Saturday, 27 April 2013

Writing tips 2: the end

A good end is as important as a good beginning, and nearly as important as a great middle. And surprisingly unusual. A perfectly ended story remains in your mind forever, its faintly astringent taste lingering on the tongue.
The most famous, and one of the best, is the end of F Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. Our antihero, Jay Gatsby, has spent his misspent life one one ambition: getting to the point where he can be the husband of adorable young socialite Daisy Buchanan (née Fay; good thing boys don't take their wives' names or he might have become Jay Fay).
At the end Fitzgerald has his narrator, the slightly louche but perfectly socially placed Nick Carraway, standing on the edge of the sea, looking out across the bay at the house once lived in by Daisy and her horrid husband - the house Gatsby gazed longingly at every night.
And Fitzgerald does a wonderful thing: he encapsulates his story, but more, he encapsulates all of fiction, every story, because what are stories about but seeking the future in the past:
And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning —
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
Fitzgerald has done a fabulous thing: he has made a philosophical statement, and it's a world-changer, but it's also not the 'moral' of his story - Fitzgerald would not be so cheap or so ill-mannered as to offer the reader who has done him the honour of entering his story a moral.

Not so with the Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitisyn, whose story Matryona's Place is a wonder and a jewel - until its last two lines. He manages to take a lovely, delicate story and turn it into a finger-wagging lesson, undoing all the subtle, gorgeous storytelling of the previous 38 pages and leaving the reader going "Bleaghhhh!"
In Matryona's Place, our narrator arrives home, and goes to the Personnel Office to ask for a job in some remote village where they need a mathematics teacher. He's sent to one place, but it's not of-the-soil enough for him - they buy their food and drag it home in sacks. So he goes back to Personnel, and describes what he wants, and they send him to the village called Peatproduce.
Here, the only person who can put him up is the aged Matryona. Her wooden house is lovingly described - its traditional Russian stove, her beloved fig plants set all around the windows, the mice, and the five layers of thick ribbed wallpaper stuck together and standing out from the wall that the mice run behind; the lame cat that pursues them; the miserable goat.
It becomes gradually clear that the teacher has returned from a prison camp. He and Matryona live happily together. She's hard-working - apart from her daily work, every day she has some special job, like collecting a load of turf semi-illegally, making pickles, collecting mushrooms in the forest.
At the time the teacher goes to live with her, Matryona is spending a lot of time going from office to office trying to get a pension. Her husband disappeared in the war; she always worked on the collective farm, but apparently not on "productive work", so she's not entitled to any pension for herself, but only as her husband's widow.
Meanwhile, all the neighbours call on her all the time for work - harnessed in the five-woman plough, collecting turf, digging, etc.
Eventually, Matryona is dragged into an unwise enterprise by her brother-in-law - the man she really should have married, and a thoroughly bad lot, spoiled by disappointment in love. She is horribly killed by a train, and her mangled body is brought home. Her body is prepared, the relatives quarrelling over who will get the house.
Everything she said about Matryona was disapproving: she was dirty, she was a bad housekeeper, she wasn't thrifty, she wouldn't even keep a pig because she didn't like the idea of fattening up a beast to kill it, and she was stupid enough to work for other people without pay...
Solzhenitsyn beautifully writes:
Only then, listening to the disapproving comments of her sister-in-law, did I see an image of Matryona which I had never perceived before, even while living under her roof.
It was true - every other cottage had its pig, yet she had none. What could be easier than to fatten up a greedy pig whose sole object in life was food? Boil it a bucketful of swill three times a day, make it the centre of one's existence, then slaughter it for lard and bacon. Yet Matryona never wanted one...
Misunderstood and rejected by her husband, a stranger to her own family despite her happy, amiable temperament, comical, so foolish that she worked for others for no reward, this woman, who had buried all her six children, had stored up no earthly goods. Nothing but a dirty white goat, a lame cat and a row of fig plants.
It's the perfect ending. But then Solzhenitisyn loses it. He can't trust the reader to get the point; he takes it out and slaps it down on the table like a side of fish:
None of us who lived close to her perceived that she was that one righteous person without whom, as the saying goes, no city can stand.
Nor the world.

No comments: