Yesterday, it seems I made too much of the difficulty of reading Anton Chekhov, too much of the opacity of his text, too much of his Russianess. I called him the father of flash fiction. That’s a statement worth explaining.
First, I should say that I love writing flash fiction but don’t alway love reading it. In the wrong hands, perhaps my own hands, flash fiction can feel lazy, an abbreviated form of story telling for the internet age where everything connects to everything and so nothing really ever stands entirely on its own. Flash fiction is often heavy on the flash and sparing on the fiction. There is a temptation to catch characters in the middle of doing something interesting without the need to define or understand how what they are doing affects or changes them. It is easy to introduce a quick character, punch the reader in the stomach with some powerful detail or twist and then take your leave. If the reader is aching from the well-placed punch, you must have told an impactful story.
Successful flash fiction should haunt a reader. The quickness of action, the spareness and specificity of detail should unsettle the reader and leave them wanting to glimpse a bit more. Successful flash fiction is like haiku. It should guide a reader through a specific, concrete physical reality, bring them to the edge of epiphany and then push them over with both hands. The reader of flash fiction, like the reader of haiku, tumbles headlong into a realization that is not contained or expressed in the story. It is a realization or understanding that does not belong to the writer.
This, it seems, is the mystery and wonder of Chekhov. I don’t understand most of his stories, but I don’t understand them in the way I don’t understand haiku or a zen koan. I know there’s something there. I just cannot always apprehend it. Most of this has to do with narrative choice. Chekhov explores moments that other writers tend to ignore. My favorite, and most accessible, of Chekhov’s stories is “The Lady with the Dog” in which he tells of an adulterous affair. At its center, a young married woman takes a vacation without her husband and meets an older, womanizing rake. His predatory nature draws him to the mysterious woman on the beach, the lady with the dog. He approaches her for conquest, but, quite accidentally, falls in love.
In other hands, the story would be a tawdry account of passions whetted and cooled, followed by the inevitable weighing of moral and ethical cost. Their impermissible love would set a trap and the story would be the trap closing, ensnaring them in its crushing, moral jaws. Instead, Chekhov offers the story of a man who wakes up to his own life and finds the simplest pleasures and joys offer complication and challenge. Their joy and sorry are not the price or reward. Their joy and sorry are just life. Nothing really special after all.
Spoiler alert. We leave the lovers with nothing resolved but a deep recognition that they will forever complicate one another’s lives. The last sentence: “And it seemed as though in a little while the solution would be found, and then a new and splendid life would begin; and it was clear to both of them that they still had a long, long road before them, and that the most difficult part of it was only just beginning.” (337)
That’s it. The end. Do they escape their not unhappy lives and make a different life together? Are their families destroyed? Are they rewarded or punished? Do they live happily ever after?
Don’t know. Don’t care.
I am haunted. The story cannot resolve and so, in a weird way, the story becomes a thing that belongs to me. My insight. My understanding. It is a narrative leap, not toward a moral lesson, but an imagined next thing.
This is a thing Chekhov does remarkably well. I stand by my original thoughts that Chekhov is difficult, opaque and very Russian. I also stand by Francine Prose’s assertion that Chekhov is writer for writers to read.
Haiku. Zen koan. Flash fiction. You should probably read Chekov.
Source text: Chekhov, Anton. “The Essential Tales of Chekhov.” Richard Ford, ed. Constance Garnett, trans. Ecco Press: New Jersey. 1998. [Find it in a library]