A high functionary’s daughter loves the theater. She has her father invite the troupe home. She runs off with the “tragédien.” They marry. He loses interest. She becomes a girl Friday. He beats her. She begs her father to send money. It is Chekhov distilled to Chekhov’s essence.
A man is fishing next to an English woman who’s spent ten years in Russia but seems to know not one word of Russian. The man is approached by a friend. The man speaks demeaningly of the woman’s looks. His fishing line gets stuck. He has to go in to unhook it. He gets undressed in front of the woman, to his friend’s growing alarm. But he gets naked anyway, and goes in, retrieves his line, then gets back to fishing. The woman never moves.
One of the classic foreboding Chekhov openings, the themes personified in the sense of place, a house that looks like a hunchback straining to hide:
Madame Tchikamassoff and her family, including her daughter, live there, receive “avec inquietude” the young narrator, whose purpose is unclear. The house business is to fill Manechka’s trousseau. But she has no prospects. Just her mother’s double-edged hopes. Her mother is the reason she has no suitor, and the trousseau is a red herring. There’s also General Tchikamassoff who lives in the past and is at the story’s periphery, and Gregory, who’s got some condition maybe related to his service in war. The narrator visits three times. The third time Madame Tchikamassoff is in mourning. Her daughter is gone. Where was she? The narrator asks himself. There is no answer. Maybe she’s married. Maybe she’s dead. Maybe she killed herself. The last line: “Tout etait clair et j’avais le coeur lourd.”
A forgettable quickie about a young couple who are spied on by the naughty boy of the story who blackmails the couple for gifts in exchange for his silence, until the day when the man proposes, the couple marry, then seem to have more fun honeymooning by pulling their former tormentor’s ears than by pulling at each others’ erogenous zones, as they had formerly wished to do out of his sight.
Max Ernst, “Birth of Comedy” (1947, when Ernst was in Sedona, Arizona).
Playfully cringing through three pages, Chekhov begins with a couple of badinneries in the first six lines–the “no less fine government clerk” than the “fine evening,” and the post-modern stab at “suddenly”: “In stories one so often meets with this ‘But suddenly.’ The authors are right: life is so full of surprises.” (I’m not sure if Constance Garnette invented the exclamation marks or whether the Pléïade translators eliminated them in their generally more poetic versions). Chekhov is having a good bit of fun at his reader’s and character’s expense, neutralizing the stylistic weakness of suddenly by giving it this unexpectedly double-edged endorsement, before turning almost cruel toward Ivan Dimitritch Tcherviakov, who has the misfortune of sneezing on a general he knows. The general wipes himself. Tcherviakov can’t stop apologizing, not just that evening, to the general’s rising fury. But Tcherviakov wants an acknowledgement for his apology, not a dismissal, until, frightened by the general’s last outburst, something snaps, literally, in his gut. he feels it. he lies down. He dies. down to die. It’s one of Chekhov’s most anthologized stories.
Tuszynski: Emperor Franz Joseph on his deathbed, drawing, 1916.
The narrator is a diary-keeping bookkeeper’s assistant who eagerly awaits his boss’ death so he can become head bookkeeper. It’s an unsatisfied vigil. The man won’t die despite illness, death, grime and barking dogs all around. When he finally does, 20 years later, the diarist is passed over: someone else gets the job. Comical yes, but so familiar. It’s Thoreau’s quiet desperation with a Russian-subtitled laugh track.
From Chekhov’s early gems. Vanya, a pious high school student, prepares for an exam in Greek, giving alms on the way in hops of getting a good mark. He doesn’t. He gets a 2. He remembers his mistakes. He’d put in white night after white night. Didn’t matter. When it came time to answer, he flubbed. His mother is incensed, mostly with herself for not having beaten him enough and not having the strength now to beat him some more. She implores a boarder to beat up her son for her. The boarder does. The child is then enrolled in a trade school for commerce. The story is a litany of invective as the reader is reduced to watching the demolition of promise, brutality’s misdirection of intellect by a mother too blinded by self-preservation to know patience or love. The boarder’s brutality is familiar to Chekhov, whose father was a brute.
“Study of an unknown woman in a train car,” George Estall pen and ink, late 19th century. National Portrait Gallery.
