Here are four sentences: “And it still seemed that there was some most important thing which he did not have, of which he once vaguely dreamed, and in the present he was stirred by the same hope for the future that he had had in childhood.” “He began to play, himself not knowing what it was, but it came out plaintive and moving, and tears flowed down his cheeks ... `Ah, ah!’ he said, as the tears crawled down his cheeks and splashed on his green frock-coat.” “What was certain was that his own mother had never known him to embrace her, so she had never done the same to him either.” “Ivan Ilyich’s life was most ordinary, therefore most terrible.”
The first is from Chekhov’s story “The Bishop,” and the second from “Rothschild’s Fiddle.” The terrifying line about how “what was certain was that his own mother had never known him to embrace her, so she had never done the same to him either” is from Giovanni Verga’s great story “Rosso Malpelo,” and the last sentence, of course, is from Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich. When we hear these lines, we hear the sound of simplicity: the direct access to deep emotion; the clarity of phrasing; the willingness to use vernacular and conversational language and repetition rather than obviously literary constructions; the sense that literary artifice has been pushed out of the way by the coarse elbow of metaphysics. There is a fearlessness in this writing, which in turn is fearful, a simplicity which in turn is complex.
We know that simplicity has always been an aesthetic ideal, because of the abundant testimony to it in ancient and modern literature; and we know that it is rarely achieved because of the abundant complexity with which it is idealized. Plato has Socrates, in the Republic, warn against such gratuities as Attic pastries and Corinthian girlfriends. These superfluities are likely to distract the soldier and to make him sick, he says, just as unnecessary embellishment in songs and in lyric odes gives rise to licentiousness. Simplicity, temperance, is all. Such notions are similarly found in the ancient treatises on rhetoric, such as Quintilian’s.
In modern literature, however, simplicity is always elegiac. It is that which has been mysteriously lost, and which cannot be re-found. Simplicity is often honored in the breach, as in Yeats’s little poem “The Fascination of What’s Difficult,” which complains about complexity:
The fascination of what’s difficult
Has dried the sap out of my veins,
Spontaneous joy and natural content
Out of my heart.
Many literary cultures seem to have their own favored examples of lost simplicity and fallen naturalness. Molire is sometimes invoked by the French, and Pushkin has long represented a founding simplicity for Russian writers. Gogol suggested that Pushkin was able to serve art for art’s sake because, in some way, he had no complex anxiety about what art was: by contrast, “we can no longer serve art for art’s sake,” wrote Gogol, “without having first comprehended its highest purpose and without determining what it is given to us for. We cannot repeat Pushkin.” The Czechs revere Jaroslav Hasek’s easiness; Bohumil Hrabal marveled that Hasek’s novel, The Good Soldier Svejk, was “written as though he tossed it off with his left hand, after a hangover, it’s pure joy in writing.” And Cervantes has functioned this way for writers as different as Flaubert, Dostoevsky, and Kundera.
All these writer-founders are idealized as somehow simple, at one with nature, almost premodern; they are envied because they are seen as unencumbered by artifice. Schiller’s famous essay “On Nave and Sentimental Poetry” is both the greatest example of this modern nostalgia and the most sharply self-aware and dialectical commentary on it. Schiller sees modern poets as writers who have lost an antique simplicity, one of whose components was a direct concord with nature. Modern writers, says Schiller, in their relationship to the ancients, are like sick people lusting after health. Goethe, he says, is rare and remarkable, because although he is a modern poet—and therefore a “sick” one—he still retains an extraordinary premodern simplicity and directness.
The “sickest” modern writer (in Schillerian terms) is Flaubert, and it is hardly surprising to find him groaning that Rabelais, Cervantes, and Molire had it easy because they were so simple. “They are great,” he wrote to Louise Colet in 1853, “because they have no techniques.” Those three writers “achieve their effects, regardless of Art.” Of course, every reader of Cervantes knows that there is abundant “technique” in Don Quixote, and that Cervantes mobilizes all kinds of techniques that are premodern only because they had not yet been identified as techniques. They seem simple because they do not seem self- conscious. But for Flaubert this absence of artistic self-consciousness meant that these writers were mere beasts of instinct. He felt that he could not be free as they were. “One achieves style,” he wrote, “only by atrocious labor, a fanatic and dedicated stubbornness.”
