Tuesday, April 18, 2017

`Seemingly Artless Actuality'

I came to Conrad Aiken by way of Malcolm Lowry, whose biography by Douglas Day I read when it was published in 1973. I had read Aiken’s story “Silent Snow, Secret Snow” in an anthology loaned to me by a high-school teacher several years earlier, but it didn’t register. Lowry was Aiken’s protégé. At the time I worshipped Under the Volcano, and followed its trail backward to Aiken’s own novels, beginning with Blue Voyage (1927). Lowry’s overwrought prose seduced me but Aiken’s proved too rich, like trying to eat a bushel of pâté. His thralldom to Freud didn’t help, and I don’t think I’ve read a word by Aiken in more than forty years.

Recently I reread Joseph Epstein’s “Anton Chekhov: Worse Even than Shakespeare” (Partial Payments: Essays on Writers and Their Lives, 1988), where I found an unexpected and admiring reference to Aiken. It comes from his review of The Schoolmistress and Other Stories (1920), one of the thirteen volumes of Chekhov’s stories translated by Constance Garnett. You can find the review in A Reviewer’s ABC: Collected Criticism of Conrad Aiken from 1916 to the Present (1958). Epstein describes it as “the best account of what goes on in a Chekhov story.” Aiken begins with a fictional anecdote:

“You are traveling from New York City to Chicago, and the stranger with whom you have been talking leans with restrained excitement toward the car window, as the train passes a small town, and says: `I lived in that town for three years.’”

But for geography, this might be the opening of a Chekhov story, or one by Sherwood Anderson, Willa Cather or William Maxwell. Aiken devotes his lengthy opening paragraph to following the unfolding story and thus demonstrating the potent allure of stories. It’s a risky strategy. The book under review isn’t mentioned for another 175 words, but Aiken holds our attention through simple, compelling storytelling. The secret of the story’s charm, he tells us, is that it is “actual, that it really happened.”  The protagonist tells us his own story “simply and artlessly.” Now he moves on to the author under review:

“The stories of Chekhov have precisely this quality of natural, seemingly artless actuality—casual and random in appearance, abrupt, discursive, alternately overcrowded and thin.”

This is not to suggest that Chekhov is an idiot savant of storytelling or that his art is primitive and “natural,” as they used to say of jazz musicians. His artlessness is highly artful. After citing the opening sentences from five stories in The Schoolmistress, Aiken writes:

“The primitive desire to listen to a story has been aroused in us, but that is not all: we have been convinced a priori by the speaker’s very tone of voice, by his calm, and above all by the absence, on his part, of any desire to convince, that what he is about to tell us is true. His audience is already half hypnotized with the first sentence.”

Aiken distinguishes Chekhov from Maupassant, of whom he writes: “Grant his hypothesis, his Q.E.D. will punctually flower.” Chekhov is not interested in the conclusion. Nor is he much interested in individual, dramatized events. Instead, he creates “a living being or group of beings, beings through whose rich consciousness, intense or palpable, we are enabled to live, backward and forward, in time, lives as appallingly genuine as our own.” This reminds me of a Chekhovian virtue I hadn’t thought about in a long time. Nineteenth-century Russia ought to be terribly exotic to us, with its peasants, patronymics and poverty. Yet I find myself seldom thinking about the Russian social accoutrements Chekhov casually renders. We inhabit the consciousness of his people, not their culture or landscape. Chekhov requires fewer annotations than most of the great Russians. His stories seem so human, like anecdotes told us by a stranger. Aiken writes:

“He does not want us to be conscious of his style, nor of any arrangement. He wants us to see his people and scenes just as they are, neither larger nor smaller than life. Every trace of sympathy must therefore be excluded.”

In this, Chekhov reminds me of another master of the short story, Kipling. There are other ways to be masterful, of course. Take Henry James. Chekhov at his best is the least flashy of great writers. As Nabokov writes in Lecture on Russian Literature (1981):          

“. . . Chekhov managed to convey an impression of artistic beauty far surpassing that of many writers who thought they knew what rich beautiful prose was. He did it by keeping all his words in the same dim light and of the same exact tint of gray, a tint between the color of an old fence and that of a low cloud.”

Aiken concludes that Chekhov was essentially a poet, “a poet of the actual, an improviser in the vivid.” Here are the final sentences in his review: “His sympathy, his pity, his tenderness, were inexhaustible. He lived, and thus permitted us to live, everywhere.”

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