ТHE UNSOLVED DOCTOR
3 Short Lectures on Anton Chekhov
by Marina Palei
© Translaterd by Fira Headrick
by Osip Braz
“The quiet writer”. This stereotype was created by those who, most likely, cannot read, or read with attention. Of course, if you look at his writings from a purely formal point of view, then, as far as his style and intonation go, you can see right away that Chekhov had not used the signature hysteria of the raznochinsky writers, nor had he possessed the heavy, wide-sweeping pace of the epic sculptor from Yasnaya Polyana; there are no peasant shirts torn up with gusto, no bloody cats spread all over muzzled faces. His European encoding completely denies rather rough forms of self-expressions that are native to our darling Russian behavioral encoding.
Nevertheless, it is this ding-dong “silence” in Chekhov’s description of a common tea party which inevitably makes the readers do their own independent work.
Chekhov was born in the era when serfdom still existed, but he was ever so mysteriously connected with European existentialism, and this “silence” of his, which has never been unraveled, forestalls, in some ways, the above-mentioned existentialism by his style as a playwright. This “silence” works inside consciousness of those who understand, like a bullet with displaced gravity, it never stops until all is totally destroyed.
But is the voice of Chekhov’s really so “quiet”, even considering we are talking strictly decibels here? Don’t we hear him scream? Or are we hearing impaired? For instance, how many times in his works do we see straightforward and even loving calls for saving forests? (I appreciate the fact of him not being an ecologist by profession, but a person who truly cares for the forests. Like myself.) A schoolgirl who was brought up on the Soviet system of talking in Aesop’s tongue, I could not believe that those were true calls to save the forests; I thought that they were a matryoshka doll disguise and a code for some other, less worldly ideas. (“Less worldly”! What a stupid, criminal inclination for dead abstractiveness!)
Now, look at this piece; listen to it, could it be louder than that? By the way, it is from a school curriculum, “The House with the Mezzanine”. It is a monologue of an artist. But through the narrative comes out a doctor, a citizen; more importantly, a private lonely person. Those who listen to my opinions please read very carefully these two excerpts:
"You deny medicine too."
"Yes. It should only be used for the investigation of diseases, as natural phenomenon, not for their cure. It is no good curing diseases if you don't cure their causes. Remove the chief cause—physical labor, and there will be no diseases. I don't acknowledge the science which cures," I went on excitedly. "Science and art, when they are true, are directed not to temporary or private purposes, but to the eternal and the general—they seek the truth and the meaning of life, they seek God, the soul, and when they are harnessed to passing needs and activities, like pharmacies and libraries, then they only complicate and encumber life. We have any number of doctors, pharmacists, lawyers, and highly educated people, but we have no biologists, mathematicians, philosophers, poets. All our intellectual and spiritual energy is wasted on temporary passing needs. . . “
Next, the most intimate, the most painful (these lines I took once as an epigraph for my novel Lunch, 1999):
“Scientists, writers, painters work and work, and thanks to them the comforts of life grow greater every day, the demands of the body multiply, but we are still a long way from the truth and man still remains the most rapacious and unseemly of animals, and everything tends to make the majority of mankind degenerate and more and more lacking in vitality. Under such conditions the life of an artist has no meaning and the more talented he is, the more strange and incomprehensible his position is, since it only amounts to his working for the amusement of the predatory, disgusting animal, man, and supporting the existing state of things. And I don't want to work and will not. . . Nothing is wanted, so let the world go to hell."
So what is going on? First, the doctor mourns his career. Then, the artist does the same. But the school kids had heard none of it.
The Facebook format does not allow me to present some of my favorite excerpts from the author. There are too many of them. For example, the beginning of any of his short stories. It’s like you open the door, and you find yourself at home. You have been plodded for so long off the road, in the wind, under the icy rain, and you sometimes have heard cries in some foreign languages… But you open this door, and…:
“Olenka, the daughter of the retired collegiate assessor Plemyannikov, was sitting on the back-door steps of her house doing nothing. It was hot, the flies were nagging and teasing, and it was pleasant to think that it would soon be evening.”
And so on.
So, since format sets the rules, there is nothing to do but introduce a poem. One is Ivan Bunin’s, and the other is one of my own (I have just recently posted it). By the way, the last line is Astrov’s reply to Voinitsky (existentialist hell that opened up suddenly):
Astrov (discontentedly): “Hey, give me a break! What new life are you talking about! Our situation, yours and mine, is hopeless.”
