May 13, 2015
The Art of the Novella challenge 25: The Duel (Chekhov)
by Jonathan Gibbs
Title: The Duel
Author: Anton Chekhov
First published: 1891
Page count: 161
First line: It was eight o’clock in the morning – the time when officers, civil servants and visitors would habitually swim in the sea after a hot, airless night and then proceed to the pavilion for coffee or tea.
First, a note about the photo. I’ve spent three days now trying to think of a witty and appropriate way to illustrate this blog post, like I’ve tried to do with the previous ones in this series, but with no luck. A pair of guns of some kind would have worked, but would have felt trite and overdetermined – as I say later in this post, the title is almost a red herring. But we have no guns. (This is England.) I could have gone down the children’s toys route, as I did last time with Michael Kohlhaas, but i) I’ve just done that and ii) the children’s toys went with the critique of that story, which reduced it to a Hollywood film narrative, and nothing could be further from my sense of Chekhov’s writing. There’s a lovely image towards the end of the book when someone looks in a window and sees someone else sitting working assiduously away at a table at some mindless task, and I thought that would do; I even test-shot a couple of images through my own study window, but it didn’t work out. Why was it so hard? Because Chekhov is not symbolic, he’s not reducible; his prose is made up of myriad, ineffable, non-representative detail, no single one of which can be abstracted to stand for the whole; you just can’t illustrate him. Thus the photo. Right.
I’d been eyeing this one, waiting for the right moment. Chekhov can be intimidating – he’s so bloody perfect, so bloody illustrious, so seemingly immune to criticism, to any approach beyond mere adulation. Like the duck, he rebuffs praise and blame with the same watery indifference. For me, this project – of reading all the Art of the Novella novellas in a year – is primarily about learning, and what is there to learn from Chekhov? Nothing, other than how sodding good he is.
But it had to be done. I took down the book – one of the five Duel narratives in the novella series and, of the three I’ve read so far, indisputably, indubitably, obviously and barely-worth-mentioningly the best. Which makes me stop, and sigh. To try to describe what’s good about Chekhov is like that thing about Venice – anything you say is going to be a cliché.
So: he is effortless. He creates, not diligently, but offhandedly. He seems to be creating the story as you read it; he makes of language a living medium and, more than that, a habitable one. His characters exist in his stories as if they’ve always lived there. When you open the book, and turn to the story, he is already at work, scribbling away. Without so much as a glance in your direction he beckons you on; you tiptoe as close as you dare and look over his shoulder. The words on the page, the characters, the setting seem to shift imperceptibly, rearrange themselves, to make room for you, and then they carry on doing whatever it was they were doing, as if you were not there at all.
After finishing the book and making these first notes I’d glanced through Janet Malcolm’s book Reading Chekhov, which included, I remembered, a discussion of The Duel, and in fact this image appears there, in a quote from the writer about his attitude towards writing plays – in letter following the original failure of The Seagull:
But I’m not sad over it, for I can still go on writing stories. In that sphere I feel at home, but when I write a play, I feel uneasy, as though someone were peering over my shoulder.
It’s nice to know. You feel like you’re peering over his shoulders as he writes and, in this case, you feel he doesn’t mind.
What is it about Chekhov’s characters that makes us warm to them? It’s not enough to say that they are ‘life-like’. It’s not who they are in themselves that makes them ring true, but who they are in their reactions to each other. I’ve always been struck by this tenet of family therapy: that it’s not the spaces inside people that are important – as might be the case with psychoanalysis – but rather the spaces between them. That seems to apply here.
It is the way these characters hate, desire, envy, despair of, consider and ignore each other that makes them human, makes them like us. Like us, they spend as much time thinking what they might do, or say, as they do doing, or saying, anything. Chekhov knows that our exterior, social life – the life of action – is just the tip of the iceberg, the modest, often accidental overspill of our grand interior life.
But to the book itself. The Duel is a vaguely Conradian, provincial and minor key drama – it vacillates between tragedy and comedy – set in a coastal backwater in the Caucasus, where the self-styled “superfluous man” Ivan Laevsky has washed up with his lover, the married Nadya Fyodorovna. They no longer love each other, and she is already taking other lovers, but Ivan can’t quite get himself together to pay off his debts financial and emotional, make a clean break of it and leave.
