Saturday, May 3, 2014

Short Story Month: Anton Chekhov and the Modern Short Story

Continuing my celebration of Short Story Month, I post the following discussion of Chekhov's contribution to the modern short story--an excerpt from a chapter in my book I Am Your Brother:  Short Story Studies.

Anton Chekhov's short stories were first welcomed in England and America just after the turn of the century as examples of late nineteenth-century realism, but because they did not embody the social commitment or political convictions of the realistic novel, they were termed "realistic" primarily because they seemed to focus on fragments of everyday reality. Consequently, they were characterized as "sketches," "slices of life," "cross-sections of Russian life," and were often said to be lacking every element that constitutes a really good well-made short story. However, at the same time, other critics saw that Chekhov's ability to dispense with a striking incident, his impressionism, and his freedom from the literary conventions of the highly plotted and formalized story marked the beginnings of a new or "modern" kind of short fiction that somehow combined the specific detail of realism with the poetic lyricism of Romanticism.

The most basic problem in understanding the Chekhovian shift to the "modern" short story involves a new definition of the notion of "story" itself, which, in turn, necessitates not only a new understanding of the kind of "experience" to be embodied in story but a new conception of character as well. Primarily this shift to the modern is marked by a transition from the romantic focus on a projective fiction, in which characters are functions in an essentially code-bound parabolic or ironic structure, to an apparently realistic episode in which plot is subordinate to "as-if-real" character. However, it should be noted that Chekhov's fictional figures are not realistic in the way that characters in the novel usually are. The short story is too short to allow for character to be created by the kind of dense detail and social interaction through duration typical of the novel.

 Conrad Aiken was perhaps the first to recognize the secret of Chekhov's creation of character. Noting that Chekhov's stories offer an unparalleled "range of states of consciousness," Aiken says that whereas Poe manipulates plot and James manipulates thought, Chekhov "manipulates feeling or mood." If, says Aiken, we find his characters have a strange way of evaporating, "it is because our view of them was never permitted for a moment to be external--we saw them only as infinitely fine and truthful sequences of mood." This apprehension of character as mood is closely related to D. S. Mirsky's understanding of the Chekhov style, which he described as "bathed in a perfect and uniform haze," and the Chekhov narrative method, which Mirsky says "allows nothing to 'happen,' but only smoothly and imperceptibly to 'become'".

Such a notion of character as mood and story as a hazy "eventless" becoming is characteristic of the modern artistic understanding of story. It is like Joseph Conrad's conception in Heart of Darkness; for his storyteller Marlowe, "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." As Eudora Welty has suggested, that the first thing we notice about the short 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.”  Once we see that the short story, by its very shortness, cannot deal with the denseness of detail and the duration of time typical of the novel, but rather focuses on a revelatory break-up of the rhythm of everyday reality, we can see how the form, striving to accommodate "realism" at the end of the nineteenth century, focused on an experience under the influence of a particular mood and therefore depended more on tone than on plot as a principle of unity.

       Rather than plot, what unifies the modern short story is an atmosphere, a certain tone of significance. The problem is to determine the source of this significance. On the one hand, it may be the episode itself, which, to use Henry James's phrase, seems to have a "latent value" that the artist tries to unveil. On the other hand, it may be the subjectivity of the teller, his perception that what seems trivial and everyday has, from his point of view, significance and meaning. There is no way to distinguish between these two views of the source of the so-called "modern" short story, for it is by the teller's very choice of seemingly trivial details and his organization of them into a unified pattern that lyricizes the story and makes it seem natural and realistic even as it embodies significance. As Georg Luk√°cs has suggested, lyricism in the short story is pure selection which hides itself behind the hard outlines of the event; it is "the most purely artistic form; it expresses the ultimate meaning of all artistic creation as mood."

       Typical of Chekhov's minimalist stories is the often-anthologized "Misery," in which the rhythm of the old-cab driver's everyday reality is suggested by his two different fares, a rhythm Iona himself tries to break up with the news that his son is dead. The story would indeed be only a sketch if Iona did not tell his story to his uncomprehending little mare at the end. For what the story communicates is the comic and pathetic sense of the incommunicable nature of grief itself. Iona "thirsts for speech," wants to talk of the death of his son "properly, with deliberation." He is caught by the primal desire to tell a story of the break-up of his everyday reality that will express the irony he senses and that, by being deliberate and detailed, will both express his grief and control it. In this sense, "Misery" is a lament--not an emotional wailing, but rather a controlled objectification of grief and its incommunicable nature by the presentation of deliberate details.

            The story therefore illustrates one of the primary contributions Chekhov makes to the modern short story, that is, the expression of a complex inner state by presenting selected concrete details rather than by presenting either a parabolic form or by depicting the mind of the character. Significant reality for Chekhov is inner rather than outer reality, but the problem he tried to solve is how to create an illusion of inner reality by focusing on external details only. The answer for Chekhov, and thus for the modern short story generally, is to find an event that, if expressed "properly," that is, by the judicious choice of relevant details, will embody the complexity of the inner state. T. S. Eliot later termed such a technique an "objective correlative"--a detailed event, description, or characterization that serves as a sort of objectification or formula for the emotion sought for. Modern short-story writers after Chekhov made the objective correlative the central device in their development of the form.

