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Lazy Reading: Annotation, Engagement, and The Structure of Suspense in a Novella by Chekov

Was it George Steiner who said that an intellectual is one who can’t read a book without a pen in hand? I don’t know; I didn’t write it down. I do know that Joan Didion said (somewhere, I promise) that the difference between being a writer and not being a writer was knowing when to make a note. These little sayings have held true for me, though my more obsessive side would have guaranteed I became a magpie if I had mathematics or cement mixing instead of poetry. There’s something to be said about the allure—the lure—of knowledge, of facts and thoughts; for the way any “undiscover’d country” casts a magnetic field that disorders us as soon as it’s sensed, a chaos that can only be rectified by coming into direct contact with its source. I wish there were easier ways to achieve this synthesis than the “Random article” button on Wikipedia, or the mixed blessing of finding a shelf of books relevant to my research interests when I set out to look for (or so I tell myself) only one slim volume, or my pathological, and relentlessly commented-upon, habit of writing on the back of my hand when no other suitable surface is available. (“Don’t you know that’s poisoning you?” Yes, but in a different way than you think.)

I don’t mean to talk only about obsession per se here; I just mean to reference its existence. For certain programs of academic training cultivate certain programs of reading, and this not only in the sense of what gets read—whatever canon was chosen—but the typologies and phenomenologies of approaches to texts, which themselves color texts as much as reveal their colors. And “reveal” is a key word: the trouble is these approaches often purport to uncover, to discover, causes or presences or factors that seem absent from the surface of the text. Marginalia, in turn, is supposed to be one of these methods of mining. I was surprised at first to learn that there exists a whole criticism around these little discourses that occur in the no-man’s-land of a page’s edge. But while there are certainly theories and theorists of the act, there seems rather to be an obsession with the accumulation of its instances. The Bancroft Library at Berkeley, for instance, has a manuscript—I can’t recall, off the top of my head, just which one—on which Newton made notes; it’s kept in the vault because of the notes, not the worth of the manuscript. And all manner of annotation-related literary curios circulate online these days. Nabokov editing the first page of The Metamorphosis: who was right? Should we know? Isn’t this all too private for discussion, like we’re eavesdropping outside of greatness’s doors? It’s doubtless always a pleasure to come across a text in a course reader on which a professor of mine has made comments, and always a bit cinematic when they differ drastically from what I imagine. Often the most brilliant would make the fewest marks: every now and then a check would surface, a crude underline, a “YES!” or a “NO,” or a gratifying insult like “terrible sentence.” Were these people standing back from the text, “respecting” it, in a way that I wasn’t? Or were their intellects just so present as to need no written record?

With my hoarder’s instinct for note-taking, it was a hard thing for me to fathom. I was compelled to buy a paper copy of any book I even entertained reading seriously; there was nothing worse than having a thought and nowhere to put it, especially when you knew where it belonged—right next to the sentences it augmented or attacked. But there was a sort of enslavement that ensued from feeling as though every thought needed saving lest it disappear. Certainly most of what I’d written down I’d never return to, but though I knew this, it hardly allayed my anxiety: what if the one thing I’d not kept was, as it happens, the thing I needed to keep? For a time, moving through any text seemed to take forever. Poems became chores. Essays became day-long endeavors. And novels, long exposés, anything philosophical? Resigned to the list of perpetual procrastination. And then I had a mildly liberating conversation with a friend studying at a small but wonderful liberal arts college across the country. She was struggling with something similar; reading had begun to require a commitment so burdensome it outweighed or even preempted its benefits. In the middle of this, she went to visit her professor during office hours, and this professor showed my friend the pages of her own (very professorial) copy of Moby Dick, or another comparable monument of American literature. Whole swaths of pages were unmarked! Not an underline in sight; not a note! And then one would appear, and then another, and soon she’d find herself in the thick of an annotation frenzy. She’d run out of space and use post-its to keep her rambling sentences rambling. But the point was this: it was all right to drift in and out of a text, to moor and unmoor, to read with magnifying glass and telescope both.