Astrov: “I am convinced of it. You took a bottle of morphine from my first aid kit.”
“Listen, if you must commit suicide at any price, then go to the woods and shoot yourself. As to morphine, give it back to me, or there will be talk, guesses, people will think I gave it to you… I will have my hands full just to do your autopsy… Do you think it’s a lot of fun?”
In short, what is Chekhov’s most important characteristic? Of course, we know about the revolutionary approach to playwriting, laying the existentialist base for an artistic outlook, a fruitful bond with European traditions. Simply, it is this: whom do we come to when in need for consolation, unending and without fail? When we are at the end of our ropes and there is no more strength in us? Where is that healing place?
Chekhov, of course it’s Chekhov.
AN ARTIST (poem by Ivan Bunin)
He cast his glance to garden and the ponds
The crackle of small rocks under his feet
White-painted house, a rest on garden seat
Yaila in distance heavily responds.
Made out of slate and heat, the crane is sturdy
In shrub he hides, not trying to deliver
“How would I love to be on Volga-river!”
His leg’s a stick. “What are you doing, birdie?”
He smiles while thinking of his close demise,
They will be wearing dove-like mourning crapes
The scorching sun, the blue and yellow shapes
Of houses, objects that will fall and rise.
The priest’s a fat one as it happens often
And sound of quire sends the crane away
He’s off the fence, and into sky he’d sway
And down again, to knock his beak on coffin!
It’s hot and dry; a tickle in his throat
Pince-nez is off, he coughs and thinks aloud
“Ah, vaudeville!; the rest is but a shroud”
His every thought, and all the things he wrote.
CHEKHOV (poem by Marina Palei)
the pince-nez, the leather coat, the doctor! mind you!
heart’s crying out, gone too soon, was he not?
his intent undiverted look, mocking you kindly:
“hey, you fool, both of us got caught!”
give this morphine bottle back to me you claim you “borrow”
give it back, and listen, your heart’s “turvy-topsy”!
give it back; don’t be dumb, death’s the worst, not your sorrow
there’s no fun for me in doing your autopsy…
© Marina Palei
“BECAUSE OF THE SPECIAL MERITS”,
OR “ANNA ON THE NECK”
At first glance, the story looks like this: an elderly well-to-do state official marries a young and poor miss; she begins to cheat on him, that is to say, regularly, and with the “right people”, mind you; he, having assessed the situation reasonably, seems not to mind lending his wife, thus having the bonus of social climbing.
But this is only how it looks at first.
At first it looks as though the culmination of the story “Anna on the Neck” is the scene where Anna, finally realizing the power she has over her much hated husband, intoxicated by totally unpunished revenge, says loudly, almost yells… Here’s the quote:
“… and with delight, with disdain, confident nothing will happen to her for what she says, every word spoken out clearly: Go away, you fool!”
By the way, that was my understanding of the climax of the story as well. It was with some confusion that I found out other interpretations where the ball is considered the story’s high point. But the ball cannot be the culmination of the story, as Anna not yet fully realizes her power at the time. Moreover, she is intoxicated by everything around her. She realizes her full power the next morning, after she is visited by the big wigs. That means that she, being sober in all aspects, feels her power in the scene that I referred to earlier. And she speaks her line not yet realizing the full horror of the young soul ruined so rapidly, horror that makes the reader tremble. And why is that? Because there we see the most powerful effect of Aristotle’s drama, where the reader has already realized everything but the hero (or heroine) still hasn’t. And because the heroine will not ever realize her own demise, this knowledge stays with the reader only, outside the story itself. That is why it hurts always.
The modern world offers the common person a plethora of guilty pleasures, i.e. shopping, magazines, gadgets, etc. But the three-line scene I referred to earlier is one of the most powerful in literature. Namely, it conveys a joy. For those who understand. That is why I will read it to you again:
“… and with delight, with disdain, confident nothing will happen to her for what she says, every word spoken out clearly: Go away, you fool!”
