Saturday, August 08, 2009

Borrowed Fire: Gusev: Death is not the end (of the story)

It's the second week of our writing seminar on Chekhov's "Gusev," and once again I'm hung up on point of view. And death. And how death gives you (that is, the writer, not the die-er--though I suppose that can't be ruled out) some interesting options with point of view, which might not be available otherwise.

Gusev's is the third death we witness. The first two establish the pattern: in this story, the actual moment of death will be missed, or misunderstood.

Death 1:

Suddenly something strange happened to one of the soldiers playing cards.... He called hearts diamonds, got muddled in his score, and dropped his cards, then with a frightened, foolish smile looked round at all of them.

"I shan't be a minute, mates, I'll..." he said, and lay down on the floor.

Everybody was amazed. They called to him, he did not answer.

"Stephan, maybe you are feeling bad, eh?" the soldier with his arm in a sling asked him. "Perhaps we had better bring the priest, eh?"

"Have a drink of water, Stepan..." said the sailor. "Here, lad, drink."

"Why are you knocking the jug against his teeth?" said Gusev angrily. "Don't you see, turnip head?"


"What?" Gusev repeated, mimicking him. "There is no breath in him, he is dead! That's what! What nonsensical people, Lord have mercy on us...!"

Death 2:

Pavel Ivanitch half opened one eye, looked at Gusev with it, and asked softly:

"Gusev, did your commanding officer steal?"

"Who can tell, Pavel Ivanitch! We can't say, it didn't reach us."

And after that a long time passed in silence. Gusev brooded, muttered something in delirium, and kept drinking water; it was hard for him to talk and hard to listen, and he was afraid of being talked to. An hour passed, a second, a third; evening came on, then night, but he did not notice it. He still sat dreaming of the frost.

There was a sound as though someone came into the hospital, and voices were audible, but a few minutes passed and all was still again.

"The Kingdom of Heaven and eternal peace," said the soldier with his arm in a sling. "He was an uncomfortable man."

"What?" asked Gusev. "Who?"

"He is dead, they have just carried him up."

"Oh, well," muttered Gusev, yawning, "the Kingdom of Heaven be his."

It's not that death isn't a big deal in the story. It's more that the line separating life and death is very thin for everyone here, so crossing that line can't involve a lot of dramatic build-up. The "big moment" slips by, amid misunderstandings and botched reverence. (From my single experience witnessing a death, by the way, this strikes me as realistic.) Also, the social circumstances prevent a conventional death-drama--these men have just been thrown together. They are not close; they don't even really like each other. Besides, they've all pretty much given up on surviving. So there's no wailing or rending of garments. Yet they do try to understand each other, to an exent, and connect:

"I haven't written home..." Gusev sighed. "I shall die and they won't know."

"They'll hear of it," the sick sailor brought out in a bass voice. "When you die they will put it down in the Gazette, at Odessa they will send in a report to the commanding officer there and he will send it to the parish or somewhere...."

Gusev began to be uneasy after such a conversation and to feel a vague yearning. He drank water—it was not that; he dragged himself to the window and breathed the hot, moist air—it was not that; he tried to think of home, of the frost—it was not that.... At last it seemed to him one minute longer in the ward and he would certainly expire.

"It's stifling, mates..." he said. "I'll go on deck. Help me up, for Christ's sake."

"All right," assented the soldier with the sling. "I'll carry you, you can't walk, hold on to my neck."

Gusev put his arm round the soldier's neck, the latter put his unhurt arm round him and carried him up. On the deck sailors and time-expired soldiers were lying asleep side by side; there were so many of them it was difficult to pass.

"Stand down," the soldier with the sling said softly. "Follow me quietly, hold on to my shirt...."

This act of kindness is really touching, given how separate the men are from each other. The adverb "softly" in the last line above shows that kindness, both its genuineness and its limitations. The soldier seems to direct the "softness" both at Gusev, whom he wishes to comfort, even though Gusev (it seems) does not even know his name; he also does not want to wake the sleeping soldiers. This moment receives far more authorial attention that Gusev's actual death. Just as people in the story miss others' deaths, we, as readers, seem to miss Gusev's passing:

Gusev went back to the ward and got into his hammock. He was again tormented by a vague craving, and he could not make out what he wanted. There was an oppression on his chest, a throbbing in his head, his mouth was so dry that it was difficult for him to move his tongue. He dozed, and murmured in his sleep, and, worn out with nightmares, his cough, and the stifling heat, towards morning he fell into a sound sleep. He dreamed that they were just taking the bread out of the oven in the barracks and he climbed into the stove and had a steam bath in it, lashing himself with a bunch of birch twigs. He slept for two days, and at midday on the third two sailors came down and carried him out.

He was sewn up in sailcloth and to make him heavier they put with him two iron weights. Sewn up in the sailcloth he looked like a carrot or a radish: broad at the head and narrow at the feet.... Before sunset they brought him up to the deck and put him on a plank; one end of the plank lay on the side of the ship, the other on a box, placed on a stool. Round him stood the soldiers and the officers with their caps off.

When, exactly, did Gusev die? At midday on the third day, the point in the sentence where the point of view changes from Gusev to the omniscient? Probably sometime before that. Why can't, or won't, the narrator tell us exactly? I think it's because the story is driven by forces far outside him. As the narrator has just explained,

The sea has no sense and no pity. If the steamer had been smaller and not made of thick iron, the waves would have crushed it to pieces without the slightest compunction, and would have devoured all the people in it with no distinction of saints or sinners. The steamer had the same cruel and meaningless expression. This monster with its huge beak was dashing onwards, cutting millions of waves in its path; it had no fear of the darkness nor the wind, nor of space, nor of solitude, caring for nothing, and if the ocean had its people, this monster would have crushed them, too, without distinction of saints or sinners.

The "monster"--be it the sea, or the steamer--is the real storyteller. It dashes onwards through death, caring for nothing, even as the men left in its wake try, in their broken ways, to care. No longer possessing Gusev, its temporary mouthpiece, the story moves on. I suppose one could say that any author who kills off his characters is this kind of pitiless monster (a de-personified God)--except the author almost seems to claim that the force is beyond him, too. The story does not serve the characters, or even the author, but only itself. And it's still hungry. Where can it go next?

I think I'll save that answer for next time, partly because I want to savor the marvelous, brilliant ending of "Gusev" (in contrast to the prosaic ending of the character).

So what is our take-away this week? Well, we have that workshop rule about not shifting point of view, especially in a short story, and especially, especially, not mid-sentence. But if you make it clear that the source of your story is an all-powerful force, like the steamer with its "huge beak," it can steamroll all the rules. In the process, your characters' small acts of resistance to being crushed become very poignant.

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