Losing Higher Ground

Thoughts on the short story today

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30 June, 2021

THE FIRST SHORT STORY that bothered me was Chekhov’s “The Bet.” Till that point, narrative resolution had meant happy endings. Rip van Winkle might find when he wakes that twenty years have passed, or shipwrecked Sinbad will see that his only hope of survival is hanging on to the giant roc, but these disruptions are just delicious means to redress. Whereas all the dark prefiguring of “The Bet” ends in nothing—the hero simply vanishes on the last page.

A banker and a lawyer argue about which is the worse punishment for a crime: life imprisonment or the death penalty. The young lawyer who stakes fifteen years of his life to prove his point does not emerge triumphant from the cell where he has been living out his self-imposed solitude. He decides—following a decade and a half of the most voracious bibliomania, hundreds of books consumed and discarded—that human concerns do not matter one whit, and then he slips out of the garden gate and disappears. Where to, and why does he forgo the two million roubles he is to get for winning the bet? Chekhov, master of enigmatic endings, provides no answer. I had to learn to live with my discomfort, accept the slippery nature of the modern short story, understand that its author might open a wide window on time and then leave it ajar for all eternity.

The social realism of Chekhov’s nineteenth-century Russia is so precise that it has been said his fiction can be used as a sociological source. But his moral code is never obvious, unless one takes all of this to itself add up to an ethic: the extraordinarily vivid, quicksilver detailing; the loving yet often ironic focus on character traits; the way individuals appear so set in their time and yet usually seeking an elevated perspective on it. Like most children, I was also drawn to stories that worked in the opposite way—their various morals were clearly grasped, but they were not pitched exclusively to one time and place. Aesop’s fables, Sufi parables, the tales of Hans Christian Andersen and the more allegorical ones by the Grimm brothers, even Jesus and his miracles, or courtly intrigues from the Hindu epics—all these had the roundedness so dear to a child who is rarely bothered by their lack of realism. And yet, the hunger for realism inevitably takes over.

Writing about these traditional narratives in A Sense of Time, SH Vatsyayan, who went by the better-known penname Agyeya, says, “One might object that they sought to present moral truths, not reality: but the moral truths were the root and substance of reality—to the audience as well as the storyteller of that time. What happened in the story was true, that is why it was endlessly being used to illustrate and demonstrate what was true: the story was an audial model of the structure of truth and reality.”