Ranting Like Chekhov

by Scott Nadelson

Like a lot of writers I know, I struggled to work in the months after last year’s election. In the face of their outrage or despair, a number of friends told me writing fiction didn’t make sense to them, that the whole enterprise suddenly felt selfish or pointless. That wasn’t the trouble for me. Literature continued to seem just as vital as ever, its complexity providing necessary counterpoint to our ugly, oversimplified politics. I never believed narrative wasn’t up to the task of wrestling with our difficult historical moment, just that I wasn’t up to it. I couldn’t find my way to complexity and nuance. I just wanted to rant, and ranting, I thought, has no useful role in serious fiction.

Or does it?

During those months I found myself returning to many of my literary touchstones, from Isaac Babel to Eudora Welty to James Baldwin, and to my surprise stumbled on outbursts and rants in places I wouldn’t have thought to look. I never expected to find them in mild-mannered Chekhov, for example, but as it turns out, some of his characters are the most interesting and passionate ranters around. In fact, two of my favorite Chekhov novellas climax in outbursts from pent-up characters who just can’t take it anymore and let loose on unsuspecting audiences.

The first comes in the penultimate scene of “Three Years,” which chronicles in excruciating detail the beginning stages of an unhappy marriage. By this point in the story, the central character, Laptev, has been simmering for more than a hundred pages, brooding over his bad romantic choices and haunted by a miserable childhood.  When his brother Fyodor hands him an absurd document describing the nobility of their family, Laptev boils over. For the next two pages he expresses everything he has held back so far, detailing his misery and the depth of his despair:

“What has your distinguished family done for us? What sort of nerves, what sort of blood, have we inherited? For nearly three years you’ve been arguing like an ignorant deacon, and talking all sorts of nonsense, and now you’ve written—this slavish drivel here! While I, while I! Look at me … no elasticity, no boldness, no strength of will; I tremble over every step I take as though I should be flogged for it. I am timid before nonentities, idiots, brutes, who are immeasurably my inferiors mentally and morally; I am afraid of porters, doorkeepers, policemen, gendarmes. I am afraid of everyone, and because from a child I was beaten and frightened! … You and I will do well to have no children. Oh, God, grant that this distinguished merchant family may die with us!”

A similar moment occurs in “My Life: The Story of a Provincial,” which Chekhov published a year later, in 1896. Unlike Laptev, who quietly stews but fails to resist his family’s legacy of unhappiness, Misail, the narrator of “My Life,” rejects his upbringing, abandoning his bourgeois roots and joining the proletariat. Still, his choice doesn’t bring him contentment, because like Laptev, he doesn’t confront his unhappiness directly. Not until near the novella’s end—also the penultimate scene—does Misail finally explode, telling his father at length and very directly everything he finds wrong with the provincial life his family has led.

Because they are so direct and don’t rely on tension or subtext, these moments risk melodrama. But every time I read the novellas, I find the outbursts incredibly moving. Why? Part of it certainly has to do with placement. By leaving them until so late in the story, Chekhov gives himself ample time to build tension around the characters’ unhappiness. When the outbursts finally arrive, we’re desperate for release. We can’t wait for Laptev to blow up at his hapless brother or for Misail to lash out at his architect father, who has failed for so long to understand—or even attempt to understand—his motivations for abandoning his legacy.

But what also makes the rants so powerful, I think, has to do with their structure. In both Laptev’s speech and in Misail’s, there is a sense of discovery. Each character is finding out what he really thinks; or rather, he discovers what thoughts have lain hidden deep inside in the process of speaking them out loud. The speech, then, surprises the speaker as much as the listener. Misail, for example, begins with a rhetorical question, answering his father’s charge that he is to blame for his sister’s misery (she has followed Misail’s lead and abandoned her oppressive home life): “Well, suppose it is my fault?” He turns inward before looking outward, admitting that he has “been to blame for many things.” But then he quickly directs the rhetorical question back on his father, asking him to acknowledge his own responsibility for his children’s unhappiness: “why is it that this life of yours, which you think binding upon us, too—why is it so dreary, so barren? How is it that in not one of these houses you have been building for the last thirty years has there been anyone from whom I might have learnt to live, so as not to be to blame?” Here he asks what have become the central questions of his life: why should he live according to his family’s traditions when they have led only to malaise, when they have kept him stuck in a provincial town that offers no models of the noble life his father has sought for him?

