I had never read any Chekhov. This was grave misstep, a gap in my western canon. I’ve read Tolstoy and Dostoevsky but was missing the Russian who has a smoking literary gun named after him. He’s supposed to be the master of the short story. He’s so ubiquitous, this book doesn’t even have a title or an author but just says CHEKHOV on the front. How do I even index this? Chekhov by Chekhov?
Anyway. I’ve read Chekhov now. I probably should have read his better known short stories, but I started with novellas. And let me tell you, I now know just how miserable it is to be a 19th century Russian peasant. I can feel the cockroaches crawling in my sleep, taste the stale black bread and porridge.
The Duel is my favorite novella in this collection. It’s the first story and unlike all the others, it’s not about the class divide of declining Tsarist Russia nor the impact of the Industrial Revolution on village life.
A bunch of Russian immigrants — the deacon, the zoologist, the government official and his wife, and other archetypes — live their lazy lives in a hazy desert outpost in the Caucasus. It’s so hot outside, you can’t do much more than swim in the warm sea or sit in the shade. Laevsky, the official, came out here to start a new life with his married lover, but has had enough. The plot revolves around him trying to borrow enough money to skip town, while lying to himself and everyone else that he’ll pay for his woman to come along later.
Much of the story is these characters having conversations while completely misunderstanding each other. The blurb on this book declares Chekhov’s interest in mutual unintelligibility. This is an excellent term that encapsulates the human problem of The Duel. None of the characters are bad people, though some are quite weak, they’re just locked into their own narrow vision of the world and cannot see themselves in anyone else’s shoes. Sound familiar? This story feels it. You could meet these people in your modern day to day.
Ward No. 6, A Woman’s Kingdom, Three Years
I’m lumping these three together because they’re similar in theme and also the least interesting to me. Ward No. 6 is about a doctor at a mental asylum, A Woman’s Kingdom is about an unhappy woman who inherits a booming factory business. They’re both about the divide between the people on the inside (wealth, class, etc) and the people on the outside (the poor, the workers, the mentally ill) and the various philosophies and personalities involved. I found them sort of interesting but mostly tedious.
Three Years, while still somewhat tedious, earns its tedium. Because it’s a story about tedium. A man marries a woman who does not love him. They move to Moscow. Both of them are miserable. There’s not much to look forward to when even romantic love has failed. They try to convince themselves love doesn’t matter but little else stimulates them. Yeah. Even the version I know was objectively good I found difficult to actually like.
This one is great. A twenty something good-for-nothing from a formerly aristocratic family decides to become a working man and is promptly disowned by his father. As the title says, this is the first person story of his life. It’s meandering and melancholy. Life can be unfulfilling and unhappy no matter how hard you try to attach principles and meaning to it. But unlike the other stories, there are moments of joy, however fleeting. It’s almost like Chekhov arguing with himself here. The pointless tedium of life that he fears and portrays in other stories is present here but is shown as possible to combat. Maybe.
Peasants and The Ravine
Peasants is an excellent depiction of living life poor in a village in the late 19th century. It was terrible. You cannot read this story without feeling honestly glad you live in the modern day and have at least some means that these poor sods didn’t. It also has the best quotes:
The lamp went out. And the darkness, the two little windows, sharply lit by the moon, the silence, and the creak of the cradle for some reason called to mind only that life had already slipped by, that you can’t turn it back . . . You doze, lose consciousness, then suddenly someone touches your shoulder, breathes on your cheek– and there’s no sleep. Your body seems numbed as if circulation had stopped, and all the thoughts of death creep into your head; you turn on the other side– death already forgotten, but through your head drift the old, tiresome, tedious thoughts about want, about food, about flour becoming dearer, and shortly thereafter, you remember again that life has already slipped by, that you can’t turn it back…
The Ravine is more of the same but not as effective as Peasants, though it does include the most shocking and horrifying scene in the whole collection.