Tag: misery

Chekhov, “Extraits du journal d’un aide-comptable” (“From an Assistant Book-Keeper’s Diary,” 1883)

Tuszynski: Emperor Franz Joseph on his deathbed, drawing, 1916

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.

Les ├ęclats, 18 juin 1883

Isaac Bashevis Singer, “Dr. Beeber” (1970)

isaac singer dr. beeber

Dr. Mark Beeber is a rich Bohemian philosopher who’s written one book but bears his title for pretension’s sake: he’s never written his dissertation. “His stories always came to the same conclusion: everything is vanity, all philosophers are mistaken, all ideals silly and hypocritical. Man is nothing but a sly ape. However, when one can’t pay the rent, there’s trouble.” He befriends a young writer at the Warsaw Writers’ Club whom he calls Tsutsik (which means puppy) who, seeing him deteriorate–he’d rejected his family–suggests a matchmaker. Beeber marries a rich woman who turns out to be a Martha Updike, controlling his environment so as to force him to publish another book. “She won’t let me answer the phone; she’s afraid I’ll be robbed of my time for contemplation.” All his needs are fulfilled down to a gastronomy that fattens him. But he’s bored. He feels so enslaved he starts an affair with the maid. He’s eternally dissatisfied. Then goes to a casino and wastes all of his wife’s money. She throws him out. His deterioration resumes. His philosophy has twisted, though it’s not much different than what it had been: “Rationalism is the worst disease of the human species. Reason will reverse evolution. Homo sapiens will become so clever that he won’t know how to breed, to eat, or go to the toilet. He’ll even have to learn how to die.” But even though he can’t pay the rent–he has no roof, no bed, no zlotys–what frightens him most in the end is that his wife would forgive him.

The New Yorker, March 7, 1970