I began this column in 2008 at a pretty rough time in my life. And ever since, periodically, some of you have read (listened to? for some reason I like the idea that when something is read, I mean really read, it is heard too…) what I’ve always thought of as morning notes to myself. That’s what the Lonely Voice has always been to me. It was a privilege to be allowed to have a private conversation with myself in public. So thanks to you, the readers who read these columns, and to the editors—Stephen Elliot, Isaac Fitzgerald, Zoë Ruiz, and Marisa Siegel—who gave me the greatest gift a writer can have: unlimited freedom to say whatever I felt like saying. And who thought, generously, that a column devoted almost exclusively to short stories and the people who write them wasn’t that weird an idea. Here’s the last one, a tribute to two great lonely voices—Frank O’Connor, whose title I stole, and Nicolai Gogol, who opened the door to so many lonely voices that have followed.
The following is excerpted from Am I Alone Here? Notes on Living to Read and Reading to Live, out today from Catapult and which collects many of the essays that appeared in “The Lonely Voice” between 2008 and 2016.
Frank O’Connor’s The Lonely Voice, first published in 1963, is one of the few books about short stories (or writing in general1) I’ve ever been able to stomach much. This is because O’Connor never offers any insight on how to tell stories. O’Connor knows such thoughts would not only be useless, they would completely defeat his purpose. Stories are patently abnormal things, each one a warped and unique universe unto itself. The minute you attempt to streamline a certain methodology of telling, you put an artificial limitation on the expression of human experience. That was a mouthful. Put it like this: Stories can’t be caged.
The Lonely Voice is about storywriters O’Connor reveres: Maupassant, Chekhov, Turgenev, Joyce, Mary Lavin, J. F. Powers; and a couple he doesn’t: Hemingway (innovative style triumphs over substance) and Katherine Mansfield (brilliant but forgettable). It’s about the idea of being a storywriter itself, this lunatic idea of devoting your life’s blood to making up stories about things that never happened and people who never existed. It’s an imperfect, provocative, cranky book (among other things, his thoughts on Hemingway sweep far too broadly and he’s way off on Mansfield), and I couldn’t live without it. I’ve taped The Lonely Voice back together so many times now the pages are all out of order.
For the short-story writer there is no such thing as essential form. Because his frame of reference can never be the totality of a human life, he must be forever selecting the point at which he can approach it, and each selection he makes contains the possibility of a new form as well as the possibility of a complete fiasco.
I once tried to get all that tattooed on my chest, but the artist said he didn’t do paragraphs. I don’t know about you, but I am constantly dancing, flat-footedly, between two poles—moderate success and complete fiasco—in writing and, God knows, in life, though often, as you can probably tell by now, I am unable to separate the two.
The Lonely Voice is also a lamentation for stories never imagined. O’Connor speaks up for stories and the people who write them—and in doing so, the people who read them—as few ever have. Another sentence that amounts to prophesy:
The saddest thing about the short story is the eagerness with which those who write it best try to escape it.
Even today, fifty years later, for most fiction writers, and certainly for most publishers, the novel, hell or high water, remains supreme, especially in this country where we still revere thick for thick’s sake. This has always confounded me. I’m with O’Connor. Chekhov’s example is not enough? What about Welty, whose greatest work is in the story? Mavis Gallant, anybody? Grace Paley? Andre Dubus? Where’s the mighty Borges novel? Borges, who once said: I like beginnings and I like endings and I leave the long middles to Henry James. To this, I say, Hallelujah. How many good stories have been lost because writers slaved away their best years larding unnecessary words onto a story that never needed them? What truths buried? What new forms never created?
There is in the short story at its most characteristic something we do not find in the novel—an intense awareness of human loneliness.
If the novel is the more communal form, the short story is for loners, for those off to the side. Or to put it more mundanely, stories are like me at a party. I hover near the appetizers and have been known to consume entire wheels of cheese in order to keep busy. Anything to avoid the oppressive mob laughter of group conversations.
O’Connor believed that one of the reasons stories stand apart is that so many great ones are told from the perspective of an outsider or, as he put it, “in the voice of a member of a submerged population.” He acknowledged the clunkiness of the term, but admitted he couldn’t come up with anything better. Members of a submerged population are people who, for whatever reason, either by force or by choice, have been excluded from what might be called majority society. Often they are people without material, political, or social influence. To illustrate his point, O’Connor recalls Ivan Turgenev’s line about all Russian writers having emerged from under Nikolai Gogol’s “The Overcoat.” Gogol, arguably, was among the first writers to thrust a true nobody, a common clerk, into a starring role.
And so, in a certain department there served a certain clerk; a not very remarkable clerk, one might say—short, somewhat pockmarked, somewhat red-haired, even with a somewhat nearsighted look, slightly bald in front, with wrinkles on both cheeks and a complexion that is known as hemorrhoidal.
Gogol takes Cervantes’s Don Quixote and makes him even more ridiculous, more isolated—and far more forlorn. Don Quixote has a house and a library back home, servants, his trusty horse—and, of course, Sancho Panza.
Akaky Akakievich has a coat.
You know him (he may be you) and you know the story even if you’ve never come across the text yourself. “The Overcoat” is the rare piece of fiction that so captures what it’s like to be powerless in an inhumane society that it has sunk into our consciousness through battalions of writers who have come after it, Russian or otherwise. This is what Turgenev meant. Generations of writers have carried Akaky Akakievich on their backs. Melville’s Bartleby is a quieter brother. Gogol’s clerk reaches out (for his beloved coat) across a century and a half, across the border of language itself.