School-taught habits die hard. For months after our conversation I resisted the exotic possibility of not taking notes—what, after all, would happen?—whenever I read something. But one bored night, scanning my bookshelves, I came across my copy of Chekov’s The Complete Short Novels, what Daniel Alarcón once described to me as one of his “desert island books” (mainly, I think, because of The Duel). I’d read The Duel, but not much else. I decided to skip to the 1893 novella The Story of an Unknown Man for that shallow but common reason: because I liked its title. It reminded me of Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, another book I hadn’t read, though neither were to be confused with Andreï Makine’s The Life of an Unknown Man. And I moved through it, making no notes, no marks, no highlights, no underlines, challenging myself to leave, as it were, no trace of my presence by the time I finished the thing. I only cheated slightly, if it is possible to cheat slightly: I dog-eared a few pages that I knew I would want to return to. But I figured this was acceptable—I wasn’t writing anything down. Even these attempts at preserving my old habits didn’t last long; in the absence of notes, I found I’d soon forgotten why I’d reminded myself to return to one page and not another. And the experience turned out to be strangely befitting for the text I’d chosen (or that had chosen me). For while The Story an Unknown Man—also translated, apparently, as An Anonymous Story and The Story of a Nobody—begins with the premise of something loosely like a political thriller, it unwinds into what became, for me, an allegory of how any reader steps into the quicksand of any text. Here is how it starts in the recent translation by Pevear and Volokhonsky:

For reasons of which now is not the time to speak in detail, I had to go to work as the servant of a certain Petersburg official by the name of Orlov. He was about thirty-five years old and was called Georgiy Ivanych.

I went to work for Orlov on account of his father, a well-known statesman whom I regarded as a serious enemy of my cause. I reckoned that, from the conversations I would hear and the papers and notes I might find on the desk while living at the son’s, I could learn the father’s plans and intentions in detail.

Nor are the reasons given in any detail later on. What is given, however, is the story of how a political commitment intertwines with the emotional currents of a troubled household until the latter usurp the former. The Story of an Unknown Man becomes, then, the chronicle of the narrator’s observations, which soon lose sight of the pretension of the strategic ambitions with which he opens the story. I don’t wish to launch into a recap of the novella here; the details are thoroughly “domestic,” and while not uninteresting for this, an attempt to summarize them would turn into a imitation that possessed all of the original’s mundaneness but none of its mysticism. But it is impossible not to note that, for our narrator, Orlov becomes a study in human psychology, as does his estranged mistress, odd companions, and their dealings. And as the story meanders further and further away from the claim that lends it its initial momentum, the narrator’s first justification for everything that follows, it becomes a proxy for the immersive experience of reading. Of Orlov our narrator notes: “Before reading or listening to something, he prepared his irony each time, like a savage his shield.” I, too, was prepared to enter The Story of an Unknown Man with the standard expectations of suspense: here I was, the reader, a detective whose main task was to figure out, per the story’s opening, just how these political tensions would resolve and whose toolbox included a pen and the ability to flip back and forth between pages. I was prepared to read the story from the outside; I was shielded.

As the novella’s pages pass the narrator gracefully loses sight of the goal he proclaimed at the outset. A few opportunities arise by which he might accomplish them, but he passes them up—and by the time he does, the story has gathered such momentum from the details of its characters’ lives that one hardly notices the discrepancy. The headstrongness with which Vladimir Ivanych presents himself at the beginning dissipates into the directionlessness of a man whose existence is guided by day-to-day concerns, whose purpose is indeterminable. He is a character whose affect mirrored my own interaction with him: what I thought I saw clearly at the beginning almost instantly began to fade. I was drawn, like Ivanych, into the machinations of this well-to-do Russian official, his idiosyncrasies and slights. I became unsure of my status as a reader. Who was I, now that I had been dragged into this psychological commitment of a story, which then seemed so pointed, so aimed at something, but became so blunted? After countless deceptions in the story, Orlov’s mistress, Zinaida Fyodorovna, realizes—with Ivanych’s help—that she has been deceived. He reveals himself to her and persuades her to leave the country with him. She does so, and they find some happiness; like most happiness in Chekov, however, it is temporary:

What contrasts of life! When she sat that way, with her hands clenched, stony, grief-stricken, I imagined both of us participating in some novel in the old-fashioned taste, entitled An Ill-Fated Woman, An Abandoned Woman, or something of the sort. Both of us: she ill-fated, abandoned, and I a true, faithful friend, a dreamer, and, if you like, a superfluous man, a luckless fellow, incapable of anything but coughing and dreaming, and maybe also of sacrificing himself… but to whom and for what are my sacrifices needed now? And what am I to sacrifice, I may ask?