Misail doesn’t expect his father to answer these questions, or even attempt to answer, so instead he responds to himself. And it is at this point that we hear him beginning to unearth the thoughts that have lurked beneath the surface of his entire narrative. “There is not one honest man in the whole town!” he tells his father. “These houses of yours are nests of damnation, where mothers and daughters are made away with, where children are tortured …” As he speaks, emotion wells up, and his words seem to shock him. He breaks off one thought mid-stream, and another, more powerful and spontaneous, disrupts the logical progression of his speech: “My poor mother!” he exclaims. “My poor sister!” Here it starts to become obvious that he is no longer speaking just to his father. His primary audience has become himself, as he tries to understand why he has made the choices that have alienated him from his past. And what he discovers is that because he could not bear to watch the suffering of those he loves, his only recourse has been to walk away.

Between the two exclamations comes the narrator’s only interruption of the speech from the present moment of telling the story, a reminder that the rant is being recollected; he makes a note that he “went on in despair.” The interruption serves as a fulcrum in the middle of the speech, the moment at which the dam fully breaks, releasing a flood of emotional truth. And we accept the credibility of this flood because Misail has worked himself up to it, because it is a product of his frustrated search to understand his own choices. “One has to stupefy oneself with vodka, with cards, with scandal,” he cries; “one must become a scoundrel, a hypocrite… Our town has existed for hundreds of years, and all that time it has not produced one man of service to our country… it’s a useless, unnecessary town, which not one soul would regret if it suddenly sank through the earth.” Nothing he says sounds rehearsed, but at the same time his words come so easily that we can imagine he has been wanting to say something like them for a long time. They are an expression of all the futility of his attempt to escape from the past that keeps him in chains.

The passage recalls to mind Garcia Lorca’s theory of “duende,” the sadness that lurks beneath the surface of all great works of art. In both “Three Years” and “My Life,” this sadness seeps out only after we have been lulled by the security of a comic tone or sound political logic. During his outburst Misail’s despair wells up unexpectedly and overshadows all of his logical, political reasons for having abandoned his heritage. We see the true nature of his choices and the reasons they have not freed him; only by naming the oppression of his upbringing directly can he begin to get out from under it. And after he rants he really does start to shed some of the burden. He leaves his father’s house, “walked about the streets bareheaded, staggering, and singing aloud.” In the novella’s final chapter, we see him in the present, in a state of relative peace with his working class life and with the town he has for so long despised.

It’s important to note, however, that his father isn’t moved by his rant at all. He maintains his stubborn resistance to Misail’s needs and desires, even when he hears them laid out before him so plainly. Instead he calls Misail and his sister “disobedient” and “depraved,” and disowns them for their “own good.” The rant, then, doesn’t free Misail by allowing him to enter into some new, more honest communication with his father, as we might expect. Rather, its impact is purely internal, and his father’s presence in the scene simply provides a mirror into which Misail can gaze and understand his own feelings. In the end, he’s really just shouting at himself.

And here, it seems to me, is Chekhov’s lesson, his argument on behalf of ranting: only after finally letting fly, speaking aloud what has been suppressed for too long, stripping away defenses and self-deceptions, can we honestly move forward into the rest of our lives. In moments of crisis, we might not manage to be other than outraged or despairing, and we may have no choice but to vent on the page. The key, however, is recognizing our audience. Our rant isn’t likely to sway the opinion of those who disagree with us. But if we listen closely to what emerges when we blurt out our rage or anguish, we may discover truths we hadn’t been aware of holding back.

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Scott Nadelson photoScott Nadelson is the author of three story collections, a memoir, and most recently, the novel Between You and Me. A new collection, The Fourth Corner of the World, will be published by Engine Books in February 2018 and will include the story “Son of a Star, Son of a Liar,” which appeared in Issue 82 of AGNI.

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