THE LONELY VOICE #6: The Rumpus Short Story Column, Death and the Dying Chekhov

By

pressrelease03The lonely voice is coming to you today from San Francisco General Hospital. I’m in the cafeteria. I come here sometimes. It’s a nice place to be distracted and the pudding is good. I’m thinking about Chekhov, or trying to, I keep getting distracted. Chekhov died of tuberculosis. As a doctor and as a writer, he was always preoccupied with death but I wonder whether toward the end of his life, when he was continually coughing up blood, if he wasn’t more curious about it than ever. Not for his own sake. It wasn’t Chekhov’s own death that obsessed his imagination to the end – it was the death of his characters, his people.

I may also have come here today because I’m following the mistaken notion that in a hospital I’m closer to death than when I sit distracted in other places. But I’ve seen no death yet here today in the cafeteria. I’ve seen salads. I’ve seen onion rings. One of the doctors across this long table from me is eating strawberries while she tells another doctor about a third doctor’s fucked-up relationship.

“I mean she’s so hard to talk to sometimes because her logic is so flawed, I mean like the crap she puts up from that guy boggles the mind.”

“Where’s he work?”

“Parnassus. Pediatrics.”

Some patients down at the other end of the table keep high-fiving each other. I can’t make out what they are celebrating. There – they did it again. High-five!

There’s a man doing laps around the cafeteria, shouting into a cell phone, “I’m telling you, it’s the military industrial prison complex. Eisenhower warned us!” I’ve seen this guy here before. There is no one on the other end of that cell phone.

Anton Chekhovs Grave by Perosha

Anton Chekhov's Grave by Perosha

Chekhov is often called, in my view, a little dismissively, a “realist.” Been there done that. Read “Lady with a Pet Dog” and “Gooseberries.” Next! As if Chekhov was merely the sort of writer who recorded what he saw, and though he did it extraordinarily well (if you like that sort of thing), there wasn’t much more to it than paying very close attention to real things. I wonder if this doesn’t give short shrift to experience itself by suggesting that there is some kind of objective reality that is the same for everybody. And I don’t just mean the guy pretending to talk to an imaginary friend about Eisenhower. (Another lap. Now he is ranting about the Iraq war and General Petraeus. No, wait. He’s talking to General Petraeus.) His reality is clearly different, somewhere far far away, and though I would love to hear the voices that he’s hearing on the other end of that long dead cell phone, what I’m trying to express is that your way of seeing the world is subtly different than mine or the strawberry eating doctor or the high fivers, and that these alternate realities – the world seen through the muck of a billion different brains – encompass the actual wonder and freakishness of being alive.

For me, Kafka is as realistic a writer as Chekhov. (I read the Metamorphosis not as an allegory, but as a rough morning. Gregor Samsa has become a fat bug, period.) Chekhov is often, in his quieter way, even beautifully weirder sometimes. Further, his range and depth is so vast, and so unprecedented – that if you feel as though by reading a bit of Chekhov you’ve read it all, you are missing out on countless undiscovered lives, universes. I’m sorry. The lonely voice is not here to lecture. He just likes Chekhov. And he knows he’s not exactly being a maverick here. It’s just that he thinks Chekhov’s name is thrown around a lot more than he is actually read. And so today, the lonely voice advocates, with apologies for referring to himself in the third person, strongly for the stories of Chekhov’s late period when his work became considerably denser, sometimes more sober, never without humor, wider in scope. But it is also as though style itself became less important to him. The stories seem almost to plod until you realize that what’s happening is – I’m not sure how to describe this exactly – that the pacing has begun to match your own breathing. And no story I know of makes me slow down more and take a long look at my life, others’ lives, than his second-to-last story, “The Bishop.”

In 1902, the year he wrote  “The Bishop,” Chekhov wrote to his wife, the actress Olga Knipper, “There’s a frenzied wind blowing. I can’t work. The weather has worn me out. I’m ready to lie down and bite my pillow.”

He was 41 years-old. He had two years left.

Nothing much happens in “The Bishop” other than the fact that an important man bites his pillow. The bishop dies without fanfare in the course of an ordinary day. As you know, this is how it will happen. You and me and the strawberry-eating doctor will die in the course of another ordinary day and on that day other people who haven’t died will go and get a haircut. So no, nothing shattering occurs in “The Bishop” except that another human being leaves the scene.

st_savaDeath, you don’t need me to tell you, is an isolating experience. It will separate us from those we love and those who love us. It will also separate us from our routine. What struck me today when I re-read “The Bishop” was that among other things I won’t do after I am gone is drink coffee in the morning out of my Black Dog Bakery mug. (Or the nice mug I stole/ borrowed from Ritual.) Nor will I look out the window at the park. And this, for me, is the most tender and sorrowful aspect of this story. I would like to say terrifying also, but the bishop’s death isn’t scary, nor is it especially calm; he simply is and then he isn’t. He officiates church. He reads the gospels. He comes back home to the monastery. He drinks tea. He answers mail. He resolves petty disputes. He remembers things, random things. He dies.

Next day was Easter Sunday. There were forty-two churches and six monasteries in the town; the sonorous, joyful clang of the bells hung over the town from morning till night unceasingly, setting the spring air aquiver; the birds were singing, the sun was shining brightly. The big market square was noisy, swings were going, barrel organs were playing, accordions were squeaking, drunken voices were shouting.

