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  • Voices without the Courage to End or the Strength to Go On:Averted Narratives in Chekhov’s “Champagne” and Beckett’s “The Expelled”
  • Billy Petersen (bio)

A shared reticence nips short the narratives in Anton Chekhov’s “Champagne” and Samuel Beckett’s “The Expelled.” These short stories, though largely absent in the recent scholarship in English around each author, are rich examples of the thematic and stylistic affinity that Herbert Blau notices when he writes, “You might say Beckett begins where Chekhov leaves off” (1986, 256). The authors’ affinity, in these two stories, involves a mutual criticism of received humanist attitudes toward subjectivity, relevant to current posthumanist dialogue, that begins with this refusal to disclose what, narratologically, happens. This reticence, this quietude that better resembles reluctance than shyness, is not an aversion to speech. Indeed, Chekhov’s station attendant and Beckett’s homeless invalid unhesitatingly reveal more details than the reader may want. The reluctance lies in each narrator’s refusal or inability to narrate the significant details that prompt their narratives. Instead, they verbosely submit the trivia orbiting around their absent theses. The station attendant, for example, tactlessly claims that his wife “looked at me as no one can look but a woman who has nothing in this world but a handsome husband” (Chekhov 2000, 33-34). Beckett’s narrator, displaying his far less palatable repulsiveness, blithely confesses his routine of “having pissed in my trousers, or having shat there, which I did fairly regularly early in the morning…of persisting in going on and finishing my day as though nothing had happened” (Beckett 1995, 50-51). For all their prattle, these narrators deny the reader the key details of their stories, which remain buried under a willful silence.

Chekhov’s station attendant, whose narrative of his ruined life hinges on his affair with his wife’s aunt, excises that juiciest of stories from his monologue: “I don’t remember what happened next.,” he says at the story’s end. “Anyone who wants to know how love begins may read novels and long stories; I will put it shortly and in the words of the same silly song” (Chekhov 2000, 37). Beckett’s feces-encrusted rambler, shockingly fluent for [End Page 309] one so helpless, simply cannot articulate the impetus behind his own narrative of wandering, aimlessly, in pursuit of shelter: “How shall I describe this hat? And why?… But how to describe it? Some other time, some other time” (Beckett 1995, 48). What the reader receives instead of traditional narrative, in both stories, is a malingering voice that treads over the invisible tale that each voice refuses to narrate. The refusal becomes a negating gesture, an act of narratological amputation, whereby each narrator disables his story—the story, in other words, cannot move into conventional modes or outcomes expected by readers. Chekhov’s station attendant and Beckett’s transient, having dislodged themselves from storytelling’s accustomed arc, are thus voices set adrift. What they leave unsaid belongs to humanity’s finite, homogenizing repertoire of performances, away from which these voices navigate, however vainly, futilely, and clumsily, toward an authentic, or individualizing—though unattainable—vision of selfhood. From this impossible point, in which movement toward an unattainable condition (the freedom from the monotony of existing) is therefore equal to devising one’s own disappearance, or of going “head over heels to the devil” (Chekhov 2000, 37) as Chekhov’s station attendant puts it, the two narrators speak, as if there is nothing else to do.

In this essay, I propose that this anti-narrative stance is not nihilistic posturing or calculated evasiveness for its own sake. Rather, what Chekhov’s and Beckett’s narrators offer in these stories is the realization of a posthumanist subjectivity—a subjectivity that does not possess stability or essence (the stuff, as Chekhov’s station attendant implies, of mere stories), a subjectivity that eschews its subject. Indeed, as I will discuss, these narrators’ implicit attitude toward the traditional subject indicates that each at least suspects that the integrated, essential, communicable self is a fantasy that distracts from knowledge of the human experience; it is an insidious fiction, one that prescribes habits of performing rather...


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pp. 309-325
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