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Chekhov Anticipates - Gloria Frym

In the realm of short stories, there is a before and after Chekhov.  

If Poe was the father of the American short story and if the detective genre began with Poe’s “tales of ratiocination,” then Chekhov is probably the father of the Modernist short story.  

Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) anticipates a new century, and with him a new way of telling a story. He created a one-person revolution--no one before him wrote the way he did.

His was a poetics of brevity, and he practiced what he preached. Chekhov begins his stories simply—often with a single sentence, which leads right into the narrative or a piece of dialogue. The story “Sleepy”[1] slips right in with one word and no warning:


He enters the story, as Nabokov has said of him, “without knocking.” Following are some more Chekhov openings. Each tells the reader as much as they need to know “about” the story:

“The Grasshopper” (entire first paragraph)

All of Olga Ivanovna’s friends and acquaintances went to her wedding.

“A Journey by Cart”

They left the city by half past eight.  (first paragraph)
The highway was dry and splendid April sun was beating fiercely down, but the snow still lay in the woods and wayside ditches.

“A Problem”

The strictest measures were taken that the Uskov’s family secret might not leak out and become generally known.

No one seriously writing short fiction today can escape writing up against Chekhov. By this I mean, he is both the unique and the standard--he is timeless. Though his stories are set in a particular time--pre-revolutionary Russia--and particular places in that social landscape and geography, there is nothing antique or dated about any of his strategies or concerns.

Chekhov did much of his finest writing on the cusp of the twentieth century. He straddled both eras and art movements.

History would change dramatically and violently as the new century dawned. Though Chekhov was neither ideological about his aesthetics, nor held strong, systematic theoretical opinions about the nature of fiction, he did know and predict that Russia was on the eve of revolution. And we as readers are secretly armed, as a new political and economic system waits on the mezzanine. The sabers are rattling, the servants ready to flee, the dachas are whispering through the beautiful and lethargic countryside. A catastrophic world war begins only a decade after Chekhov’s death; Russia will fight in this war with five million troops, the largest in history.

Of course, in art so much was stirring at the turn of the century that one can't point to a precise date of change as with a battle. But by the time the Russian Revolution installs Communism in 1917, Joyce, Stein, Forester, Woolf, Pound, Eliot, Yeats, Picasso, Braque, Apollinaire, et al., are in the full swing of what constitutes Modernism.

We evaluate great artists by how much they rid themselves of convention, about how much they change artistic history. When Jackson Pollack renounced the brush in the 1940s in favor of pouring paint directly onto the canvas, it meant that we couldn't apply standard criteria of judgment anymore to painting.

When Chekhov did away with lengthy exposition, we would not read beginnings of stories in the same way again.  

It is imperative to know that he made a principle out of a limitation. Like Poe, he started to write support himself--in his case through medical school. His first pieces were short. There was no room in newspaper or magazine fiction for long beginnings or extensive backstories.

There are many other reasons to love Chekhov, not the least of which is his angle of vision. After you read a story of his, you have experienced something small and seemingly simple, yet the deepest emotions are unraveled in you—his is an example of a highly metonymic vision, though I don't believe he would have used such a term. There are other great artists who serve you up the large issues of being human on the small plate—among them the Indian director Satyajit Ray.[2]  

There is little spectacle in Chekhov or Ray but the daily tableau.  

In Chekhov, as the curtain parts, the reader has very little pre-history of the characters. This elimination of exposition required giving up all but the most perfunctory background of the characters and their setting. Chekhov seems to sense that Russian history was literally about to explode in a grand attempt to annihilate and ostensibly deny the past. His method of opening a story, boldly unfettered by the burdens of the past, ironically mimics the tactics of the Bolsheviks.

Thankfully, he was more successful and compassionate than the Revolution.

Chekhov's characters are present now, even though they have foreign names, their class status no longer exists, we do not have peasants or counts in our culture, but we know their equivalents because of how they behave, what they want, and how they think that endures. He is generally indifferent to the past of his characters. He begins in the middle but does not usually loop back again to recover the origins of these characters or their dilemmas--he takes us forward, even when he is telling a story about the past.

