said, I don’t understand the specific way in which he disapproves of where his brother wants to live, but I was once the city person who didn’t understand why anyone lived in the country and now I am the opposite and I can only imagine whatever is behind his opinions is similarly tedious and self-aggrandizing.)
But Nikolay Ivanych’s desire to get a home in the country isn’t just a wish, it is an obsession. The horror of the story kicks in when we see what he’s willing to do to make it happen:
Still for the sake of buying a property with a gooseberry patch he married an elderly, homely widow, without a trace of affection for her, but simply because she had money. After marrying her, he went on living parsimoniously, keeping her half-starved, and he put her money in the bank in his own name. She had previously been the wife of a postmaster, who had got her used to pies and cordials. This second husband did not even give her enough black bread. She began to sicken, and some three years later gave up the ghost. And, of course, it never for a moment occurred to my brother that he was to blame for her death.
I could not stop thinking about the widow. I had to stop reading just to obsess about it, to chew on my disgust. I hated thinking about it, but I wanted to, it reminded me seeing repulsive images on the internet by mistake and going back to look at them again.
I imagined the widow feeling loved and cared for by her first husband. I imagined her relief in thinking someone else would love and care for her once again, and how she would have learned – slowly? quickly? Which would be worse? – that she had been deceived. I thought about how every single day, her hunger would be the proof of his deceit and how she would die slowly, knowing that her body was being starved because it was not pleasing enough to the eye to be kept alive.
The darkness of the story deepens when Ivan Ivanych gets to the country estate his brother has schemed for and it’s a total lemon, with a polluted stream and bad feng shui – “I was at a loss as to how to get to the yard and where to leave my horse,” Ivan Ivanych complains. But Nikolay Ivanych sees none of this, and has no sense that the world he inhabits is actually a hideously deformed version of the one he wanted or that he himself is cruel and stupid. His foul gooseberries taste good to him – he doesn’t even know reality when he puts it in his mouth.
The point of the story isn’t that there’s such an utter disconnect between what Nikolay Ivanych thinks he is (a country gentleman living in paradise) and what he actually is (a crass pig living in a dump). Nor is it that his blissful contentment with his vile life has rendered Ivan Ivanych unable to bear happiness in others. The point isn’t even the impassioned Sanderseque speech – that is a compliment, by the way – that Ivan Ivanych gives at the end of his story:
Why must we wait, I ask you? For what reason? I am told that nothing can be done all at once, that every idea is realized gradually, in its own time. But who is it that says so? Where is the proof that it is just? You cite the natural order of things, the law governing all phenomena, but is there law, is there order in the fact that I, a living, thinking man, stand beside a ditch and wait for it to close up of itself or fill up with silt, when I could jump over it or throw a bridge across it? And again, why must we wait? Wait, until we have no strength to live, and yet we have to live and are eager to live!
The point is that in the end, everyone just thinks Ivan Ivanych’s story is boring.
Ivan Ivanych’s story satisfied neither Burkin nor Alyohin. With the ladies and generals looking down from the golden frames, seeming alive in the dim light, it was tedious to listen to the story of the poor devil of a clerk who ate gooseberries. One felt like talking about elegant people, about women.
Which is funny. We always waste our best material.
* * *
“Sad Books for Humorous People”
Chekhov wrote the trilogy in 1898, at a time of depletion: he was 38 and told a friend he’d had to overcome a kind of physical repugnance, an aversion to settling down into his own verbal works. Writing was like “eating cabbage soup from which a cockroach has just been removed.”
“Gooseberries” is my favorite—the Empire Strikes Back of our trilogy. We got character in “Shell” by quick vivid strokes. Varenka “walked with her arms akimbo, laughed, sang, danced.” Chekhov does the same here with landscape. “You could see there was another vast plain, telegraph poles, a train that from afar looked like a caterpillar crawling.” (The third pictorial item receiving slightly more luxe treatment will come up in our third, Return of the Jedi story.) Which makes sense, since “Gooseberries” is about landscape.
Chekhov gives a picture of cockroach-broth land. “It was damp, muddy, dreary; and the water looked cold and unkind.” The unkind—it’s like the pincers necessary for successful Belikov extraction. Chekhov trusting that his connections will be understood by the reader, since they’re outfitted with the same kind of brain. (In his famous cruise ship piece, David Wallace writes, “The Atlantic that seethes off the eastern U.S. is glaucous and lightless and looks mean.”)
Near the end of “Shell,” Ivan Ivanych—not exactly a big speaking role thus far—tells Burkin he has on offer “a very instructive story.” Burkin counsels sleep. Burkin today reminds Ivan, since a good story handles remembering on the reader’s behalf. As Ivan takes breath and pipe, rain. Another one-sentence Chekhov watercolor. “The dogs, already wet, stood with their tails between their legs and looked at them feelingly.” [A gray Chardin you pass in the museum.]
Rain drives them to the gentleman’s farm owned by Alyohin. The rain delay—neat compositional work—makes Ivan’s story feel more precious. We’ve had to fight through plains and muck for it. If we think about this as Saunders invites students to, we find the delay working two things: It makes the paragraphs describing Aloyhin and his farm suspended; we read with the nice tension of awaiting something else, with bated readerly breath. And they raise our toweled-down expectation to finally hear, for God’s sake, Ivan Ivanych’s story.
As Nabokov predicts: Our next read is the true one. Alyohin is apparently grateful for company. A few grafs on he baldly says it: “You can’t imagine how glad I am to see you, gentlemen.” The following story, “About Love,” will explain and be driven by Alyohin’s loneliness. Alyohin tells the friends, “I don’t think I’ve had a wash since spring.” It seems to be summer. So, a long time between bathing stations. For a story to work, Saunders might tell his class, it’s good to show cause-and-effect operating in your world as they do past the edge of the page: it lends the imaginary weight. When Aloyhin slips into the waters of his bathing cabin, the water goes brown. After soaping, “dark-blue, the color of ink.” It’s pleasing. In Philip Pullman’s fantasy series His Dark Materials, a talking armored polar bear (a panserbjørn, for fans) escapes a crowded battlefield by balloon; when the bear steps in, the basket lurches. Bears are heavy—and an absolutely phantom world attains the dignified weight of the real.
Chekhov has time for this physics because he knows we’re waiting on Ivan’s tale. And in this real estate story, there’s another beautiful, poised landscape. Ivan Ivanych swimming in the drizzle.
No trace of Chekhov’s desktop reluctance. Every line full and sure. As Flaubert once said, “each phrase crammed to bursting with its idea.”
Ivan Ivanych came out of the cabin, plunged into the water with a splash, and swam in the rain . . . He raised waves on which white lilies swayed . . . He swam to the mill, spoke to the peasants there, and turned back and in the middle of the river lay floating, exposing his face to the rain.
Back indoors, Ivan begins his story.
Nabokov—who liked to ravish and astonish [and innovate] in prose—would not seem first pick for a Chekhov nominating speech. Nabokov says a lovely thing about Chekhov’s writing voice; it’s what you see above, the lily pads in Ivan’s swimming wake.
Russian critics have noted that Chekhov’s style, his choice of words and so on, did not reveal any of those special artistic preoccupations that obsessed, for instance, Gogol or Flaubert or Henry James. His dictionary is poor, his combination of words almost trivial—the purple patch, the juicy verb, the hothouse adjective, the crême-de-menthe epithet, brought in on a silver tray, these were foreign to him. . . . His literary style goes to parties clad in its everyday suit. Thus Chekhov is a good example to give when one tries to explain that a writer may be a perfect artist without being exceptionally vivid in his verbal technique or exceptionally preoccupied with the way his sentences curve. When Turgenev sits down to discuss a landscape, you notice that he is concerned with the trouser-crease of his phrase; he crosses his legs with an eye upon the color of his socks. Chekhov does not mind, not because these matters are not important—for some writers they are naturally and very beautifully important when the right temperament is there—but Chekhov does not mind because his temperament is quite foreign to verbal inventiveness. Even a bit of bad grammar or a slack newspaperish sentence left him unconcerned. . . [He was] less concerned than for instance Conrad was when (according to Ford Madox Ford) he tried to find a word of two syllables and a half—not merely two and not merely three, but exactly two and a half—which he felt was absolutely necessary to end a certain description. And being Conrad he was perfectly right, for that was the nature of his talent. Chekhov would have ended that sentence with an “out” or an “in” and never have noticed his ending—and Chekhov was a much greater writer than good old Conrad.
Ivan’s story moves along the same problem-potential solutions lines as “Man in a Shell.” Problem: Ivan’s brother Nikolay longs for a life wholly other than his city one. Possible fix: Country estate, with gooseberries.
“Once a man is possessed by an idea,” Chekhov warns, “this is no doing anything with him.” Nikolay gives over all pleasures. The world condenses to just the one dining thought: Eventually, Nikolay must eat gooseberries grown on his own land. Nikolay marries for money, ignores (pretty much into the grave; murder by marital neglect) his wife, inherits. Buys, plants. Plans at last come to fruition. (How fun to use that word in a non-metaphoric way.) Chekhov slyly shoehorns in an act break—a cut to Alyohin’s living room, under portraits of the fashionable and dead, before the second movement begins.
I had seen this story in tables of contents—Selected Stories of Chekhov and Best Russian Tales—and always assumed it would be about straw hats and spread blankets and jolly fruit picking. It’s much darker. (Maybe stories as boring as my imagined one can’t exist: or wouldn’t attract sufficient readerly love to make the trip from then to now.) About the warping desire for that afternoon of straw hats and blankets[—a total surprise]. A good story is always so true it amounts to a scandal. A yes! to a slow-dawning argument in our heads we didn’t know we were having.
The second act answers the first’s Q: what would it be like, to have a desire absolutely met? In just the way we wanted? (It happens so rarely this part of the story almost qualifies as science-fiction.) Ivan visits his brother. A servant brings out a plate of gooseberries. Always that bit of fictional exaggeration—Ivan happens to be present for the estate’s first yield. “He ate the gooseberries greedily,” Ivan says, “and kept repeating, ‘Ah, how delicious! Do taste them!’ ” Ivan tells us the fruit is in fact hard and sour.
I don’t want to push the moment: that would be Belikov and sonorous. When there’s a layer of false coating true enthusiasm the body throws up its hands and walks away. But Ivan is in bed. Through the wall, he hears his brother rise again and again—making for the kitchen to shovel down more sour gooseberries.
Nabokov has a lovely and rainy definition for Chekhov: “Sad books for humorous people.” Chekhov served his apprenticeship writing comedy for the newspapers—fast stories, tossed off the way you imagine Mozart scribbled out concertos, the page stained with spills from his flagon. Belikov’s story is sad—but his death is comic and liberating. He’s crushed by light spirits—it’s as if he were run over by a truck weighed down by DVDs of Seinfeld.
The “Gooseberries” end is sad in this delightfully unexpected way. Humor is speed, per Saunders, and it’s also the surprise, the break in the pattern. Chekhov comes at us from unforeseen angles. A less humorous writer might have Nikolay never find the right farm. Or his berry bushes not produce. Or the taste differ from memory. Sour is sad; Nikolay continuing to happily munch is sad comedy—it contains the compulsive, automatic element of comedy, which is Henri Bergson’s definition of humor. “[The image we have so far found in all laughable objects,] something mechanical in something living.” Sadness and comedy together makes it a feature (a lamppost in fog) of what Nabokov calls “the Chekhovian dove-gray world.” It’s what Nabokov says of the characters in general—you hear it in how much Ivan wanted to tell this story. A “typical Chekhovian hero,” Nabokov writes, “was the unfortunate bearer of a vague but beautiful human truth, a burden which he could neither get rid of nor carry.”
The rest of the story is a political speech. I’ll make you a bet. Six weeks from now, you’ll remember Varenka’s tripartite laugh and Belikov’s needing to be extracted. From “Gooseberries,” Ivan’s rain swim and the man hunched over that unappetizing plate. (Nikolay and berries, Chekhov and his soup. Your day self finds its way into your work.) Nikolai eating sour berries isn’t a social point. It’s the personal one of how, against evidence, we fool ourselves into victory. In a sense, Chekhov believing this story can be political is Nikolay serenely finding his gardening plan a success.
In the last grafs, Chekhov—understanding his trilogy’s needs—turns the lens on Alyohin. The man is yawning, up since dawn. Happy for any distraction. “The guests were not talking about groats, or hay, or tar, but about something that had no direct bearing on his life, and he was glad of it and wanted them to go on.” Chekhov is preparing the character for “About Love.” It goes back to Nabokov and rereading. A writer is never experiencing the story for the first time. Beyond everything else, when you reread, you join them in the spirit of the game. Ivan and Burkin retire. “The rain beat against the window panes all night.” The weather Ivan swam beneath, that drove them indoors. A story remembering what readers forgot.
* * *
Why must we wait?
I’m rewriting this essay because what’s most important to me about the Gooseberries story has changed over the past 24 hours. A lot has changed over the past 24 hours. Donald Trump was elected president, being the main thing that has changed. That, followed by a bunch of my own thoughts—about not just the nation but my own career choices, my own path and what I do with my journalism and should aim to do with it going forward—all these thoughts are changing still. I haven’t quite figured out how to put these into words in the shape of sentences. So I’ve been rereading Gooseberries and realized what had grabbed me revisiting it weeks ago and writing about it no longer grabbed me. But let me back up a little bit.
This is Ivan Ivanych’s story, the one he wanted to tell Burkin at the barn that night, after Ivan Ivanych takes the more expansive view of the shells we all live in. It’s a story about Ivan Ivanych’s visit to his brother’s sad and lonely country estate, and his experience seeing his brother, “a happy man, one whose cherished dream had so obviously come true, who had attained his goal in life, who had got what he wanted, who was satisfied with his lot and with himself” and feeling some sadness, yes, but also more than that: “an oppressive feeling bordering on despair.”
What happens next, Ivan Ivanych’s unpacking of his feeling that is close to despair but not quite, is of course what is currently most relevant to me. But I want to flash back to what my previous version of this essay had been about, if only because I think it demonstrates exactly what the prompt for these essays has been: the power of good storytelling and what we (in this case I) value in that. What had at first struck me about Chekov’s story were all the other, smaller, nested stories told before and after and even during Ivan Ivanych’s story of his brother and the gooseberries, and who is telling these stories, and what these smaller stories are doing here in the larger one. All these “tunes from other operas”—how they show us how characters’ move in the world and think about their place in it. I am fascinated by the use of these little stories to make a character more fully alive, sure, but to also set up and help us better understand aspects of what is to come. This story—or, at least, Ivan Ivanych—is grappling with one of the biggest questions of all: how to be good. I think the little stories, where we see him, where we hear from him, help us get there.
First, there’s some time and action before he begins telling his story. We get to see him in the countryside, in the cabin, in the rain, but especially the moment he’s diving in the river. Something that always amazes me about Chekhov is just how efficiently he sketches character and scene. This paragraph is a wonder:
Ivan Ivanych came out of the cabin, plunged into the water with a splash and swam in the rain, thrusting his arms out wide; he raised waves on which white lilies swayed. He swam out to the middle of the river and dived and a minute later came up in another spot and swam on and kept diving, trying to touch bottom. “By God!” he kept repeating delightedly, “by God!” He swam to the mill, spoke to the peasants there, and turned back and in the middle of the river lay floating, exposing his face to the rain. Burkin and Alyohin were already dressed and ready to leave, but he kept on swimming and diving. “By God!” he kept exclaiming. “Lord, have mercy on me.”
What all we’re seeing here—his faith, the natural world, the repeated plunging into the unknown depths…all of it comes back later on when he’s grappling near despair. (An aside: The line, “he raised white waves on which white lilies swayed” kills me.) Also the two stories he tells about money, one about the man dying man eating his lottery tickets and cash with honey “so that no one should get it,” and the other about the man whose leg is sliced off, anxious about the rubles stashed in his boot, left behind with the rest of his leg. Sure these moments aren’t directly connected to the gooseberries story he tells about his brother, but they exist in the same story Chekhov has constructed. The other operas, arranged alongside each other, creating and setting up something much, much deeper.
Okay so let’s go deep. Let’s hear from Ivan Ivanych about his near despair. The happy man, he says, “is at ease only because the unhappy ones bear their burdens in silence, and if there were not this silence, happiness would be impossible.” We’re all in a general hypnosis, he says. If only, behind every door of every happy man there was “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.” Of course there is no man, he says. So what do we do?
This problem—of the lack of reminder of the sadness of the world, a hammer that breaks through the willful blindness of so many and forces discomfort and recognition and action—reminds me exactly of the same problem laid out by The Misfit, at the end of Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find”—“She would of been a good woman,” The Misfit says after shooting the grandmother, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”
(Look, I’m a dumb journalism major who didn’t take nearly enough English or literature classes in college, but it’s probably not a coincidence that these two short stories that grapple with the great big question of how to be good in the face of evil—or not just the face of evil, in the face of the enormity of the world and its comforts, where evil is too often easily ignored, well these are two of the most celebrated stories of all time, right? Because there’s basically no bigger question. How to do good: that’s the whole dang tamale.)
