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Try to be colder

July 30, 2012

Anton Chekhov, in an 1892 letter to L. A. Avilova:

I read your story “On the Road.” If I were the publisher of an illustrated journal, I would print this story in my magazine with great pleasure. Only here is my advice as a reader: when you depict the downtrodden and unfortunate and want to arouse the reader’s sympathy, try to be colder. This provides, as it were, a background for your characters’ misfortune, against which it can be shown in greater relief. Otherwise in your prose the characters shed tears and you sigh too. Yes, be colder.

There are other writers who advocated a “be colder” approach to narrative – I think Gustave Flaubert did, for instance. They try to follow their own advice, and they succeed compared to the Avilovas of the world, but if you compare them to a theoretical ideal of cold objectivity that never adds any judgment of its own, it turns out that even a Chekhov could be colder.

Ieronim in Chekhov’s “Easter Eve” quotes an akathist to St. Nicholas the Wonderworker

That’s how I take the interesting reading of Chekhov’s “Easter Eve” (Святою ночью, 1886) and “Rothschild’s Fiddle” (Скрипка Ротшильда, 1894) by Martha M. F. Kelly, who quotes the letter to Avilova. These stories are roughly from the period (1888-94) A. P. Chudakov considers the peak of Chekhov’s “objective manner” (39), but Kelly argues that “even in this middle period Chekhov undermines the objective impulse” (40).

There are two parts to Kelly’s argument. Characters in the stories are not condemned to alienation, but manage to connect with other characters through “cultural forms,” a cover term that mainly means music in “Rothschild’s Fiddle” and Orthodox religious practice, sensitively understood, in “Easter Eve” (42 ff). Actually, that’s not quite right: Kelly says cultural forms are less a means than an index of reconciliation (47), but they’re important. Beyond this, Chekhov’s narrator steps out of pure objectivity to incorporate “his subject’s language […] into the fabric of his narrative” (46). In “Easter Eve” the narrator’s language is affected by the wise and sensitive Orthodox Christian perspective of the monk Ieronim, who is mourning another monk, Nikolai, a talented writer of akathists (46). The narrator of “Rothschild’s Fiddle” is drawn to lists that are reminiscent of the main character Iakov’s ledger in which he lists his countless monetary losses, and at one point the title of the story was going to be “A Coffen for Olga,” which would have come, misspelling and all, from that ledger (48-49).

This summary probably misrepresents Kelly somewhat, since she says at one point that “Easter Eve” is a positive example and “Rothschild’s Fiddle” a negative example of cultural forms as a cure for human isolation (42). As I read her argument, though, each story contains positive and negative examples of the phenomenon. Iakov’s skillful but mercenary and uninspired fiddle-playing for much of the story is parallel to the majority of the monks in “Easter Eve” who lack Nikolai and Ieronim’s sensitive attitude toward the liturgy. Meanwhile, Iakov’s last mournful song helps him achieve a sort of late reconciliation with the memory of his dead wife and daughter and with Rothschild, just as Nikolai and Ieronim’s deep attention to religious ritual connects them to their religious tradition and community.

Martha M. F. Kelly, “The Art of Knowing: Music and Narrative in Two Chekhov Stories,” Slavic and East European Journal 56.1 (2012): 38-55 (no link).

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