So, let’s say you think just like I did that this scene from “Anna on the Neck” is the climax of the story. Then suddenly, you swing to a totally different interpretation. Yes, your own interpretation but a totally different one. For, over time, something changes naturally in the way you look at it. And the further we, the readers, move away from the 19th century, the more we feel the similarity with Maupassant. It is a common understanding in literary criticism that he and Chekhov have a lot in common. But, all things considered, in all Chekhov’s stories, Maupassant is reflected somehow separately, like a glamorous background light.
I will tell you more about the “background light”. For example, one of Maupassant’s stories, “The Legion of Honor”, a very typical story for him, which Sergei Yursky performed so brilliantly. Remember? Do you remember?
A modest Parisian bourgeois has an overmastering dream to wear the ribbon of the Legion of Honor. It matters not to him what he is awarded it for. He does not give it much thought. Is it really important? As it often is with Maupassant, the idée fixe is presented brilliantly as an embodiment of caricature. This guy, who likes medals so much, comes home from a business trip and finds somebody’s coat in his living room, and with that so much desired red ribbon on it! The wife explains to him that yes, he is rewarded the Legion of Honor. But she bought this coat for him as a surprise before the official announcement of the award. The reader clearly understands that the wife was hiding her lover, not the medal. To improve the piquant situation, her lover (namely, deputy Rosselin) arranges that the husband soon gets the medal. He is awarded! That is, not just with cuckold’s horns.
I am frequently reproached for sarcasm. Ladies and gentlemen, you have no idea what Gallic sarcasm is melted down into vaudeville. With what elegance Maupassant finishes off this monsieur, this stupid capon, this typical pompous man! A deputy Rosselin’s calling card falls out from the coat. You see, the wife exclaims, I told you deputy Rosselin petitioned for you! The husband sobs, grateful to Rosselin (who by the way sent him to his business trip). So, when the husband is given the Legion of Honor, the official order reads: For Special Merits. This is a double shot, because he did nothing to deserve the medal, and the reader understands what his “merits” are.
(By the way, I think that even this mediocre person is hardly such a fool as to believe the proposed collision. But, he “believes”, he “believes”! because these are unspoken terms of the agreement).
Maupassant’s idea of trade is open and obvious, while Chekhov depicts this and other themes, by the light touches of aquarelle. But when you look at Maupassant’s depiction you feel that in “Anna on the Neck” it’s not all just about the interaction of the characters, Modest (meaning modest) and Anna (meaning grace). And even the development of Anna as a character is not the dominating one.
The story begins to look like an enormously sinister development of the Modest character, who lends his wife not just opportunistically, but… At this moment the lightning strikes in your head. The idea of lending his wife was Modest’s GOAL, and it was his goal from the very beginning. This was the only goal of his marriage to Anna, the profitable sale of his wife. He finds a poor girl, i.e. attractive bait.
What distracts us from this conclusion at the very beginning? Why does it look that the idea of trade had been coming up gradually, in the course of married life? It’s because it says in the text of the story that “the lady-friends began fussing around looking for a good man for Anna”. That is, the initiative comes from Anna. But this is exactly the mindset of the victim of the fraud, I did it myself, it is my own fault, I myself gambled! In truth, this virtuous predator spider, Modest Alekseich, had been greedily waiting behind his spider-web for a long time now (which is implied in the story).
That is the reason he hadn’t been married until he was 52 years of age. That is why, by the story’s implication, he hadn’t known women at all. Chekhov depicts Modest’s assumed asexuality with an immense disgust. “… the most characteristic feature in his face was the absence of a mustache, this clean shaven, naked space that turned gradually into jelly-trembling cheeks”. But Chekhov goes further. To totally wipe the ground with this creature, zoologically foreign to Chekhov, he gives him a caricature and inhuman feature. “His shaven, round, sharp chin resembled a heel.”
Chins in this story overlap in a funny way. Here is the detail of His Excellency’s wife’s chin (I think you remember this from the school days). “The lower part of her face was disproportionably large, so it seemed like she held a big rock in her mouth.” His Excellency himself, also sexless (because his career tacitly demands it) looks like a castrated cockroach; he has no lips but mandibles, “he was smiling mawkishly while chewing his lips”, “looking at her mawkishly and chewing, he kissed her hand”. They “chew”, because, in truth, they are incapable of human speech. Instead they buzz.
