Secrets

In “The Lady with the Dog” (Constance Garnett translation), Anton Chekhov says of Gurov, the main character:

He had two lives: one, open, seen and known by all who cared to know, full of relative truth and of relative falsehood, exactly like the lives of his friends and acquaintances; and another life running its course in secret. And through some strange, perhaps accidental, conjunction of circumstances, everything that was essential, of interest and of value to him, everything in which he was sincere and did not deceive himself, everything that made the kernel of his life, was hidden from other people; and all that was false in him, the sheath in which he hid himself to conceal the truth . . . all that was open. And he judged of others by himself, not believing in what he saw, and always believing that every man had his real, most interesting life under the cover of secrecy and under the cover of night. All personal life rested on secrecy, and possibly it was partly on that account that civilized man was so nervously anxious that personal privacy should be respected.

We tend to be curious about those who share our likes and dislikes, our skills and artistic tendencies, our philosophy of life – even, to some extent, our fate. I think that’s why, despite the fact that a work of art should stand on its own, we are so curious about the life of writers and artists whose work we admire. That is, perhaps, why we want to know their ‘secrets.’

In a 1983 Paris Review interview, poet and short story writer Raymond Carver said, “Of course, you have to know what you’re doing when you turn your life’s stories into fiction. You have to be immensely daring, very skilled and imaginative and willing to tell everything on yourself. You’re told time and again when you’re young to write about what you know, and what do you know better than your own secrets?”

Raymond Carver was a great admirer of Anton Chekhov. Chekhov was a member of the working class, as was Carver. He had an abusive father, as did Carver. He wrote mainly in the short story form, as did Carver. And he died young (of tuberculosis, in 1904), as did Carver (of cancer, in 1988). Carver’s posthumous book of poetry, A New Path to the Waterfall, is interspersed with quotes from Chekhov whose stories, Carver said, “lay bare our emotions in ways only true art can accomplish.”

Like Chekhov, Carver refused to romanticize the pain, compromise, and deprivation of the working poor, the life Chekhov described as “the prosaic struggle for existence which takes away the joy of life and drags one into apathy.” Like Chekhov, he wrote about the mundane, often desperate lives of his fellow men and gave them a sort of immortality in his stories.

One of the qualities that draws me most to Carver’s stories is this pervading sense of secret lives about to be revealed. It is almost startling to read some of his opening lines: “Sandy’s husband had been on the sofa ever since he’d been terminated three months ago.” (Preservation); “I had a job and Patti didn’t.” (Vitamins); “J. P. and I are on the front porch at Frank Martin’s drying-out facility.” (Where I’m Calling From); “This blind man, an old friend of my wife’s, he was on his way to spend the night.” (Cathedral)

Already, in the simplicity and directness of these first lines – all from Cathedral – there is a sense of crisis (impending or just past), failures, prejudices, and limitations about to be acknowledged. Secrets about to be revealed. And we know that the secrets are not just about the characters, they are about Carver himself, beneath a thin, almost transparent, veneer of fiction. There is nothing, the reader quickly gathers, no truth Carver won’t tell us, if we just ride out the story.

In a poem called “Sunday Night” from A New Path to the Waterfall, Carver says:
“Make use of the things around you/ . . . . Put it all in,/Make use.”

Carver made use of every part of his life, cutting out pieces and offering them up, bits of bloody flesh, for the sake of his writing. Because he was “willing to tell everything,” on both himself and those who shared in or were victimized by his struggles, we have the stories and poetry that help us to see ourselves better.

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