Ivan Ivanych wants to make the necessity of doing good as clear as possible. Do not quiet down, “don’t let yourself be lulled to sleep!” he says—“if life has a meaning and a purpose, that meaning and purpose is not our happiness but something greater and more rational. Do good!” In my used copy of this translation, this bit was circled, highlighted, and underlined several times by several previous readers. It’s a great bit, probably the heart of the story. But what’s calling out to me most, right now, faced with my own not even near despair but full blooming despair, is what Ivan Ivanych says before he lands on his simple and earnest call to goodness.
He’s in an argument with himself here, and Burkin. He’s saying how he used to think that freedom, while essential, was something certain people had to wait for. “Why must we wait?” he says, “looking wrathfully at Burkin.” Then: “Why must we wait, I ask you? For what reason? I am told that nothing can be done all at once, that every idea is realized gradually, in its own time. But who is it that says so? Where is the proof that it is just?” Which. Like. Fuck. Exactly. EXACTLY.
I keep hearing about how many people voted because they felt left behind, that they felt like they were losing out while others benefitted, and having this argument with myself about how so many of the statistics say exactly the opposite, and how so many voters just elected a man who is almost certain to make things so much worse because they felt some way. And part of me longs to maybe empathize or at least recognize that feeling is almost certainly important, and valid, but what I’ve decided is far more useful is not to wait. There is, truly, no time left. How do you do good? You can have a man with a hammer behind a door, reminding you, or a gun pointed at you, or the most frightening awful human you could imagine in power. And you get to work. Immediately.
* * *
Our two guys are outside, again, in Nature, which begins by being at first touching and ravishingly beautiful, then suddenly becomes very uncomfortable, wet, cold, dirty, and inconvenient. This disappointment and mess prefigures the whole story: the “idyll of nature” is shown up for a fairy-tale, a false (ish) idealization. Or rather, it’s both true and false; the earth, Nature, our home, is a place of drop-dead, heart-bursting beauty. But go outside, make yourself vulnerable, lay yourself bare to that (or any) experience and you are liable to be scraped raw, harmed, wet, dirtied.
Now they take refuge with their weird friend, Alyohin, get tidied up and start shooting the breeze over “tea and jam”, a wonderful-sounding meal I have never understood in the least, because is there bread or not, and if not, are you saying you just eat the jam with a spoon? Maybe it’s more like a compote, not so sweet as what we would call jam.
Soon the idea of money is introduced—money as a corrupting force. (This bit is easy to understand, as it is presented in what became a conventional 20th-c. way; money as a form of filth, degradation.) “Money, like vodka, can do queer things to a man.” Money is not Nature, has nothing to do with Nature, but Ivanych’s brother Nikolay is completely enslaved to money—for the sake of Nature. He scrimps and saves in a most unattractive and cheeseparing way, because money will someday free him into the life he wants, give him the enjoyment of starlings, garden paths, flowers, fruit—particularly, gooseberries. Can a gross, filthy thing, got by dishonorable means, purify or ennoble us? (No.)
Once his dream is fulfilled, it emerges that that Nikolay isn’t so much out there enjoying Nature as he is getting fat and icky-looking, embroiling himself in lawsuits and demanding to be addressed as “Your Honor”. He has bad instincts, Nikolay, getting the peasants drunk on vodka and pompously holding forth on how “we, of the gentry” ought to look after them (with beatings, and no education, because “sadly” that’s what’s appropriate for them.) The gooseberries, so longed for, turn out to be sour and hard (you can’t get sweet gooseberries from a sour nature! A little poetic license there.) But Nikolay doesn’t care, he thinks they are delicious. The general unsatisfactoriness and creepiness of his brother’s condition depresses Ivanych in the worst way. (Personally, I was relieved that at least he was enjoying the gooseberries! It would be far worse if you worked that hard and then you got there and hated it all, which happens to people all the time, especially where money is concerned.)
Nikolay also reminded me of this thing Shaw said The Quintessence of Ibsenism. (He and Chekhov were just four years apart in age; much as I love him, I think you could say that Shaw is like a meaner, snarkier, less intelligent Chekhov.) “The fox not only declares that the grapes he cannot get are sour: he also insists that the sloes he can get are sweet.” (A remark about the Victorian version of Tea Partiers, basically.) Here is what I found interesting about that: There’s a subtle but infinite difference between talking yourself into a thing you can’t really believe (Fox News method), and whole-heartedly, sincerely, unquestioningly believing a false thing. Ivanych seems so disappointed that his brother really was enjoying the sour gooseberries, in the whole-hearted way; not pretending to enjoy them, but really enjoying them. His capacity even to determine the truth had been wrecked. Is Ivanych’s view of this matter reliable? I say yes.
Ivanych is so disgusted by the spectacle of his brother’s grossness and degradation that he is suddenly filled with revolutionary egalitarian fervor. What sends Ivanych the worst is apparently Nikolay’s contentment in his own brutishness; he is the “happy man” who is just like a pig, grunting with satisfaction at his sour, unpleasant life. What it took to return to the idyll of his youth, all the years of loveless money-grubbing, broke his ability to ever get back there, as Ivanych did when he went for his uncomplicated, un-calculating swim in the river at Alyohin’s. (He is a veterinarian—I think maybe he has it both ways, somehow, civilization and the love of Nature existing naturally, side by side.)
Then Ivanych rails against the smug, blind pretense that everything is going just great, the everyday conventional disaster of the world. The familiarity of this passage is kind of uncanny for the modern-day reader of progressive political convictions. It’s so exactly like watching those “Morning in America” bullshit Republican campaign commercials. “The Real America” etc. White people (salt of the earth!) standing by a pickup truck and looking nobly into the sunset. Let’s pretend! Ibsen is all about this, as well. Let’s pretend, and make matters about a zillion times worse!! (cf. Ghosts.) That stuff makes me feel exactly the same way Ivanych does: “What is terrible in life goes on behind the scenes.” Nikolay doesn’t even notice how much his fellow-pigs are suffering, not a tiny bit—worst of all, he never spares a moment’s thought for the lot of pigs generally, and his own ineluctable sharing of their same fate.