But let’s go back to the modest Modest. The spider finally found his victim. Here are Anna and Modest alone with each other on the train, directly after the wedding. “The soft movements of his body scared her, she was afraid and disgusted at the same time.” And then: “Awkwardly, like a respectable man who was not accustomed to dealing with women, Modest Alekseich was probing her waist and patting her shoulder, while she was thinking of money, of her mother, and of her death.”
Yes, he was not hugging her, but “probing”, and especially “patting her on her shoulder”, like she was some junior board official. Pay attention to the word “death” in this sentence. Modest Alekseich “probes” his wife like an object, having no idea how to apply her to himself. It looks like he never does “apply” her to himself that night. Pay attention to the likeness of the situations (for them, it’s a common situation, in the theatre buffet). “He would take a pear, squeeze it, and ask hesitantly” (how much it was). Yeah, he squeezes it, without eating it.
But the others will be eating, and eat with an appetite. Here Chekhov applies a remarkable trope, using an accessory from his doctors’ briefcase. “Not taking his eyes from Anna, he (Artynov, a rich tradesman) drank a glass of champagne and paid a hundred rubles, then drank tea and paid another hundred, and did it all silently, suffering from asthma…” Yes, suffering from asthma, but it means “suffering from lust”. He so emphatically and ominously stands there, and in silence, too! Plus, he drinks the champagne in turn with tea. In my view this image is more dramatic than Akhmatova’s mismatched gloves… Yeah, this tradesman will eat Anna, and it looks like he’ll do it with gusto…
So, if we believe that Modest the Spider storyline is the main one, then the culmination of the story will be not the scene where Anna yells, but the scene where Modest Alekseich comes to thank His Excellence for the medal. In this scene there are at least two large gems.
Here’s how Modest, in the proper way, reacts to His Excellency’s mediocre joke. “Modest Alekseich gently put his fingers to his lips so as not to laugh out loud.” My question is does it not remind you of Akakiy Akakievich? And another question is what, then, constitutes a big man, and a little man?
Here comes to mind a sexual element Modest the modest lacks so. (Are you still keeping Maupassant in mind?) True, the “element” is slightly a perverted one: “It now remains to wait for the arrival of little Vladimir. May I dare to ask Your Excellency to be the godfather?”
One of the early Chekhov stories “At Sea” (1883) reveals the trade theme in the full force of Maupassant style. The story is somewhat sketchy. Chekhov is trying to find a new way to separate himself from his earlier “Chekhonte”.
The story is told from the point of view of a sailor. A ship has a cabin for newlyweds, and there are peep holes in the wall of the cabin that have been made secretly by the sailors, to spy on newlyweds on their first wedding night. A father and his son get the lucky draw. The couple enters the cabin; they are a young clergyman and his young virgin bride. The clergyman explains something to his bride at length. He begs. He threatens her. Then, a fat redhead banker enters the cabin and a thick wad of money changes hands. The clergyman leaves, and the banker locks the door. He approaches the virgin bride, she nods. The storyteller: “I jumped off the wall like I was stung by a bee. I was scared. I had the feeling that wind tore our ship apart and we were sinking to the bottom of the sea. My old father, a drunk and a rotten man, took me by my hand and said, “Let’s get out of here! You shouldn’t see this! You’re still but a boy…”
Hence, the main character is a clergyman who, before the above scene had taken place, was explaining “something” at length to the elderly wife of that fat banker. The young sailor couldn’t wait until his preaching was over, for the clergymen usually take so long to preach! And here he is, soon finding out what all this explaining was about.
And that “something”, i.e. gross inhuman trade agreement in disguise of godliness, naturally brings us to the short story “Anna on the Neck” (1895), to its beginning. “They also said that the trip they took to the monastery that Modest Alekseich, a man who follows rules, had arranged, as a matter of fact, to make it clear to his young wife that in marriage, as in all of his life, religion and morality take first place.”
That will be all, my dear friends. Chekhov is a man of unique will power, a self-made man.
© Marina Palei
THE CHTHONIC WOMAN
Of course, her name was Olga. It goes without saying this was her name because it is the name of the heroine of many of his short stories. Judge for yourselves: Olga Ivanovna (“The Grasshopper”), Olya (“Big Volodya and Little Volodya”), Olga Mikhailovna (“The Name-Day Party”), Olga Dmitrievna (“The Wife”), Olga (“Peasants”).