He has the usual friends and enemies among the small-minded townspeople, but there’s one person in particular who has it in for him – the zoologist Von Koren, an ultra-rationalist and proto-fascist ‘new man’ who thinks that the best thing the strong can do to the weak is kill them, for their own sake and for that of society as a whole. He is a monster, but he is also entirely believable. And I use that word cautiously – it goes along with ‘realism’ as a weasel word in contemporary criticism: the kind of thing we shouldn’t really care about any more. The believability of a character is second only to their likeableness or (kill me now!) ‘relatableness’ as the strictest critical anathema.
“The moral law, let’s say, demands that you love people. But why? The result of love should be the elimination of all that is harmful to people in one way or another and threatens their present and future with danger. Our knowledge and this clarity are telling you that humankind is menaced by danger from the side of the morally and physically abnormal, if you don’t have the power to elevate them to normalcy, then you must surely have the strength and intelligence to neutralize them, that is destroy them.”
“Which means that love is when the strong destroy the weak?”
To read Von Koren’s words in isolation – and Chekhov allows him long monologues, as he does to others – is to smell a caricature, but to read them in the context of the story, realising that that monologue is not a monologue at all, but directed at another person, in a room, in a town, in a decade, in a century, is to be convinced. Von Koren may consider himself the abstract representative of some moment in the history of ideas, but Chekhov never does.
Likewise, when self-righteous moral guardian of the town Maria Konstantinvovna lays into Nadya Fyodorovna, her page-long diatribe starts like this:
You are a horrible sinner. You destroyed the vow that you gave your husband at the altar…
But it ends with the wonderfully gratuitous knife-twist of:
You must listen to me, my dear… God takes note of great sinners, and you have been noted. Keep in mind, your outfits have always been horrible!
These are individuals. And perhaps what is ‘realism’, that critical bugbear, but the conviction that characters can be individuals, just as much as any of us can? Characters are details in the world of the story. The realm of possibilities for these characters never feels like it’s constrained, as it never feels like it is for us – in our heads, at least, where anything is always possible, the best and the worst. It’s not that the characters ‘have’ free will, but that the medium of Chekhov’s fiction is one that seems to give them the greatest freedom of movement, even when they themselves feel utterly constrained by the smallness of their lives. His stories take our ‘lives of quiet desperation’ and make of them a sandbox computer game of near-infinite complexity.
This makes the book’s title a strange one. For most of the book you’re not even sure who’s going to end up duelling with whom. It might even before a metaphor. (Compare this to the title of Willa Cather’s Alexander’s Bridge, which hangs over the whole novella like a gigantic Spoiler of Damocles.) Chekhov doesn’t even use the word until page 115.
To call the book The Duel – to flag up the possibility-crunching plot device that is a duel – seems to go against the way Chekhov works. A duel is a zero sum game. One of two things could happen. A kills B, or B kills A. (Or they could kill each other.)
Only of course that’s a rather ignorant, modern day view of what a duel is – as in fact these Duel novellas aren’t shy of demonstrating. People didn’t necessarily die in duels, just as in films a ‘Mexican standoff’ rarely ends directly in one of the protagonists killing the other – but that doesn’t mean that no one comes out a winner.
The ending is delightful – a moral resolution, an anti-climax, an ambient coda and a lateral cliff-hanger of sorts all at once. There are all sorts of characters who have their moment, who develop in our understanding of them over the length of the narrative (including Nadya Fyodorovna, whom Malcolm considers “one of Chekhov’s most striking and subtle portraits of women”), but still this isn’t a short novel (it’s not Gatsby). You might, I suppose, call it a long story, but it’s a novella most of all, even if it doesn’t fit the model of a novella I’ve been working towards in these posts.
Fluidity, contingency, freedom from the tyranny of dominant plot – these features of The Duel might seem to put it outside the remit of the form. Certainly it is very different to last week’s Michael Kohlhaas, and to Dostoevsky’s The Eternal Husband, though you could set it alongside Tolstoy’s The Devil, Joyce’s The Dead and Chopin’s The Awakening as examples of the form that are not primarily determined by plot. Their narratives are paths they make as through a field of tall grass, nervously, intuitively, with no real sense of where they’re heading, where others of the form seem to form their narrative at a gallop, along paths already established by hundreds of other sets of hooves.
Jonathan Gibbs is the author of Randall, or The Painted Grape, published by Galley Beggar Press, and lectures in Creative and Professional Writing at St Mary’s University, Twickenham. He tweets as @Tiny_Camels and blogs at Tiny Camels.