September 23, 2015

The Art of the Novella challenge 38: My Life


my-life(Editor’s note: If you’re in NYC, and you’re interested in talking about this novella with some very cool coffee fans, come to the inaugural Melville House Book Club at Brooklyn Roasting! It’s happening tomorrow at 6:00, so click here for more details.)

Title: My Life

Author: Anton Chekhov

First published: 1896

Page count: 148

First line: The superintendent said to me: “I only keep you out of regard for your worthy father; but for that you would have been sent flying long ago.”

Oh but reading Chekhov makes me sad. It makes me sad first of all because he’s so patently so good. No writer but Shakespeare can be said to have such a complete understanding of the human psyche, and while it’s possible that with Shakespeare, for someone of my nationality and class at any rate, this could be put down to the process of cultural indoctrination, where I see Shakespeare everywhere simply because my language and education have their deepest roots in the rich soil of his poetry and plays, with Chekhov this argument has less force. If Chekhov turns from his dinner and scribbles a sentence on a napkin that makes me nearly faint with its casual capturing of my unthought thoughts and unexamined beliefs, then that can’t be because of anything but his debilitatingly accurate understanding of how the modern mind operates.

The second reason reading Chekhov makes me sad is because it shows how being good doesn’t do any good. In the final decades of the 19th Century Chekhov repeatedly anatomised the shallowness, torpidity, arrogance, insipidity, ignorance and fecklessness of Russian society, and Russian society lapped it up and made a celebrity of him. Thanks to his translators, and the (I’m guessing) eminently translatable limpidity of his style, Chekhov has remained read, and staged, across Europe and beyond ever since. And yet we are still shallow, torpid, arrogant, insipid, ignorant and feckless. We don’t learn. Even genius doesn’t teach us anything.

There’s no point writing anything, because Chekhov has already written it better.

There’s no point reading anything, because even reading Chekhov can’t make us better people.

There’s no point living, because every emotion you could have has already been written better by Chekhov than you could feel it.

I read My Life, subtitled The Story of a Provincial, distractedly – I read it badly – in fits and starts, and yet still it left me devastated, adrift, in the doldrums. Here’s a couple of extracts that show what I mean:

I missed her fearfully, and could no longer deceive myself, and tried to get other people to deceive me.

Scribbled on a napkin, like a death sentence tossed out by a tyrant at dinner, between mouthfuls. Yup, that’s me, that’s us. There we are.

I remembered the tortured dogs, driven mad, the live sparrows plucked naked by boys and flung into the water, and a long, long series of obscure lingering miseries which I had looked on continually from early childhood in that town; and I could not understand what these sixty thousand people lived for, what they read the gospel for, why they prayed, why they read books and magazines. What good had they gained from all that had been said and written hitherto if they were still possessed by the same spiritual darkness and hatred of liberty, as they were a hundred and three hundred years ago? A master carpenter spends his whole life building houses in the town, and always, to the day of his death, calls a “gallery” a “galdery.” So these sixty thousand people have been reading and hearing of truth, of justice, of mercy, of freedom for generations, and yet from morning till night, till the day of their death, they are lying, and tormenting each other, and they fear liberty and hate it as a deadly foe.

It’s enough to make you run ragged through the streets, tearing at your clothes and hair, and stopping people to shake them and yell in their faces: don’t you see! It’s all there! Chekhov wrote it, and we ignore him. He has exposed us all, and so how can we go on living, when both our failures and our failure to acknowledge our failures are hung from the balconies for all to see?

I suppose the question I should try to answer, having dug myself into his hole, is how it is that Chekhov works this effect? None of what he says is new, after all, even if it is elegantly or forcefully put – taken out of context as they are in this post, readers may read these extracts and then simply look quizzically at me as if to say, You’re getting all het up over this? Where have you been?

My Life is not really a novella, not by the definition I’ve been hammering away at in these posts, that links it to the ancient form of the tale, that prioritises telling over showing, that steps outside the continuum of short story and novel, both of which take an attitude towards the world before they taken an attitude towards the reader. It reads very much like a particular kind of contemporary novel, poised in its affectlessness, wanting to do less with more, to build a morality out of half-articulated observations.

My Life, despite the title, is not really the story of a life, but the story of a couple of years in the life of a young man, well-to-do but provincial, who from a mixture of idealism and indolence abandons the cushy desk jobs his father lines up for him to fend fore himself, undertaking various menial jobs in a class way far below him, most successfully as a painter-decorator (where his father is a – particularly useless – architect).

I was living now among people to whom labour was obligatory, inevitable, and who worked like cart-horses, often with no idea of the moral significance of labour, and, indeed, never using the word “labour” in conversation at all. Beside them I, too, felt like a cart-horse, growing more and more imbued with the feeling of the obligatory and inevitable character of what I was doing, and this made my life easier, setting me free from all doubt and uncertainty.