Flaubert was not only a sick modern, but one who infected everyone who came after him. He does indeed represent a watershed. After Flaubert, style in fiction will always be a problem, always a trapped decision, because it is an overwhelmingly aesthetic one. Even simplicity, after Flaubert, is no longer innocent, but is a simplicity that has become weary of congestion. (Think of Hemingway’s intensely self-conscious and artful simplicity.) Nothing is more nostalgic for aesthetic innocence than Flaubert’s story “A Simple Heart,” in which he tried to prove that he could use his aestheticism to achieve a fable- like purity. And the moderns know it too: both Robbe-Grillet and Sarraute, those exponents of the nouveau roman, used to say that without doubt Flaubert was their “precursor.”
What is remarkable about Verga and Chekhov, who wrote at about the same time—in the 1880s and 1890s—is that they seem to have evaded this law of modern sickness. They seem to say, as George Herbert does in his poem “Jordan”: “Is there in truth no beauty?/Is all good structure in a winding stair?” They unwind the stair of modern complexity. They lived after Flaubert, and both had read him, but they wrote as if they had never read him. They are simple, but without the modern fascination with innocence, without the modern nostalgia for simplicity. Indeed, Chekhov in some ways represents the “solution” to all of Flaubert’s dilemmas. If realism was a stylistic agony for Flaubert, it was a moral necessity for Chekhov. If Flaubert retained and aestheticized an essentially religious and judgmental disdain for life, Chekhov paganized life. If Flaubert’s people are all mistakes, Chekhov’s are all always forgiven. If Flaubert’s characters are doomed, Chekhov’s are merely imprisoned.
Chekhov, as all readers feel, has an extraordinary natural and simple charm, which is inseparable from his gentle and comic temperament. But what is the literary nature of his simplicity? What attributes does it possess that make it so attractive to we sick moderns? We can see it in operation in one of his stories, “Rothschild’s Fiddle,” written in 1894. In this tale, we are introduced to Jacob, a miserly coffin-maker. The story begins: “It was a small town, more miserable than a village and almost all the inhabitants were old people, who died so rarely it was even annoying.” Jacob cares about nothing but profit and loss. When he makes expensive coffins, for women and gentry, he gets out his iron rule, and measures with great attention to exact size. But he is never keen to make children’s coffins, because they pay so poorly. He would manufacture them contemptuously and carelessly without measuring them, writes Chekhov, complaining all the while that he could not be bothered with such trifles.
From time to time, the town’s Jewish band, which usually played weddings, would ask him to play the fiddle—out of necessity, since neither the band nor Jacob enjoyed the experience. Jacob had to sit next to a man called Rothschild, named, writes Chekhov, with some sarcasm, “after the noted millionaire. Now this bloody little Jew contrived to play the merriest tunes in lachrymose style. For no obvious reason Jacob became more and more obsessed by hatred and contempt for Jews, and for Rothschild in particular. He started picking on him and swearing at him.”
The extraordinary brutality of the narration continues: “On the sixth of May in the previous year Martha had suddenly fallen ill. The old woman breathed heavily, drank a lot of water, was unsteady on her feet, but she would still do the stove herself of a morning, and even fetch the water.” Jacob suffers his first stirring of remorse, as he realizes that he may soon be without a wife: “As he looked at the old woman, it vaguely occurred to Jacob that for some reason he had never shown her any affection all his life.” But, ever practical, he measures her for her coffin, and enters his wife in his debit book: “Martha Ivanova: one coffin, two roubles, forty-nine copecks.” Jacob and Martha go to the hospital, but the doctor shrugs his shoulders and sends them home, telling Martha that she has done well to get this far and now it is her time to die. A few days later, she does die, succinctly appraised by Chekhov thus: “The priest came and gave the last rites, whereupon Martha mumbled something or other. By morning she was gone.”
Returning from her funeral, Jacob has what amounts to a revelation. Again he reflects that in fifty-two years of marriage he had never shown any love for his wife, that in “all that time, he had no more noticed her than a cat or dog. “ But his remorse is interrupted by Rothschild, who has been sent by the bandleader to ask Jacob to play at a wedding. They are in need of a fiddler. Jacob turns on Rothschild and attacks him. “Scared to death,” Rothschild runs away, pursued by a dog and some street urchins shouting, “Dirty Yid!” Jacob walks alongside the river, and, sitting for a moment, he reflects upon real losses, not just the pecuniary ones. As Jacob mourns his losses, the reader gathers that he and Martha suffered a real loss when they were young—that of a baby. And suddenly we think back to the story’s opening page, and Chekhov’s sentence about how Jacob made children’s coffins contemptuously and carelessly. What had seemed, in our readerly innocence, an economic contempt—since children’s coffins bring in less cash—is disclosed as the desperate repression of grief. Now we know why Jacob cannot stand the way that Rothschild plays his flute, making all the cheerful tunes sound lachrymose. Jacob fears true feeling.
