Sunday, March 12, 2017

Classics #5

I read this book for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2017.

The Complete Short Novels – Anton Chekhov

Anton Chekhov (1860 - 1904) mastered the short story form, but early in his career he wrote novellas. This volume collects five works Englished by the well-known team Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.

The first story, The Steppe, is apparently about the journey of a young boy across the steppe of southern Russia. I say “apparently” because there is no plot. Despite the journey, the form is neither a quest nor a picaresque. A merchant and a priest are travelling on business and to kill two birds with one stone they are talking the boy to a larger town so he can go to school.  Along the way, they meet a variety of characters, from a compassionate Russian mama to cold merchants preoccupied with gain to a Jewish trickster that calls to mind Diogenes. They have adventures, such as a session of scary crime stories around the fire, and misadventures, such as king-hell thunderstorm. The descriptions of nature bring to mind another plotless masterpiece, Dead Souls by Gogol.  Very stirring is the immense steppe – nature – as a backdrop for the smallness and fragility of human life.

In The Duel, Chekhov tells a simple story to expose the ethical dilemmas of the characters.  Set in a small town in the Caucasus, both the locals and occupying Russians live their lives without unusual mishaps or misfortunes and with the certainty that tomorrow will unfold in the same way as today. To this humdrum burg, a young couple has arrived from St. Petersburg: Lévsky and Nadejda Fyodorovna. He is a civil servant and she is married to another man.  Lévsky is a superfluous man who, although he holds a public office and has a rich social life, can’t be said to have ever accomplished anything new or original or admirable in his life. He lives at the expense of others, doing his job as little as possible, blithely incurring debt, stealing another man’s impressionable wife, and dragging her to a junky little town, far from her people and her friends. But he is starting to detest Nadejda Fyodorovna who isn’t nearly as clever as she is vain and is a creature of impulse. To this same podunk returns every year Von Koren, a zoologist with cold and radical ideas about the wholesale improvement of the county. He can’t stand Lévsky, who embodies everything he abhors about dilettante intellectuals.  Von Koren  has the kind fo mind eagerly recruited by the Bolsheviks later, a mind that would contemplate with relish the liquidation of whole classes of people. Though Von Koren does not sympathize with Lévsky's problems, it is he who, in the end, ends up giving Lévsky a solution to his no-exit, no-serenity life. At the beginning the tone is relaxed, but gets more intense as the extent of Lévsky and Nadejda Fyodorovna’s problems become apparent.  Chekhov effectively puts across the ghastly dead-ends that people find themselves in.

The Story of an Unknown Man opens with a revolutionary telling us readers he has taken a job a servant in the St. Petersburg house of the son of a high official in order to gather information about that official. He hints that an assassination plot in in the works. But the political goals are lost as the narrator observes the tortured souls in a love triangle. He also meets the old official and pities the old duff for his frailty: “It’s hard to strike a match against a crumbling wall.” He also feels strange, along with us readers, that becoming a servant has dehumanized him in the eyes of the household; they act as if he is not in the room. Despite this cruel incuriosity that reduces him to an object, he feels sympathy for people that are so weak and apathetic that they can’t even protect themselves from thieving servants. No wonder the Bolsheviks were able to shove them out of way so easily.

In Three Years, Chekhov deals with an unlikely love story. For no particular reason, Laptev falls passionately in love with Yulia. She hardly knows he is alive, but afraid of becoming an old maid, she is gradually worn down. Reader - she marries him! They then settle down to gamely, grimly make the best of a marriage. Like in Woody Allen’s spoof Love and Death, all the characters love somebody that is unattainable. In a set of pitiless stories more or less about love among imperfect human beings, this story is the most merciless. Readers who half-assing through a marriage –beware.

In My Life: The Story of a Provincial, the pretentiously named Misail, under the influence of Tolstoy, renounces his noble name and reputation. His father is outraged, his sister begs Misail to relent. The townspeople throw water on him, charging he is breaking the commandment to honor one’s parents. The village urchins call him an ugly child nickname. Misail and the liberal Masha marry and move out of the provincial town to a country estate. The couple is subjected to the indignity and idiocy and drunkenness of village life. The muzhiks also remorselessly cheat them and steal from them. As a chorus to these disillusioning goings-on, the doctor take the stance of the cool intellectual who sympathizes with everybody’s problems but in unable to frame any ideas toward solutions. Like most Russian writers, Chekhov is dealing with the “whither Mother Russia” issue, but he highlights all the personal and psychological problems that distract the characters from being active agents of change, sociologically speaking. In this story, everybody, at every level of society, seems stuck in a rut – who can say of whose making? And the reader feels that some of the reasons behind Russia’s terrible 20th century are explored in this late 19th century story.

I read one of these stories on every other weekend in January and February, though my original plan was to read one every other month. The stories were just too excellent to put off. But they are all sad stories. So many ways to keep it real, so many more to pretend, as we struggle to be good and struggle even harder to be happy.

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