He falls in love with a woman, Masha, who loves him for his principled approach to life, and together they take on the running of a decrepit country estate belonging to the young man’s former employer. There they find married happiness, though he doesn’t like farming compared to labouring, and both of them get thoroughly fed up with the manners of the peasants – who aren’t really portrayed as, say, Flaubert would portray them: their actions rather than their persons are the problem, their stealing, cheating, careless, thoughtless ways.

Eventually Masha leaves him, not so much because she’s fallen out of love with him, as because she’s realised she’s not equipped for their simple existence, she wants more from life than he can offer. She wants to be a singer. Her father can take her to America. She isn’t painted badly. The hero, though sad, doesn’t really blame her. In any case, he now has to look after his sister, who has also turned her back on their father. She is ill, and pregnant, by a married man who won’t help out, and she falls foul of the local ‘high society’. And on, and on.

Things just happen in this book. There is no sense of a narrative hand, of events or characters being moulded, directed, of an authorial intention, or moral direction. You don’t know why you’re reading it, any more than you know why Chekhov is writing it, or the characters living it, though living of course isn’t the word. The world just goes on, people have moments of happiness, and of sadness, and there’s nothing really you can do about it, or take from it – that sadness and happiness isn’t material for building future happiness; coins thrown into a wishing well are just coins thrown into a well.

Masha writes to our passive hero, and says:

King David had a ring with an inscription on it: ‘All things pass.’ When one is sad those words make one cheerful, and when one is cheerful it makes one sad. I have got myself a ring like that with Hebrew letters on it, and this talisman keeps me from infatuations. All things pass, life will pass, one wants nothing. Or at least one wants nothing but the sense of freedom, for when anyone is free, he wants nothing, nothing, nothing.

This is bad news for writers, and readers. So much is shown up to be redundant, de trop, otiose. So much in books, and so much in life.

“Is that it?” asks the reader, putting down the book. “Is that all that it takes?” asks the writer. “What’s the point?” say both them, looking out of the window. Why read? Why write? Why live?

Well, the worst thing is that there is a reason given. The hero – god I HATE books with unnamed protagonists (I don’t really, I just hate writing about them) – is actually very able to cope with the trials, descents and disappointments that continually wash over him… and which would be enough, clearly, to drown me entirely. Life just comes at him and comes at him, undifferentiated, unfashioned by narrative or motive, by motive or motif, and he just lets it. Later, he thinks about his wife’s ring, and says:

If I wanted to order a ring for myself, the inscription I should choose would be: “Nothing passes away.” I believe that nothing passes away without leaving a trace, and that every step we take, however small, has significance for our present and our future existence.

What I have been through has not been for nothing. My great troubles, my patience, have touched people’s hearts, and now they don’t call me “Better-than-nothing,” they don’t laugh at me, and when I walk by the shops they don’t throw water over me. They have grown used to my being a workman, and see nothing strange in my carrying a pail of paint and putting in windows, though I am of noble rank; on the contrary, people are glad to give me orders, and I am now considered a first-rate workman…

In other words, he faces all the random onslaught of fate, that is more constant drizzle with occasional sunny spells than the traditional sturm und drang, with an equanimity that seems entirely out of place. He is an ordinary person, and he is ordinarily happy. He is free. What is he doing in a book? More to the point, what am I doing reading a book? He had happiness, it left him, he shrugs. He is free. At the end of the book he is offered happiness, of a type, again… another woman who idolises him, who would try to make him happy, but… he doesn’t bother. He is free.

It is like reading the biography of someone who has read and actually absorbed Schopenhauer, or Buddhism, who passes through life making little mark, and being marked little in return. If Chekhov was hugely inspired by and then rejected the non-violent ethics of Tolstoy, then My Life is from the post-Tolstoy years, but seems to me to chime with Tolstoy.

It is this quietism, in the end, that is the book’s greatest accusation. What do want from books, after all, but a sense that the trials and tribulations of our lives have some kind of objective meaning… or not even that, that they have the formal capacity for meaning; that if someone were reading the book of our life, their heart rate would increase, if only occasionally, they would want to know what happens next, they would take a mysterious pleasure in reading about our suffering, just as much as about our joy.

We don’t feel free, and literature recompenses us for our lack of freedom with the sense that freedom is to come: it is to come for the person, perhaps ourselves, perhaps someone else, who reads the book of our life and learns from it. Yet here is Chekhov, in a book, showing – not telling – showing that books are not the way to go. You can get everything you need from this one book, which is that books are not enough, if only you knew how to read it. Which you don’t. What a bastard.

Jonathan Gibbs is the author of Randall, or The Painted Grape, published by Galley Beggar Press. He tweets as @Tiny_Camels and blogs at Tiny Camels