The next morning he himself feels sick, and goes to the hospital, and with the same fatalism with which he attended his wife’s death he prepares for his own. “He reckoned that death would be pure gain to him. He wouldn’t have to eat, drink, pay taxes, or offend people. And since a man lies in his grave not just once but hundreds and thousands of years, the profit would be colossal. Man’s life is debit, his death credit.” Thinking of all this, “he started playing he knew not what, but it came out poignantly moving and tears coursed down his cheeks.” Just then Rothschild comes to his door, terrified, but again sent to ask Jacob to play. Jacob does not hit him this time, he merely says that it’s no good, he won’t be able to play because he is ill. “He again struck up, his tears spurting on to the fiddle. Rothschild listened carefully, standing sideways on, arms crossed on his breast. His scared, baffled look slowly gave way to a sorrowful, suffering expression. He rolled his eyes as if in anguished delight. `Ah, ah!’ he said as the tears crawled down his cheeks and splashed on his green frock-coat.” On his deathbed, that evening, Jacob asks the priest to ensure that his fiddle is given to Rothschild.
It is a very beautiful story, and it shows us how great simplicity founds itself on the defiance of much that is considered conventionally literary. Our soft scruples instruct us that literature should avoid the didactic, the sentimental, the clichd, the repetitive. But here is Chekhov being all those things, and without apology. “Why are people generally such a nuisance to each other? ... Without the hate and malice folks could get a lot of profit out of each other.” And here is his customary hospitality towards clich and repetition: “scared to death,” “his heart missed a beat and he felt sorry,” and so on. (These were the “prosaicisms” in Chekhov that so irritated the aesthete Nabokov.)
But this is a story very concerned with false measure and the proper overflowing of measure. Jacob learns to go beyond the rules—both the “iron rule” of his craft and the iron rule of his emotional life. His tears, as Shakespeare has it in a different context, “o’erflow the measure,” splashing onto his fiddle. In such a story, simplicity itself overflows our nice little literary containers, our protocols, our fine laws, and our genial conventions of artifice.
If this story’s simplicity is in some sense anti-literary, then it is most anti-literary in its mode of narration. Listen again to the story’s opening sentence: “It was a small town, more miserable than a village and almost all the inhabitants were old people, who died so rarely it was even annoying.” “Who died so rarely it was even annoying”: clearly, this opening sentence, the one that conventionally sets the scene, is written as if thought by Jacob the coffin-maker. It is Jacob who thinks that the town’s niggardly rate of death is annoying, because he wants to make ever more coffins. So immediately, at a moment when an authorial omniscience is more usual—”the town consisted of three streets and one large manor house” and so on—Chekhov begins by telling the story from within Jacob’s head, and in Jacob’s own language. Of course, he does not stay exclusively inside Jacob’s head. Instead, he combines ordinary third-person narration with narration from within inside Jacob’s head.
The technical term for this kind of writing is free indirect style, which is really a way of paraphrasing something that would ordinarily be written directly, and of paraphrasing it in the language of one particular character. In its simplest form, it allows novelists to avoid having to represent all speech within quotation marks, and all scenes as actually happening at the moment that they are described. Here is an example of ordinary speech: “Bob shouted at Tom: `And you can go to hell, but no, not your wife, because hell would be too good for her.’” And here is free indirect style: “That was the day when Bob had told Tom to go—what did he say? Was it hell? Yes, and then the words he spoke about Jane and how hell would be too good for her. Well, at least Tom now knew what Bob really felt.” In my example, it is clear that Bob’s direct speech is being indirectly represented, and represented from inside Tom’s head, from Tom’s point of view. But my example tells us little about Tom. If I were to write: “That was the melancholy day when Robert had requested that Thomas go to hell,” we might begin to think that Thomas was rather pompous, and that he had something to hide, by not mentioning Bob’s comment about his wife.
