where the writers are
Going off Topic/Telling the Truth

             “To see and hear people lie,” said Ivan Ivanych, turning over on the other side, “and to be called a fool yourself for putting up with the lie; to endure insults, humiliations, not daring to say openly that you’re on the side of honest, free people, and to have to lie yourself, to smile, and all that for a crust of bread, a warm corner, some little rank that’s not worth a penny – no, it’s impossible to live like that any longer!”

              “Well, that’s from another opera, Ivan Ivanych,” said the teacher. “Let’s get some sleep.”

               Anton Chekhov, “The Man in a Case,” Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, trans. in Stories by Anton Chekhov

This week, I’m rereading Chekhov stories, including “The Man in a Case” and “Gooseberries,” the first two in a trilogy (it’s a pity that those translator demi-gods Pevear and Volokhonsky left “[On/About/Concerning] Love” out of their volume, though it’s the least strong of the three). Next week I’ll start a four-month class about fiction and telling the truth, in which a group of writers will explore novels and stories from several different countries and times. We’ll read, talk, do writing exercises, puzzle things out -- this is the first time I’ve ever started with Chekhov, and even now I’m not beginning with him because of the often-repeated narrative that he’s the father of our short story tradition. Chekhov’s stories can be at the heart of any number of narratives about why he continues to matter to us.

Much of this class will have to do with the shapes and underlying intentions of the fiction we’re reading. The stories in Chekhov’s trilogy don’t confine themselves to a single narrative. They all have frame stories in which a character tells a story about desire (the attainment of desire, the denial of desire, the way a desire shapes a life or sends it on another course). Nothing happens in the frame stories: the storytellers and their listeners swim, smoke pipes, lie awake and listen to the rain, and indulge in outbursts, some as apparently off-topic as Ivan Ivanych’s above. But the frameworks transform the stories they tell, though not necessarily by illuminating them. The outburst may or may not have anything to do with the story-within-a-story. Why doesn’t Ivan Ivanych burst out about fear and missed opportunities instead?

In reading or rereading these three stories, it’s worth thinking about how they’re as much about the ways people listen (or don’t listen) as about the ways they tell stories. Some of the pleasure in examining them is in enumerating the layers (narrative and tonal) and seeing how they intersect. And also, as always with Chekhov, there’s the enormous pleasure and relief of feeling that someone is telling the truth.

It’s fatal for a writer, or any artist, to sit down to write with the explicit intention of being interesting or original. But look what happens when instead we go to our desks or a coffee shop or wherever we sit (or stand or stretch out) and try to tell the truth. I don’t mean sticking to literal events or realistic styles or subject matters. That might be the truth for one writer and not for another. And I don’t necessarily mean expressing an opinion about politics or psychology, or letting our characters do so for us. Or, since we’re not living in the age of “The Beast in the Jungle,” directly telling our readers what the stories mean (though perhaps, if we’ve been reading too much DFW, we may give way to the temptation to start including footnotes or charts). Telling the truth is about maintaining a certain intention and returning to that intention when we forget it.

In “Gooseberries,” Ivan Ivanych says, “And at the door of every contented, happy man somebody should stand with a little hammer, constantly tapping, to remind him that unhappy people exist, that however happy he may be, sooner or later life will show him its claws, some calamity will befall him – illness, poverty, loss – and nobody will hear or see, just as he doesn’t hear or see others now. But there is nobody with a little hammer, the happy man lives on, and the petty cares of life stir him only slightly, as wind stirs an aspen – and everything is fine.”

This is part of a much longer speech that comes directly out of his story, but his friends are bored and distracted. The reader has the chance – it’s up to us to take it or not – to hear the truth and accept the pain of being awakened to reality. Not a simple reality, though, and not one that focuses only on the hammer at the door. The outbursts in the stories are the truth, but so are the descriptions of the weather, the thoughts and actions of those who don’t care to hear the outbursts and find some way of deflecting them, the unhappy lovers and complacent property owner, and so, very much, is Chekhov’s description of Ivan Ivanych swimming:

           Ivan Ivanych went outside, threw himself noisily into the water and swam under the rain, swinging his arms widely, and he made waves, and the white lilies swayed on the waves; he reached the middle of the pond and dove, and a moment later appeared in another place and swam further, and kept diving, trying to reach the bottom. “Ah, my God…” he repeated, delightedly. ‘Ah, my God…’ He swam as far as the mill, talked about something with the peasants there and turned back, and in the middle of the pond lay face up to the rain. Burkin and Alekhin were already dressed and ready to go, but he kept swimming and diving.

            “Ah, my God…” he repeated. “Ah, Lord have mercy.”

            “That’s enough!” Burkin shouted to him.