Tolstoy somewhere recalled the opening of an unfinished novel by Pushkin: “The guests were arriving at the country house.” Tolstoy said: That’s just how a novel should begin.
Yes, a novel -- but let’s consider some other story openings, from memorable short stories and novellas of the late 19th and early 20th century. Like this one: “Two men in a smoking-room were talking of their private-school days” (M. R. James’s “A School Story”). In innumerable tales, two gentlemen have a chance encounter on a London pavement and slip into the club to which one of them belongs for a long evening’s talk, or there’s a party of men sitting around a big fireplace in a country house, or a man boards a train and seats himself opposite a stranger and they start talking after a while.
In one story – Kipling’s “On Greenhow Hill” – the men are soldiers, hunkered down quietly in ambush late one afternoon, passing the time by telling anecdotes till their sharpshooter can pick off an insurgent deserter.
Chekhov wrote a little trilogy of stories in which men tell one another accounts of their lives – “The Man in a Case,” “About Love,” and “Gooseberries.” Stories are told on two successive evenings and during a rainy afternoon in between. Wells’s Time Machine begins in a “luxurious after-dinner atmosphere” replete with fireplace and drinks.
Generally in the stories I have in mind, the location is snug and the evening ahead can give way imperceptibly to night as people talk. There’s no hurry and there are no serious distractions. The characters are almost always men -- bachelors, widowers, or husbands away from their wives.
Eventually one of the men tells a long story (or hands over a manuscript that another man takes with him for the night or till next week). In Tolstoy’s “Kreutzer Sonata,” Pozdnyshev makes his painful, protracted confession of sexual jealousy and murder on a train journey in a compartment shared with a stranger.
When we are reading “The Kreutzer Sonata,” we don’t object that Pozdnyshev holds forth at such length. Conrad’s Marlow possesses astonishing stamina as he relates the story of Heart of Darkness during a long night on a boat anchored in the Thames estuary, but we don’t demur. Nor are we troubled by these narrators’ ability to recall long-ago conversations verbatim. In fact, the situation is irresistible and we relish it.
The framing scene invites us to be receptive to the gradual development of a mood and to become well-prepared for the main story’s final catastrophe. During the Christmas holidays, the guests eagerly listen as Douglas reads them the governess’s eerie and ultimately tragic memoir of Bly (The Turn of the Screw). Or recall the delectable opening of Machen’s wonder-tale “N” (from as late as 1936!):
“They were talking about old days and old ways and all the changes that have come on London in the last weary years; a little party of three of them, gathered for a rare meeting in Perrott’s rooms.”
They talked, and all through their evening no one fetched out his phone from his pocket or checked his iPad.
Most of the stories I’ve just mentioned, be they fantastic or realistic, deal with love, in some way and in some sense or other of the word. Well-bred people believed those love-topics were meant for private occasions. When we read stories from 125 or even 80 years ago in which gentlemen talk about women and lust or love, we may feel a special interest as we listen in (something different from the voyeuristic interest of hearing people talking casually and explicitly and coarsely of sex).
In our time, such conversation as theirs must seem to be as rare as some Atlantean art.
© 2016 Dale Nelson