The Singers by Ivan Turgenev, 1852
The magic trick:
A coda that layers poetry beautifully onto what previously was a more direct, almost journalistic, story
We’re starting a week of stories from Ivan Turgenev’s A Sportsman’s Notebook. Great stuff. Prepare to enjoy.
We begin with “The Singers,” not the first in the book but maybe the best.
It’s also featured, as many of you probably know, in the new George Saunders book, Taking A Swim In The Rain, in which he takes the short story magic tricks concept to masterclass levels. Seriously, it’s such an amazing book. So I’m making a point to write up my little magic trick before reading the Saunders essay about the story. Given the choice, I’d highly recommend you read what he has to say, but in the meantime, here you go…
It’s all about the coda. “The Singers” begins with setting and character description. It proceeds to a singing contest and seems to have found its conclusion at the end of said singing contest. But then the story continues a little bit longer into what maybe feels like extraneous information from our narrator.
But it’s not extraneous at all. This coda casts the entire story in a haze of poetry.
Our narrator – as we’ll find all week – is a journalist of sorts. He’s reporting on all he sees during his hunting forays into the countryside. So, for much of the story, he’s telling us details about the people he’s met in this village pub. It’s very direct.
But this closing section – the story’s coda – shifts into indirect mode suddenly, Yes, he’s still reporting. He tells us of a boy calling out for his brother to come home. But there is no explanation given about who this boy is or how he fits into the village or the peasantry.
The reader is free to connect this scene to the rest of the story, and it’s a beautiful thing to consider the innocence of the children here, having just met, as we have throughout the rest of the story, several of the local adults. It’s not depressing. But neither is it optimistic. Just the perfect touch of melancholy to tie everything together.
And that’s quite a trick on Turgenev’s part.
(Now, go read that Saunders essay!)
At the very summit of the ravine, a few paces from the point where it starts as a narrow fissure in the earth, there stands a small square hut. It stands alone, apart from all the others. It is thatched, and has a chimney; one window keeps watch like a sharp eye over the ravine, and on winter evenings when it is lighted from within, it is seen far away in the dim frosty fog, and its twinkling light is the guiding star of many a peasant on his road. A blue board is nailed up above the door; this hut is a tavern, called the ‘Welcome Resort.’ Spirits are sold here probably no cheaper than the usual price, but it is far more frequented than any other establishment of the same sort in the neighbourhood. The explanation of this is to be found in the tavern-keeper, Nikolai Ivanitch.
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