Today (November 16, 2010) marks the second anniversary of my blog “Reading the Short Story.” It is also the day my second short story has been published. It is entitled “Down Under” and is available at Marco Polo Quarterly at the following address: http://www.marcopoloquarterly.com/downundercmay.html
In the two years I have been writing this blog, I have tried to post at least one brief essay each week. Today is my 114th entry. To mark that occasion, for I dearly love to mark occasions, I am posting a brief discussion of one of the most admired short stories in the history of the form, Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Dog,” (as translated by Constance Garnett; translated by David Magarshack as “Lady with Lapdog”; also translated as “Lady with the Pet Dog,” “Lady with the Little Dog” and others).
I also will comment briefly on three modern tributes to the story: “The Lady with the Pet Dog” by Joyce Carol Oates, “The Man with the Lapdog” by Beth Lordan, and “Reading Chekhov” by David Means.
At the end of the nineteenth century Anton Chekhov, the great master of the short story, perfected the form’s ability to present spiritual reality in realistic terms by focusing on the essentially mysterious and hidden nature of the basic human desire to transcend the everyday. Critic Peter Bitsilli has suggested that the complexity of Chekhov's characters leads us to feel there is something about them we do not understand, a something hidden from us, a something that is part of Chekhov's appeal. That something, I suggest, is Chekhov’s understanding of the connection between the old romance form’s focus on spiritual reality and the modern short story’s focus on the secret inner desire of the individual to participate in that reality.
Although the theme of the basic desire of the secret self could be illustrated in any number of Chekhov’s short fictions, the paradigmatic statement can be found in one of his most famous stories, “Lady with the Dog.” Near the end of what seems to be merely an anecdotal tale of adultery, the central male character agonizes over the division he senses in himself.
"He had two lives: one, open, seen and known by all who cared to know, full of relative truth and of relative falsehood, exactly like the lives of his friends and acquaintances; and another life, running its course in secret. And through some strange, perhaps accidental, conjunction of circumstances, everything that was essential, of interest, and of value to him, everything in which he was sincere and did not deceive himself, everything that made the kernel of his life, was hidden from other people; and all that was false in him, the sheath in which he hid himself to conceal the truth—such, for instance, as his work in the bank, his discussions at the club, his “lower race,” his presence with his wife at anniversary festivities—all that was open. And he judged of others by himself, not believing in what he saw, and always believing that every man had his real, most interesting life under the cover of secrecy and under the cover of night."
In "The Lady with The Dog"--a paradigm for the story of the illicit affair--it is never clear whether Gurov truly loves Anna Sergeyevna or whether it is only the romantic fantasy that he wishes to maintain. What makes the story so subtle and complex is that Chekov presents the romance in such an understated and objective way that we realize there is no way to determine whether it is love or romance, for there is no way to distinguish between them. Although Gurov feels that he has a life open and seen, full of relative truth and falsehood like everyone else, he knows he has another life running its course in secret, a true life, and the false only was open to others. "All personal life," he feels, "rested on secrecy."
At the end of the story, Gurov and Anna wonder how they can free themselves from their intolerable bondage, but only Chekhov and the reader are aware that there is no way to free themselves, for the real bondage is not the manifest one, but the latent bondage all human beings have to the dilemma of never knowing which is the true self and which is the false one. Although it seems to the couple that they would soon find the solution and a new and splendid life would begin, at the same time it is clear to them that they had a long way to go and that the most complicated part of it was only just beginning. Indeed, what seems so simple is indeed complicated.
This division between public life and secret life corresponds to the distinction anthropologist Mircea Eliade makes between the two modes of being, sacred and profane, experienced by primitive man. “The man of the archaic societies,” says Eliade, wished to live as much as possible in the sacred, for the sacred is equivalent, “in the last analysis, to reality. The sacred is saturated with being.” The realm of the sacred, or what Ernst Cassirer calls “mythic reality,” is the central subject of the short story. What Cassirer calls “the momentary deity” and Eliade calls the “sacred” is something that manifests itself as wholly different from profane or everyday reality. Eliade uses the term “hierophany” to designate the momentary disruption that marks the sacred, the paradox of which is that by “manifesting the sacred, any object becomes something else, yet it continues to remain itself.”