I have thought for some time that he gave this name out right and left to honor Olga Leonardovna. But when I looked at the dates, it occurred to me that the situation was quite different, i.e. all the above-mentioned short stories (with the exception of “The Darling”!) were written before he met Olga Knipper; as if his voodoo name calling invited the fact that his wife was to be Olga.
And so, she was Olga Semyonovna Plemyannikova.
“She was a gentle, soft-hearted, compassionate girl, with mild, tender eyes and very good health. At the sight of her full rosy cheeks, her soft white neck with a little dark mole on it, and the kind, naïve smile, which came into her face when she listened to anything pleasant, men thought, "Yes, not half bad…”.
We’ll note, along the way, that she ignites no burning desire in men, so that their passion does not go beyond “Yes, not half bad”, the absent-minded thought glimmering somewhere in the periphery of their consciousness. And more importantly, for some reason (what would that reason be?), her physical health is emphasized (in a slightly ironic way, in my opinion) that she was a girl in “very good health”. Her cheeks are “full”, and in the end of the story, the very end, her being stalwart is brought up. I mean, during the course of the story you think she is small, almost like “I am a weak, defenseless woman”. But no! In the finale she is a “tall, stout woman”.
Pay attention to the lack of passion in her also. Twice the word “soft” is mentioned, the look on her face, her neck. The colors are white and pink, just like a sweet roll with delicious chocolate-and-raisin beauty spot.
Here’s the loaded question: does this woman have any kind of personality?
Look at the place where she sits, like some kind of a pagan deity who has her own immutable aerial habitat.
She sits noticeably in her own house, by the window; this is her space. She contemplates life though does not draw any conclusions, because she cannot. Pagan deities are not philosophers; they are keepers of their locus (locale).
It is in her house that all the happenings with men in her life (the representatives of the opposite elements) take place. She does not budge! She is nothing like her namesake from “The Grasshopper” who is thrown from museums, to theatres, to dressmakers, to artists’ workshops, to no less than to Mother-Volga river. She is also nothing like her other namesake who is torn between Big Volodya and Little Volodya. She is also nothing like the third one who takes a lover with a phenomenal and strictly Chekhovian last name Rice, not planning whatsoever on leaving her husband. Moreover, she is not Ariadna from the story of the same name, whose affairs with her lover have much bigger range, i.e. the big and small places all over Europe.
The Darling sits by the window.
To continue with the sacral meeting place with masculine half of humanity, The Darling’s only exception is with her second husband. And who is he? But no more than her neighbor. And where is this “exception” takes place? But on the way from church to her house, to her unchangeable window.
Here we come to the very secret of this creature. Pay close attention to the cyclicality (yes, that’s right, the cyclicality) of her existence.
When does exactly the reunification of The Darling with her First Masculine (entrepreneur Kukin) happen? Let’s see. Here he stands in the middle of her yard and complains theatrically that the months of May and June were nothing but a loss to him. Therefore, these dramatic monologues take place in July. And then, immediately after this, we read about the wedding. Keep in mind, July is the heart of summer. (By the way, in the part of the story about her first marriage there is a hint to the heroine’s superhuman spontaneity. Here is the quote: “Olenka grew stouter, and was always beaming with satisfaction, while Kukin grew thinner and yellower.” There is nothing sinister about it, not at all, like a female scorpion that bites off the male scorpion’s head after mating with him. There is nothing sinister here; it is simply the course of nature.
Then comes time for the reunification of The Darling with her Second Masculine. When does it take place? Let’s see. Kukin dies around Easter, sometime in April. She meets with her second husband in three months, i.e. in July…
Pay attention to the fact that The Darling does not observe if only a minimal time for mourning. Why is that? It’s because the laws of nature which she abides by is more powerful than the petty and transitory human laws.
The time comes now for the Third Masculine. The meeting takes place, as I mentioned above, in the sacral house of the Chthonic Woman. The Third Masculine (a military veterinarian) approaches her little by little. But the convergence of the Feminine and Masculine takes place… let’s see… So, the second husband falls ill “sometime during winter”, and dies in four months. Six months pass after his death in “deep mourning”. Only six months! Just as long as needed for the conjunction with the Third husband, who is no husband in sense of the church anyway, but does it matter? What matters is that if you put four months since winter, and then six months more, you do not get midsummer anymore but autumn. Yep, time overcomes all. Autumn.
Nevertheless, Chekhov shows us, the resurrection of the feminine is possible. We are not talking feminine in a social sense, but the return of the chthonic woman in a metaphysical, innate, eternal sense. A woman as a person is destined to die, but the feminine in nature will not die so long as nature itself lives.
So, let’s see. Yea. The thing is, the Third Masculine returns, after long journeys, but he does return. When? You don’t have to guess, “One hot July day, towards evening…”
There is a very long period of emptiness before he returns. How long is it? “day after day, year after year”. The exact time is unknown, just like the emptiness, and the absence of “matter” and the timelessness are inseparable.
Why is there such a long period of time of inactivity? Because there is a different era in the Feminine now, i.e. motherhood. The Feminine needs time to cleanse from all the previous “opinions”, properties, and impressions. From Tyutchev: “And quiet and warm azure// Pours onto the resting field”.
The emptiness is going to be filled by the child; but not her own biological child, not The Darling’s child, somebody else’s. Why?
We can assume that this is due to the collision in the lives of the prototypes of the story. This short story (I would call it a parable, speaking of the genre), Chekhov had in his mind for ten years! Still, I think the author is superior in power over the prototype, not the other way around. Chekhov had to deprive The Darling of her permanent satisfaction to preserve her natural cyclicality. The Darling cannot be stuck at one phase as she is nature herself.
The child is not her own, but… The veterinarian’s wife, his biological mother is “a thin, plain lady, with short hair and a peevish expression”. But the child is “a boy of ten, small for his age, blue-eyed, chubby, with dimples in his cheeks”. Do you see whom he looks like? Surely, he looks like The Darling. “Her heart warmed and there was a sweet ache in her bosom, as though the boy had been her own child.”
By the way, about the emptiness. What is meant by emptiness in The Darling’s case? During the period when The Darling is all alone Chekhov uses the word “emptiness” many times. The view from the window shows the empty yard both in reality and in her dream. There is emptiness in her heart.
But the Third Masculine, the veterinarian, returns, this time with his wife and child, and the immediate reaction from The Darling is:
“Good gracious, my dear soul! Lodgings? Why not have my house? Why shouldn't that suit you? Why, my goodness, I wouldn't take any rent!" cried Olenka in a flutter, beginning to cry again. "You live here, and the lodge will do nicely for me. Oh dear! how glad I am!”
It’s a very interesting “emptiness”, in a social sense of the word, she gives her house to her lover, his wife, his child, gives it all at once and for all. And what does the “normal person”, the veterinarian do? As a matter of fact, he occupies it, and thinks nothing of it. Yes, this is a “normal person” for you. His life is filled with his job, drinking, gambling, unloved wife, and his moral code is “take whatever comes your way”.
But if you look at the situation from a non-social point of view (which I encourage you to do), then you can see that The Darling is an empty field, resting and empty, pleading to be seeded. It begs to be filled, to give back its generous gifts of life, the life continued.
It is amazing with what (signature) Chekhovian simplicity and crushing force of impact The Darling starts her Fourth Life, ever so plainly. Look at the “frame editing” of text (remarkably cinematographic approach!)
"You pretty pet! ... my precious! ... Such a fair little thing, and so clever."
"'An island is a piece of land which is entirely surrounded by water,' " he read aloud.
"An island is a piece of land," she repeated, and this was the first opinion to which she gave utterance with positive conviction after so many years of silence and dearth of ideas.”
By the way, The Darling treated her First husband, the yellowish, petty, pathetic sort of a man, with the same baby talk incantation when she used to wrap him in her warm shawls, and make him hot raspberry teas:
"You're such a sweet pet!" she used to say with perfect sincerity, stroking his hair. "You're such a pretty dear!"
It was her anticipation of the child, her love spell invocation.
The idea of the power of life in this story stands apart from the idea of the power of death. It is expressed in only four lines, actually! It is the famous telegram which, I believe, a lot of you remember from school days, as well as its clarification:
"IVAN PETROVITCH DIED SUDDENLY TO-DAY. AWAITING IMMATE INSTRUCTIONS FUFUNERAL TUESDAY."
“That was how it was written in the telegram -- "fufuneral," and the utterly incomprehensible word "immate." It was signed by the stage manager of the operatic company.”
I don’t know about you, but I see here glimpses of modernism, the rudiments of Nabokov’s style, in particular; just the phrase “the stage manager of the operatic company” is worth something! In the case of Nabokov, it would mean the Creator Himself. The fatality of bodily defeat, the ever so unfathomable essence of it, Chekhov (just like Nabokov would do in his mocking way) converts into operetta genre, i.e. he dramatically reduces pathos, sneers, and… remains undefeated.
We have come now to the legitimate question, how does Chekhov himself feel about this character of his?
On the one hand, he is being ironic; even the title itself is ironic in a way, it puts the simpleton on the wrong track. Chekhov, in a way, amuses himself, makes fun of those simpletons, pedaling the “social component” of the image, converting this parable (I insist on parable) into a kind of vaudeville, or caricature, joke: “Vanitchka and I”, “Vasitchka and I”, “Voloditchka, what am I to talk about?”, “after the wedding (to Kukin, - M.P.) they got on very well together”, “they got on well in winter too”, “Pustovalov and Olenka got on very well together when they were married.”, and “they both were happy” (with Smirnin, the veterinarian, - M.P.)
The scarcity of the spoken word (“well”, “very well”, and nothing else to say) shows the author’s intent to mock his character. This is, most likely, the usual way of her speaking.
Chekhov himself describes their blessed life in a different way. Here is one of the most delicious (not only in a gastronomical sense of the word) fragments in Russian literature. I know it by heart. Some time ago, back in St. Petersburg, I was involved with the theatre club. I wasn’t the one to recite this particular story, but, like all the other members of the group who attended the rehearsals, I was absolutely fascinated when the girl that was reciting it would come to this piece:
On Saturdays Pustovalov and she used to go to the evening service; on holidays to early mass, and they walked side by side with softened faces as they came home from church. There was a pleasant fragrance about them both, and her silk dress rustled agreeably. At home they drank tea, with fancy bread and jams of various kinds, and afterwards they ate pie. Every day at twelve o'clock there was a savoury smell of beet-root soup and of mutton or duck in their yard, and on fast-days of fish, and no one could pass the gate without feeling hungry. In the office the samovar was always boiling, and customers were regaled with tea and cracknels. Once a week the couple went to the baths and returned side by side, both red in the face.
By the time she said the last words, “side by side, both red in the face”, all of us, crazy with happiness, were submerging into nirvana.
On the one hand, it is vaudeville, a caricature, a joke.
But the apparent amorphous in a personal, narrow sense of the word, becomes a Great Out-Personal Emptiness, awaiting for fulfillment from no other than Mother Nature.
On the other hand, Chekhov himself is revered by the quiet force, fearsome, merciless, and even indifferent to a human being. What force? But of course it is Love. Love fills the dead, empty creature whenever it wants to do so, making the creature alive and replete. So, by the end of the narrative, the 100-percent-Chekhov signature brand phrase is shining through (I already mentioned this phrase in my other article):
“For this little boy with the dimple in his cheek and the big school cap, she would have given her whole life, she would have given it with joy and tears of tenderness. Why? Who can tell why?”
Chekhov’s text, titled “The Darling”, is an amazingly illustrative one. In it, like in any other, we observe that which Nabokov wrote frequently about, i.e. that life and art have no common points, and they are two totally non-contiguous realms.
Indeed, try to imagine this very Olga Semyonovna in “real life”. I, personally, would hardly like to get close with her. A woman who draws a parallel between herself and the hens in a henhouse. (By the way, this passage seems artificial to me, similar to all the passages about Natasha’s inner life by L.N.T. We are not to know the feelings of the character from within, no sir! We’ll have to make do with an honest exterior description.)
Still, the character’s portrait, i.e. the artist’s “re-encoding” of the life of the prototype, transporting it into the artistic realm, in my view, cannot but bring tears of pity, love, admiration, and something more, that words cannot express, even by those devoted to literature.
But what about Olga Leonardovna Knipper-Chekhov? Both during Chekhov’s life and after his death, she was connected with his characters. They are: Arkadina (The Seagull”), Elena Andreevna (“Uncle Vanya”), Masha (“The Three Sisters”), Sara (“Ivanov”), Ranevskaya (“The Cherry Orchard”).
© Marina Palei