Hello all! The turbulent words of Russian authors–from the axe in Alyona Ivanovna’s head to the lofty sky of a dying Prince Andrei–have intrigued me for years. The cherry adolescence of Lolita, her ripped stockings and innocent mouth, hold a perverse fascination even the vileness of pedophilia couldn’t tarnish. Their emotions and stark style of writing tacked my captivation to a board of the spellbound, the helpless, the obsessed. I recently read a few short stories by Anton Chekhov, a Russian playwright and author of the late 1800s. Interestingly, I found his tone of writing similar to mine—his cynicism, criticisms, and direct way of the viewing the world mirror my own work. Read below to sift through my literary breakthrough!
I am currently writing a novel; it’s not a traditional novel in the sense that chapter two trips sequentially after chapter one. It’s a collection of related short stories featuring the same narrator—a badass version of myself—and a slew of different characters the narrator interacts with, criticizes, studies, and questions. Called The Lemon Tales, the book’s main point is that something—from a giant zit on graduation day to a headcold during a symphony—always goes wrong in the end (or sour, hence The Lemon Tales). Funny and awkward, probing and reflective, my hodgepodge of stories reflects my messed up, twisted, and unique college experience. The thread of the fake weaves through the autobiographical timeline, the conversations figments of my imagination but how I felt toward my real-life characters dead true. If it ever gets published, I’m burying myself under a bomb proof rock…. I scorned and revealed without an ounce of lie, nobody appearing rosy in my sharp eye. Also, the short stories aren’t a boring wash of paragraphs interspersed with an exciting exclamation point or two. It is a literary scrapbook, incorporating poems, songs, speeches, letters, and other forms of creative writing. I wanted to shatter the unbroken paragraph, destroy the monotony of a chapter. And in its place? An obituary I wrote about myself, a Woody Guthrie tune about being drunk, and monologue from a dead woman. A heavy dose of sarcasm pervades my musings, my college rendezvous’ leaving me disillusioned with the rushing glory of youth and the supposed invincibility of it all. But, we are not invincible. We are not pretty. We don’t ever keep our words. The Lemon Tales was written about us, and it exposes our fickle natures as surely as Chekhov criticizes the drunken Russian peasantry.
The collection of Chekhov stories I read included The Black Monk, The House with the Mezzanine, The Peasants, Gooseberries, and The Lady with the Toy Dog—how deeply communicative these tales were for only being a few pages long! The horridness of schizophrenia, the impossibility of perfection, the danger of unwarranted love, and the passions of a doomed affair are stabbed to the core and explored within a few pages. Chekhov described essential human conditions so succinctly that his little ditties contained icy depths of morals, messages, and further questions. The House with the Mezzanine resembled my own writing the most. An older man of ennui and listless talent falls in love with Genya Volchaninov, a sweet girl with a sister trapped between idealism and spinsterhood. Managing to critique the entire Russian system in a few sentences and spinning a love story, Chekhov finishes with
“I never saw the Volchaninovs again.
I have already begun to forget about the house with the mezzanine, and only now and then, when I am working or reading, suddenly—without rhyme or reason—I remember the green light in the window, and the sound of my own footsteps as I walked through the fields that night, when I was in love, rubbing my hands to keep them warm. And even more rarely, when I am sad and lonely, I begin already to recollect and it seems to me that I, too, am being remembered and waited for, and that we shall meet….
Missyuss, where are you?”
The forlorn aspect echoes throughout my own writing as well, the ethereal clashing with the reality of someone who doesn’t love you back. Most of my stories end in this tragic, dramatic way, my point of disillusionment cut clear to the reader in the last line or two. For example,
“I learned later that the night after clubbing, he tried to hook up with Sarah and purportedly said he wanted to “let me down easy.” Whatever that bullshit meant, especially when he agreed to go on a blatantly white girl date the next week.
Then I realized we had nothing in common.
Then I realized his taste in music was absolutely terrible.
And I mildly wished it had worked out.
Then I forgot all about him, except when I thought about that boyish, girlish laugh from time to time.
