Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Chekhov and Children

“Oysters”  by Anton Chekhov

In her excellent biography of the Italian novelist, Elsa Morante, Lily Tuck recounts how the author, in a famous interview with Michel David, expressed her belief that reality was much closer or “truer” in childhood. Adults, by contrast, tended to distance themselves from it through their often mindless devotion to their careers, to their wealth and possessions, to vanity, drink, and sex. The best  way to know reality, Morante insisted, was through the eyes of a child.

I think Chekhov might have agreed—at least in part, for he too felt a great affinity for the way that children see and suffer the world. In the Modern Library collection Anton Chekhov: Early Short Stories, 1883-1888, there are no less than ten stories that deal expressly with the experience and perspectives of youth, stories such as “Children,” “Grisha,” “An Incident,” “The Runaway,” and “Oysters,” the subject of this post.

Written to help support himself while in medical school, this lesser known story, “Oysters,” is a perfect example of what William Trevor—in describing Chekhov’s fiction—called “the art of the glimpse.” Less the five pages long, and shot through with pathos and humor, it tells the story of a boy, the narrator, who, while out begging with his father before an upscale Moscow restaurant, spots a sign for ‘Oysters,’ a word he has never seen before and about which he questions his father at length:

“Papa, what does ‘oysters’ mean?” I repeated.
“It is an animal…that lives in the sea…”
When pressed further his beleaguered father explains, “They are eaten alive…They are in shells like tortoises, but…in two halves,” a revelation that leaves the boy aghast:

So that’s what ‘oysters’ meant! I imagined to myself a creature like a frog.  A frog sitting in a shell, peeping out from it with big, glittering eyes, and moving its revolting jaws. I imagined the creature in a shell with claws, glittering eyes, and slimy skin…The grown-ups would take it and eat it, eat it alive with its eyes, its teeth, its legs! While it squeaked and tried to bite their lips…”

It is a vision that torments the boy, even in sleep, after some rich men have forced him to sample some of the creatures and he lies nauseous at home in bed. Chekhov renders this moment—the boy’s confusion, his sickness, his horror—with startling authenticity and force. What’s more he does so against the darker, more dreadful background of the boy’s abject and broken father pacing the room beside him, mumbling madly to himself. 

If you have never read Chekhov’s short stories you are in for a treat. A brilliant playwright, he was also a master of the short story, having—in the course of his short career—composed no less than five hundred of them. Writes Raymond Carver: “Chekhov’s stories are as wonderful (and necessary) now as when they first appeared. They present, in an extraordinarily precise manner, an unparalleled account of human activity and behavior in his time; and so they are valid for all time. Anyone who reads literature, anyone who believes, as one must, in the transcendent power of art, sooner or later has to read Chekov.” Indeed his stories—so luminous, so simple—are sure to sharpen your perception of the world, tightening the ratchet on all you see and feel. 

Anton Pavlovich Chekhov (1860-1904), who trained and practiced as a doctor, was a major Russian playwright and master of the modern short story. A literary artist of laconic precision, he probed below the surface of ordinary Russian life, laying bare the secret motives of his characters. His stories are distinguished by their simple plots, their psychological treatment of character, and their complex and ambiguous endings. (Thanks in part to

Peter Adam Nash

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