American Literary Review
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Don't Look Now: The Drama of Seeing
SCOTT NADELSON is author of two story collections, The Cantor's Daughter, winner of the Samuel Goldberg & Sons Fiction Prize for Emerging Jewish Writers and the Reform Judaism Fiction Prize, and Saving Stanley: The Brickman Stories, winner of the Oregon Book Award for short fiction and the Great Lakes Colleges Association New Writers Award. His personal site is www.scottnadelson.com
We asked Scott, whose story "The Old Uniform" appears in our Spring 2011 issue, to tell us something about the ways in which he thinks of story, character and conflict. What we received was a beautiful essay on Turgenev, and on the mastery of creating conflict not by forcing tragedy upon characters, but by allowing them to observe and make sense of the surrounding world.
FOR SEVERAL YEARS NOW I have been concerned with how to create drama in fiction whose central conflict is internal—and particularly, how to create drama that feels true to my experience of the world (i.e., that passes my bullshit detector). Because I haven't lived an overtly dramatic life, the conflicts in my stories don't naturally lead to explosions or helicopter chases or exchanges of gunfire. As a reader, the stories I'm drawn to are mostly the quiet sort, in which drama arises directly out of the intersection of a character's desire and fear. My favorite writers find ways to externalize these internal conflicts without obvious contrivance, forcing their characters to face their fears and desires directly, while still staying true to a story's complicated psychological, emotional, or moral core.
In recent reading I have been drawn especially to moments in stories and novels in which drama is sparked by a character's observation of something forbidden or mysterious, not meant for his eyes: What the character sees and hears shakes him out of his own concerns, sometimes forcing him to act, but more often simply changing his perspective, shifting his view of the world and possibly of himself. There may be drama in what the character witnesses, but the deeper, more complex drama is how the observed affects the observer, and how a reader is affected by watching the watcher.
Ivan Turgenev's Sketches From a Hunter's Album is a masterwork of observation; Turgenev's narrator wanders the countryside in search of game and in the process witnesses the customs and daily dramas of the Russian peasantry. He is ostensibly objective, without a stake in the dramas he observes; but of course no observation is entirely objective, and in the way he describes his perceptions we get insight into the emotions they enact and the sensibility they shape. (The nobility didn't take it as objective, either; they considered the work subversive and sent Turgenev into exile).
In "Meeting," one of the sketches I find most moving, Turgenev's narrator is alone in the woods in early autumn, waiting for the weather to clear; he is slightly frustrated by the drizzle, but otherwise unconflicted and carefree, as he "fell into the kind of untroubled and mild sleep familiar only to hunters." When he awakes, "the weather had cleared, and in the air could be felt that special dry freshness which, imbuing the heart with a feeling of elation, almost always means a peaceful and clear evening after a rainy day." At this point in the story there is no conflict, no looming drama, no story, really. But before the narrator is able to carry on with his untroubled life, his "eyes lighted on a motionless human form." He sees a girl, alone and obviously waiting for someone, and he quickly assesses "her fine, high eyebrows and long lashes." He is clearly taken with her: "The whole appearance of her head was very charming; even the slightly thick and rounded nose did nothing to spoil it."
But what the narrator admires about her above all is "the expression on her face for the way in which it was so artless and gentle, so melancholy and full of childish bewilderment at her own grief." Here the narrator's observation reveals a wise and compassionate scrutiny; he not only sees the girl's tear-streaked face but recognizes the grief that has caused it, and the innocence that makes it so excruciating and confusing for her. Now there is something at stake in the story, not only for the girl but for the narrator, too; he feels for her, and admires her, and without saying so directly, it is clear that he wishes an easing of her pain. In other words, he has already taken her side, and so too has his audience.
