14 July 2004

Chekhov and Perception

I promised a couple of weeks ago to write some posts about Anton Chekhov to commemorate the 100th anniversary of his death, and so, to at least begin keeping that promise, here are a few small thoughts about Chekhov and the nature of perception within some of his works.

Consider the stories I said in that first post I would discuss: From the early stories written as little more than comic filler in newspapers ("The Telephone", "After the Fair") to the somewhat more developed stories soon after ("Dreams", "Kashtanka"), to the mature masterpieces ("Gusev", "Ward No. 6"), one of the central subjects of Chekhov's short stories is the way characters perceive the world, and how their perceptions can conflict.

Ideological critics have often twisted themselves into all sorts of interpretive contortions to prove that Chekhov stands for one philosophy or another in his work, but while his biography and his letters prove him to have been deeply humane and thoughtful, even his least significant stories and plays keep from endorsing any one position. This is one reason Chekhov can be frustrating to readers who first encounter him. He was profoundly interested in people and their interactions, an interest that often kept him from creating stories with traditional plots, though as such stories as "Ward No. 6" show, he was perfectly capable of weaving complex and satisfying plots. Plot was, though, for him a tool to illuminate the characters, and if it wasn't a necessary tool for a particular story, he dispensed with it. Perhaps "dispensed with it" is too extreme, for though Chekhov's work can certainly feel plotless, it is not necessarily so. The plot simply becomes less about external events than about encounters, both social and psychological. There is plenty of drama in Chekhov, but often the obvious drama is not particularly important or resonant, while a suggested drama is. (The Cherry Orchard, his final play, which is now 100 years old, is a perfect example of this sort of effect. Anyone who thinks the play is about the sale of a cherry orchard, or even the effect of the sale on Ranyevskaya and the other characters, will likely find the play uninteresting. Once you realize it is about various people coming to grips with time, change, and mortality, then it starts revealing some of its wonders.)

Perception is everything in Chekhov, whether it's being used for a purely comic effect as in "The Telephone" (a marvelous sketch about the perils of new technologies) or for more dramatic effect, as in the other stories. Chekhov is often cited by die-hard writers of realism, but he was only partially a realist, in that he was, indeed, interested in "the real world", yet he was willing to use many different techniques and styles as he tried to capture some sense of what it means to be alive. "After the Fair" is only one of many early stories that does not use a standard narrative structure, but rather utilizes the ability of fiction to imitate other forms of writing to convey meaning. I'm especially fond of that particular story because it tells so much so efficiently -- scraps of paper with a brief introduction framing the situation, all of which could have been fodder for novels by numerous other writers. And yet to the reader willing to commit her or his imagination to the story, the reader willing to let the fragments grow into a shadow and the shadow into a small universe, it is an emotionally affecting piece of writing. Not tremendously unique in terms of its situation, by any means, but the nature of the telling, the placing of the reader in the same position as the off-stage wife, is clever and touching -- more so than many stories twice its length.

In "Kashtanka" we have a story told from the point of view of a dog, a story that has been popular both with children and with critics of all types, who desperately try to place some sort of grand interpretation on it (for a marvelous chronicle and critique of these critics, see the first chapter of Kataev's If Only We Could Know). The story doesn't need any grand interpretation, though: it just needs readers who, like the children it is so popular with, will sympathize with the tale being told. If we do so, we might look a little differently at the world for a few minutes.

"Dreams" and "Gusev" are two favorites of mine, though I must admit to being utterly incapable of writing about them with any depth. They astound me too much, and they move me too deeply. Were every story in the world to disappear but those two, I would probably not mind very much. Both are about perception, about suffering, about living, and both are written so carefully that even the clunkiest translations convey something beautiful. The ending of "Gusev", in particular, seems to me to be one of the greatest bits of prose ever written, not merely for its language, because I don't read Russian and so can't judge the actual language, but for what it accomplishes within the scope of the story itself. A body is thrown overboard, and then the universe expands for the reader, since previously the story has been often claustrophobic in its intensity. It's a tour de force just for that opening up, but then when we begin to think how the choice of ending the story this way relates to the philosophical problems of the story ... the effect is breathtaking.

"Ward No. 6" is a somewhat more literal exploration of perception, and some critics have slighted it for being contrived. But contrived stories don't get much better than this one, where the mechanics of the plot work smoothly and flip not only the circumstances of some of the characters, but the reader's expectations, and do so in a way that isn't gimmicky, but is, rather, quite disturbing. Regardless of how many times I've read this story, I always find something unsettling in it that I didn't notice before, while things that bothered me before, details that lodged in my brain like tacks, seem more benign. The last time I read it, it was Sergey Sergeyitch's pious praying in the chapel over the body that got me: the blind loyalty to an irrational god while faced with the evidence of the irrationality ... and yet is it really irrational? In some ways, I thought, this is one of the most rational stories ever written. Coldly, horribly so. And so we have a rational god sanctifying -- but then the two final, horribly abrupt sentences shut down my overthinking. Two tremendously matter-of-fact sentences. Two of the loneliest sentences I know.