The larger in the small
Literature lurks in the detail. In the habits of gesture and gait and garb, character quivers, narrative quickens and drama unfolds. In them, the cloudy, yeasty substance called the human soul is given form. The greater the theme, therefore, the smaller the incidents to root and realize it. No two writers understood this better than Tolstoy and Chekhov. In the minor, (they knew), resided the epic.
In Tolstoy and Chekhov, critics will tell us, we confront the polar opposites of Russian literature. In Chekhov, life itself is in ellipsis. Condemned to loiter there indefinitely, his characters are afflicted by the accidental, by the mean caprices of fortune. By the non sequiturs of the heart. Critics neatly point to Chekhov's own life for supporting evidence.They cite his almost willful refusal to commit himself to a single philosophy or party. Some large peg on which to hang their small hats. Ignoring his years of voluntary service to the poor, the infirm, the incarcerated, critics quibble over the moral definitions with which his work so inconveniently forgot to supply them.
Look at Tolstoy, they shout. Could the contrast be greater? The heroic looms large. His literature, like his life, is epic in size and concern. Witness his most famous title: War and Peace.m And yet, one wonders, what do they make of that novel's central scene in which Pierre's abstract ideas of war are painfully focused by the brutal particularity of battle? Tolstoy, in flagrant self-parody, lances the very notion of Great Ideas, but, ironically, by being faithful to small real-life details, actually achieves those ideas.
What unites Tolstoy and Chekhov is their instinctive sense and use detail in defining character and the larger issues it implies. This is their literary legacy. For if Dostoevsky with his violent spirituality, his tortured exercises in shame and salvation, is the most Russianm of writers, then Tolstoy and Chekhov , as their influence attests, are the most universal. All writers must first counsel or quarrel with these men, the modern masters of the large school of small detail.
The bright incident, they both knew, sets a scene much as a stone sets a ring. "In Anna Karenina,"m Chekhov notes, "not a single problem is solved, but they are all wholly satisfying just because they are correctly set out." Details are the small timber over which ideas railroad their course. Indeed, in Anna Kareminam it's not the theme of marriage we recall but the specific incident: Levin chalking his proposal to Kitty on the green felt cloth. And of Anna herself? We remember that at the famous ball she is creped in black velvet; that her shoulders shimmer like ivory; that, upon returning home, she notices for the first time that his kunckles. We need to know no more. We sense they are doomed to discord.
Similarly, early on in Chekhov's short story Ariadne,m he tell us that Ariadne grew up on an estate that raised peacocks and pineapples and had not one but several lightning conductors. Already we sense that nothing will ground the hissing electricity of her personality. Like lightning itself, she will be quicksilver, impulsive, dangerous.
The success of such details is their simplicity. "You'll have a moonlit night," Cheknov wrote his brother, "if you write that on a mill dam a piece of glass from a broken bottle glittered like a bright little star and that the black shadow of a dog or wolf rolled past like a ball." Tolstoy was a master of such touches.They are as clear as water. To convey and simultaneously shatter the tedium of a long wedding service, for example, he selects a single image: a child corkscrewing in the air, trying to see the back of his new coat.
The deeper similarity between these two writers, though, is how detail betrays or absolves the character in which it coils. Their characters are spared nothing. Fierce iconoclasts, Tolstoy and Chekhov relentlessly chronicled the collapse of illusions in love and life. Yet in rigorously showing how details sabotage and subvert human intention, the writers were themselves undermined by the impossible clarity of their own perceptions. Writing spawned the most painful of paradoxes: one embellishes what one hates and is equivocal about what one loves.
The details soon oppressed and burdened both men. They had licked all the paint off their own gods. Toward the end of his career, Chekhov could see little but the detail. The fabric of his writing became a series of dark stitches, his vision threadbare. Tolstoy, unable to live with the details, but knowing that literature is nothing without them, gave up writing altogether. The greatness of the writer tarnished into the tragedy of the man: Tolstoy the seeker willed himself into Tolstoy the believer, who, ultimately, could not believe. Doctrine calcified into dogma.
But their tale is human.Perhaps it's only in literature that men are absolved of their contradictions. Only there do the knots of character spin themselves into the fine threads of detail that are li fe itself.