Thursday, July 30, 2009

Borrowed Fire: Gusev: Setting the outer limits

This week, we'll start a writing seminar on Anton Chekhov's short story "Gusev." First, a grateful nod to Eric Puchner, with whom I studied this story in a class called "Fiction that Breaks the Mold." The course title pretty much explains it--we read stories that broke various supposed rules from fiction workshops. "Gusev" breaks at least two that I can think of off the top of my head: no point-of-view shifts, and no dreams /delirium / visions. But of course these are two of my very favorite things to do in fiction. And Chekhov, the master of masters, has given us permission!

However, if your story's going to break the rules, it's important to signal that from the get-go. In other words, if you're going to the outer limits, we have to see you way out there, at least briefly, right at the beginning. Otherwise your later rule-breaking tends to feel more like a trick, or a sudden genre shift. I'm not saying don't try it the other way, only that I have tried it, and have not, thus far, succeeded. So this is a sort of rule about how to break rules.

"Gusev" is going to open out in some really amazing ways at the end. So how does Chekhov set us up for that? By expanding and contracting the story's boundaries at the beginning, reserving the right to play with them throughout, as he sees fit.

IT was getting dark; it would soon be night.

Gusev, a discharged soldier, sat up in his hammock and said in an undertone:

"I say, Pavel Ivanitch. A soldier at Sutchan told me: while they were sailing a big fish came into collision with their ship and stove a hole in it."

The nondescript individual whom he was addressing, and whom everyone in the ship's hospital called Pavel Ivanitch, was silent, as though he had not heard.

And again a stillness followed... The wind frolicked with the rigging, the screw throbbed, the waves lashed, the hammocks creaked, but the ear had long ago become accustomed to these sounds, and it seemed that everything around was asleep and silent. It was dreary. The three invalids—two soldiers and a sailor—who had been playing cards all the day were asleep and talking in their dreams.

It seemed as though the ship were beginning to rock. The hammock slowly rose and fell under Gusev, as though it were heaving a sigh, and this was repeated once, twice, three times.... Something crashed on to the floor with a clang: it must have been a jug falling down.

"The wind has broken loose from its chain..." said Gusev, listening.

This time Pavel Ivanitch cleared his throat and answered irritably:

"One minute a vessel's running into a fish, the next, the wind's breaking loose from its chain. Is the wind a beast that it can break loose from its chain?"

"That's how christened folk talk."

"They are as ignorant as you are then. They say all sorts of things. One must keep a head on one's shoulders and use one's reason. You are a senseless creature."

Pavel Ivanitch was subject to sea-sickness. When the sea was rough he was usually ill-humoured, and the merest trifle would make him irritable. And in Gusev's opinion there was absolutely nothing to be vexed about. What was there strange or wonderful, for instance, in the fish or in the wind's breaking loose from its chain? Suppose the fish were as big as a mountain and its back were as hard as a sturgeon: and in the same way, supposing that away yonder at the end of the world there stood great stone walls and the fierce winds were chained up to the walls... if they had not broken loose, why did they tear about all over the sea like maniacs, and struggle to escape like dogs? If they were not chained up, what did become of them when it was calm?

Gusev pondered for a long time about fishes as big as a mountain and stout, rusty chains, then he began to feel dull and thought of his native place to which he was returning after five years' service in the East. He pictured an immense pond covered with snow.... On one side of the pond the red-brick building of the potteries with a tall chimney and clouds of black smoke; on the other side—a village.... His brother Alexey comes out in a sledge from the fifth yard from the end; behind him sits his little son Vanka in big felt over-boots, and his little girl Akulka, also in big felt boots. Alexey has been drinking, Vanka is laughing, Akulka's face he could not see, she had muffled herself up.

"You never know, he'll get the children frozen..." thought Gusev. "Lord send them sense and judgment that they may honour their father and mother and not be wiser than their parents."

"They want re-soleing," a delirious sailor says in a bass voice. "Yes, yes!"

Gusev's thoughts break off, and instead of a pond there suddenly appears apropos of nothing a huge bull's head without eyes, and the horse and sledge are not driving along, but are whirling round and round in a cloud of smoke. But still he was glad he had seen his own folks. He held his breath from delight, shudders ran all over him, and his fingers twitched.

"The Lord let us meet again," he muttered feverishly, but he at once opened his eyes and sought in the darkness for water.

He drank and lay back, and again the sledge was moving, then again the bull's head without eyes, smoke, clouds.... And so on till daybreak.

Chekhov contrasts the hideous confinement of the ship's sick bay to Gusev's flights of imagination--and then delirium. That's nothing new, in and of itself. We've all seen trapped characters, like prisoners, dreaming of fanciful escapes, but they're generally not rendered with such efficiency. Gusev's visions are short and compact, reeled in by sounds from the ship's hold or by other visions. Different levels of reality interrupt each other; the boundaries of the story shift rapidly. We begin to wonder what really is possible here.

Another factor is Pavel Ivanitch, who criticizes Gusev's figurative language: "One minute a vessel's running into a fish, the next, the wind's breaking loose from its chain. Is the wind a beast that it can break loose from its chain?" Gusev's metaphor about the wind is lovely, yet Chekhov has another character (a literary critic?) undercut it right off the bat. One would expect the author to side with the artistic soul, the maker of figures, and he would seem to do so here as well. But we're not quite certain. The fact that we go into Gusev's head to hear him defending his choice of words suggests his figure of speech is debatable. Pavel Ivanitch introduces just a hint of doubt about the artistic enterprise as a whole, including the author's intentions. Where's the author going with his own images and figures? What's the point of it, especially under such dire circumstances as these? Is imagination really a form of freedom, as one gathers from more conventional stories, or something else--perhaps something sinister?

Despite its title, the question this story asks is not what will happen to Gusev. In fact we learn fairly quickly how ill he is, and that he will not live. The question is, what will happen to his vision? Which is the real world, Gusev's or Pavel Ivanitch's? Or is there another world entirely? That's a huge question, and Chekhov allows himself to address it by claiming a huge amount of territory for himself in the beginning. He makes that claim matter-of-factly, always bringing us back to the actual setting in the ship's hold, the two sick men arguing. The confined setting keeps us from getting the different worlds confused--always a risk in attempting a story like this.

The lesson here is to ground your beginning by having a concrete place to return to. Then you can foray out, at least briefly, as far as you eventually plan to go.

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