Chekhov died in 1904, and one could say that his aesthetic, this break with the history of his characters, in some ways both predicts the exigencies of the Russian Revolution, and seems to be one the ostensible characteristics of Modernism. Russia now moves forward, kills off its oligarchic past, enters the era of the proletariat, and rewrites its textbooks, etc. Western art offers high Cubism and is about to break into Surrealism.      

Keats said earlier in the nineteenth century, “Philosophy will clip an angel's wings.”[3] Chekhov felt that explanation, analysis, polemics, lengthy description, motive, etc. would clip the wings of his stories. To this effect, he shied away from philosophizing, that is, providing extra rumination about life--he tried to keep himself out of his character's hair. And this is very apparent in most of his openings--we are dropped right into a character’s business, but it is their business. And it is refreshingly a thing apart from authorial opinion. His characters certainly have much to say about the misery, corruption, and lassitude of nineteenth century Czarist Russian life--but they say it, he doesn't.  

In “About Love,” a story told within a story, Chekhov very cleverly employs some of the strategies he learned from writing plays--he puts ideas into the mouths of characters, but as author, he stays invisible. If there are opinions, they are largely held forth by the characters, not the narrator.          

“About Love,” features an outer story, in which not much happens, and an inner story. Here Chekhov is trying his hand at philosophizing, but the philosophy issues from the mouths of the storytellers. In other words, the external narrator or the writer Chekhov, isn't doing the philosophizing directly:

‘How love is born,’ said Alekin, ‘why Pelagea does not love  somebody more like herself in her spiritual and external qualities, and why she fell in love with Nikanor, that ugly snout—we all call him “the Snout”—how far questions of personal happiness are of consequence in love—all that is unknown; one can take what view one likes of it.  So far only one incontestable truth has been uttered about love: “This is a great mystery.”  Everything else that has been written or said about love is not a conclusion, but only a statement of questions which have remained unanswered.’[4]

By the time we come to the end of “About Love,” we wind up just about where we began--a chance encounter in which lives are glimpsed, some things are revealed, but nothing much changes. There is no plot to the outer stories, and only a very muted plot to the inner story. Characters have revelations, we get to know something about them, but the world doesn't alter. A curtain is drawn, and then let go.

Chekhov turns to unhappiness and lack of fulfillment as the topic of “About Love.”

The host Alekhin does the narrating of the story within the story. And now Chekhov can fully offer us a meditation on the mystery and misery of love, of holding love back for the sake of the beloved, of fear in love, how love potentially goes against the grain of social conventions, how thwarted love can lead to unhappiness, the mystery of the love object--and most important, how with love:

The explanation which would seem to fit one case does not  apply in a dozen others, and the very best thing, to my mind, would be to explain every case individually, without attempting to generalize.  We ought, as the doctors say, to individualize each case.[5]      

Which is what Chekhov does precisely with each story.

Chekhov's expository practice, insisting on the brief opening, is not, by the way, limited to openings, but in fact is really his entire poetics.

The reigning poetics of the time--the writings of the great Balzac and Dickens and Gogol and Tolstoy--often devoted dozens of pages to a retrospective description of the lives of the characters before the character was given agency to either appear or act.

Of course, these writers mostly wrote long novels, and with a short story there is no time to do this.

The extended expositions, the complicated descriptions of most nineteenth century literature, that lead up to the appearance of the character seemed unnecessary to Chekhov because they contradicted his conception of the Active Reader. And this is another reason to appreciate Chekhov--he believed that the reader is literate enough to take responsibility. It was a moral value of his, not to talk down to people, not to condescend, and not to patronize them with too many words. Not to give them more than they need. Chekhov assumed that the reader, a member of the growing literate class--educated, alert, intelligent--would engage in the text and thereby construct the characters' histories for himself. An abundance of history, he thought, would only confuse things.

Chekhov had, as Nabokov says, “perfect contempt for the sustained description. In this or that description, one detail is chosen to illumine the whole setting.”[6]

It is the choice of detail and the use of understatement that is Chekhov's one leaf-stands-in-for-the-tree approach.  

