“Those Last Notes Which Complete the Harmony”

William-Trost-Richards-Rocks-and-Sea

In her essay “The Russian Point of View,” Virginia Woolf writes about Chekhov’s stories and their endings:

But is it the end, we ask? We have rather the feeling that we have overrun our signals; or it is as if a tune had stopped short without the expected chords to close it. These stories are inconclusive, we say, and proceed to frame a criticism based upon the assumption that stories ought to conclude in a way that we recognise. In so doing, we raise the question of our own fitness as readers. Where the tune is familiar and the end emphatic — lovers united, villains discomfited, intrigues exposed — as it is in most Victorian fiction, we can scarcely go wrong, but where the tune is unfamiliar and the end a note of interrogation or merely the information that they went on talking, as it is in Tchekov, we need a very daring and alert sense of literature to make us hear the tune, and in particular those last notes which complete the harmony. Probably we have to read a great many stories before we feel, and the feeling is essential to our satisfaction, that we hold the parts together, and that Tchekov was not merely rambling disconnectedly, but struck now this note, now that with intention, in order to complete his meaning.

Over the past few days I listened to a Russian audiobook of Chekhov’s story “The Duel,” read by the actor Denis Nekrasov. I love a good audiobook, especially when it is well read; all the same, I was unprepared for this return to a story I had read and misunderstood years ago (and still carried with awe in my memory).

I first read it as an undergraduate, I think, and found it funny at the time; I saw it as a satire on the tradition of the duel in Russian literature and wrote a paper to that effect. (The teaching assistant commented, “What tradition of the duel?”) Now I hear it entirely differently. It has tinges of humor, but the overall tone is hard to define: world-weary, melancholic, hopeful, but tilting, shifting, swaying out of all of these states.

It is not really “about” a duel; the duel is primarily a state of mind: a state of forced certainty, of knowing that “it has come to this,” that you know exactly another person’s worth, and that you or he must die. Just how that state forms, hardens, and dissolves, this is the matter of the story. But it is not the action of one person alone, but of many figures with entrances, exits, and presences. A person who seems on the periphery can change the course of events. Conversations that seemed incidental can come back as refrains. Maybe the characters change profoundly, maybe not; but as they lose their certainty, they move into decency.

I am not going into detail, since I hope others will read the story. (Also I’m about to board a flight to Dallas.) But I know now that the earlier misunderstanding was worthwhile; I latched onto the duel itself, just as the two duelists did. Over many years, my forced certainty came undone, but still admired the story for reasons I could not articulate. Yesterday, listening to the ending, I heard the rhythms of the sea, of farewells, of the characters and their changing thoughts.

 

Image credit: William Trost Richards, Rocks and Sea.

 

 

 

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