One wonders, how would Ivanych have felt if the gooseberries were ripe and sweet? I guess at least then, all the cheeseparing would not have been in vain; if he were a kind boss, if there really were starlings and fruit? It’s largely the loss of Ivanych’s own illusions about rural life—and the ruin of his hopes for his brother’s happiness—that hurt. (I get exactly like that with my Republican brother, and thought man, I could talk about this with Chekhov for hours and I think we would understand one another perfectly because it is exactly, exactly the same.)
But Ivanych’s audience, Alyohin and Burkin, don’t care much about the story of Nikolay, or about any revelations of the terrors behind the scenes, because they themselves are in comfy-pig rural mode, clean and cozy, enjoying themselves; they are living in the moment; it’s what we have, after all. Which is also true.
* * *
“About Love” incorporated two things I always appreciate in fiction: narrative tension and adultery. I wasn’t sitting on the edge of my seat to see how “The Man in A Shell” or “Gooseberries” would end. But with “About Love” I was surprised (despite the story’s title) when the story veered toward the wife, Anna, and I wanted to know (despite kind of knowing, in the sense that the narrator Alyohin and Anna are not a couple when he tells the story) what would happen between them. Stories without tension aren’t much more than narcissistic exercises to me (I’ve written plenty of them, so I should know.)
Love is a popular subject for fiction with good reason – it’s about “relatable” stuff like tastes and fate and there’s a lot of suspense in wondering who is going to be made happy or unhappy by the outcome. But adultery as a subject offers everything love offers and then additionally pits personal desires against societal expectations and demands characters make a choice about whether they’d rather be happy or good. And then there’s the economic element of it. Nothing reminds you of how much it sucks to be poor like people who could be together despite public disapproval if only they could afford it. The most devastating element of “About Love” is that Anna and her rich husband keep offering Alyohin money.
Here is Alyohin’s last moment with Anna:
When our eyes met right there in the compartment our spiritual strength deserted us both, I took her in my arms, she pressed her face to my breast, and tears flowed from her eyes. Kissing her face, her shoulders, her hands wet with tears—oh, how miserable we were!—I confessed my love to her, and with a burning pain in my heart I realized how needless and petty and deceptive was all that had hindered us from loving each other.
The above paragraph could be found in almost identical form in Anna Karenina, or The End of the Affair, or The Sun Also Rises. But adultery stories thrill every time. They remind us that there is this one life and that it ends and you have to fill it up correctly and you probably can’t and won’t. They remind us of death without actually saying death. Though often people in adultery stories die as well – extra punishment.
Chekhov is not my favorite. I could have predicted this. To be fair, his not being an English woman born somewhere between 1920 and 1940 puts him right away at a distinct disadvantage. He’s not someone I actively scorn, like Gertrude Stein or Jack Kerouac, or someone I wish I could get into and just can’t, like Kingsley Amis. His project, as I see it from the embarrassingly limited viewpoint of having read The Cherry Orchard and Uncle Vanya about 100 years ago and The Little Trilogy last week, just isn’t really My Thing.
There’s a tediously instructive side of Chekov that always repels a little even when I am being otherwise seduced. Lines like “People who lead a lonely existence always have something on their minds that they are eager to talk about,” or “I have noticed that Ukrainian women always laugh or cry—there is no intermediate state for them” or “What isn’t done in the provinces out of boredom, how many useless and foolish things! And that is because what is necessary isn’t done at all,” reminds me of a purposefully cryptic teenager who is just starting to realize how annoying he is but isn’t sure what other personality to take on.
But this is only about fifty percent of what I think about him. The other fifty percent of me, which seems to have really very little in common with the first fifty percent, likes the way he seems to understand that how we live is not really living but just some shadow of an attempt at it. As my friend said the other day in a g chat:
I wrote back:
and then I said:
I thought this was pretty interesting but he didn’t write back. I felt like the Ivan Ivanych of g-chat. The rain beat against the windows.
* * *
Donald Rayfield, in his non-short (700 pages) Chekhov bio, informs us this is the “most moving” of the trilogy stories. For this reader, it’s the only Belikov—where affection feels imposed. The reason has to do with patterning.
There’s a great line from the brilliant dead movie critic Pauline Kael. She had disliked a (Chekhovian) Woody Allen movie called Crimes and Misdemeanors. I think she’s wrong. But in the service of being wrong Kael says a brilliant thing. “He’s telling us not just what we already know but what we’ve already rejected.”
“About Love” doesn’t tell a new thing. Its pattern-making and escalation stick. It tells us what we knew going in.
Ivan Ivanych (this means Ivan son-of-Ivan, on the patriarchal ID cards of the past,) is still traveling with Burkin. They’re still being hosted by that non-regular bath-taker of gusto, Alyohin. This third story is told in first person.
There’s a principle among comedy writers—the rule of threes. Chekhov came up as a writer of short, funny pieces for the newspapers (it’s how he supported his big failed family; the thin reed of newspaper comedy), and so might have come across a version himself. The first two items in a run establish the pattern, so it can be broken by the third. This’s so inscribed in comedy you sometimes see it becoming comedy. Drawn Together was a Comedy Central cartoon reality show. (Sit a second with that idea.) One house. Eight cartoon archetypes. Superman, a dirty-minded Disney princess, Spongebob Squarepants, all sharing a house fitted with a constellation of reality-TV cameras. There’s an episode that spoofs the unbelievable right-wing moment when politicians really did worry whether a kid’s show, Teletubbies, might turn unsuspecting viewers gay. Spongebob on Drawn Together gets yanked from the air. The controversy evaporates. He exclaims, “Now I can go back to doing what I do best: entertaining kids, annoying parents, and funny third thing!” A pattern so strong commentary on it actually meets the pattern: “funny third thing” really is a funny third thing.
