“Nowadays most people die of a sort of creeping common sense, and discover when it is too late that the only things one never regrets are one’s mistakes.”
― Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray
Oblique Strategy: Honor thy error as a hidden intention
After a long day of not getting much done I found myself bereft of ideas. My computer has thousands of text files that I have typed up to remember things, going back twenty years, and I decided to peruse them and see if I could find something useful.
I came across this quote about a Chekhov short story by one of my favorite writers, Tobias Wolff:
There’s a wonderful story of his about a soldier who’s returning from Manchuria, dying on a troop ship, but too ignorant to realize he’s dying. He was a brute, and that comes through, but he also has a very tender side. So he dies, in this state of longing and unredeemed ignorance, and most stories would end there. But Chekhov has the burial at sea, and then he follows the body, the weighted body going down and down and down. And a shark comes up, and nudges it, and swims away. And then he moves the vision back up to the sea and the sky where just at that moment the sun is breaking through the clouds and he talks about the light dancing on the water — and I’m trying to get this right — with a sort of joy for which there is no word in the language of men. So you get this tragic thing, this man dying in complete ignorance, a man with all the goodness in his heart that was never realized, so you have that incredible focus on the individual. And then suddenly he opens it up so we can see where we fit into this and how small it is. It doesn’t diminish your feeling for the character, but it gives you a sense of the finitude of our duration here and our problems. He’s an amazing writer. I love Chekhov. I could go on all day about him.
What an amazing story review. I, too, love Chekhov, but I doubt that the story will be as good as this review.
I don’t know, maybe it’s better. A quick Google search and I found the name of the story is Gusev.
It’s readily available online. Here’s one translation:
Gusev by Anton Chekhov, translated by Constance Garnett
I’m going off to read it now – I suggest you do likewise.
When I began my blog, I knew I needed to improve my writing, but I wasn’t inclined toward how-to manuals. Instead, I used a couple of quotations as my first guides into the thicket, and one was from Chekhov.
The quote usually found is, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” Do you know the Quote Investigator? He has an interesting post about that quotation here.
It may be that the Chekhov quotation is the source for the ubiquitous advice, “Don’t tell; show.” But even there, Chekhov does it better.
Yes, that is such good advice. So much “literature” being written now is mostly telling, without much showing.