This phenomenon is well known to writers who have made the short story their primary fictional mode. Raymond Carver suggests it most emphatically when he notes, "It's possible, in a poem or a short story, to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things--a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman's earring--with immense, even startling power.” As Flannery O’Connor says, "The peculiar problem of the short-story writer is how to make the action he describes reveal as much of the mystery of existence as possible.... His problem is really how to make the concrete work double time for him.”
As Eudora Welty once said, "The first thing we see about a story is its mystery. And in the best stories, we return at the last to see mystery again. Every good story has mystery--not the puzzle kind, but the mystery of allurement. As we understand the story better, it is likely that the mystery does not necessarily decrease; rather it simply grows more beautiful. More so than in the novel, the short story most often deals with phenomena for which there is no clearly discernible logical, sociological, or psychological cause. As Welty says, the "first thing we notice about our story is that we can't really see the solid outlines of it--it seems bathed in something of its own. It is wrapped in an atmosphere. This is what makes it shine, perhaps, as well as what initial obscures its plain, real shape." To Conrad’s Marlowe, sitting Buddha-like on the deck telling the story of Kurtz in “Heart of Darkness,” the "meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of those misty halos that, sometimes, are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine."
In Chekhov’s great story, “Lady with the Dog,” The secrecy of Gurov’s idealized desire constitutes true reality for him, just as the sacred constituted true reality for primitive man and woman. Indeed, in the modern short story, idealized human desire--unsayable, unrealizable, always hovering, like religious experience in the realm of the "not yet"--replaces the sacred revelation embodied in primal short-fiction forms. As the couple sit looking at the sea, Gurov feels that “in reality everything is beautiful in this world when one reflects: everything except what we think or do ourselves…” When Anna leaves, Gurov thinks it has been just another episode or adventure in his life, nothing left but a memory that would visit him only from time to time. But she haunts him, and he imagines her to be lovelier and himself to be finer than they actually were in Yalta. The story ends with the couple agonizing about how to avoid the secrecy and to be free of their intolerable bondage. “How? How?” Gurov asks. But, of course there is no answer, no way that the romantic, spiritual ideal they store up in their ghostly hearts can ever be actualized, except, of course, as it is manifested in the short story—as the immanent, the liminal, the “not yet.”
Beth Lordan, professor of creative writing at Southern Illinois University, had just returned from a spring semester in Ireland when she wrote “The Man With the Lapdog,” the first story in her “novel-in-stories,” But Come Ye Back, about an American man and his Irish-born wife retiring to her homeland where the sea is near and the butter has a taste to it, but where he hates driving on the wrong side of the road and doesn’t care for the Guinness.
Although each story in But Come Ye Back is a perfectly formed independent fiction, the separate parts create an even greater whole. And the reason is the reader’s gradual discovery of, and growing concern for, the central characters. As you read each story, you experience shifting allegiances. At one point Lyle seems like a gruff curmudgeon and his wife long-suffering; at another, Mary seems to be shrewishly sharp tongued and Lyle quietly self-sacrificing.
Like most couples who have lived together for many years, Lyle and Mary chaff against each other, find it difficult to say how they really feel, and occasionally fantasize about how it would be to be with someone else. For Lyle, it occurs when he meets an American couple on holiday and discovers that the husband is dying of cancer; he imagines meeting the wife again later, but, as opposed to the famous Chekhov story of illicit love from which “The Man With the Lapdog” gets its name, he quietly values his own relationship.
In the final scene, when Mary goes for a walk with Lyle and they meet the American couple, Mary exhibits the gracious sympathy and hospitality the Irish are famous for by inviting them home for tea and putting her arms around the young American woman. As they part, Mary says, “Such lovely people,” and Lyle, who has rejected taking up Irish idioms, presses his arm against her side and says, “They are so. And it’s a sad thing, it is.” Lordan’s story is a delicately-done love story about those daily irritations and fantasies that tear at married couples and those occasional luminous moments that remind them of what holds them together.
Joyce Carol Oates’ “The Lady with the Pet Dog” (in High Lonesome) is not so delicate. Told from the point of view of the Anna character in Chekhov’s story, it is a modern story of adultery, focusing on a period six months after the lovers have broken it off. It is marred by Oates’ ignoring Chekhov’s famous dictum, “It is better to say too little than too much.” Oates has her female protagonist examine and ponder and wonder endlessly, even, predictably, making a half-hearted suicide attempt. The couple torment themselves with recriminations and shame; the cuckolded husband helplessly tries to hold on.