That’s how our trilogy has worked: Burkin, in third person, tells a story. Ivan Ivanych, in third person, tells a story. Now unnamed narrator with Ivan and Burkin relates a story in first person. (In non-comedy terms, it’s why the land can be “muddy, dreary, unkind.” And why that caterpillar-like train crawls at the sentence end.) But the story told isn’t any fun.
My favorite Chekhovs (because I am a reader with unsurprising passions) are “The Lady With The Little Dog,” and the great nasty “The Duel,” which Philip Roth writes sharply about in his academic (and Chekhovian) novel, The Professor of Desire. Both stories are sad: both stories’ sadness is so precise, so intelligently and surprisingly felt, the sadness feels light. There’s a moment in “Lady with the Little Dog.” Married Gurov has made love to married Anna. She feels the full shared moral weight. He removes his pocket knife, slices some watermelon, eats without hurry. This gesture is so real and unpredictable it is itself the funny third thing; in the gray warmth of Chekhov’s prose, we smile at this recognized human moment like catching a candid photo of ourselves we’ve forgotten.
“About Love” has no moment like this. There is fun. For one thing, we see Raymond Carver getting an idea for his most famous story—a graft of the title. From “About Love” to “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” (Americans turn out to be more prolix than Russians.) Chekhov: “The conversation turned to love.” Carver: “We somehow got on the subject of love.” (Carver was an avowed Chekhov fan. His final story, “Errand,” about Chekhov’s death in a German hotel at age 44, ran a year before Carver himself died, age 50. Chekhov-tinged short fiction is powerful stuff.) Chekhov, on the landowner Alyohin, “It looked as though he wanted to tell a story.” Carver, on the physician Mel McGinnis. “My friend Mel McGinnis was talking. Mel McGinnis is a cardiologist, and sometimes that gives him the right.” So this story contained a seed, the flower of a better one.
The story builds, as we watch through Saundersized eyes. Alyohin is requisitioned from university for service on his family’s stony, unrewarding farm; he works with much industry but without relish. “I found it awfully tedious, and frowned with disgust, like a village cat driven by hunger to eat cucumbers in the kitchen garden. [Chekhov and that soup again.] My body ached, and I slept on my feet.” Saunders might quote to his class from John Barth’s “Lost in the Funhouse,” a story that’s a how-to for writing a story. “To say that Ambrose’s and Peter’s mother was pretty is to accomplish nothing; the reader may acknowledge the proposition, but the imagination is not engaged.” Lorrie Moore, Saunders’ only competition as a writer of American short stories, wants to tell us a character is unsettled, unhinged, angry with worry: “The mother does not feel large and cheerful. In her mind, she is scathing, acid-tongued, wraith-thin, and chain-smoking out on a fire escape somewhere.” To say Alyohin was exhausted accomplishes nothing. “I slept on my feet,” we can see. When Nabokov wants us to imagine Lolita’s Humbert in prison, he writes, “While I stand gripping the bars.” In the political section of “Gooseberries,” Chekhov cautions, “Life will sooner or later show you its claws.”
Alyohin gives up the news and outside interests; to preserve his farm he must become one of its beasts. (When Ivan and Burkin meet him in “Gooseberries” he’s cinched a rope for a belt and hasn’t bathed in forever. Like one of the manimals from Island of Dr. Moreau.) Chekhov builds him and his situation; as the town in “Shell” needs liberation, Alyohin needs comfort, contact: Alyohin needs to be restored to his factory setting of human.
He meets the Luganoviches and falls for the wife—Anna Alexeyevna. (Another of those details that bring us up short about the difference between then and now. “After dinner, they played a duet on the piano.” Late-evening, small town life; post-meal, pre-Netflix. Or maybe just small town life. In David Mamet’s small-town movie State and Main, a bookstore owner tells a Hollywood scriptwriter she belongs to the local theatre group. “You have to make your own fun,” he observes. “Everyone makes their own fun,” she counters. “If you don’t make it yourself, it ain’t fun, it’s entertainment.”) Again, this is the way our trilogy has worked. Problem, proposed solution, expanded problem: Anna is after all a Luganovich, another man’s wife. There’s a lovely line: “I did not think of her, but it was as though her shadow were lying lightly on my soul.” Not: “I didn’t think of her, but it was as though she was with me anyway.” That would be a proposition we might agree with; “her shadow on my soul” makes us feel and see.
Another lovely line gives us a snapshot of the time. Alyohin tells us,“ ‘The old woman had it easy,’ the proverb runs, ‘so she bought a pig.’ The Luganoviches had it easy, so they made friends with me.”
A nice measure of their love: hard-working Alyohin is endlessly penniless. But he will not accept offered sums from the L’s. It was fascinating via the Chekhov bio—since Chekhov wrote easily and came fast to success—to learn how often Chekhov was on the loan-acceptance side of friendship. Fiction connects with us in strange ways. I read this while finishing an overdue book, subsidized by lots of friends and well-wishers. It struck me—one of those fictional lines that alarms the whole torso—that Chekhov was expressing love as a willingness not to accept support: “Nothing in the world would have induced me to borrow from the Luganoviches.” In my experience, nothing pincers you out of the shells like fiction; it catches and exhumes you while unawares.
The failure of the story, for this reader, tells us something about the rigorousness and dictates of the work. How everything can be right . . . and yet not come off—as in a sexual encounter, a presidential campaign, an armed takeover of Nakatomi Plaza. Chekhov is of course great on love. (A charismatic late to marriage will develop subject matter expertise. Chekhov was not espoused until age 41.) Alyohin and Anna don’t want to love each other. They “timidly and jealously concealed it. We were afraid of everything that would reveal our secret to ourselves.” He gets just right the brushed shoulders and the solid feel of a beloved, unembraced presence beside you. In a theatre box (again!): “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.”
Another note on threes, at this end of our trilogy: order is important in fiction. To a degree we don’t often realize, without the Hogwarts comprehension spell of rereads. “Shell” was about propriety and a failed love; “Gooseberries” about real estate and forced satisfaction; “About Love” is what it says. Imagine the order with the last two reversed: Chekhov is clever to separate his two small-town love stories with one about a man in love with an image of his own lifestyle.