Free indirect style becomes a profound technique—to use Flaubert’s word— when, as in the case of Chekhov’s story, it is hardly signaled at all, and barely perceptible, and yet infects the very language and bias of the narration. We are prompted by the merest word or phrase to see a bias, a tilt, an allegiance, in a sentence that otherwise looks like normal third-person authorial omniscience. When Chekhov writes, “He was known as Rothschild after the noted millionaire. Now this bloody little Jew even contrived to play the merriest tunes in lachrymose style,” we know perfectly well that the first sentence, about Rothschild being named after the noted millionaire, is written by Chekhov, and that the second one is spoken by Jacob, the anti-Semite, because only Jacob would use the phrase “bloody little Jew.” But what of this: “On the sixth day of May in the previous year Martha had suddenly fallen ill. The old woman breathed heavily, drank a lot of water, was unsteady on her feet, but she could still do the stove herself of a morning, and even fetch the water. “ The brevity of the description, the lack of interest and compassion, the vested interest in Martha’s continued domestic functioning, the very idea that to describe Martha’s ailments all that will be needed is to say that “she breathed heavily and drank a lot of water”—all this suggests that this picture of poor Martha is really seen as if from Jacob’s cruel eyes. And later Chekhov writes: “The priest came and gave the last rites, whereupon Martha mumbled something or other. By morning she was gone.” “Martha mumbled something or other”: this is how Jacob would describe the scene, were he speaking it, perhaps to himself. And if some of us might feel that it is not exactly how Jacob would put it, we could say instead that Chekhov here finds a third vantage, a third point of view from which to tell his story: he writes as if someone in the community were describing the event— without formality, fullness of detail, or, for that matter, compassion. It is a style that perfectly matches both Jacob and his wretched little town, a place of cruelty, fatalism, and speedy injustice.
Chekhov’s use of free indirect speech is exceptionally delicate, and the more one searches for it, the more one sees that it really constitutes the fabric of his storytelling, his special way of siding with his characters, of merging with them, of seeing the world as they see it, without judgment. It is far from simple, of course, but then simplicity is always a matter of complex technique. Yet it is a technique that results in simplicity, because, in issuing from within the vision and language of a character, it tends away from literary narration and towards the idea of spoken narration.
More, this way of telling stories runs against the conventional literary idea that we read in order to know. If it is the fitting style for a community that is cruel, it is because it is the fitting style for a community whose cruelty has to do with its not being interested in comprehension. The doctor who turns Martha away simply feels that she has lived her three score and ten. Her husband has always treated her like a cat or a dog, barely noticing her. Martha is not worth investigation. And doesn’t Chekhov’s story decide the same, really? “Whereupon Martha mumbled something or other.” Martha is seen as fundamentally unknowable, because not worth the trouble of knowledge.
Chekhov uses a technique of storytelling that mimics incuriosity: from deep inside the incurious mind of one character, he lets us look at another character and see in her only the cloudiest outline. We might say that this style of Chekhov’s, so common in his stories, is founded on the management of incomprehension. That is not to say, of course, that we do not learn anything from reading Chekhov, or that in this instance we do not learn quite a lot about Jacob or about his town in the course of the story; merely that in order to do so we are made to travel through his lack of comprehension, inhabit his cloud of unknowing.
How this simplicity differs from literary complexity can be seen by comparing Chekhov to Henry James. James is also a great controller of free indirect style (which might be called “point of view,” James’s great obsession), but it is generally essential for James that the character from whose eyes we see and interpret gathering events is finally also a source of deep understanding. James’s characters, in this sense, are all readers—it is what links him with Jane Austen, for all that he seems to have disliked her work. Think of James’s Isabel Archer, or of Austen’s Fanny Price: they become readers of their situations, highly literate hermeneuts of the material that we, too, are reading. And of course this is deeply satisfying, because the experience offers the satisfactions of complexity. But Chekhov is almost the opposite: we learn how to read the unreading, the hermeneutical illiteracy, of his characters. If James’s ideal point of view is that of the reader, Chekhov’s is that of the speaker.
Both this story and Verga’s great and terrifying tale “Rosso Malpelo” seem almost cruel. Certainly, both writers belonged to societies that, by late nineteenth-century bourgeois standards, really were cruel. Giovanni Verga was born in Sicily in 1840. At the end of the nineteenth century, Sicily was probably the poorest place in Europe. Verga was a patrician, born into a landowning family in Catania. At school, a patriotic teacher inspired him to write fiery and romantic works, and his early novels, the so-called romanzi giovenili, were popular and sentimental, influenced by the most vivid storytellers of the day—Dumas, Hugo, Scott. But around 1880, partly influenced by Luigi Capuana, Verga began to experiment with a new kind of writing, a style that came to be called verismo. This is sometimes said to be the Italian counterpart of French naturalism, and Verga had indeed read Zola; but although Verga and Chekhov never knew of each other’s existence, the Sicilian sounds more like the Russian than like the Frenchman.
