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Reading Chekhov's Heartache

I'm often struck by how much information is available in the blogosphere on writing process and tips for getting published or promoting your work (though these days that really means promoting your self) and how little is available on reading as the consuming passion and primary motivation of a writer.  As a teacher at the MFA in Writing Program at the University of San Francisco, I'm used to talking about close reading-about looking to great writers for strategies-which is really rewarding but is only part of what I believe reading means to writers. We don't have enough time to spend on the most crucial aspect of reading fiction-how a story reveals us to ourselves, stretches our capacity to feel and to reflect, grants us just a few more square feet of territory for our inner lives. Craft matters because it is intimately linked to this astonishing effect. When I thought about trying to blog (because, you know, you have to promote your self as a writer), I realized that what I most wanted to do was to explore this connection. And I wanted to start this project by talking about the short stories of Chekhov; he's my religion, and his religion is a compassionate, honest humanism.

Chekhov's "Heartache" (sometimes translated as "Misery") is a very short story of about seven pages that takes place over a few hours.  Iona, the main character, drives a horse-drawn cab, and on this snowy night, he picks up one customer after another, with most of them cursing his ineptitude. Iona has the greatest difficulty rousing himself to get a fare and to focus on the task at hand, and we only realize why when he blurts out to a customer that his son has just died.  How many times have you jumped in a cab at the airport, hoping to be left in peace and instead having to listen to the driver's political opinions or the details of his harrowing divorce? Iona's confession is comical-and the more unnerving for this effect. 

Chekhov has such a perfect instinct for how to plot a story so that it truly generates tension around its "subject."  Had he given us a deathbed scene of Iona's son, there might be pathos, but we wouldn't feel much conflict over Iona's grief. If the story's circumstances "allowed" for its expression, Iona's grief wouldn't be felt so sharply by the reader either. Like his customers, we're taken aback by his inappropriately timed announcements, conflicted about how to respond appropriately to a plea for sympathy that is utterly inappropriate in a strictly functional relationship.  In other words, we're implicated too. 

But unlike his customers, the reader witnesses Iona trying again and again to tell someone what has befallen him. The desperation of his need to share his feelings with some other creature is paired with the urgent desire of his customers to get where they are going. The circumstances of the story are the perfect vehicle for highlighting how inconvenient and "inappropriate" grief is in a world that is in a big hurry.

But this is Chekhov, and still more is in play in this plot. Iona is grateful and relieved when he picks up a fare:  to sit alone, "immobile," silent, forced to endure his grief, is far worse than enduring the indifference off his customers or their wrath when his disorientation interferes with their need to get to their destination. At one point, when he picks up a group of drunks, he giggles as they curse him and threaten him, and when one of them whacks him on the neck for his lousy driving, he responds, "Hee hee. The gentlemen are feeling good." Even Iona wants life to go on, indifferent to his agonizing grief. He'll settle for this means of diminishing his sorrow instead of the other option, consolation.   

We collaborate with each other so fiercely in seeking any relief from the stopped time of grief-any respite from the curse of mortality itself. Anyone planning a funeral spends hours on logistics: notifying friends and relatives, arranging for a meal after the service, worrying about the appropriate "donation" to the cleric who conducts the service. On the day of my much-loved mother's funeral, my sisters and I spent the morning getting our hair done and asking each other what to wear. Really? Is an intent focus on the trivial the best defense we can muster against grief?  Even worse, surviving the people we love is at some deep psychological level a form of betrayal. I will busy myself choosing what jewelry to wear to the funeral.  I will go on without you. 

Like Iona, we trip and stumble in our effort to go on, fall back into the absolute state of grief, try again and again to imagine some way to escape the isolation it imposes. After my mother's funeral, I drove to the airport for my flight home in a terrific storm that halted all traffic on the highway. I arrived way past the scheduled departure time. But it didn't matter.  A tornado had touched down at the airport, cancelling all flights out.

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Story-telling and Grief

The sort of story-telling technique you write about could be applied to non-fiction writing as well. I found the post very helpful. Thanks.

About grief and the ways we deal with it - I think the rituals that surround death are meant to help us get a handle on our grief. We mechanically go through the steps that religion or culture dicatates and find comfort in the logistics. As much as I hate rituals, I must sometimes admit they have their uses.