A couple of times a year, I re-read “The Lady with the Dog.” I like to be dazzled.
Whenever I sit down with the story, something different captures my attention. This last time, what I was trying to understand in the days after I read it was how Chekhov crafts Gurov’s psychological inconsistency–and balances the entire story on that inconsistency.
The achievement is rooted in the assured, intimate, but disinterested voice that launches the story. There’s the disembodied opening line–”It was said that a new person had appeared on the sea-front…” And then on the second page, there’s this devastating line about Gurov’s relationship with his wife:
[H]e secretly considered her unintelligent, narrow, inelegant, was afraid of her, and did not like to be at home.
Is there anything more we need to know about this unappealing character? We suspect from the definitive tone that Gurov is doomed, that his cowardice and his cruelty will ruin him and whoever he encounters. Here’s one of his early reactions to Anna:
Gurov felt bored already, listening to her. He was irritated by the naive tone, by this remorse, so unexpected and inopportune; but for the tears in her eyes, he might have thought she was jesting or playing a part.
And now Chekhov has us where he wants us, believing that we know who we’re reading about. Gurov’s encounter with Anna in Yalta ends, he returns to Moscow, and… the Gurov our absolutely reliable narrator has introduced is upended. His detachment collapses, his fault-finding is overwhelmed, and he falls in love.
Something Chekhov understands, which so few writers do, is that to write a story with characters who are consistent is to write a story that isn’t true. We never know who we’re reading about–not completely. Human beings are endlessly self-contradictory and incoherent–brave and wise in one moment and utter fools in the next.
Something else Chekhov understands is that in selecting a point of view, the writer circumscribes what the reader can know about characters, and what the story can be about. Give narration of “The Lady with the Dog” to Gurov, and we don’t have the same Gurov, nor the same Anna; we don’t have “The Lady with the Dog” anymore. If he writes the same story from a thousand different points of view, he has a thousand different stories.
Back before Christmas, we reached out to some of the people who knew my father, and asked if they might want to share recollections about his life. We used a web service that pulls such projects together called 1000 Memories. A couple hundred photos, about forty stories, a few songs and videos–I think the site for my father came out well.
What I didn’t expect to discover, but should have, given my propensity to ramble on about point of view, is how much I didn’t know about my dad. We never know who we know–not completely. In the stories that family and friends posted, he was recognizable–easily so–but he was different. So today I know my dad better than on the day he died. For which I’m grateful and regretful at once. Yes, a portrait of psychological inconsistency.
Below, two of the little pieces I wrote for the site:
Before we moved to Prescott, Arizona, our family lived in a little town in southern Oregon named Ashland. It was about as idyllic as it gets–a ski mountain just outside of town, a salmon river nearby, Lithia Park (a gorgeous expanse designed by the person who did Golden Gate Park) a world-renowned Shakespeare festival that operated year-round, a ban on the transport within the town limits of materials used in the nuclear industry. Why did we ever leave? That’s a different story. This story is one of those that couldn’t be shared at a memorial service, but it illustrates a side of my dad I want to be remembered.
Once a month in Ashland, my parents took all three of us kids on a march. It started at the city library, and ended at “The Plaza”–what was essentially the base and entrance of Lithia Park. The Plaza was, if memory serves, a rather small, oblong bit of land, bounded by a couple of roads that curled around, and at one end, the main street through town–called Main Street, I think. There was a gazebo, a patch of grass, and several drinking fountains guaranteed to surprise the tourists–they spouted Lithia Water, the foul-tasting mineral water for which the park was named.
The marchers, maybe fifty or sixty of us, were not an unusual bunch for Ashland: a few hippies, and a bunch of others who were what my dad called “hippie sympathizers”–professors and churchgoers and leaders of the teacher’s union, many with their kids in tow. We walked down the hill from the library toting signs, and one big banner in the front, and when we got to the Plaza, we had a period of silence. It was probably about ten minutes, but felt like a decade. We kids tried to escape and play tag on the grass by the gazebo, and occasionally we had enough self-control to do so silently, a feat for which we were rewarded by not receiving a cease-and-desist stare from our parents. That was the Peace March.
Almost all of the Peace Marches blend together in my mind, and that makes sense. It was a long time ago, they always lasted longer than my attention span, and almost always, they were… peaceful. But it doesn’t matter that my memory of them has a lot of holes; they made enough of an impression that I grew up knowing, “We are a family that went to the Peace March when we lived in Ashland.” That knowledge was a little bit of bedrock for me in high school, enabling me to feel excited (and probably a little self-righteous) going to a couple of the marches protesting the start of the Gulf War. That knowledge was a spur in grad school, when Anne and I went to several of the marches protesting the start of the Iraq War. Whatever they might or might not have accomplished in the southern Oregon public-policy arena, the Peace March made an at least occasional peace marcher out of me. So I think it worked.
I remember one Peace March individually. Really, I only remember the end of it. We were done with the walk from the library to the Plaza, we were done playing tag, and we were done with the ten minutes of silence. I have a recollection that there was a bell, or perhaps a small gong, to signal that time was up. The bell had been rung, and our family, peaceful and/or tired from running around, was ready to head home. We would have to walk back to the library to get to our car, and that meant passing by the Sweet Shoppe, which meant that maybe we were going to get an ice-cream cone. Mine was always bubble-gum–it was the only time I got to have anything other than Trident sugar-free. The end of the Peace March was really exciting.
