Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Anton Chekhov: The Shooting Party (1885)

[The Shooting Party is an early work, not re-published in Chekhov's lifetime. This, his only full-length novel, is no masterpiece, but if it's to be read at all it's essential to read it without knowing the ending, which I'm about to reveal. So make up your mind if you want to read on.]

A youthful Anton Chekhov wearing country clothes

[Image source: Wikipedia]


"I felt suffocated," says the editor, supposedly Antosha Chekhonte himself, on the final page. We do, too.

The Shooting Party is a novel in a frame. The inner novel is narrated by, and purportedly written by, Sergey Petrovich Zinovyev, an investigating magistrate. The murders he describes (they come late in the book) are in fact committed by him; his novel itself does not confess this, but "only a fool" (as Zinovyev himself remarks) would fail to observe the clues scattered through the later pages; the more so as the editor Antosha Chekhonte underlines them.

When the identity of the murderer is finally established, a transformation occurs in our view of the narrative. We become aware of how much trust we automatically place in the first-person narrator of a story. During the reading we've been continuously unsettled by the brutalities of the narrator (not the murders, but his other behaviour), and we've continuously sought ways to forgive them in order to be able to carry on trusting him. Every time he admitted something against himself, we added a minus to his moral ledger but we also chalked up a plus in his honesty ledger. We've accepted, as by convention, that he sees more sensitively into the motives and feelings of those around him than the other, relatively insensitive, characters. Now that his own character is finally seen to be psychopathic, we wonder how much else is unreliable about his narrative; for example, all those times when he reports other characters calling him "the best of men", or reports himself led astray by the moral turpitude of others, or reports women falling for his good looks and refined manners. There's actually no answer to these questions. The Chekhovian insights in the narrative imply a humane compassion that apparently doesn't square with Zinovyev's own indifference to the fate of those his actions have ruined. The result is a feeling of moral suffocation that bears more than a slight resemblance to the effect of cheap genre fiction in general, but is in fact brought about by other means.

In hindsight, much of Zinovyev's insights appear as "poetic", a literary sentimentality. Try this:

Never before had Zorka borne me so zealously as on that morning after the burning of the banknotes. She, too, wanted to go home. The lake gently rolled its foamy waves: reflecting the rising sun, it was preparing for its daytime slumber. The woods and willows along the banks were motionless, as if at morning prayer. It is difficult to describe my state of mind at the time. Without going into too much detail, I shall merely say that I was delighted beyond words – and at the same time I was almost consumed with shame when, as I turned out of the Count's estate, I saw by the lakeside old Mikhey's saintly face, emaciated by honest toil and illness. Mikhey resembles a biblical fisherman. His hair is as white as snow, he has a large beard and he gazes contemplatively at the sky. When he stands motionless on the bank, following the racing clouds with his eyes, you might fancy he sees angels in the sky . . . I'm very fond of such faces!

When I saw him, I reined in Zorka and gave him my hand, as if wishing to cleanse myself through contact with his honest, calloused hand. He looked up at me with his small, sagacious eyes and smiled.

(transl. Ronald Wilks, 2004)

In such passages we discern another writer behind Zinovyev's clichés. This other writer is less idealistic and less flippant. It's that same distance from the actual words that Chekhov sought in his plays.




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