This principle of the choice detail serves in his construction of the entire narrative of a story. With Chekhov, there is no descriptive milling around at the starting gate.

When a priest, one Father Sergius Shchukin, came to Chekhov with a manuscript of his memoirs, Chekhov was reported to have said:

Fledgling authors frequently should do the following:  bend the notebook in half and tear off the first half.
‘I looked at him in amazement (Shchukin writes)’.[7]

Certainly, any writer would take such a declaration as either indifference or intimidation.

I am speaking seriously, Chekhov said. Normally beginners try to “lead into the story,” as they say, and half of what they write is unnecessary. One ought to write so that the reader understands what is going on without the author's explanations, from the progress of the story, from the characters' conversations, from their actions. [8]

Ah, so the advice is salutary, even mandatory for good writing:

Try to rip out the first half of your story; you'll only have to change the beginning of the second half a little bit and the story will be totally  comprehensible.[9]

Chekhov's method of breaking and entering a story contains a deep trust in his characters and language to dramatize and unfold the story. He lets us know by these sardonic comments about ripping out half of the story that he mistrusts authorial meandering. He was that sure of his writing. And yet he was humble and understood how to steal in like a thief of narrative time.

[1] Anton Chekhov, The Tales of Chekhov, trans. Constance Garnett, The Ecco Press, 1984

[2] Especially the Apu Trilogy where the camera often focuses and lingers for a long minute on the smallest detail that seems to represent a larger issue in the film. Western audiences are not generally used to this concentrated imagery.

[3] From “Lamia,” Keats’s 1819 lengthy narrative poem, in Selected Poems of John Keats, Riverside Editions, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1959, which features a young philosopher who marries a young gentlewoman who turns out to be a serpent, a lamia.

[4] Anton Chekhov, in “About Love,” often allows his character to muse or philosophize about various topics, which may or may not be coordinate with his own thinking.  

[5] Ibid.

[6] Vladimir Nabokov, from “Chekhov,” in his Lectures on Russian Literature, devotes a whole chapter to Chekhov’s efficiency and chooses “The Lady with the Little Dog,” as one of Chekhov’s finest stories. It is also “about” love.

[7] Anton Chekhov, in A.B. Derman, “Compositional Elements in Chekhov’s Poetics,” in Anton Chekhov’s Short Stories, ed. Ralph Matlaw, Norton Critical Edition, W.W. Norton & Company, 1979.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[from a lecture delivered at the Chautauqua Writers’ Center, Chautauqua, NY,  July 1999]

Published in How Proust Ruined My Life & Other Essays

"HOW PROUST RUINED MY LIFE & OTHER ESSAYS by Gloria Frym—one of America's finest, most crucial poets and prose writers—is a treasure culled from a lifetime of reading widely, freely, carefully, with passion, intellect, and curiosity. Frym reads not for erudition or pedantry, but for the deep pleasure of entering another's created world. Her sphere of reading—which spans the work of San Francisco County Jail inmates to Proust, Emerson, Chekov, Flaubert, her dear friend Lucia Berlin, her teacher and mentor Robert Creeley, even the beloved Grimm Brothers (and this is just a short list)—is an ever-shifting prismatic globe where one arrives as Gulliver does, starved, shipwrecked along the shores of Jonathan Swift, grateful to be alive. These essays were written at different times in Frym's life, many presented at conferences, festivals, classrooms, yet they compose an immediate seamlessness in her calm, undisturbed, inviting prose, a translucency that brings us close to the act of reading as immersion. Frym reminds us that reading is correspondence, even friendship, an intimacy in which we are 'breathing deeply the oxygen of another writer.' I loved this book for its love, for its generosity, for at last delineating the differences between Niedecker and Dickinson, and for taking me back to reading sentence for sentence, word for word." —Gillian Conoley
Gloria Frym

Gloria Frym lives in Berkeley. She is the author of many books of poetry and prose. Her most recent book is How Proust Ruined My Life & Other Essays (BlazeVOX, 2020). She is professor in the MFA Writing Program and the Writing & Literature Program at California College of the Arts.

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