We probably had only taken a step off the curb to cross from the Plaza to the sidewalk that led up to the library. A car came whipping around the end of Plaza and roared past our family. Ashland was a little town, this was a little street, and my sisters were little. It really upset my dad. “Slow down, asshole!” he shouted.
I know it had to have embarrassed my mom, but it thrilled me. Profanity was one thing–and exciting. But profanity in front of my sisters, and directed at strangers, and at the Peace March, right after the ten minutes of silence–it was one of the best things ever. The moment is crystal-clear, twenty-five years later.
Part of what people love about my dad is how committed he was to building a more just world. His habits of simplicity, his conscious, personal stewardship of the planet, his willingness to take public stands, his unwillingness to let arguments end without some step forward in mutual understanding… that was a lot of his life, and it made a real difference. He taught people, he inspired people, sometimes he annoyed people, but I guarantee there was nobody who ever knew him who doubted his commitment to making peace. He was a walking, talking, 61-year-long Peace March.
I love that about my dad, too. I love it more and more deeply the longer I’m without him, and there are days when I feel miserably guilty for the times I didn’t recognize how rare in this world such a person is.
But just as much, I love that part of my dad that he showed on that evening we stepped off the curb and almost got squished by a teenager in a hot rod. I love that my dad defended us. I love that he wasn’t afraid to do so. I love that he lost his temper. I love that right after the ten minutes of silence, at the end of a march for peace, he bellowed, “Slow down, asshole!” with all the fury a father protecting his family ought to have.
I don’t usually like it when the symbolic imagery in a story is completely straightforward, but now and then, real life lines up that way. I probably shouldn’t stay mum just because the metaphor is easy to grasp. So here’s a vignette from our family’s first hike to the bottom of the Grand Canyon.
The first time our family hiked the Canyon was in the first year we lived in Arizona. (Or maybe it was the second year. I really should have kept a journal like my dad suggested; things wouldn’t be so cloudy now in recollection.) In our first year in Arizona, I was a seventh grader, Clare was a fourth grader, and Esther was a second grader. I guess the draw of the Canyon was strong for my parents. A nine-mile hike straight down? Sure–the eight-year-old can handle it.
Straight down sounds easy, but it turns out, it’s not. Four or five miles down the South Kaibab Trail, your legs are shaking with every step. The muscle stress from keeping yourself at a walking pace can be much tougher than climbing out of the Canyon a step at a time. My sisters and I dealt with this by running down each straightaway, something that in retrospect seems frighteningly reckless, given the dropoffs at almost every switchback. My parents’ self-discipline in letting us discover the world without too much intervention was amazing.
Near the bottom of the Canyon, with about 500 feet of rapid descent to go before we reached the Colorado River bridge, that stress of going downhill got to be too much for my mom. She had been having knee pain for a while from the weight she was carrying, and now it was getting really bad–so bad that she had to stop and shed her pack. She didn’t think she could put it back on.
So, for the last mile and a half of the hike in to Bright Angel Campground, my dad carried her pack as well as his own. He had his on his back, and held hers in front of him, hugging it to his chest. We kids ran ahead. Slowly, one switchback at a time, my mom and dad completed the hike together.
That was the first of at least a couple dozen Canyon hikes our family undertook (more of them without me than with me, I’m sorry to say). And that hike was a precursor to the long summertime hikes my parents took along the Pacific Crest Trail after we kids were grown and out of the house. My mom and dad both trained for all the rest of the hikes, enough so that only rarely did their joints get in the way of walking. As far as I know, my dad never again had to take up what my mom was carrying.
Not literally, anyway.
I was still reading lots of comic books in seventh grade, and my dad carrying his and my mom’s pack down the trail during that Canyon trip made him seem like a superhero to me. What strength he had! Many times over the three and a half years that my dad was on his journey with melanoma, I would think of that image, and think about my dad’s strength, that tremendous strength flowing from his tremendous love for my mom and for all of us. And I would think about my mom’s strength, that tremendous strength flowing from her tremendous love for my dad and for all of us. Through a terrible, terrible nightmare, she carried his burdens like a superhero.
In the months and then years after my dad’s diagnosis, in my mind I promised, over and over again, that I would be strong, that I would help my parents and my sisters and the rest of our family carry the weight. Once, in the first year after metastasis, my dad talked with me out in his garage about his worry that my mom would need a lot of help if he didn’t beat his cancer. I promised I would be there to help. And at his hospital bedside, a few days before he died, trying to assure him that it was okay to let go, that we would be all right, I promised again that I would take care of my mom. I’m trying to do that, although I think all the time that I ought to be doing more.
In response to which, I suspect, my dad, if he were here, would warn me against trying to be perfect, remind me of how strong my mom is, and tell me to
Love, love without ceasing, for that gives us the strength to bear each other’s loads.
It’s an overused aphorism, I know, but maybe, like some blatant metaphors, it still deserves to be given voice.