Friday, August 14, 2009

Borrowed Fire: Gusev: The Ocean Tells the Story

Before plundering Chekhov's prose for nuggets of writing instruction, let's just take a moment to bask in the spectacular ending of "Gusev":

The soldiers and the officers crossed themselves and looked away at the waves. It was strange that a man should be sewn up in sailcloth and should soon be flying into the sea. Was it possible that such a thing might happen to anyone?

The priest strewed earth upon Gusev and bowed down. They sang "Eternal Memory."

The man on watch duty tilted up the end of the plank, Gusev slid off and flew head foremost, turned a somersault in the air and splashed into the sea. He was covered with foam and for a moment looked as though he were wrapped in lace, but the minute passed and he disappeared in the waves.

He went rapidly towards the bottom. Did he reach it? It was said to be three miles to the bottom. After sinking sixty or seventy feet, he began moving more and more slowly, swaying rhythmically, as though he were hesitating and, carried along by the current, moved more rapidly sideways than downwards.

Then he was met by a shoal of the fish called harbour pilots. Seeing the dark body the fish stopped as though petrified, and suddenly turned round and disappeared. In less than a minute they flew back swift as an arrow to Gusev, and began zig-zagging round him in the water.

After that another dark body appeared. It was a shark. It swam under Gusev with dignity and no show of interest, as though it did not notice him, and sank down upon its back, then it turned belly upwards, basking in the warm, transparent water and languidly opened its jaws with two rows of teeth. The harbour pilots are delighted, they stop to see what will come next. After playing a little with the body the shark nonchalantly puts its jaws under it, cautiously touches it with its teeth, and the sailcloth is rent its full length from head to foot; one of the weights falls out and frightens the harbour pilots, and striking the shark on the ribs goes rapidly to the bottom.

Overhead at this time the clouds are massed together on the side where the sun is setting; one cloud like a triumphal arch, another like a lion, a third like a pair of scissors.... From behind the clouds a broad, green shaft of light pierces through and stretches to the middle of the sky; a little later another, violet-coloured, lies beside it; next that, one of gold, then one rose-coloured.... The sky turns a soft lilac. Looking at this gorgeous, enchanted sky, at first the ocean scowls, but soon it, too, takes tender, joyous, passionate colours for which it is hard to find a name in human speech.

This is one of those occasions when I agree with students who complain about having to do literary analysis. Why do we have to tear this beautiful whole into little pieces? Why can't we just enjoy it as it is? What do you mean, what is the author doing? He is doing this.

Right. But if we're going to improve as writers, we might as well aim for the stars. So, without "murdering to dissect," let's see what we can learn from this glorious passage. And though we'll likely fall very, very short of this mark, we'll still land in a better place than we were before.

For me, the key point here is scope. How many short stories have you read recently that end with a nonverbal dialog between the sky and the ocean? The dialog, particularly the ocean's scowling, then relenting to express joy and passion in its own visual language, answers one question the story asked at the beginning--who's right about the way the world works, Gusev or Pavel Ivanitch? Gusev's vision, the fanciful one in which forces of nature can be anthropomorphized, gets the last word. Of course, that does Gusev himself no good. That's because the story was always bigger than Gusev, bigger than any human. Our speech is inadequate to tell the story; the ocean and its colors ultimately do a better job.

It's also stunning that such a grim, pathetic tale of death in a ship's hold inspires the ocean to express tenderness, joy, and passion. Earlier, we were told that "the sea has no sense and no pity." The sea is, or was, a monster, relentless as the steamer crashing through its waves. Now it seems to be celebrating, and not in the mocking, triumphal way you'd expect of a monster; it seems compassionate, almost grateful, and thrilled to be a part of this very large world. What has caused the sea to change? Now that Gusev's body's in the ocean, has his vision somehow spread through the water? Does the water give him a voice he never had as a person, in life? Have his inadequate words been translated into the ocean's more expressive colors? Or does the aquatic aurora have nothing to do with Gusev at all? I'm not sure. But one reason this ending works is that it allows the pathos that might adhere to Gusev's death to be voiced by this non-verbal, and overwhelmingly powerful, spokes-being. None of the other humans, nor the author himself, is up to the task. In the end, it's a profoundly life-affirming story, though the affirmation comes from something that is not, literally speaking, alive.

I've written before about ways to sequester pathos to prevent stories from becoming sentimental. The cri de coeur by the narrator of "The Overcoat" is one way to contain the powerful emotions that the author hopes to generate in the reader. Here, the ocean is a different type of container: where Gogol's narrator is one small but hyper-articulate voice of protest, the ocean is gigantic, astonishingly beautiful, and silent. So: you can go small with big emotions, distilling them in tiny moments like Gogol's yelps. Or you can expand them well past human scale--as long as there's a non-verbal aspect to that scale, so that any potential maudliness has nowhere to go. (Words are containers for maudliness.) The ocean is telling us to stop talking, stop crying, and just look at the world.

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