The Combined Beginning-Ending Moment

October 21, 2014 § Leave a comment

In Bach’s cello suites you see a lot of phrases like this:

bach prelude 4

…where the low note you land on (the one in the middle here) is the first note of the next measure, and the beginning of the next phrase. Here, that low note, the E-flat, is at once the end of the E-flat major chord preceding it and the beginning of the A-flat major chord following.

The impression formed is of a continual flow and progression from one chord into another, and it kind of feels like the musical analogue of watching colors change in a sky or a movie or a screen saver. Each internal punctuation isn’t really an ending — it’s the beginning of the next thing. His music is always moving.

The technique can be very powerful in storytelling, which, if you believe Aristotle, is supposed to be premised on a beginning, middle, and end. But really good writers can plunk their endings down where they please and use them as beginnings. They recognized, in the Chekhovian mode, even before Chekhov existed, that a character’s thoughts or actions never really end. One simply leads into the next.

Madame Bovary, for example, appears episodic — Emma and Charles move from one city to another every few years, and the story is, at a high level, segmented by two trysts. But the progression of the story is finely calibrated, moment by moment. A good example of the beginning-ending note in Bovary is the end of Part 1 in the afterglow of an aristocratic party Emma recently attended with Charles:

The memory of this ball, then, became an occupation for Emma.

Whenever the Wednesday came round she said to herself as she awoke, “Ah! I was there a week–a fortnight–three weeks ago.”

And little by little the faces grew confused in her remembrance.

She forgot the tune of the quadrilles; she no longer saw the liveries and appointments so distinctly; some details escaped her, but the regret remained with her.

The fading of this memory is, for Flaubert, a beginning for the materialistic sadness defining the story that follows. Emma and Charles move on to the next city shortly after this, on to Emma’s next desperate attempt to seize something rhapsodic out of her life. Throughout the rest of the book Emma’s self-inflicted oppression and unhappiness squeeze around her, decision by decision.

If you prefer plays, an equally excellent example of the “continuous ending”, so to speak, is in Chekhov’s Three Sisters. Acts 2 and 3 both end with the same refrain: Moscow, an of course unfulfilled dream that runs through the whole play.

Here’s Irina at the end of Act 2:

IRINA [left alone, in dejection]. Oh, to go to Moscow, to Moscow!

…and at the end of Act 3:

IRINA. My dear, my darling, I respect the baron, I think highly of him, he’s a fine man — I’ll marry him, I consent, only let’s go to Moscow! I implore you, please let’s go! There’s nothing in the world better than Moscow! Let’s go, Olya! Let’s go!

No one uses the ending of an act better than Chekhov. The closing refrain is there, the note of finality and the mournful sigh offered up. But the wistfulness of the lines is precisely the instrument of continuing the play’s action, of conveying these characters’ destinies to go on, and on, in their lives.

Something more fluid than Aristotle’s beginning-middle-end persists in real writing, especially in real prose, which is drawn irresistibly to the constant change and fixed flow of real life.

Why Isn’t Chekhov Taught in High School?

April 15, 2014 § 1 Comment

(It shouldn’t be, by the way.) I was talking with a friend about stuff I’d read recently or wanted to read, and Chekhov’s name came up and he said in passing, “Oh, he wasn’t in the high school curriculum.”

And it’s true, of course, but it’s a very obvious yet unspoken thing that seemingly doesn’t even need remarking. There are lots of authors we don’t teach in high school — Umberto Eco, or Proust, or Marquez, or Borges. And I don’t think you can really argue it’s because those authors are too advanced for high schoolers, because there are also lots of authors we force kids to read — like Shakespeare or Austen — that are over their heads. But so why not Chekhov in particular? Why does one author make it into the curriculum but not another?

Chekhov’s case is interesting because of all the strange particulars of his writing that are thrown into relief when you think about teaching him to 17-year-olds. First off, he doesn’t teach you about a particular time and place, so there’s no social studies mission to be fulfilled by reading him. (Have you ever had a teacher tell you A Tale of Two Cities takes us back to revolutionary Paris? I’m skeptical. There aren’t enough long days milking cows and paying taxes in that book for me to be convinced.) You could argue Chekhov gives us a portrait of landed Russia from bottom to middle classes, but there aren’t any grand historical cues in his writing to make the thing look like a history lesson.