Articulating the limits of his own story, the narrator preempts whatever awareness I might have thought allowed me to privilege my position above his. Zinaida Fyodorovna and he find no respite from their restlessness; eventually, she passes away in childbirth (or from suicide thereafter—these details, too, are not provided), and Ivanych takes custody of her daughter. With this, the story finalizes its divergence away from the statement of political intent at its beginning, as if to subvert the very chronological order that governs its progression. In the final confrontation between Ivanych and Fyodorovna, before the latter’s death, she accuses him of misleading her, of involving her in a cause to which he had no real commitment: “When I dreamed aloud all these months, raved, admired my plans, reconstructed my life in a new way, why, instead of telling me the truth, did you keep silent or encourage me with stories and behave as if you fully sympathized with me? Why? What did you need that for?” she asks. When Ivanych defends himself by implying he had no dishonorable intentions, she makes clear that she suspected he never had any. “If you’d had any, I’d know them. Besides ideas and love, you had nothing. Ideas and love now, and down the road—me as your mistress. Such is the order of things both in life and in novels…”

Against these charges of insincerity our narrator can only say to Zinaida, “sincerely,” that he wants “[t]o live, to live! I want peace, quiet, I want warmth, this sea here, your closeness.” But it is not enough to stay the passage of time and what follows—her death. This last conversation between the novella’s main protagonists leaves me with the question of what it is for me, as a reader, to be sincere. All along I had been waiting for Vladimir Ivanych to validate what I’ve wanted to be his true identity, the identity he associated himself with as the novella began; but this identity was false. But its being false had an effect not just on his character but on my expectations, and thereby on my role and status as a reader. As the political was gradually folded into the domestic, so were my readerly expectations made writerly ones (to borrow a binary from Barthes): that is to say, where I expected a “complete” text, something I could dissect in order to ascertain the workings of, I received instead a sort of living document, something that required me to be a “lazy reader,” or at least a different sort of reader. Lazy because I could no longer do the kind of work I had wanted to do from the beginning, but perhaps this is not the right word—it begs the question; it assumes that one who is not reading a story in such a way is reading lazily. And this seems not to be the case. I was, instead, doing a different work: the work of living in the story, of living with the story.

Such work was and is, unfortunately, somewhat foreign to me. But I now had to ask just who the unknown man of the title was: was it Vladimir Ivanych, our ostensibly unimportant but politically-minded narrator, who at any moment would surely step out from behind the facade of a servant’s life to act upon his hidden purposes, his hidden knowledge? Was it the author—or whoever it was who was “speaking through” this story? Or was it myself, “the reader,” someone who had entered the novella just as Ivanych entered Orlov’s house, with only a formal and superficial sense of what it was he wanted to do? But the novella does not abandon its readers in the realm of the unknown; it offers a different kind of information, a different way of knowing. It offers, as a sort of anecdote to political concerns, the richness of domestic life, of experience as such, however diluted or ordinary—even painfully so. And such experience proceeds regardless, indeed in spite of, attempts to track its narrative development, the arc of its plot, the significance of its allusions and metaphors and metonyms. Academic reading, or the reading of difficult texts in general, may be the only activity where constant interruption marks good etiquette in one’s role as audience: books get written in, they get put down, they are conversed with. Unlike a symphony or a film, a book continues to unfold with your permission only. But The Story of an Unknown Man challenged me to be still, to listen, to take stock of the story’s real subject: the disappearance of time and, with it, identity. An unmoving hand meant not complicity but patience. At the novella’s close I think I understood better what Wallace Stevens meant in those first couplets of “The House was Quiet and the World was Calm”:

The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The reader became the book; and summer night

Was like the conscious being of the book.
The house was quiet and the world was calm.

The words were spoken as if there was no book,
Except that the reader leaned above the page,

Wanted to lean, wanted much most to be
The scholar to whom his book is true…

There is a sort of communion being described in this poem—a commutation of consciousnesses, that of one being’s with another’s. The Story of an Unknown Man achieved such a communion, such a commutation, and in doing so it disabled the tactics I had been abusing to prevent myself from being too overtaken by a story. And so I became a reader again, leaving only fingerprints on the pages.