Chekhov is one of my go-to writers when I’m between stories. His stories don’t move me very often, and his style isn’t similar to mine. But purely in terms of craft, there’s always something interesting going on in his stories.
I just finished reading “Sleepy.” And while I enjoyed the writing, I wasn’t enthralled at first. Chekhov tends to be a slow burn rather than a by-your-throat kind of writer. You trust that he knows where’s going even when it’s brutally mundane.
The child cries. It has long been hoarse and weak from crying, but still it cries, and who can say when it will be comforted? And Varka wants to sleep. Her eyelids droop, her head hangs, her neck pains her.
Typically Chekhovian efficiency. Sometimes I’m geared up for that kind of story, and sometimes I’m less patient. I don’t know that I was really receptive when I read the story, but I was at least neutral about it. I thought: Okay, I’ll go along with you. But I’m not happy about it, Chekhov.
What struck me as I read through the story was its quietly subversive form. The plotline isn’t subversive by itself. A young Russian nanny is caring for a fairly abusive (or at least intemperate) employer. It’s all very Russian and not all that captivating to start. And then we get this:
If Varka, which God forbid, were to go to sleep, her master and mistress would beat her.
The lamp flickers. The green spot and the shadows move about, they pass into the half-open, motionless eyes of Varka, and in her half-awakened brain blend in misty images. She sees dark clouds chasing one another across the sky and crying like the child. And then a wind blows, the clouds vanish, and Varka sees a wide road covered with liquid mud; along the road stretch wagons, men with satchels on their backs crawl along, and shadows move backward and forward; on either side through the chilly, thick mist are visible hills.
Here’s what I love. The transition between Varka worrying about falling asleep, and Varka actively dreaming, is so seamless that the reader barely notices. The urgency is stated up front: if she falls asleep, “her master and mistress would beat her.” And then we slip into a dream mid-paragraph.
I love the twisted surrealism of the transition: the misty images, the clouds chasing one another across the sky “and crying like a child.” From the opening we’re conditioned to expect realism, and even the opening lines of the paragraph are pure realism — “The lamp flickers. The green spot and the shadows move about…”
It’s the confidence that strikes me. You don’t write that paragraph unless you’re supremely confident that the reader will make the jump with you, and end up there in the chilly mist, on the hills. The most vivid and visceral parts of the story are all within Varka’s imagination, and that’s one reason why the technique works. We’re thrown into the Varka’s inner world pretty much the same way we dream ourselves — unexpectedly and with no explanation. (You’re lying in bed, and then the next minute you’re on a mountaintop or in your kindergarten classroom or battling some crazy-eyed batshit demon from the bowels of Hell. And you don’t even stop to think how that doesn’t make one damn lick of sense. All because your mind is somehow cool, for whatever strange anthropological reasons, with the mid-paragraph shift. But if you tried to set it up like that and provide an appropriate transition — “Don’t be alarmed, but for the next few minutes you’re going to be back in kindergarten, and/or battling some batshit demon” — it would just seem silly and you’d wake up. Same with fiction, I guess.)
From there it’s a back-and-forth between the brutal realism of Varka’s employers and her half-daydreams. (Actual dreams, I guess, because she’s falling asleep throughout.) She has a long, strange dream about her father, which opens her up as a character but never brings her too close. The father is gone. The format allows Chekhov to invest a little more urgency in Varka’s backstory because it’s presented in present tense, and the dream context itself forces a lot of ambiguity into the story. But as a whole there’s very little urgency in the story.
Still: what’s striking right away is that Chekhov is wiling to alienate the reader by shifting to Varka’s mental state. That mid-paragraph transition happens early; we haven’t invested enough in her, at that point, that we’re willing to follow along without reservation. It’s the structure that pummels us into accepting it. “The green spot and the shadows move about, they pass into the half-open, and shadows move backward and forward…”
I don’t know that it’s a great story. The closing paragraph is what makes it a great (even a classic) Chekhovian story. And it really is a great final paragraph. But without that paragraph, would it be so memorable? I don’t know. I like to think that a great story is great all the way through. This story feels “fine” all the way through, well-structured; and then the last paragraph is its final, perfect trump card.
But that strange subversiveness is there from the start. Almost as if we’re being conditioned for what’s to come — so that when the story ends, and it feels as if we’re either being ripped out of a dream or descending into one, it just re-establishes a pattern we’ve already accepted in the story. So the ending is abrupt — like any good short story it feels as if it ends too soon — and also makes the story feel “whole,” which is much more difficult.