"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
“Chekhov,” V.S. Pritchett’s now-classic biography of the 19th century Russian story writer, physician and playwright, is newly available in an audiobook edition beautifully narrated by Antony Ferguson.
This is a cause for celebration, because Anton Chekhov has in many ways become an abstraction useful for describing the work of other writers. There is no higher superlative, in some quarters, than to say a writer is “the American Chekhov” or “our Chekhov” or “Chekhovian.” What this seems to mean is that the writer is attuned to the subtleties of human behavior, that the writer does not proclaim loudly upon everything all the time, that the writer is restrained in the use of language, that the writer is civil and just, that the writer is measured, that the writer is in some way indescribable, that there is a magic somewhere in the flat surface that is best left unexamined, because to describe it mechanically would be to diminish it.
Sometimes, though, when a writer’s prose is described as Chekhovian, it seems to be shorthand for: It’s boring, but it’s good for you. In their worst and laziest iterations, these ways of characterizing the Chekhovian — and, therefore, of characterizing Chekhov — seem rooted mostly in a small handful of his best-known short stories, among them “The Lady With the Dog,” a coy story of adultery that is often held up alongside James Joyce’s “The Dead” as the founding document of the contemporary literary short story. (The story famously ends without the lovers having resolved much except to continue in the misery of their secret love. In Constance Garnett’s translation: “And it seemed as though in a little while the solution would be found, and then a new and splendid life would begin; and it was clear to both of them that they had still a long, long road before them, and that the most complicated and difficult part of it was only just beginning.” It is a glorious ending, and a true one, and it has launched — and continues to launch — thousands of imitations that are neither glorious nor true, but which are infuriatingly unwilling to offer the reader a reckoning by the story’s end.)
V.S. Pritchett — a British writer best known for his own celebrated short stories, and who died in 1997 — offers a welcome corrective to this pervasive idea of Chekhov-as-symbol. He writes not as a biographer from the literary-historical wing, and not as a hagiographer out to make a saint of his subject, but rather as a fellow laborer in the trenches of story-making. It’s clear from the tone of “Chekhov” that Pritchett is not engaged in an act of discovery. Instead, he is writing from the vista old age can achieve (he was 88 the year the book was published). He has lived for most of his life with Chekhov’s stories and plays (he sees the plays, even the great ones such as “The Cherry Orchard” or “Uncle Vanya,” as mere spinoffs of the stories, which he prefers and spends most of his time addressing), and he is increasingly interested in the breadth of Chekhov’s achievement. The stories that interest him most are the longer, more formally daring experiments and successes of Chekhov’s middle and late career, among them “The Peasants,” “In the Ravine,” and “Ward Six.”
He reserves highest praise for what I believe might be Chekhov’s greatest and most idiosyncratic story, a tale of death at sea titled “Gusev.” The story grew out of Chekhov’s strenuous 1890 journey, by train, horse-drawn carriage and steamship, to the Russian penal colony of Sakhalin Island, just north of Japan, where he spent three months interviewing convicts for a census, and which became the subject of his only work of nonfiction, the grim “Sakhalin Island,” which is full of tales of neglect, deprivation, beatings and forced prostitution. On his sea voyage home (he took the scenic route, stopping in Hong Kong and Singapore, and, he claimed in a letter, in Ceylon, where he “made love to a dark girl under the palm trees” and acquired three mongooses), Chekhov witnessed the burial of two men at sea. At the time he was himself ill enough to experience some delirium, as does the character he invents as the story’s object, a young soldier named Gusev who dies silently while playing cards with two other soldiers, and whose death goes mostly unnoted, perhaps because, in Pritchett’s accounting, “At sea one simply exists, outside society.” What makes the story so special is its ending, in which Chekhov jumps around among points of view one never sees in a story—the dead body as it hits the sea, the shark that chomps down upon the body, the harbor pilots that watch the shark, the evening sky at the setting of the sun, three evening clouds that take the shapes of a lion, a triumphal arch and a pair of scissors. The most beautiful moment in the story follows, and Pritchett’s description of it is also the most beautiful moment in the audiobook. “More strangely,” Pritchett writes, “there is a moment when a cold green light shoots across the sky at the day’s beginning and again at its end — an earthly yet strangely unearthly message of birth and death, a signal: Nature is ‘other.’” It is an ending that is simultaneously cold in its description of what must simply be true, but also beautiful and warm in its embrace of the unidealized world.
By this point in the biography, the listener believes that of course a Chekhov ending could be rightly beautiful and warm in its embrace of the world, because Pritchett has drawn Chekhov’s life as sharply as he’s drawn Chekhov’s stories, from a childhood he compares to “the fate of Dickens when he was put to work in the blacking factory” to a funeral that had “elements of fate that would have delighted Chekhov,” the coffin put into a goods wagon labeled Fresh Oysters, the mourners who “got mixed up with another funeral, that of a General Keller of Manchuria, to the sound of a military band.”
Pritchett’s ending is matter-of-fact, observational, almost certainly intentional in its aping of a tone common to Chekhov in the face of death. It goes like this: “Chekhov was buried beside his father’s grave.” And with that ending, the reader is reminded of the biography’s beginning, which is full with news of the father, the “despot in the family” who beat his sons to “make a man” of them, who shouted down his wife, who forced his small children to labor sometimes from 5 in the morning until midnight in his general store, who convinced a priest to reconsecrate a vat of oil in which a rat had drowned so he could legally sell it to unwitting customers — the same father whose response to hard times was to abandon the whole family when Chekhov was 16.
Pritchett’s Chekhov was no elite aesthete. His life as a physician, as a writer and as a public person was born out of a great struggle that led to a great rise, a life that in many ways mirrored Russia’s own. His stories survive, and continue to reach readers, not because they are precious and inscrutable, but because they live in the dirt, among the people whose troubles mean so much to themselves, because each of us has only one life, but whose lives are but a fleeting whisper lost against the long roar of nature and time, and Chekhov offered them the dignity of not lying and saying it could be otherwise.
* * *
New to Audible? Listen to this and other titles for free or check out a sample.
Kyle Minor is the author of "In the Devil’s Territory," a collection of stories and novellas, and the winner of the 2012 Iowa Review Prize for Short Fiction. His second collection of stories, "Praying Drunk," will be published in February 2014.More Kyle Minor.
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)
The Listener is Salon's new weekly audiobook review column, where Laura Miller and other top critics will recommend a great new title for you to plug into. So stay tuned -- and come back every Thursday for a new installment.