The tension of this burgeoning conflict ratchets up when the object of the girl's grief and longing, "the pampered valet of some rich young master," enters the scene. The narrator "examined him with curiosity," and what he sees he doesn't like: "I confess that he produced an unpleasant impression on me." With this "I confess," the narrator seems almost to apologize for his subjectivity; as much as he may want to remain an uninterested observer, he can't help but make judgments and be affected by his emotions. From this point forward, his perceptions of the young man are tinged with contempt: "He clearly made an effort to endow his rather coarse features with an expression of superciliousness and boredom; he endlessly screwed up his already tiny milk-grey eyes, frowned, let his mouth droop at the edges, gave forced yawns and with a casual, though not entirely skilled, air of abandon … twiddled the little yellow hairs that stuck out on his fat upper lip." The young man is a self-indulgent phony in the narrator's eyes, and we know that he will only cause the girl further distress.
Still, the narrator doesn't act to help her. He allows the drama of the meeting to take place uninterrupted, knowing all along that the girl's longing will be thwarted, her grief exacerbated. We gather from the conversation the narrator overhears that the two have had an affair, that the girl, Akulina, is in love and the young man, Victor, is going away the next day. Akulina wants only some acknowledgment that their time together has meant something to him: "‘I don't want anything,'" she tells him, "‘only if you'd just say one word in farewell…'" But even this Victor can't grant her. Instead, he "gave her several condescending pats on the shoulder." In response, "she ever so quietly lifted his hand from her shoulder and timidly kissed it."
As audience we watch the drama through the narrator's eyes, but we are also aware of the narrator's inaction, his position of helplessness; these are peasants, and he is a member of the gentry, so no matter what he wants for the girl, he can't do anything to change her situation. Without a character observing the drama between the young couple, our attention would be focused on the young man's cruelty and the girl's heartbreak; but with the presence of an observer, we concentrate instead on how excruciating the exchange between them is to watch, and how frustrating not to be able to intervene. Tension exists between Akulina and Victor, but also between the narrator and the couple, and the longer the scene goes on the more we feel its impact on the narrator. When Victor fails to say the words she hopes for, Akulina "flopped on her face in the grass and burst into bitter, bitter tears." We hear the narrator's emotion in the repetition of "bitter," which contains his own heartbreak and confusion at his helplessness.
Almost against his will, the narrator has been drawn into the drama he witnesses, and after Victor leaves Akulina to cry alone, he "could no longer hold [himself] back and rushed towards her." This is the story's moment of highest drama; the tension that has been building around the narrator's inaction snaps, and we are given what we have been hoping for all along. But the moment is anticlimactic. As soon as Akulina sees him, she cries out and runs away. The narrator's helplessness, based largely on the class barrier between him and Akulina, is unavoidable. He can do nothing to ease her pain and is left instead to pick up the flowers she left behind.
And right away we begin to see the impact these events have had on the observer narrator; what had been just a short while ago a sparkling sky, a fresh wind that brought "elation," he now perceives differently: "The sun was low in the pale clear sky and its rays had, as it were, lost their colour and grown cold; they did not shine so much as flow out in an even, almost watery light… A flurrying wind raced towards me across the dry, yellow stubble." He is no longer carefree; the scene between Akulina and Victor weighs heavily on him, has changed his vision of the world. Without his making the connection directly, we can feel how the narrator has been altered by what he has seen, and this is the true dramatic movement of the story. He can no longer carry on with his life in the same carefree manner; now he "stopped, and a feeling of melancholy stole over [him], for it seemed … that the sombre terror associated with the approaching winter was breaking through the cheerless, though fresh, smile of nature at this time of withering." All promise is gone from the day and the season; the narrator is left only with their approaching end.
Only in the story's final paragraph does the narrator directly address the impact of the scene he has witnessed, and as we might suspect, it has not been short-lived: "the image of poor Akulina took a long time to fade from my mind, and her cornflowers, which have long since withered, remain with me to this day." After seeing Akulina's pain and Victor's cruelty, and recognizing his own impotence, he can't go back to being the person he's been before. He carries the memory of what he has observed, and its momentary drama resonates through the rest of his life—more so, maybe, than if he'd participated in it directly.
Turgenev, Ivan. "Meeting." Sketches from a Hunter's Album. Trans. Richard Freeborn.
Harmondsworth, England: Penguin, 1983.