A poor man, a petty, abused bureaucrat, is able, due to an unexpected windfall, to purchase a new overcoat from a tailor. You know how it is with new things. I’ve had a couple of new cars in my life. Not new new cars, used new cars, very used new cars, but still, a new car is a new car. I remember how I felt those first few days driving those cars. Like I was newly born. Like now, at last, I had my whole life ahead of me, now that I had a Subaru with under a hundred thousand miles and a dented left fender.
Watch Akaky Akakievich as he struts away from Petrovich the tailor’s house and into the St. Petersburg chill.
Meanwhile, Akaky Akakievich walked on in the most festive disposition of all his feelings. At each instant of every minute he felt there was a new overcoat on his shoulders, and several times he even smiled from inner satisfaction… He did not notice the road at all…
But that very night, as he’s floating home from a party (hosted by his office mates in mock celebration of his new coat), a gang of “people with mustaches” pull the coat right off his back. Less than half a sentence and it’s over, the coat’s history. The theft changes everything, and for the first time in his life the clerk is motivated to stand up for himself. He takes definitive action. First he goes to the police. After getting no satisfaction there, Akaky Akakievich marches, through the cold, in his tattered “house coat,” to visit a certain important person, a general, to request that the full weight of the government assist in recovering his new overcoat. The whole thing is ludicrous. Before Akaky has even arrived in the general’s office, Gogol has skewered him (and the system) so hilariously it’s impossible to take any of it seriously.
It should be realized that this certain important person had become an important person only recently, and till then had been an unimportant person. However, his position even now was not considered important in comparison with other, still more important ones. But there will always be found a circle of people for whom something unimportant in the eyes of others is already important. He tried, however, to increase his importance by many other means—namely, he introduced the custom of lower clerks meeting him on the stairs when he came to the office; of no one daring to come to him directly, but everything in the strictest order: a collegiate registrar should report to a provincial secretary, a provincial secretary to a titular or whatever else, and in this fashion the case should reach him… The chief principle of his system was strictness. “Strictness, strictness, and—strictness,” he used to say, and with the last word usually looked importantly into the face of the person he was addressing.
Still, I can’t help reading the scene straight. Akaky Akakievich genuinely believes that the general could find his coat, if only he would try. The general immediately sends him packing.
“Do you not know the order? What are you doing here? Do you not know how cases are conducted? You ought to have filed a petition about it in the chancellery; it would pass to the chief clerk, to the section chief, then be conveyed to my secretary, and my secretary…”
Eventually, it is no exaggeration to say, the loss of the coat kills the clerk. After walking home from the general’s office, he catches a severe cold and the next day is found to have a high fever. He’s done for. But this is Akaky Akakievich’s moment—he’ll be forever etched—and even death itself won’t quiet him now.
Certain books, we are told, capture the zeitgeist of a time and place. It seems to me that this idea is an easy way for the majority population or, more accurately, those who claim to speak for it to pretend to understand itself. Forget the zeitgeist. I don’t believe there is any. Because a given society’s profoundest stories always speak from the margins. Think of the stories you most revere. Do they reaffirm the status quo or puncture it irrevocably? There is no zeitgeist in Gogol’s overcoat other than the zeitgeist of a single trampled-upon human being. If every bureaucrat in every government agency or corporate office was required to read “The Overcoat” once a month, so-called common people might have a chance to forge a more human relationship with power. But that’s the joke, right? Power rarely pauses to listen, much less read. Why should it? Even the narrator of this very story can’t help laughing at the man.
At last poor Akaky Akakievich gave up the ghost. Neither his room nor his belongings were sealed, because, first, there were no heirs, and, second, there was very little inheritance left—namely, a bunch of goose quills, a stack of white official paper, three pairs of socks, two or three buttons torn off of trousers, and the housecoat already familiar to the reader. To whom all this went, God knows: that, I confess, did not even interest the narrator of this story.
Akaky Akakievich represents nobody but his own bones. The little man, the nobody, in spite of degradation, humiliation, even the grave (what’s more an insult than a cold hole in the ground?), will rise up from six feet under and carry on his search for a coat that not only once kept him warm but that also, and this is essential, gave him dignity. Around Kalinkin Bridge, a dead man is said to be violently yanking coats off shoulders and causing horror and consternation among the populace, including a certain important person. But even more affecting is how one lonely voice will haunt the memory of one unnamed fellow clerk, a man who had once abused Akaky and is now ashamed. It’s a line Akaky Akakievich never said out loud himself because he never knew how to say it. But the truth was always there.
“I am your brother.”
But back to the question: Why a short story? Why Frank O’Connor’s insistence that there is something different about this form? Why not The Overcoat: A Novel? It’s not that he wasn’t capable. Gogol’s Dead Souls is one of the more insane masterpieces that exist in novel form. But my thought is that a novel version of Akaky might have tempted Gogol to offer up some kind of closure for this story. And for Akaky Akakievich there can be no closure. Every time I read the story I feel the loss of that coat down to my feet. After the last period, I fall and keep on falling. Our most enduring short stories never end. In this way, they may last even longer than their fatter counterparts. Another way of saying it: The difference between a short story and a novel is the difference between an inarticulate pang in your heart compared to the tragedy of your whole life. There are so many things we find it impossible to say. But we, like Akaky Akakievich pleading his case to a general who doesn’t hear a word he says, try to tell them, anyway. What choice? The failure of certain stories to say what they are trying to say is the source of their inexplicable force.
1. Another is Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium, beautifully re-translated in a new edition by the poet and translator Geoffrey Brock.↩
Original illustration of Frank O’Connor’s The Lonely Voice by Eric Orner.
Excerpted with permission from Am I Alone Here? Notes on Living to Read and Reading to Live by Peter Orner, available now from Catapult.