In The Corrections—really a trilogy of novellas—Jon Franzen makes the same decision. Singles love story, married fight story, singles love story. There’s a part of a writer’s mind that’s always tracking this. First in others’ work then, with a little luck, in their own. Barth suggests it as a means to jump from reader to writer: “By never again reading your own stories or anybody else’s—or watching any stage or screen or TV play—innocently, but always with a third eye monitoring how the author does it: what dramaturgical cards are being played and subsequently picked up (or forgotten); what way points (and how many, and in what sequence) the author has chosen to the dramaturgical destination, and why; what pistols, to use Anton Chekhov’s famous example, are being hung on the wall in act one in order to be fired in act three.”
The relationship sours: Alyohin has paused and considered too long. (Updike, in a very early story. “Women hate mens’ doubts: They amount to insults.”) Anna becomes impatient. Unacted-upon love emits a stink the way old milk does in the fridge; something delayed until curdle, it sends you into a bad mood, or out of the room. “No matter what I said she disagreed with me,” Alyohin relates, “and if I had an argument she sided with my opponent. If I dropped something, she would say coldly: ‘I congratulate you.’” The dropped tray, the lunchroom applause—they apparently belong to a long noble tradition.
And then at the final moment, the story wobbles. Anna is married. Alyohin is moral. She’s departing by train. They confess their love—Alyohin gets his error: “ I realized that when you love you must either, in your reasoning about that love, start from what is higher, more important than happiness or unhappiness, sin or virtue in their usual meaning, or you must not reason at all”—and Anna leaves.
In “Gooseberries,” the berries are sour; surprise one. Nikolay devours anyway, telling himself they’re sweet; surprise two. “Shell” features a surprise escalation: the final cozy shell is Belikov’s coffin. (“His expression was mild, pleasant, even cheerful,” Chekhov explains, “as though he were glad that he had at last been put into a case that he would never leave again.”) In “About Love,” Aloyin and Anna do realistically what we expect, in just the manner we expected. No surprise last item. And their story bounces off our circuits. (I’ll make you another bet: in twelve weeks, you’ll still have the sound of Ivan’s brother cheerlessly munching. And you will remember the next thing I’m about to say. But you will not remember Anna and Alyohin at all.) I know Chehkov’s last drink—champagne. German medical tradition was to serve sparkling wine at the moment a case turned hopeless. Chekhov’s last words were, “I haven’t had champagne in a long time.” Something good—a drink; something bad—demise. Chekhov’s final exchange was Chekhovian. He was an elegant man with a great hatred for convention. I don’t know what happened to Nabokov and Carver’s bodies after death—I imagine they were transported to the usual destination in the usual way. But I do remember what happened to Chekhov’s—it’s surprising, perfectly reasonable, not what you expect. “The last trick that Fate played on him,” Chekhov translator Avram Yarmolinsky writes, “was of the sort it would have amused him to jot down in his notebook.” Chekhov’s body was carted from Germany to Moscow in a refrigerated train car “for the transportation of fresh oysters.” This story ends in the normal train car, with the expected farewell.
And so at the last measure—thanks, Alyohin—I find I’ve failed Nabokov’s test after all.
* * *
“Luckily or not, there is nothing in our lives that does not come to an end sooner or later”
Is “About Love” really about love? Haha seriously—I’m not sure it is! I know that it is a love story, I know that Alyohin, the guy telling the story (“a man of forty, tall and rotund, with long hair, looking more like a professor or an artist than a gentleman farmer”—we met him yesterday, in “Gooseberries,” he owns Sofyino, the land and barns and mill and bathing-cabin where Ivan Ivanych and Burkin stay) begins his story after the conversation turns to love. So he is pretty sure it’s a love story. But sometimes we tell each other stories that we say are about one thing and are really about something else. I think that’s what Chekov is doing here, presenting an interrogation of an idea he’s been circling around in the previous two stories.
I think the trilogy—first about the ways we all mask our true selves, then about the importance of doing good above all else, then about love—is really trying to come to terms with the fundamental problems of being free, what that means, how hard that is, and how often, even though we are free, we can be trapped. Trapped, in this case, by love.
Love, far from being the greatest thing in the world, “is a hindrance and a source of dissatisfaction and irritation,” Alyohin says. Of this he is certain. Then he launches into his story that is not quite about unrequited love but a love that can’t ever really be, of a woman who is married, with children, and will not leave her life for him. This makes him unhappy for years. It makes her unhappy too, maybe, though we never really have a sense of her internal life. Alyohin is trapped by this love. And maybe this woman, Anna Alexeyevna, is also trapped, or at least made sad by the fact that she loves they guy she’ll never be with, because of her comfortable life and husband and kids. Finally, when they express their love to one another in the most melodramatic and cliché way imaginable—on a trail, pulling away from station—what happens? Nothing. Actually, it’s better than nothing. The train has started to move, and Alyohin has to go to another compartment and sit and wait for the next station and then take a long walk home, like a real comic loser.
Two things I want to attempt to figure out. First, Chekhov describes Burkin and Ivan Ivanych walking out to the balcony and admiring the river while Alyohin is telling the story. What is with this river? It’s the same one Ivan Ivanych was joyously swimming in, diving down to the bottom, yelling “By God!” about. I don’t want to go so far as to say this river represents something like freedom and happiness and goodness, but maybe it’s close. It’s contentment, the enjoyment of a beautiful, natural, life-giving thing for exactly what it is. It is the exact opposite of all the things that get in the way of freedom. I have to assume Ivan Ivanych is naked when he’s swimming, because, yeah, he’s stripped of those shells.
