Alice “Antonovna” Munro, a note on echoes and influences
Doubtless I’m not the first to notice this connection ( I know everyone likes to call Munro a modern Chekhov, and didn’t Cynthia Ozick even call her “our Chekhov”?), but I couldn’t help being struck by a particular relationship between two passages — one by Chekhov, one by Munro — a few days ago, driving to visit some cousins in Maine and listening to a cd of The View From Castle Rock in my car. Maybe the Munro-like aspects of my trip had something to do with my imagination taking up with this. Night had fallen. I was driving on a paved, country road, passing through the outskirts of small towns, on my way to visit rural relatives, with the words of The View From Castle Rock‘s title story filling up the darkness. The day after I got home, I rushed to the library to get the actual book, only they didn’t have it, so I had to take dictation from the cd (hence any spelling or punctuation mistakes). I also looked up the Chekhov.
Here are the passages that struck me:
They sewed him up in a sailcloth and to make him heavier they put in two iron fire bars. Sewn up in a sailcloth he looked like a carrot or a horse-radish; broad at the head and narrow at the feet. . .
The seaman on watch tilted the end of the plank. At first Gusev slid down slowly, then he rushed head foremost into the sea, turning a somersault in the air, then splashing. The foam enclosed him, and for a brief moment he seemed to be wrapped in lace, but this moment passed and he disappeared under the waves.
He plunged rapidly to the bottom. Did he reach it? The sea, they say, is three miles deep at this point. Falling sixty or seventy feet, he started to fall more slowly, swaying rhythmically, as though hesitating, at the mercy of the currents, sliding sideways more quickly than he sank down.
Then he fell among a shoal of pilot fish. When they saw the dark body they were astounded and rooted to the spot, and they suddenly turned tail and fled. In less than a minute they came hurrying back to him, quick as a shot, and they began zigzagging round him in the water.
Then still another dark body appeared. This was a shark. It swam below Gusev with dignity and reserve, seeming not to notice him; and when he, descending, fell against the back of the shark, then the shark turned belly upwards, basking in the warm transparent water and lazily opening its jaws with their two rows of teeth. The pilot fish were in ecstasy; they stopped to see what would happen next. After playing around with the body for a while, the shark calmly laid its jaws on it, tapped it with its teeth, and ripped open the sailcloth along the whole length of the body from head to foot; one of the fire bars fell out, frightened the pilot fish, struck the shark in the ribs, and sank rapidly to the bottom.
— Anton Chekhov, “Gusev”
‘There was a child had died, the name of Ormiston, and its body was thrown overboard, sewed up in a piece of canvas, with a large lump of coal at its feet.’
He [Walter Laidlaw, Munro’s Scottish forebear, fictionalized version of] pauses in his writing to think of the weighted sack, falling down through the water. Darker and darker grows the water, with the surface high overhead, gleaming faintly like the night sky. Would the piece of coal do its job? Would the sack fall straight down to the very bottom of the sea? Or would the current of the sea be strong enough to keep lifting it up and letting it fall, pushing it sideways, taking it far as Greenland, or south, to the tropical waters full of rank weeds, the Sargassos Sea?
Or some ferocious fish might come along and rip the sack and make a meal of the body before it had even left the upper waters and the region of light.
He has seen drawings of fish as big as horses, fish with horns as well, and scores of teeth, each like a skinner’s knife. . . .
-Alice “Antonovna” Munro, “The View From Castle Rock”
It’s interesting how these passages differ in length, detail, and function. In “Gusev,” the scene is part of the climax; in the Munro story, the passage appears early on and offers a quick first glimpse of a child’s death (quite a few more to come in this story) and in this case it’s a child we never knew, whereas Gusev – the character, of course — we come to know intimately. Also, in “Gusev,” the underwater scene actually happens; there’s that oft-noted POV shift away from the people on board the ship right after the body goes underwater. In the Munro story, the underwater scene is all conjecture, the narration continues from the mind of the observing passenger (Walter), who has been writing in his journal. The story itself does not go underwater. Still, Munro seems to have absorbed “Gusev,” not only the main detail of the sea-buried corpse itself, but especially the questions (compare Chekhov’s ” Did he reach it?” to Munro’s “Would the piece of coal do its job? Would the sack fall straight down to the very bottom of the sea?), the descriptions of the current, and the mentions of predatory, sharp-toothed fish.
I’ve also been wondering about the character Walter as a kind of literary stand-in himself. Certainly he’s an explicit example of one of Munro’s real ancestors who took to the pen. She says so. But could she also have been thinking of a more figurative ancestor — Chekhov himself — when she gave to Walter this experience of observing the burial? It’s hard for me to believe that she wouldn’t be aware of the famous letter Chekhov wrote after witnessing a passenger’s dead body being tossed overboard, on his journey back to Moscow from Sakhalin. He wrote “Gusev” shortly after this trip. At any rate, whether she deliberately meant for Walter to channel Chekhov or not, it’s almost impossible for me to believe she wasn’t deliberately thinking of that passage from “Gusev” when she wrote the passage quoted above. She seems to play with the Chekhov a bit like the current, in her variation, plays with the child’s corpse. I think of it as an homage that is completely original. And momentary; Munro sticks to her necessities and moves on.