Verga took as his new subjects shepherds and illiterate fishermen. The style of narration is as if written by a peasant—more exactly, as if written by the village community. Scholars of Verga call this “narration by the village chorus. “ The stories and the novels that he wrote in the 1880s abound with non sequiturs, proverbial sayings, and pieces of nonsensical folk wisdom, sometimes spoken by his characters and sometimes woven invisibly into the narration. “Some people carry their conscience on their backs, so they can’t see it.” “Saint Joseph shaved himself first and then the others.” “Uncle Crocifisso was in just the right mood to discuss that business, which never seemed to end, because, as they say, `long things turn into snakes.’” “Marriages and bishops are made in heaven.”
Since these stories are narrated as if by a member of the community, they themselves at first glance seem to be without much mercy for their protagonists. But of course these stories are not cruel. Both Chekhov and Verga are masters of the anti-sentimental principle; they know that the more brutally they deprive their characters of obvious sympathy, the more we long to apply it covertly. Verga knowingly uses the cruelty of his Sicilian world to provoke the reader’s sympathy. The best example of this method in Verga’s work is “Rosso Malpelo.” This story is about a little boy who works in the mines under Mount Etna. Rosso’s father was also a miner, and he died in a terrible accident underground. Ever since, Rosso has been a problem—a vicious, pathetic, feral child, shunned by the rest of the community. His name, Malpelo, literally means “evil-haired”; he is so nicknamed because he has red hair, and the community has the usual folk- suspicion of people with red hair. This is how the story begins: “He was called Malpelo because he had red hair, and he had red hair because he was a mischievous rascal who promised to turn out a real knave. So everyone at the sand mine called him Malpelo, and even his mother, hearing him always referred to in that way, had almost forgotten the name he was christened with.”
Evil because he had red hair, red hair because he was evil: the story begins with a non sequitur, an illogicality, a circularity. And the story is founded on this non sequitur, because we rapidly gather that the community, which is in effect telling this tale, has no interest in knowing Rosso Malpelo. He is too difficult to deal with. He has been cast out. For the community, to know him is to blame him. Verga takes to an even greater pitch of extremity Chekhov’s principle of denying or frustrating access; in some amazing way Verga’s story is founded on the impossibility of knowing Rosso Malpelo. Verga writes that the miners beat Malpelo “even when he was not to blame, on the grounds that if Malpelo was not responsible, he was quite capable of having done it.” And Malpelo accepts this regime of the vicious non sequitur. When he is beaten for a crime he did not commit, he never denies it, but merely shrugs and says: “What’s the use? I’m Malpelo.”
Certainly, Malpelo is nasty. He is (as we would say) an abused abuser. His father died in the mine, smothered by sand, and his mother shrinks from her son. The narrator adds that “his own mother had never known him to embrace her, so that she had never done the same to him either,” a terrifying line, given out with all of Verga’s usual brusque simplicity. But this is also the very principle of the story’s narration, which effectively insists on the unembraceability of Malpelo, so that the reader desires to embrace him instead. The only thing that Malpelo understands is force. He beats the poor mule that works underground, muttering, “That’ll kill you off more quickly.” In some way Malpelo wants to be dead, and wants everyone else to be dead, too. Like his father, he emits a guttural groan, “Ah, ah!” as he works at the sand, the exclamation sounding like a death cry. When a new boy arrives at the mine, Malpelo takes him under his wing and begins to tutor him in the ways of cruelty. He tells him: “The mule gets beaten because it can’t fight back, and if it could, it would trample us under its feet and steal the food out of our mouths. “ When the mule eventually dies, Malpelo comments: “It would have been better for him if he’d never been born at all.”
The new boy at the mine is cruelly nicknamed The Frog, because he once fell off some scaffolding and dislocated his leg: “When he was carrying his basket of sand on his back, the poor wretch would hop along as if he was dancing the tarantella, and all the mineworkers laughed at him and called him The Frog.” As elsewhere in his work, Verga here flourishes a cruelty, told entirely from within the terms and the values of the mine community, but prompts us to defy the cruel laughter of the men—and therefore the laughter of Verga’s own narration—with that epithet, “poor wretch.” And Verga means us to do likewise with Malpelo. Malpelo is a poor wretch too, even if no one will acknowledge it.