And there’s no moral, didactic, or philosophical value in his work either. Macbeth “teaches” us about free will, and Catch 22 “teaches” us about the madness of war, but Chekhov, even when you’re stretching, doesn’t teach us anything except the dreaminess even in drab lives and the variety of stubborn minds to be found among them. Some lesson! His books can’t teach you any hard questions or answers.

Lastly, and here I’m speculating more, there is something more fundamentally and wonderfully useless about his writing, in that the mere facts of his stories don’t align toward some lesson or purpose, except to illuminate their own characters and the texture of their own worlds. This is true of all real writing, but I’m still amazed at how serenely and profoundly Chekhov resists practical use. There is nothing to extrapolate from his writing, which is a quality of any whole and serene world. Imagine trying to teach high schoolers how deep the feeling of having to go out and buy a new light bulb at 10:00 in the evening because you screwed in your new one wrong and it burnt out, and maybe that conveys some idea of what I’m talking about.

This is my way of trying yet again to illustrate the difference between “literature” the academic exercise and literature the entirely frivolous pursuit.

Tell, Don’t Show

July 15, 2012 § 1 Comment

Here are three passages of shameless telling (not showing) in great stories:

From Kafka’s The Metamorphosis:

But perhaps the enthusiastic sensibility of young women of her age also played a role. This feeling sought release at every opportunity, and with it Grete now felt tempted to want to make Gregor’s situation even more terrifying, so that then she would be able to do even more for him than she had up to now. For surely no one except Grete would ever trust themselves to enter a room in which Gregor ruled the empty walls all by himself.

This is telling, since it’s a direct explanation of Grete’s reasoning and feelings. Or maybe it’s showing, because it conveys (without spelling out) how self-concern moves the world and characters around Gregor.

From Chekhov’s The Lady With the Little Dog:

Not one of them had been happy with him. Time passed, he had made their acquaintance, got on with them, parted, but he had never once loved; it was anything you like, but not love. And only now when his head was grey he had fallen properly, really in love — for the first time in his life.

This is telling because it spells out not just the protagonist’s feelings, but the central emotional development of the whole story — that he is truly in love for the first time. Or maybe it’s showing, because it demonstrates how significant developments can happen internally, as mere matter-of-fact thoughts. And plain unadorned shifts of mood and matter are the implicit substance of Chekhov’s storytelling.

From Flaubert’s Madame Bovary:

Exaggerated speeches hiding mediocre affections must be discounted; as if the fullness of the soul did not sometimes overflow in the emptiest metaphors, since no one can ever give the exact measure of his needs, nor of his conceptions, nor of his sorrows; and since human speech is like a cracked tin kettle, on which we hammer out tunes to make bears dance when we long to move the stars.

This is telling, since it’s a direct emotional explanation. Even worse, it’s Flaubert chiming in with his own sentiment instead of letting his characters speak for themselves. Or perhaps it’s showing, because this line of thought buttresses the central theme of the book: the disparity between feeling and real-life expression of it.

So “Show Don’t Tell” doesn’t pan out in real life. Rather, it doesn’t pan out in real writing.

Actually, “Show Don’t Tell” itself isn’t my point. My point is that every creative rule falls to tatters in the face of a real, truly great piece of writing. “Show Don’t Tell” and the like may be useful for amateurs looking to winnow down the form’s open-endedness. But they’re irrelevant to real reading or writing, whose rules are no more or less than the dictates and implications of the writer’s particular style and sensibility.

How To Write an Ending

April 7, 2012 § 1 Comment

This is what I was taught about dramatic structure in school:

Exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, denouement

Freytag’s Pyramid

I submit that the structure of a work of art is really fractal:

A fractal that kind of looks like tree branches

A fractal
License: Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0

A real work of art obeys only its own structure, working its patterns on a large and small scale at once. It does what it pleases and goes where it wants, can take any shape or hit any highs or lows, but is in fact more likely to twist around itself sideways and in and out of various ad hoc dimensions it creates for its purposes. So much for rising action.

So appreciating — I mean really appreciating — a good story entails understanding the particulars of its structure from beginning to end, inside and out. There is no blueprint.

In that vein, I want to talk about endings. That thin triangle above, Freytag’s pyramid, suggests reading is a matter of focusing your narrow attention on the story’s action at a particular point, and so on one page at a time until you’ve reached the ending. In other words, it describes reading “to see what happens next”. If you read that way, maybe you see an ending as a way of tying up the loose ends of a story into a ribbon, dismissing its characters into a duly happy or sad nothingness.

It’s much more fitting to your curiosity to view an ending like the circumference of a circle: a boundary, merely a particular aspect of the structure.

Here’s a wonderful ending from a four-acter of Chekhov’s called The Seagull. The brooding protagonist, Constantine Treplieff, has just said goodbye to the girl he loves and gone off to kill himself. Meanwhile in the living room his family and the estate’s visitors gather for a card game (I’ve abridged, to just give you the idea):

ARKADINA: Put the claret and the beer here, on the table, so that we can drink while we are playing.
PAULINA: And bring the tea at once.
SHAMRAEFF: Here’s the stuffed seagull I was telling you about.
TRIGORIN: I don’t remember a thing about it.
[A shot is heard; everyone jumps.]
ARKADINA: What was that?
DORN: Nothing at all, probably one of my medicine bottles has blown up. Don’t worry.
[He leaves, and a few moments later, re-enters.]
DORN: It is as I thought, a flask of ether has exploded.
ARKADINA: Heavens! I was really frightened. That noise reminded me of — [She covers her face with her hands.] Everything is black before my eyes.
[DORN picks up a magazine, leads TRIGORIN to the front of the stage.]
DORN: There was an article from America in this magazine about two months ago that I wanted to ask you about, among other things.
[DORN begins to whisper.]
DORN: You must take Madame Arkadina away from here; what I wanted to say was, that Constantine has shot himself.

What a denouement! The last words, revealing the final event, are the ending! Imagine if Casablanca had ended that way: Louis tells Rick, “Ilsa is safe.” Fade to black.

God bless Chekhov for doing away with the tedious demands of tying up loose ends. In this ending, he focuses on what really matters: a conclusion that successfully completes the structure of the whole play.

What do I mean? The Seagull is a play that intersperses in typical Chekhovian genius the serious and the frivolous. The whole thing, really, is about the real-life texture of people’s dreams and longings: like gum on your new shoes, the lowly trivialities of day-to-day are inescapable and essential features of life. Here, an idle pastime, a card game, frames Constantine’s suicide. The character Trigorin doesn’t even remember the titular symbolic seagull which Shamraeff shows him. Dorn masks the gunshot with a triviality — a bottle of ether exploding — and masks the play’s final revelation (and Arkadina’s overwhelming premonition of grief) with small talk over a magazine article.

Nothing is “tied up” here — neither Constantine’s sadness nor any of the characters’ quibbles have been solved — but the play is concluded with just the perfect final note of mingled frivolity, the perfect delicate arc completing its circle.

Aside from that real endings are artistic rather than sentimental obligations, I have another point. The Seagull doesn’t “lead up” to its ending or make its point clear in its ending, or use its ending to any justifying end. It doesn’t reveal its moral there, or its twist, or resolve its tensions, or complete its thrills there. In other words, the play isn’t about its ending. It’s about every single page, and the ending is just one more page, a thematic continuation (the last such continuation) rather than a conclusion of the plot, which it is only incidentally. What I mean is, if a book is successfully concluded by leading you through the events of the last page, then what was the point of every preceding page?

Good books end by populating the last stretch of their lands with just the bit of life needed there. Bad books (thank God) just end.

P.S. Another good example: remember the ending of The Godfather? Now tell me honestly: is the point of that ending the murder of the heads of the other mafia families, or is it about the image of the door closing, depicted as a shadowy screen wipe, on Michael’s bottomless sinister expression? (Hint: it’s the latter.)

Mad Libs and Artistic Enlightenment

March 11, 2012 § Leave a comment

I once taught a little class at my workplace on reading deeper, getting to the magic of a great piece of writing, and one of the things we did was Mad Libs. Mad Libs reveal the soul of good writing by removing it altogether and forcing you to reconstruct it. If you can’t write a good Mad Lib, you can’t write.

For those of you who don’t know, a Mad Lib is a party game where all of a passage’s colorful bits are replaced by blanks, and you fill in the blanks in isolation, then read the passage out to see what monster you’ve created:

Every day I rise from my (noun) and thank God Almighty for this (adjective) day.

If you said “bed” and “glorious”, you’re missing the point.

For the purposes of my class, we did a variation where you’re forced to fill in the blanks of an otherwise generic passage, which you read ahead of time, according to a scene you pulled from a hat: “The world is under zombie siege,” “The narrator did it,” that kind of thing.