There is also the sentence Alyohin utters before finishing his super sad love story: “Luckily or not, there is nothing in our lives that does not come to an end sooner or later.” Hot damn that’s true, and in that truth there is a kind of freedom. I suppose Chekhov is saying we all eventually get free even if it’s in death. Chekhov was, after all, a doctor, and often dark as hell in the sort of vaguely humorous way of someone who spends an awful lot of time in close proximity to death. But maybe he’s just thumbing his nose at all the romantic suckers, writers especially, who would put love above everything else. There are things more important than love, acts more devotional, ways to happiness more pure, selves more true. I’m not sure, maybe that’s what Ivan Ivanych is thinking about when he’s staring out at that river. Or maybe he’d just like to get back in.
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The story of Alyohin’s lost love, as told to Burkin and Ivanych. First we learn that Alyohin is a principled man. His dad had gone into debt over Alyohin’s education, so Alyohin feels indebted, and wants to pay back. Paradoxically, though, this means that instead of benefiting from his education by improving his own lot materially, professionally, Alyohin is going to be stuck on the farm for the duration. That part was a little unclear. What did Alyohin’s dad think was going to become of him? Why was he drawn back to this hard life where you only take a couple of baths a year?? What was the purpose of going to school? He is ready to renounce things, it seems, this man.
Then: she comes. Alyohin meets this nice middle-aged guy Luganovich and his young wife, Anna, in the course of his landed-gentry duties. These new people seem almost painfully ordinary, conventional, though Anna is beautiful and elegant in her ways. There’s a certain sympathy between them straightaway, Anna and Alyohin. One of the best things about the Luganoviches, apparently, is that they can appreciate Alyohin’s education: they lament that this cultivated man is busting tail on the farm rather than doing something more civilized (How could he “rush around like a squirrel in a cage, work hard and yet always be penniless”?)
This soothes Alyohin’s vanity. But then, he finds the Luganoviches themselves to be not really all that civilized. They can’t even fathom, for example, that those accused of a crime might be innocent, and are all ready to condemn the Jews who’ve been accused (wrongly, as it seems to Alyohin) of arson. Alyohin is condescending toward the Luganoviches, a bit, seems almost to feel that they are unworthy of their position. So I took against Anna from the first moment, on account of her position vis-à-vis the innocent Jews.
But Alyohin really likes Luganoviches a lot, becomes an informal member of their household, goes over there and listens to Anna play the piano for ages, which does sound pleasant. He wouldn’t borrow money from them, though he would from everyone else. This is an unimportant detail, he (falsely!) says to Burkin and Ivanych: “why mention the matter?” It’s the most important thing! He didn’t want to alter their relation of friendliness by tainting it with money. All these stories view money as a tainted thing, liable to corrupt.
Alyohin and Anna slowly become aware of a growing feeling for one another. It’s an entirely concealed love: he starts to think about the impossibility of confessing, let alone consummating this secret passion, though he is dead certain she reciprocates. “She would follow me, but where?” (Good question! cf. Anna Karenina, it would almost certainly be a real mess.) Then Anna gets “nervous prostration.” It seems pretty clear that she has got nervous prostration because she is lovesick. (I don’t think Chekhov is sneaky enough to knock her down for some other reason.) We don’t really get to learn how she felt about Alyohin, though, any more than we learned how Varenka felt about Belikov.
“What is higher, more important than happiness or unhappiness”—this first flush of love, as yet unconsummated, might pass, at least to some degree, in time, if it isn’t based in a deeper regard and admiration. I don’t know. As a former adulteress for whom everything uncannily worked out just great, twenty years on, I have extremely complicated feelings about these things. But I thought it very striking that Alyohin can no longer recall what it was about Anna Alexeyvna that he found so arresting. She was charming, pretty, that’s all. But he says, too, a feeling of nearness—sometimes I think there’s not so much more to The Real Thing than that, because such a nearness is so rare and precious. That is to say, some people—a very few—just have a conductivity to them, specifically relative to ourselves. An ordinary person who sits next to you on the train, for example, your soul and his are just in the ordinary relation of two people sitting near one another. But the one whom you are meant to love: the very air around such a person begins to scintillate with gathering meaning and feeling. If you pay attention, too, that feeling just grows more and more, even for twenty years. Maybe that’s the seed without which real love can’t grow: a natural fittingness, a sympathy between our souls, so that they are more open to one another. A capacity for touch, whether you act on it or not.
All three men go on flights of fancy that are related, each as he tells his story: Burkin’s is against the humdrum life-denying martinets of the world, like Belikov; Ivanych against life-denying money-grubbing like his brother’s; Alyohin’s against the conventional buttoned-upness of married life, as against the freedom of real love, which makes “sin or virtue in their usual meaning” irrelevant—in short, all three stories are about the prison of conventional life, where people are doing their time day to day together and pretending that we’re not going to die, vs. being keenly aware in every second that we’re part of nature, no matter how much we’ve bundled ourselves up, becoffined ourselves already, settled for “the done thing”, remain asleep, unaware. “Sin or virtue”—these things mean something very different from the POV of the real reality, which has a way of breaking in on us like a thunderclap (just like in “Tenth of December”.) When suddenly you see from that higher place and everything is so shimmering with meaning, light poured over all our moments like honey so that they glow and thrum with it; there is one single story for each life, each one brimming, teeming, beautiful and terrible in each second.
I don’t know Chekhov’s love life but I defy anybody who is really in love and loved in return, who has held the beloved and kissed, wept—I don’t know. It seems to me that’s the exact moment when you would just throw everything over, sell your estate, head over to the Crimea. Is this parallel to Alyohin’s renunciation of the “civilized” life? He preferred to hang back, not feel, not wash, not love, no longer read, no longer live? Is this self-control, a wise resignation, or some kind of horrible torpor?
He’s happy to see his friends who’re wet through, bathes for them, is ready to tell his story. I thought it was sad and so interesting how he couldn’t quite put his finger on why he had been so attracted to this girl. She was sweet, sympathetic! She was near, so near.
This was the hardest one of the three for me. I do not understand how people can choose other than love.
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