The Book Club

Maybe It’s Short Stories That Are Boring!

Dear Sarah,

Today I want to talk about Chekhov and short stories and whether we like what they’ve become in the hands of American writers–such as, say, Munro and Moore. Something you said the other day made me think you’ve gotten sick of the whole genre, at least the homegrown version. But before I get into that, I’ve got to get my licks in about your beloved Argentine short-story writer. That’s the problem with these e-mail debates: There’s no one to stop us from vying for the last word. (Michael Kinsley, take note.) I have two reactions to your last e-mail, and one nitpicky quibble.

The two points: 1) Your anecdote strikes me as another instance of Borges’ disingenuousness, also much in evidence in his famous modesty–his what-me ? act, the false self-effacement of the intellectually arrogant. Forget the critics? He couldn’t have meant such a thing sincerely, criticism having been an essential part of his output, even if half of it was of imaginary books. 2) The great figures of today’s Latin-American literature, which you say Borges made possible, are deeply ambivalent about their predecessor. Take the following exchange in a 1967 interview of Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez by Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa:

Llosa:… I have always had a problem justifying my admiration for Borges.

Garcia Marquez: I have no problem at all. I have a great admiration for him. … I carry [Borges’ Complete Works ] in my suitcase; I am going to read them every day, and he is a writer I detest. His is a literature of evasion. Something strange happens to me with Borges. He is one of the writers I read the most and whom I have read the most, and yet he is perhaps the one I like the least.

Or Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes, who says that “without Borges’s prose there simply would not be a modern Spanish-American novel” but adds: “The big vacuum in Borges is, we all know it, his lack of a critical perception of society and the imagination.” Like everyone else who tried to pin down this elusive writer, Llosa, Fuentes, and Garcia Marquez had their own particular political agendas, and I wouldn’t sign on to those, so I wouldn’t sign on to their criticisms either–but I do think they’re reacting to something cold, even repulsive, at the heart of Borges’ work.

On the passage you cite to prove that Borges is a “fiercely ethical” figure, which you claim is what the critics don’t get about him, all I can say is, you gotta watch it with Borges. You left off the last line of the paragraph, which sheds some very strange light on what appears to be praise for George Bernard Shaw’s radical moralism. After “Shaw’s work, on the other hand, leaves an aftertaste of liberation,” Borges writes: “The taste of the doctrines of Zeno’s Porch and the taste of the sagas.” What the hell does that mean? Well, Zeno’s Porch is the place in Athens where Zeno of Citium taught Stoicism, one of the harshest ethical outlooks ever advanced. Zeno was the student of Crates the Cynic. I quote from my trusty Columbia Encyclopedia on him : “The Cynics paraded their poverty, their antagonism to pleasure, and their indifference to others, thereby gaining a reputation for fanatical unconventionality.” Hey, sounds like Shaw to me! As for the Nordic sagas, trust me on this: Their bleakly heroic idea of the good was not something you’d want to imitate. I think Borges is attacking radical moralism at the very moment he seems to endorse it. Very Borgesian of him.

Back to Chekhov. Yesterday a friend e-mailed me a helpful note on the subject: “The thing to remember about Chekhov is that he began as ‘Antosha Chekhonte,’ a humorist who wrote O’Henry-like stories with straightforward openings and twist endings. One might say that he invented the modern short story by slicing off the beginnings and the twist endings and leaving only–literally–the slice of life, with the epiphany often pointed towards but usually not underlined.”

A century later, American short story writers still take a shockingly large number of cues from Chekhov–his indirection, his oblique symbolism worked cleverly into affectless realism, his elevation of mood over direct exposition. There is no one more Chekhovian in that regard than Raymond Carver, widely celebrated as the greatest writer of short fiction of recent times. Are we mouldering under the influence of the great Russian doctor? Do we crave radical departures? Are Munro and Moore just rehashing the same old formulas? On Monday, while defending Borges, you hilariously observed: “Nowhere in his work, that I know of, do a husband and wife drive silently home from a dinner party trying to figure out where their love went wrong.” You also said: “I feel that the kind of short story Munro writes has suffered a lot from competition with film and television and the media in general.” Maybe American writers today are like the realist painters of the 19th century whom photography made obsolete; film and television have stolen their stock-in-trade, and we’re waiting for them to invent Cubism.