Unreal Nature

January 16, 2015

That Kind of Life

Filed under: Uncategorized — unrealnature @ 5:46 am

… he was trying to understand how to portray his characters so that they did not turn into types and thus raise expectations that the resolution of the story would be a hint toward some transformed reality he could not bring himself to believe in.

This is from the essay ‘Chekhov’s Anger’ (1985) found in What Light Can Do: Essays on Art, Imagination, and the Natural World by Robert Hass (2012):

… in 1886, he described his technique in a letter to his brother: “I finish every act as I do my stories; I keep the action calm and quiet till the end, then I punch the audience in the face.”

Anton_Chekhov_with_bow-tie
Anton Chekhov [image from Wikipedia]

… There is at the root of his art a good deal of comic malice: malice at his characters, but also malice at his audience. It would be easy to misstate this, or to emphasize it wrongly, but it explains to me things about Chekhov’s art that the usual accounts of his tremendous human attractiveness — “Isn’t he adorable,” the ancient Tolstoy is supposed to have said to Gorky once, when Chekhov had left the table for a moment — simply don’t account for. That there is hardly ever a false note in Chekhov, that he almost never sentimentalizes or leans too hard on a character, that he lets no one off the hook, that his refusal to give the audience what it wanted in the way of wish fulfillment was so extreme that it amounted to reinventing the forms of both the tale and the stage drama, required of him immense toughness and moreover a willingness to hurt, both in the raucous manner of comedy and in the more stubborn disciplined even inwardly cruel manner of cool refusal.

[ … ]

… Thinking about this, about the young man’s depression that he didn’t whip his sister’s boyfriend [in his story “Neighbors”], which serves as a screen for having told a lie out of kindness, which was probably itself a screen for his love for his sister, is typical of the way that Chekhov’s stories draw us so deeply into life, into the details of life that only storytelling can convey between people (in bars, restaurants, on long walks on Sunday, at kitchen tables, wherever lived life is talked, not theorized, about — that kind of life), that we feel hypnotically present at some source, at the way life really is. Victor Shklovsky has said that the form of Chekhov’s stories is based not on emotional resolution but on cognition, that the stories end when the elements of the characters’ situation have been presented to the reader, not when they have been resolved. This needs, I think, to be qualified. The stories end very often when the reader sees what is not seen by the characters and, partly by not being seen, defines them. It is this that makes us feel at the end ready both to let go and to be drawn further in.

… If at the emotive level he was committed to constructing stories that didn’t merely gratify a reader’s wishes, at another level he was trying to understand how to portray his characters so that they did not turn into types and thus raise expectations that the resolution of the story would be a hint toward some transformed reality he could not bring himself to believe in. This is in some ways the central fact of his art, the problem that amused and fascinated him intensely at the beginning of his career and tormented him at the end of it.

-Julie

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