My Life was published in 1896, five years after The Duel, but it seems in some perhaps superficial ways to have the qualities of an earlier work. The first-person narrator is a young man, and a very idealistic one, who has found himself idle in his posts as a clerk and has given up employment respectable for his class in favor of manual labor.
Misail has very important ideas about all this.
[W]hat is wanted is that the strong should not enslave the weak, that the minority should not be a parasite on the majority, nor a vampire for ever sucking its vital sap; that is, all, without exception, strong and weak, rich and poor, should take part equally in the struggle for existence, each one on his own account, and…there [is] no better means for equalizing things in that way than manual labor, in the form of universal service, compulsory for all.
In The Duel, too, Chekhov explored some of the modern ideas of philosophy and political economy that were swirling around Russia and the rest of the world around this time. Misail really does give up a life of relative ease, albeit under a tyrannical parent, to do manual labor—painting, roofing, other odd jobs. Most of the small town shuns him for acting so inappropriately to his station, especially “those who had only lately been humble people themselves, and had earned their bread by hard manual labour.”
In the streets full of shops I was once passing an ironmonger’s when water was thrown over me as though by accident, and on one occasion someone darted out with a stick at me, while a fishmonger, a grey-headed old man, barred my way and said, looking at me angrily:
“I am not sorry for you, you fool! It’s your father I am sorry for.”
Misail doesn’t understand the seriousness of his class transgressions, and when he begins to crave the company of something more than his fellow painters, he’s relieved to find there are a few more civilized people who will still see him: Mariya Viktorovna, the daughter of the engineer building the local railway; Misail’s sister, Kleopatra; a military doctor, Blagovo; and his sister, Anyuta, a friend of Kleopatra’s and admirer of Misail. Romantic ideals about fairness and justice, labor and parasitism, and the latest in progressive young Russian thought circulate through the group, along with a different sort of romantic feeling. Misail ends up in a doomed marriage with a dabbling wealthy woman, while his saintly sister suffers an even worse fate for her brother’s sins.
But it’s only bits and pieces of the subject matter and the appearances of the characters that are immature at all; Chekhov’s handling of it all is the opposite. Misail’s sincerity and innocence are calming, not cloying, and the ultimate outcome is not very romantic at all—though also not soul-crushing and bleak. A mature, grounded medium. Which is, you know…pretty bleak I guess.
Anton Chekhov’s rather long novella, The Duel, originally published in 1891, is the book that has so far most surpassed my expectations of it. My expectations were not low; I haven’t read all that much Chekhov, but what I have I thought was wonderful. Still, that doesn’t mean a novella—so many of which are minor works and a bit randomly preserved, or so it seems—by him is going to be amazing. The Duel is a good little piece of work.
The story is set on the banks of the Black Sea, not in Sevastopol, but in an unimportant, boring town that remains unnamed. At eight o’clock in the morning you can typically find the upper class males—mostly bureaucrats and military men, naturally—swimming in the sea, then relaxing in a pavilion for a coffee and perhaps an early tipple. Then they go to work if they feel like, or just stay home and nap. They have dinner, then nap again—it’s awfully hot and stuffy in the Caucasus. Then the have supper, play cards, and enjoy a severely curtailed social life in this small community.
Wasting away in such idleness is Ivan Andreich Laevsky, a self-described “superfluous man” who shirks his civic duties and lives with the wife of another man, with whom he made off from St. Petersburg two years ago. Once sharing dreams of living calmly and off the land, the couple are now in dire straits. Laevsky has just found out Nadezhda Fyodorovna’s husband has died, freeing her, but he’s fallen out of love and desperate to run away.
Laevsky has both a friend, willing to help him do as he pleases even if it ultimately does no good, and an enemy, set on destroying him because he’s a depraved menace to society. The attempts of the former to help Laevsky cause trouble with the latter, and the challenge to a duel erupts from the fray.
Like in Pushkin’s “The Shot,” the conscience of one of the participants is a key element in the effectiveness of the duel. In Pushkin, Silvio determines to postpone his fight when he sees his opponent can casually eat cherries, unafraid of the outcome. He waits until his enemy is married to a young and beautiful wife, because now he will be sad and afraid to die. Laevsky too comes to his duel a changed man after witnessing what his own actions have done to his mistress. His seconds try to cancel the duel on this account, to no avail.
With the outcome of the duel, Chekhov gives Laevsky and Nadezhda Fyodorovna what very few literary characters get: a hard-won and satisfying redemption. Two characters who, despite a certain level of sympathy extended throughout in the style of narration, still were clearly flawed and even vile, wash away every stain, and do so in a believable and compelling way. The night Laevsky passes praying to the thunderstorm followed by his early morning rebirth (and blood sacrifice) are genuinely transformative. I have great respect for a writer who can do this so well.
In The Exclamation Mark, Hesperus Press has collected stories written during a short period in Anton Chekhov’s life, from 1885 to 1886. Lynne Truss’s foreword notes how helpful this approach can be when dealing with a prolific short story writer, and I definitely agree. I am down with semi-random “collected works” when I don’t particularly care, but for a writer like Chekhov I would rather come at it like this, to start.*
And The Exclamation Mark has been one of the best short-story-collection-reading experiences I can remember. “I loved every second of it.” Shut up, I really did. From “The Exclamation Mark” on, I was putty in Chekhov’s hands. Haunted by an exclamation mark! There is definitely something Gogolian there. Not all the stories are so clearly Gogolian, but the darkness mixed with the humor gives them such an affinity.** Nabokov called Chekhov’s books “sad books for humorous people; that is, only a reader with a sense of humor can really appreciate their sadness.” The sadness, for example, of Collegiate Secretary Efim Fomich Perekladin on realizing he’s never needed to express feelings in official papers but can finally use his exclamation points on a Christmas card for his boss. Or the sadness of Andrey Andreyich, the faithful man in “The Requiem” who can’t stop calling his dead daughter a whore because he thinks it makes his request for prayers sound more holy.
The saddest here is perhaps “Grief,” another story about a man who has lost his child:
If you were to open up Iona’s chest and pour all the grief out of it, you would probably flood the entire planet, yet it is not visible. It has managed to squeeze into such a minute receptacle that you would not be able to see it in brightest daylight.
Or is the saddest the fact that in the revised version of “A Little Joke,” instead of the happy couple getting together, they part forever? I didn’t like that change one bit, because I’ve been relying on Chekhov’s special way of ending things. So many of these have a quick wrap-up, not one that changes everything but one that really ends the stories, caps them off just right. It’s hard to give examples, considering each ending is matched so well to its sketch, and that’s the whole point. What can the following mean without having just read of Grisha’s day out with his nanny:
And Grisha, bursting with the impressions of the new life he has only just experienced for the first time, receives from his Mama a spoonful of castor oil.
Not much, I don’t think, but it’s perfect where it is. There’s no lingering or trailing off, not to say these are “snappy” either. Just very good very short stories. My favorite kind.
*Is this my start with Chekhov? Yes, although I did read Uncle Vanya in high school. My only real memory of it, however, is one of my classmates exclaiming when she finally realized that Vanya was a man. No, the “uncle” part was not a tipoff.
**Another affinity is food. There is some good food writing here, including some of the best I have ever read in the form of “Bliny.”