       For Chekhov, the only way that the eternal can be achieved is aesthetically through unification with the human. It is best embodied in his two most mystic stories that deal with the nature of art: "Easter Eve" and "The Student." Both stories focus on the tension between disorder and harmony, between separation resulting from everyday reality and unity achieved by means of story and song. In an in-between time between death and resurrection, in an in-between place on the ferry between darkness and chaos, Ieronim tells his story of Brother Nikolay and his extraordinary gift of writing hymns of praise. Chekhov comes as close here as anywhere in his letters and notes to describing his own aesthetic. As Ieronim says, canticles are quite a different thing from writing histories or sermons; moreover, it is not enough to know well the life of the saint or the conventions that govern the writing of canticles. What matters, he says, is the beauty and sweetness of it:

Everything must be harmonious, brief and complete. There must be in every line softness, graciousness and tenderness; not one word should be harsh or rough or unsuitable. It must be written so that the worshipper may rejoice at heart and weep, while his mind is stirred and he is thrown into a tremor.

In contrast to the silence of the dark river and the remembered beauty of Nikolay's songs is the chaos and restlessness of the celebration that the narrator enters, where everyone is too caught up in the "childishly irresponsible joy, seeking a pretext to break out and vent itself in some movement, even in senseless jostling and shoving" to listen to the songs of Nikolay. The narrator looks for the dead brother, but does not regret not seeing him. "God knows, perhaps if I had seen him I should have lost the picture my imagination paints for me now." Indeed, it is the creation of Nikolay in the narrator's imagination that justifies Ieronim's story, just as it is Nikolay's songs that sustain Ieronim. For the key to the eternal for Chekhov is the artwork that serves to unify human experience; thus Ieronim sees the face of his brother in the face of everyone.

 "The Student" begins with a sense of disorder and lack of harmony. However, it is once again song or story that serves to heal a fractured sense of reality. After he tells the story of the Last Supper and Peter's denial of Christ, which itself takes up about one third of this very short story, he says he imagines Peter weeping, "the still, still, dark, dark, garden, and in the stillness, faintly audible, smothered sobbing." And with this final imaginative projection, the power of the story affects the two listeners. The student says the fact that they are affected must mean that what happened to Peter has some relation to them, to the present, to the desolate village, to himself, and to all people. The widow wept not because of the way he told the tale, but "because her whole being was interested in what was passing in Peter's soul."

       Although the story does not reveal what is passing through Peter's soul, it compels the reader/listener to sympathetically identify with Peter in his complex moment of realization. Indeed the revelation of character by means of story presentation of a crucial moment in which the reader must then imaginatively participate is the key to Chekhov's much discussed "objectivity" and yet "sympathetic" presentation. The student thus feels joy at the sense of an unbroken chain running from the past to the present. He feels that "truth and beauty" which had guided life there in the garden had continued without interruption "and had evidently always been the chief thing in human life and in all earthly life . . . and life seemed to him enchanting, marvelous, and full of lofty meaning." As in "Easter Eve," here we see the only means by which Chekhov feels that the eternal can be achieved, through the aesthetic experience and sense of unity that story and song create.

       The charge often made against the Chekhovian story--that it is dehumanized and therefore cold and unfeeling--has been made about the short story as a form since Hawthorne was criticized for his "bloodless" parables. However, such a charge ignores the nature of art that has characterized Western culture since the early nineteenth century and which Ortega y Gasset so clearly delineated in The Dehumanization of Art. In their nostalgia for the bourgeois security of nineteenth-century realism, critics of the short story forget that the royal road to art, as Ortega delineates is, is "the will to style." And to stylize "means to deform reality, to derealize: style involves dehumanization." Given this definition of art, it is easy to see that the short story as a form has always embodied "the will to style." The short story writer realizes that the artist must not confuse reality with idea, that he must inevitably turn his back on alleged reality and, as Ortega insists, "take the ideas for what they are--mere subjective patterns--and make them live as such, lean and angular, but pure and transparent."

       With Chekhov, the short story took on a new respectability and began to be seen as the most appropriate narrative form to reflect the modern temperament. There can be no understanding of the short story without an understanding of Chekhov's contribution to the form.  Conrad Aiken's assessment of him in 1921 has yet to be challenged: "possibly the greatest writer of the short story who has ever lived."


Rodney Barnes said...

Which translation/edition of Chekhov's work would you recommend?

[By the way I've been really appreciating every piece you've been publishing this month - I found the essay by Benjamin you wrote about the other day and I have some unformulated questions I may put to you someday. Thank you!]

Charles E. May said...

Hi, Rodney, thanks for reading. You know, I am probably just a hide-bound traditionalist, but I still like the Constance Garnett translation, probably, partly, because I have this musty smelling old 1927 edition that I like to read.