The basic problem I have with Joyce Carol Oates’ stories is that she does not seem to really like her characters, and she does not respect the intelligence of her readers, feeling compelled to explain everything and to center relentlessly on some thematic idea she wishes to convey. Too many of her stories are aesthetically astute but emotionally cold, resonant with the influence of literature but empty of the mystery of life.
Oates writes a great deal and seemingly publishes everything she writes. It is a fact of her literary life that makes one suspicious that in spite of the serious surface of her work she is a one-woman industry. There is no doubt that she knows the short story form well--has studied it and practiced it more than most living writers. However, her work is often imitative and repetitive, and many of the stories seem to spring from a dispassionate artistic "what if" than from a passionate involvement in the lives of her characters.
Too often, Oates' stories read like creative writing assignments. And indeed, students who want to learn how to write short fiction could do worse than read the stories of Joyce Carol Oates and imitate what she does. For she is a complete craftsman who can mimic the conventions of the form. However, as John Barth has his Genie and the archetypal storyteller Scheherazade say in his book Chimera (1972), telling stories, like making love, takes more than good technique; while both heartfelt ineptitude and heartless skill have their appeal, what one really wants is "passionate virtuosity." No matter how well a writer knows the conventions and techniques of a genre, without a deeply felt sense of human mystery that compels the great writer to write, the result is apt to be bloodless. Oates is certainly a virtuoso, but does she have passion?
David Means’ story “Reading Chekhov,” from his new collection, The Spot, is also a version of “Lady with a Pet Dog.” The story is told in brief sections that move back and forth between the man, who is a 35-year-old part-time student at a seminary, and the woman who is married with a twelve-year-old daughter. They know they are part of the overall tradition of adultery; they read “The Lady with the Pet Dog” together and compare themselves to Chekhov’s lovers.
Means has a very perceptive understanding of the subtleties of adultery, and it doesn’t hurt that his characters here are made intelligent about, and sensitive to, what they are involved in. While lace curtains spread a lattice across her body that he traces with his fingers, “from her belly—with its cesarean scar to her chin—“ he says that adultery is multifaceted: “It’s shapeless but at the same time has a rudimentary figure, like a snowflake; an abundance of clichés surround it and yet it’s unique, an entity different each time.” This, of course, is the challenge to writing a good story about adultery, as Chekhov well knew.
Means creates an irresistible trope of the woman’s skirt, which is charged with static electricity, “clinging in wavelets to her thighs, riding along her crotch, sliding up with each step as she climbed the stairs to his apartment.” When they walk down toward the river off the promenade, he lets her go ahead a few yards “so he could watch her hips shifting beneath her skirt, the movement of her rear against the silk fabric, light-and dark-blue daisy-shaped flowers.”
It is at this point that the story shifts, for her pumps make her unsteady on the soft ground and she twists sideways to the right and falls into the weeds, breaking a bone just above her ankle. She must lie to her husband as to how the accident occurred; and as she sits at home letting the bones heal, she apparently decides to end it. Her explanation to him about the importance of her marriage and her daughter seems so stilted she makes up something specific: “I went last night check my daughter, and she was uncovered and sleeping facedown and I looked at her back, the bones of her back, and they were, well, they reminded me of the bones of a sardine. You could chew and swallow them and not even notice.”
And it is indeed such specificities, both real and imagined, that characterize the affair. Here is how the story ends:
“Much later she’d hold specific memories of it…. She beheld a certain dignity in the exactitudes: the smell of cut flowers at a bodega, rubber bands bright red around their stems; the dusky light off Broadway on summer afternoons; the heavy wall along Riverside Park, cool against their claves, as they sat holding hands during lunch, turning now and then to glance down through the trees to the river, which was broken into shards, blue against the green.”
Like Borges, who once said that a short story may be, for all purposes, “essential," or Andre Dubus, who said he loved short stories because “they are the way we live," or Alice Munro, who once told an interviewer that she doesn’t write novels because she sees her material in a short-story way, David Means-- like Chekhov, Flannery O'Connor, Raymond Carver, and Grace Paley--sees the world in a short-story way.
One doesn’t go to David Means for plot that rushes to its inevitable end or for easily recognizable character, like the folks you meet every day. One reads David Means for some scary, sacred, sense that what happens is not as important as what it signifies. One reads David Means for mystery and the paradox understood by the great short story writers from Poe to Chekhov to Carver--that if you remove everything extraneous from a scene, an object, a person, its meaning is revealed--stark and astonishing.