What Can We Steal From Ehud Havazelet’s “Gurov in Manhattan”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Gurov in Manhattan,” short story
Author: Ehud Havazelet
Date of Work: 2010
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The story debuted in Issue 137 of TriQuarterly, one of the top journals on the scene.  “Gurov” was subsequently chosen by Geraldine Brooks and Heidi Pitlor for Best American Short Stories 2011 and you can find it in the anthology.  The kind people at TriQuarterly have posted the piece for your enjoyment; how nice of them!

Bonuses: Here are blogger Karen Carlson’s thoughts about the story.  Here is what Ann Graham thought of it.  Here is an interview Mr. Havazelet gave to TriQuarterly in which he discusses this story.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Inspiration From the Masters

Discussion:
Sokolov, a fifty-two-year-old lecturer in Russian literature, takes his dog for a walk through the streets of Manhattan.  In a way, that’s all this story is about.  There is, of course, much more to Mr. Havazelet’s work.  Along the way, the third person narrator gives us a deep understanding of Sokolov’s life and recent history.  His heartbreaks and hopes and the new understandings that are the result of age and the reflection granted by serious illness.  We learn about the dog, Lermontov, a large dog that has far lived longer than expected.  Sokolov had a woman who helped him through his illness; she left for a great teaching position.  The climax of the story may be when Sokolov locks eyes with a beautiful young waitress.  The man understands that he is no longer suitable for women like her.  The will never leaves, even as life inevitably changes from offering a wealth of possibilities to only one: cleaning up after your dog.

In his author’s note, Mr. Havazelet informs the reader that “Gurov” was part autobiography and partly borrowed from Anton Chekhov’s story, “The Lady with the Dog.”  (You can read Chekhov’s story through the magic of public domain.)  There’s so much greatness to be mined in great works of the past!  Why not follow Mr. Havazelet’s lead and kinda sorta rewrite a classic work?  Could you “rewrite” The Shining?  Probably not.  The book isn’t very cold and Mr. King, thankfully, is still with us.  Look at the way that classic works have served as inspiration for later classic works:

Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard – the story of a wealthy family who lost everything and the struggle to keep them all together. Arrested Development – the story of a wealthy family who lost everything and the one son who had no choice but to keep them all together.
The Honeymooners – Two lower middle class male friends with get-rich-quick schemes contend with their own misfortune and their loving but doubtful wives. The Flintstones – Two lower middle class male friends with get-rich-quick schemes contend with their own misfortune and their loving but doubtful wives.
“Pyramus and Thisbe” – a story about young lovers from opposing factions who fall in love and end up dying tragically. Romeo and Juliet – a story about young lovers from opposing factions who fall in love and end up dying tragically.
Romeo and Juliet – a story about young lovers from opposing factions who fall in love and end up dying tragically. West Side Story – a story about young lovers from opposing factions who fall in love and end up dying tragically.
Romeo and Juliet – a story about young lovers from opposing factions who fall in love and end up dying tragically. Titanic – a story about young lovers from opposing factions who fall in love and end up dying tragically.

Maybe you could even consider it a kind of assignment.  Do as Shakespeare did; flip through a book of mythology and retell a story that appeals to you.

The story is not a whiz-bang adventure; nor was that likely Mr. Havazelet’s goal.  No, “Gurov” has very quiet beats.

INCITING INCIDENT: Gurov takes the dog on a walk.

Then he meets a veterinarian and thinks about life and laments his age.

CLIMAX: Gurov locks eyes with a young waitress on whom Gurov has a little crush.  He sees her “youthful misery.”  Decades ago, he would have offered up his help and his time, but the encounter forces him to realize that he has nothing to offer her.  The world, in a way, has moved on.

I’m definitely not saying that every story must resemble a Michael Bay film.  I love that Mr. Havazelet gets such powerful human drama out of moments that are so quiet.  An audience requires, above all, something on which to pin their attention.  “Gurov” might not be as powerful were it 45,000 words long.  Mr. Havazelet wisely keeps the story short so as to keep the focus on Gurov’s internal struggle and to add importance to the otherwise relatively commonplace action.

What Should We Steal?

  • Appropriate the situation, conflicts or characters of a classic work.  Even if you TRIED to steal a Chekhov story too much, the end result will be your own because you’re your own writer.  (And none of us are Anton C.!)
  • Work with personal internal conflict instead of the more obvious external kind.  This relatively short short story is powerful because we share time with a complicated man and care deeply about him.

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