The idea is that Mad Libs, played this way, force you into the agonizing, ecstatic, strenuous and hilarious process of picking the right word for a scene. If, in your scene, it is literally raining cats and dogs, you need to find just the right way for your main character to do the dishes while a distracting thudding pummels the roof. (“Humming deliberately,” perhaps.)

If you think that’s easy, let’s try it. Here’s a Mad-Lib-ified version of a passage from the opera house in Chekhov’s short story “The Lady With the Little Dog” (the greatest short story ever, BTW):


She (verb) at him and turned pale, then (verb) again with (noun, emotion), unable to believe her eyes, and tightly gripped the (noun) and the (noun) in her hands, evidently struggling with herself not to faint. Both were silent. She was sitting, he was standing, frightened by her (noun, emotion) and not venturing to sit down beside her. The (nouns, instrument) and the (nouns, instrument) began (verb, -ing). He felt suddenly frightened; it seemed as though all the people in the boxes were looking at them. She got up and went quickly to the door; he followed her, and both walked (adverb) along passages, and up and down stairs, and figures in (adjective), (adjective), and (adjective) uniforms, all wearing (noun), flitted before their eyes. They caught glimpses of (noun), of (noun, clothing) hanging on pegs; the draughts blew on them, bringing a smell of (adjective) (noun).

The scene is that the man, Gurov, and the woman, Anna, are seeing each other after a fling at a resort town months ago. They are both married, and after an interval of desolate boredom Gurov has tracked Anna down and surprised her in her box at the opera house in her hometown. Soon it will become clear to them that their feelings for each other are inconveniently permanent, and they will need to find a way to carry on both their affair and their lives for the foreseeable future.

There’s your scene. Now fill in the blanks accordingly. Go on, I’ll wait…

It’s not easy. And as a way of getting to Chekhov’s artistry, to touching the heart of the thing, we can pause to consider how he chose to fill in each blank. (Of course, we are limited by the fact that this is a translation, so we’re dealing with a re-casting of Chekhov’s words. It’ll have to do.)

But first, consider: it would be so easy to fill in these blanks — changing only a handful of minor elements in the narration — and get it all wrong, wouldn’t it? We could make Gurov and Anna shameless and infinitely arduous, merely by saying “she gazed at him and turned pale”, or that the “strings and the piano began swelling“, or that they “both walked eagerly along passages, and up and down stairs”. Nothing could be easier than the arrangement of conventions! Each of these is actually fine in itself, and perhaps each fits beautifully in another story, but not this one.

So how did Chekhov, certainly a writer unconcerned with convention, do it?:

  • “She glanced at him and turned pale, then glanced again with horror.”

    The key is the contrast between her accidental reaction — the simple double-take of mechanical recognition — and the heaviness of her emotions. A plain instinctive reaction leads to a shocking emotional response. This is a natural Chekhovian line of action.

  • “[She] tightly gripped the fan and the lorgnette in her hands, evidently struggling with herself not to faint.”

    Anna, after all, is gentry in a gentrified setting, and the material, feminine, cosmetic touches — that which makes her fit right in at the opera house — are essential to conveying the quality of her life without Gurov.

  • “The violins and the flute began tuning up.”

    This, I think, is a more straightforward choice but a delicate one. Of course a trombone, for example, is entirely the wrong kind of sound for a scene where profound emotions are creeping up on either character. Chekhov strikes a reedy, sinuous timbre. And I like how they are “tuning up” — not swelling, not entering a passage, but something more practical. (If my translation is accurate, the use of a singular “flute” is also effective in conveying the smallness of the orchestra. What a difference a letter makes!)

I highly encourage you to find a copy of the story online and see how Chekhov fills in the rest of this passage. Every simple detail is chosen to convey a unified impression of wariness, subterfuge, and passion.

Two aspects of Chekhov’s writing are revealed in such passing features.

One, generally, his taste/judgment/restraint. Any writer could have given Anna a locket with Gurov’s photo, or an old letter of his or something. Chekhov leans on the casual details of her existence without Gurov. This is key.

Two, particular to Chekhov, we see the development of his preference for plain detail — Anna’s glances, her fan, her lorgnette, the flute tuning — and its profound implications. He finds the most trivial image to fit his purpose. Nobody does that like Chekhov.

Now and then as our eyes coast along a page consuming sentences like popcorn, it’s jarring to remove the sense of inevitability from professional writing — to cover up a few given phrases, and force ourselves to reckon with the ins and outs of the aesthetic choices before us.

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