But let’s back up. The bishop isn’t dead yet. If there is a conflict in this story it’s the fact that everyone, including the bishop’s old mother (who he has not seen in eight years), kisses his feet too much. Nobody will talk to him like a regular guy. He wants a mother, not another fawning congregant. He wants to talk to her, just talk.

His mood suddenly changed. He looked at his mother and could not understand how she had come by that respectfulness, that timid expression on her face: what was it for? And he did not recognize her.

The only people who treat him without this deference are old father Sisoi, a man the bishop appreciates but also dismisses as tedious and nonsensical, and his young niece, Katya. It is Katya who levels with him about why his mother has shown up out of the blue like this. The family back home needs his support.

“Your holiness,” she said in a shrill voice, by now weeping bitterly, “Uncle, Mother and all of us are left very wretched…Give us a little money…do be kind…Uncle Darling…”

The child’s candor deeply moves the bishop and he agrees to help. After Easter, he says, we’ll talk about it, child. But while the present action in the story, the last mortal days of the bishop, drive the story to it’s inevitable ending what makes this story so strange (and here, for me, stranger than even Kafka) are some of the things the bishop remembers.

I’ll give two remarkable examples and then I’m going to call this a day and have some pudding. The bishop has begun to retreat into the safety of his childhood back home in the village. And yet not in a way that you might imagine. Chekhov knows how this actually works, that what we think we remember is as much an invention as any other story we make up.

He remembered the priest of Lesopolye, Father Simeon – mild, gentle, kindly; he was a lean little man, while his son, a divinity student, was a huge fellow and talked in a roaring bass voice. The priest’s son had flown into a rage with the cook and abused her. “Ah, you Jehud’s ass!” and Father Simonian overhearing it, said not a word, was only ashamed because he could not remember where such an ass was mentioned in the bible…

Wait a second. That’s not so weird. On first glance, maybe not. Would you take another look though? This is a dying bishop, remember, recalling an old priest of his village, and his son, the big pig of a divinity student who once yelled at the cook. How does the bishop know that the upshot of that incident was not that Father Simonian defended the cook from his son, but the comedy of the priest kicking himself for not remembering where in the bible Jehud’s ass appeared? Maybe Father Simonian once told him this? Possible, but I doubt it. Besides, the story moves on. Father Simonian is never mentioned again. His brief shame – of decades ago – is simply a part of the bishop’s parade of memories. I pause at the moment because the bishop made this up. Like his creator, he’s a fiction writer to the last.

Imagine yourself on your deathbed, tubes in your nose. Reach back, way back, and think about someone, a rich neighbor lets say, Mr. Millard, a man you haven’t thought about in years. Now dive into Mr. Millard’s head and give him a passing thought, something only he would think. “Damn, if I hadn’t inherited so much money, I might have made something out of my life…”

See what I mean? Is it me? Or is this is a bizarre – and generous – thing to do when you yourself are dying? To invent other people’s thoughts – long gone people, people who have nothing to do at all do with your story. I can only hope than when I’m on the way out, I’ll be this imaginative and not weeping over my own pain.

In Obnino, he remembered now, there were always a lot of people, and the priest there, Father Alexei, to save time during mass, used to make his deaf nephew Ilarion read the names of those for whose health or whose souls’ peace prayers were asked. Ilarion used to read them, now and then getting a five or ten kopeck piece for the service, and only when he was gray and bald, when life was nearly over, he suddenly saw written on one of the pieces of paper: “What a fool you are, Ilarion.”

Again, another hilarious (and sad and cruel) private moment of someone in the distant past. Like Father Simonian, Ilarion never returns to the story. He exists for two sentences. The bishop resurrects Ilarion, then humiliates him in his old age. And for a fleeing moment we ache for the man. The memory of Ilarion – it too will soon disappear as the bishop joins him in oblivion. And this is what it comes to, and if this is obvious, it bears saying anyway. Not only the things we remember will be lost, but also the odd way only we can see. We watch the world and we invent the world and then one day we don’t do either anymore. The church bells will ring and the drunks will drink. And a mother will bring her cow to pasture and tell the other women that she once had a son who was a bishop, “…and this she says timidly, afraid that may not be believed…”

By the way, the two gossiping doctors have been replaced by two much quieter nurses. One is reading the Chronicle. A moment ago, she began to read to her friend from the obituaries. “This woman here was 97. It says she was preceded in death by her parents. Well, I would guess!”

“Sounds like there was no husband.”

“Or anybody else.”

“Just those parents.”

“Right. She must have had parents.”

“It stands to reason.”

“Does, doesn’t it? And now look, they’ve made the paper!”

And the two nurses laughed and laughed.

**

The late stories of Anton Chekhov can be read, in order of composition, in Peasants and Other Stories, New York Review of Books (1999) (edited by Edmund Wilson).

Also, I’d recommend, Raymond Carver’s justly famous and heart-crushing story on the death of Chekhov, “Errand.”

Top picture “Family. 1945″ by Victor Ivanov 1958 — 1964.


Peter Orner’s most recent book, Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge is a New York Times Editor’s Choice book and was named a Favorite Book of 2013 by the Wall Street Journal. 2014 will mark the 5th year of the Lonely Voice column on the Rumpus. More from this author →