In the story’s most awful series of scenes, The Frog, whose health is poor, is taken ill. Malpelo considers The Frog a sissy, and boasts of his own strength. He tries to force some health into The Frog by hitting him, but he hits him so hard that The Frog begins to cough blood. Malpelo is alarmed: “He swore that he could not have done him any great harm by hitting him as he did, and just to prove it he beat himself severely about the chest and the back with a large stone.” But The Frog is seriously ill, and he is taken to his bed, where he wheezes for breath, and begins to wither away. Malpelo visits the boy, and sits staring at him, “with those huge eyes of his bulging out of his forehead, as though he was going to paint his portrait.” Malpelo is bewildered by the boy’s failing health, and thinks that he is being self-indulgent. He cannot understand why The Frog’s mother is weeping so much, and asks The Frog why his mother is making such a fuss, “when for two months he had been earning less than it cost to feed him.” After all, Malpelo’s mother has never once embraced him. “But The Frog paid no attention to him, and simply seemed intent on lying there in bed.”
I remember first reading that last sentence, and then slowly, almost frightenedly returning to it, and reading it once again: “But the Frog paid no attention to him, and simply seemed intent on lying there in bed.” Of course, this makes it sound as if The Frog is choosing to luxuriate in bed, as if he had a choice, when in fact he is dying. He is not indolent, he is chained by his fate to his bed. The sentence is presented as third-person narration by Verga, but it must represent the thought of Malpelo, to whom The Frog’s bedriddenness seems a perplexing luxury. And in this bleak story death is a kind of luxury, since it is a relief from work, from life. The Frog dies, and a little later Malpelo gets lost in one of the labyrinthine mine shafts that stretch under the volcano, and he is “never heard of again.” It would indeed have been better if he had never been born at all.
As in Chekhov, Verga’s use of this narration-as-if-by-the-community is extraordinarily subtle, because readers, faced with such pitiless judgment, tend to work against the narration, against the community, in order to extract the pathos we require. Verga uses a style of writing in which the writer appeals to something consensual that everyone knows. Roland Barthes used to call this the “reference code,” and it is common in eighteenth- and nineteenth- century fiction. Tolstoy habitually uses it with great simplicity and force. In The Death of Ivan Ilyich, he describes a group of men who are discussing the recent news of Ivan’s death. Tolstoy remarks that, “as is usual in such cases,” each man was thinking that he was glad that it was Ivan Ilyich who was dead and not him. In such an instance, we are encouraged to agree with Tolstoy about this universal fact of life. But Verga uses the “reference code” to effect almost the opposite reaction, almost disagreement, because the familiar truths and the universal facts with which we are asked to concur are so cruel, and so brutally stated, that the reader is forced to rise up against them. The most blatant example in “Rosso Malpelo” might be the passage where Verga describes how Rosso lovingly looked after the shoes of his dead father: “He carefully hung the shoes on the same nail where he kept his pallet, as though they were the Pope’s slippers, and on Sundays he would take them down, polish them and try them on. Then he would place them on the floor, one beside the other, and stare at them for hours on end with his elbows on his knees and his chin resting in the palms of his hands, and it was anybody’s guess what ideas were running through that calculating little head of his.” Of course, we are being prompted by the story to resist this cruelty; we strongly suspect that although Rosso may be a monster, he is looking at the shoes and simply grieving for his father.
In both Verga and Chekhov, then, simplicity is achieved by using complex literary techniques to break through literary complexity. You might say that literature is used against itself. Of course, simplicity will always be complex in literature, because literary effects are always complex. But literary results are not always complex. The great artists of complexity, such as James and Mann and Proust, are always giving us a great deal—of themselves, of their intellects, of their prose, of their gathered data. But one way of looking at the simplicity of Chekhov and Verga is to note how much they subtract, how little they give us, how often they invite us to fill their bareness with our own feeling.
Note how, for instance, in both stories, characters are described in terms of the simplest exclamations: the tearful grunts of appreciation given by the Jew in “Rothschild’s Fiddle”: “Ah, ah!” And the similar groans—”Ah, ah!”—that both Rosso and his father give when they are digging away at the sand. Eliot once wrote an essay about the difference between Dryden’s version of Antony and Cleopatra and Shakespeare’s. He was interested in the death of Charmian, and in the way each poet treated her last two lines. Both poets had similar verse, except that Shakespeare had added to the couplet two extra words: “Ah, soldier!” Eliot said that he could not quite identify why this was great, but that he knew that in this addition lay the secret of great literature. I think, after reading Chekhov and Verga, we know that secret. “Ah, soldier”; “Ah,” “Oh”—just two vowels. It is the very sigh of simplicity.