Tuesday, July 07, 2009

`The Art of Surprise'

It’s July in Helkovo, a dusty resort town in Russia, where Pavel Matveyitch Zaikin steps off the train with others, “mostly fathers of families,” Chekhov tells us. He is “perspiring, red in the face, and gloomy.” Zaikin is a lawyer, joining his wife and son at their summer villa. We know him from Gogol and Dickens – an irritable little man whose only pleasure is complaining. “I maintain, sir,” he tells a fellow traveler (dressed in “ginger trousers”), “that summer holidays are the invention of the devil and of woman.”

Only Petya, his 6-year-old son, is home. His wife, Nadyezhda [Hope] Stepanova, and her friend, Olga Kirillovna, have gone to rehearse a play. Petya collects insects and is full of questions about gnats. In a brilliant image, Chekhov has Petya give his father a box out of which comes the sound of buzzing and scratching:

“Opening the lid, he saw a number of butterflies, beetles, grasshoppers, and flies fastened to the bottom of the box with pins. All except two or three butterflies were still alive and moving.”

Pavel Matveyitch has already made his son cry and called him “a horrid little pig.” When he asks Petya who taught him to pin insects, he answers it was his mother’s friend. “Olga Kirillovna ought to be pinned down like that herself!...It’s shameful to torture animals,” he says.

The mother and her friend return in the company of two men who are also in the play. Pavel Matveyitch complains when she wishes to serve them “vodka and savouries.” Alone in his study he drinks tea and eats “a whole French loaf,” though he takes no pleasure in food or drink, nor does he kiss or embrace his wife and son. He feels no jealousy about the actors rehearsing with his wife and staying overnight in their villa -- merely irritation. His son asks more questions about insects and Pavel Matveyitch tells him to shut up. Finally, in the middle of the night, unable to sleep, he walks outside and meets “Ginger Trousers,” his companion on the train, who says, “I am enjoying Nature.” His mother-in-law and nieces have arrived, and he is happy. “And you, too,” he asks, “are enjoying Nature?” Pavel Matveyitch agrees that he is and asks Ginger Trousers if he knows where he can find a tavern.

“Ginger Trousers raised his eyes to heaven and meditated profoundly.”

That’s how “Not Wanted” (in the Constance Garnett translation) concludes inconclusively. The pleasure of the story is in Chekhov’s ability to keep the pot simmering without bringing it to a boil. We’ve all felt like Pavel Matveyitch, and some of us have spoken the way he speaks to his wife and son. He’s not a bully or sadist. He’s quietly, undramatically unhappy, and Chekhov quietly, undramatically balances misery with comedy.

In 2006, theater/film critic Steve Vineberg delivered a lecture, “The Art of Surprise,” at the College of the Holy Cross, later published in The American Scholar. He writes:

“The art I love most dearly emerges from an acknowledgement that we’re none of us pure of either mind or heart. It’s the art of mixed tones—buffoonery mixed with regret, as in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro; comic absurdity mixed with heartache, as in Chekhov’s stories; salvation that appears improbably out of despair, as in Shakespeare’s King Lear, or when all hope is lost, as in The Winter’s Tale. It’s the art of surprise, which can only come from the unpredictable—and what I mean by `unpredictable’ isn’t the preposterous (like the twists in M. Night Shmalayan’s movies) but the turn you don’t expect just because it’s so true to life, and life is never predictable, yet when you see it or hear it you think, `Of course.’”

When Pavel Matveyitch, instead of flying into a rage, merely fumes and sputters; and when he rants at his son and apologizes, then rants again; and when he wanders sleeplessly into the summer night, and asks for directions to a tavern and gets profound meditation instead of an answer – that is the surprise that does not surprise, artifice fashioned so subtly as to seem indistinguishable from life: “Of course.”

In his final book, Energy of Delusion: A Book on Plot, completed when he was 88 years old, Viktor Shklovsky writes:

“Chekhov is the most desperate of all writers , he is the most straightforward one.

“He doesn’t want to soften, loosen the threads of life, he doesn’t want to be capable of bending them to make a false happy ending.”

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