Moral of the story? Drunken club hookups are meaningless, just like every other flighty relationship in college.”
My style of blunt writing isn’t as beautiful and sentimental as Chekhov’s, but neither is this digital age of online birthday cards compared to the ideality of 19th century Russia [minus the peasants]. The second story that resonated with me was Gooseberries. Only eight pages long, this pithy fiction told of the single-minded brother of Ivan Ivanich. This brother, who worked for the government, was obsessed with the idea of buying a farm in the Russian countryside. “He used to draw out a plan of his estate and always the same things were shewn on it: a) a farmhouse, b) cottage, c) vegetable garden, d) gooseberry-bush.” The gooseberry-bush was emphasized constantly; he needed the gooseberry-bush to fulfill this wild dream of domesticity. Eventually, the brother obtains his sought-after farm, inviting Ivan Ivanich to visit. At dinner, the gooseberries are brought out, prettied by garnish and fanatical desire. In reality, they were “hard and sour, but the illusion which exalts us is dearer to us than ten thousand truths.” Chekhov manages to relate to every living human with one carefully chosen, brilliant sentence—pure mastery of his submissive tongue! Dashing away and explaining illusions with a running quill, he does this several times throughout his stories. My writing doesn’t illuminate human nature, but a few structured words in Tale Four might have a minute effect on the reader <I hope>. I wrote about the effect music had on me while intertwining my local storyline:
“I was creating a force larger than myself, an intangible entity that had the gift of tears, laughter, overwrought feeling, and anger. There was nothing serene at all about Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony and yet its invisibility struck the heart with a chord of nettled emotions and fears. I could barely play Handel sonatas, but when my fingers first struck the tune of the Song of India by Rimsky Korsakov, I was convinced that music was more beautiful than novels, theater, and classical paintings. The sine and cosine waves existed, but I simply could not see them, much like the eventual discontent and hatred with those same friends which had introduced me to classical music. The unremarkable face covered with brown hair and dimples would fade to another fleshy person with curly blonde locks, disloyalty leaking out of their utterly normal roots, but the music would remain long after all hurt was done.”
Several of these paragraphs—broad reaching thoughts dragged back to human characters—pepper my book, inner thoughts meshing with fictionalized truth. The last Chekhov story, The Lady with the Toy Dog, is a shorter version of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina set in Crimea instead of Petersburg. I don’t write about passionate affairs between thirty year olds, but one particular paragraph—in which a sooty train to Petersburg steals the lover from Mediterranean sunlight—stuck with me. It consists of that sentimental gook, of unearthly feelings and rushing glances, that descends to the dirt of the real world. Here’s what I mean:
“The train moved off rapidly. Its lights disappeared, and in a minute or two the sounds of it was lost, as though everything were agreed to put an end to this sweet, oblivious madness. Left alone on the platform, looking into the darkness, Gomov heard the trilling of the grasshoppers and the humming of the telegraph wires, and felt as though he had just woke up. And he thought that it had been one more adventure, one more affair, and it also was finished and had left only a memory.”
See? The experiences that sift under the skin and remain. My take on that other-worldly emotion, a simpler take on it, was:
“I won’t ever forget that walk from the bus stop to the door of my apartment.
Silence blanketed the shabby buildings, and not one other person was roaming the development with me. The crispness of the morning, fresh and buzzing, clung to the trees, the dewy grass, my scuffed shoes, these sticky eyelashes. I was a mush of peace and clarity. And this walk, solitary and unreal, was so perfect that I wished I would never have to draw out this little bronze key and open a door I wanted to remain shut.
And that sweater—his sweater—the sweater of a saturated, purple hue and an intense, spicy scent that I would gladly die to be doused in, hung off my tired bones, the loose knitting enveloping me in propriety and his invisible, spindly arms.”
I am not Chekhov. But something about his stark tone echoed within my writing long before I bought his book in Boston on a whim. He was a doctor first, this trifling fact giving me hope that my days of accounting won’t to lead indifferent drudgery, but striking insight.