A wealthy woman who thinks herself a martyr after Dostoevsky was born poor and wanted glory and wealth. She got it, through a rich husband, though all she wanted was his death so she could enjoy herself with his money. He died. He left her lucre and freedom. “I am as free as a bird,” she tells a traveler in a train compartment they share. But she now feels trapped by her freedom, unable to enjoy it. “But what — what stands in your way? I implore you tell me! What is it?” “Another old general, very well off—-” The enigmatic nature is a wink and a sigh.
A doorman daily lectures the help in a mansion, calling them good for nothing, demeaning them. That day, it’s about “instruction.” He berates them for not reading. Extols the virtues of books, where all sorts of worlds await. He picks up a ratty old book and goes to work, reads a few pages, falls asleep. He dreams of a world where everyone is intelligent, well read, where everyone, god forbid, is French (Des Francais, des tas de Francais”!) He’s then shaken awake by one of his masters and dragged to the police station for dereliction of duty. Returning to the mansion, he sees the help following his advice, one among them reading to the rest. “Laisse ça!” he yells at him. Not the direction I thought the story would take. Sartre would have turned a world of intelligent French into an inescapable hell.
It’s Carnival Friday, everyone gathers at the functionary Kozouline’s house for crêpes, giving Chekhov room to write as few crêpiers ever could about crêpes. Then two functionaries, among them Kozouline, make fun of an old man, humiliating him, paying him back for the time when he was their boss. The cruelty of the host is apparent at the end when Kozouline tells the narrator’s father to prance around like a rooster–which the father does. As does his son, who wants to make sure he lands himself a proper post: “On me nommera sûrement commis aux écritures.” Not a scintillating story but for the triumphalism of lowly clerks’ self-aggrandized ascent in the lower reaches of miserable bureaucracies, and the petty cruelties that shadow the reigns, delicious crêpes notwithstanding. After all, they’re all gathered together.
Les Éclats, 1883 Nr. 9. Not included in the Constance Garnette edition.
Makar Blyostken is a poor barber keeping a shabby shop. East Ivanitch Yagodov is his godfather. He gets his haircuts free. He walks in after an illness, when his hair fell out unevenly. He wants his hair shaved. Maker begins. They chat. Catch up. The barber asks about Anna, Yagodov’s daughter. Yagodov wonders why Maker did’t come to her engagement party. Maker is stunned. He was in love with Anna, thought he and she had agreed to marry, he’d spoken to his aunt, she’d agreed to the marriage. Yagodov, without a hint of compassion, is dismissive, tells him he’s not worthy of his daughter, he has a poor trade, tells him it’s done, tells him he can find another fiancee—one lost, ten found. Maker is crushed. He can’t keep cutting. He cries. Yagodov says he’ll return the next day and leaves, his head half cut. When he returns, Maker tells him he’ll have to pay for the job to be finished. Yagodov walks out. He considers paying for haircuts a luxury. He goes to his own daughter’s wedding with his head half shaved: the man of means, stomping on his own relation, reinforcing his poverty.
The first story in the Pleiade edition, not incliuded in the Constance Garnette edition. An immediately vivid scene-setting–the dread, the dankness, the age of the hall of paintings of the narrator’s ancestors), the rain on the window panes, the way the paintings seem to address the narrator for breaching their long isolation (“Tu mérites une correction, mon petit !”) and that brilliant image of the echoing cough: “Nos pas résonnaient dans toute la maison. Le même écho qui répondait jadis à mes aïeux renvoyait le bruit de ma toux.” The husband points out a deforming mirror to his wife, the same mirror that one of his ancestors would never go without. It shows him grotesquely deformed. But when she holds it, she screams, faints, and becomes ill for days until he finally relents to her pleas to have the mirror again. Once she does, she rejoices: the mirror deforms all her ugliness into beauty. They both stare at the mirror, because he can finally see his wife as a beauty.
One of my favorite Chekhov stories. Brings back memories of working the blotter at the Beckley paper. The overwhelming joy of Mitia Kouldarov, a young clerk who sees his name in print–in the police blotter, after falling drunk outside of a bar and getting struck by a carriage. He can’t contain his joy with his perplexed parents, the mother constantly crossing herself. Now they know me all over Russia, he says happily.