The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol, as translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, changed the way I look at fiction. I read the book first as an undergraduate, and then later as a graduate student. Pevear and Volokhonsky’s translation is astonishing, and I don’t think I’d have connected to the work so strongly if I’d read a lesser version. There’s any number of ways that you can divide up Gogol’s stories, but the obvious way is to place them in the same two categories Pevear and Volokhonsky do; rural Ukranian tales, and urban St. Petersburg tales. Seeing them side by side in that way, the careful reader will notice that the rural/urban division mirrors another division in the tales. The rural tales are very clearly oral in nature. They are loose, fluid, comfortable, adaptable. The urban tales, on the other hand are tight, structured, detailed. They are the very embodiment of written stories. I suppose you could read them aloud, but they wouldn’t work in quite the same way. When I realized that, I realized what kind of writer I was.
None of my stories really work when you read them out loud, but they do work on the page. This was brought home to me with particular vigor when I read from my story “Tobacco Hand” at the Draft Reading Series on October 4th. “Tobacco Hand” is part of a rather large group of stories and other scraps, orts, and fragments I’ve written that take place in the fictional Northwestern Ontario town of New Prospect, which is modeled very loosely on my home town of Dryden. The plot of the story is fairly simple; a man named Earl is such a dedicated tobacco user that he has deep stains on the fingers of his right hand. His wife Janine has left him, and she has convinced him that it’s because of his stains. Earl gets drunk in his kitchen, has an emotional break, and ultimately mutilates himself with a belt sander in an effort to get rid of them. Earl’s story is told in a limited third-person subjective mode, and I think it’s fairly clear that the voice is Earl’s, more or less. It hasn’t yet been published, but those editors that have seen it have all sent it back, to my delight, with considerable praise (the one consistent criticism, which seems to be the thing preventing it from getting picked up, is that it lacks context; this is true, but it’s also deliberate, and that decision—and why I haven’t changed my mind about it—is a subject for a whole other post), and on the whole they “get” what I’m doing with the language of the piece.
Now with all that in mind, “Tobacco Hand” fell rather flat at the reading. I’ve done work on the stage, and can be a charismatic reader of other people’s work, but when it comes to my own, put me in front of an audience and I become a stuttering, nervous, flat-voiced fool. As I read from “Tobacco Hand” and looked out at the audience, I could feel the disconnect between what I was trying to get across and what they were receiving, and I’m not willing to blame it all on my abysmal performance as a reader. There were a fair number of men in the audience, but I did a couple of head counts and found they were clearly outnumbered by the women. Not an unusual thing at literary events, and of no particularly significance in and of itself. But as ridiculous as a sentence like “Earl’s been working all his life and he’s a big man with a big temper to match, but he’s never hit a woman no matter how angry he got and that’s probably one thing he knows he can be proud of” sounds when read all on its own, imagine reading it to a roomful of women writers whose work your respect. It doesn’t fall flat, it trumpets out like a nasty wet fart during someone’s wedding vows. It declares itself boorish, clichéd, a tad misogynistic, and perhaps even naive. Which of course it’s meant to, because that’s exactly who Earl is, and exactly how he thinks. Even as I was saying it I knew that wasn’t the effect it was having. I felt embarrassed by that sentence. The bigger problem is that while, yes, it is one of the weaker sentences in the piece, it still works on the page, and more importantly, it still feels necessary.
Why? There’s violence behind that sentence. The first time I read Alice Munro’s “Royal Beatings”—indeed the first time I heard of it—there was this discourse surrounding it, a mostly urban, undeniably middle-class Southern Ontario discourse, about how horrible it must have been to go through a primary school experience like that, how different, how violent was the past, and isn’t it great that we have all these zero tolerance policies and have been able to put all the behind us. That’s all well and good, of course, except that we’ve done no such thing, and I’m not entirely sure we should. I’m not going to go into depth about my views on minor violence (and as a recipient of some genuinely severe physical bullying in my youth—among other things, I’ve been punched, kicked, bitten, stabbed, slashed, whipped with a toy bullwhip, beaten with blunt objects, and once four boys held me on the ground spread-eagle while a fifth jumped on my ribs from a height of four or five feet—I can assure you that most schoolyard fights and bullying are minor), but I will say that rural Ontario is still very much the world depicted in “Royal Beatings,” and there are some pretty important lessons in that world for someone like Earl. If that kind of childhood violence doesn’t break you—and it won’t break most, though it marks them forever—it could leave you with a deep understanding of the consequences of violence. The ethics of violence are surprisingly nuanced for someone like Earl, though he’s not equipped to articulate that nuance. He knows in his own flesh what happens when you strike someone, and though he knows there are situations where a man can, and indeed should commit an act of minor violence, there are also times when no justification is sufficient. He simply doesn’t have the language to articulate that either, so he falls back on simple clichés like “a man never hits a woman,” and takes justifiable pride in living up to the hidden complexities of his ethical system.
Of course none of this is explicit in the text, but I think that once Earl’s voice gets inside you, enough of it becomes implicit. But it wouldn’t without that damned embarrassing sentence, and a handful of others like it. I can’t recall who said or wrote it, but I do recall one author lamenting on how terrible it is when a godawful cliché really is the best way to say something, and that’s exactly how I feel about that sentence. This is not to say “woe is me, editors don’t ‘get’ my story, and nobody will publish it.” I’m actually quite pleased with the rejections I’ve gotten so far. They tell me that the piece is being taken seriously by editors I respect, and the feedback I’ve gotten make the rejection letters some of the best and most useful I’ve ever gotten. They are encouraging rather than disheartening. The point of this rather red-faced confession and sort-of-case-study, is that not all pieces will work in all ways. I enjoy going to readings, despite my bumbling and my nerves, and I think it’s a great opportunity for me to put myself out there, to network, and to meet writers whom I greatly admire, like the wonderful Rebecca Rosenblum, but aside from one unusually successful bawdy house reading I gave in 2003, it’s not a very good venue for the kind of work I produce. Too much of what I do depends on the page. After years of hearing advice like “read it out loud to see if it works,” I think I’m finally okay with that. After all, if it’s good enough for Gogol’s St. Petersburg tales, it ought to be good enough for my New Prospect stories, right?