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Reviews, essays, and translations

Entries in Chekhov (2)

Saturday
Jun142014

The Black Monk

You may have heard of something called genius and wondered why its application has broadened in recent years. Perhaps it is because science has forged ahead into blackest night and produced theories to explain why a billion stars still do not tell us precisely how we came to be on this earth. Perhaps it is also because so many nations have obtained their long-coveted self-determination and determined that their selves are no lesser entities than the selves that have existed for hundreds or thousands of years. Perhaps it is likewise because we have liberated people from the staid and dour mores that claimed, with some peremptoriness, that a woman should probably not dress like a prostitute for men to respect her. These are the same mores, mind you, that say we should work hard, share the wealth, think of others, and think of leaving our world better than how we found it, instead of simply looting it for all it could be worth. If the modern day's emphasis on sexual liberation – as if being obsessed with your sexuality could be deemed in any way liberating – non-conformity, and individual expression regardless of training, skill, or inborn aptitude seems to be not only missing the point, but obliterating it, we offer a lovely alternative. So for those of us who have forsaken sleep for life, for those of us who spend countless hours emboldened by art's eternal and indestructible magnificence, for those of us who believe that this earth is a game of shadows and that reality is but a cage, gilded or otherwise, we offer this classic story

The tale's first three words spell out a hero's name, a true hero's name because he will provide our narrative's epicenter from start to finish. If the story fails, it will be because Andrei Vasil'ich Kovrin has failed; were it, however, to succeed, a dubious proposition given the direction in which events career, all glory should be accorded to the same indefatigable scholar. I give nothing away by the admission that Kovrin's nerves, which betray him in the opening sentence of The Black Monk, will also betray him in its last. His remedy is an inward journey to countryside memories tucked away with the Pesotskii family, father and daughter, the former having been Kovrin's guardian through a childhood that seems in hindsight ever the more bountiful and warm, as all good childhoods do. Igor Pesotskii lost his wife to consumption, and he has always wished to give his daughter Tanya in marriage to his adopted son; the arrangement is made less unnatural by Peskotskii's primary concern: his lush and meticulously tended garden. There is nothing particularly despicable about horticulture, even if it does smack of the bourgeois hobbyist. One description of the estate boasts the indelible mark of long-proven truth:

The Pesotskii house was huge, with columns, leonine statues striped in plaster, and a tail-coated footman at the front door .... That said, next to the house itself, in the courtyard and the fruit garden ... it was merry and joyful even in bad weather. Such breathtaking roses, lilies, and camellias; such tulips of infinite colors, ranging from bright white to black as soot; Kovrin had never encountered anywhere else a wealth of flowers comparable to the Peskotskiis'. It was but early spring and the most genuine abundance of flowers still lay hidden in the hothouses, even if you could already see some of it along the pathways and here and there on the bushes. It was enough for anyone strolling around the garden to feel as if he were amidst a kingdom of gentle colors, especially during the early hours, when dew shimmered upon every petal.  

The same garden in which Kovrin, "as a child, sneezed from the smoke"; the same garden which "once made a magical, fairy-tale like impression upon [him]"; yet it is not the same garden because Kovrin is not the same Kovrin. Could it possibly be coincidence that Pesotskii is derived from pesok, "sand" – time itself, and average, nameless, indistinguishable mediocrity in a billion-year desert of the dead? Could it also just be fictional happenstance that Tanya, a woman not averse to bawling for hours on end, is presented two lines from this masterpiece that has its own Tanya? What can be said is that those melodrama set pieces have little in common with the rather fantastic eponymous anchorite. Admittedly, not all monks are anchorites, nor is the reverse necessarily true. Yet we suspect, given his antics, this one would really have to be.

Now about that monk. About a fifth through our story, Kovrin, who purportedly came back to his childhood home to soothe his nerves, has reassumed his manic, almost insomniac schedule ("In the countryside he maintained that unrestful and nerve-inducing lifestyle"). His days and nights are devoted to that sweetest of fruits, knowledge in its purest form of language, literature, and philosophy. Precisely at this moment, when reality and dream have begun to blur, he recalls a legend that is so ridiculous and un-legend-like as to persuade the reader of one of two possibilities. Firstly, that the "legend" he mentions is nothing more than a fictional strand unravelled from a rather gigantic ball of yarn in Kovrin's mind; secondly, that this same mind may be close to unravelling itself entirely. We will not say which interpretation Tanya, who has little to recommend her except typical bucolic frankness, chooses for Kovrin, who to no one's surprise will become her husband. But we do know what the monk, an omnipresent, water-skimming figure in a cowl, thinks of Kovrin, which may or may not be what Kovrin thinks of himself:

You are one of the few whom we may justly call God's chosen. You are in the service of eternal truth. Your thoughts, your intentions, your surprising knowledge, and all your life bear a divine, heavenly stamp, since they are devoted to the logical and the beautiful, that is, to that which is eternal.

Readers may find the words maudlin, but consider what you would anticipate hearing from what has been portrayed in descendant literature as a spectre on stilts. Our monk and Kovrin will convene on several occasions (precipitated by the very odd detail that the monk initiates each encounter by nearly running Kovrin over) and discuss what lurks in Kovrin's soul, which has its doubts like all intelligent people do from time to stressful time. And for Professor Kovrin it has been a most stressful time. The only question is whether the doubts he expresses are doubts in line with his own intellectual ambitions. 

The Black Monk remains one of Russian literature's greatest stories, which isn't to say it is necessarily one of its best. It is great because the story is about how greatness, or a delusion of greatness, is wrested away from one strange and intellectually curious man who may or may not be a scholar of genius (it also strikingly illustrates a famous quote on geniuses by this author). Chekhov's works invariably lend themselves to simple recapitulation because they are never abstract or impressionist: their brilliance lies in how blunt they allow themselves to become, what hatefulness or loveliness they permit the world to espy, a world, we should mention, that has come to expect literature to furnish it with vague images, inscrutable ideas, or mirages of remembrance upon which we are entitled to project our own visions. Kovrin makes a series of fateful decisions in the two years the story arc encompasses, but none more telling than the opening (raspechatat') of a sealed letter echoing the "divine, heavenly stamp" (pechat') that allegedly "distinguished him from ordinary people." Ordinary people who just want to plant a garden and watch it grow. 

Tuesday
Jul012008

The Lady with the Lap Dog

Should you have any doubts about the intentions of this story’s protagonist, look no further than his first spoken line: “If she’s here without a husband and without anyone she knows, it wouldn’t be a waste of my time to get to know her.”  Gurov is a still-young playboy on vacation from his wife and children on the beaches of Yalta, and there is no immediate reason why he should gain a morsel of our sympathy.  Not that his wife, whom we only see once much later on, has anything great to offer this world.  For to understand Gurov and why he is in Yalta to meet a woman he will never be able to do without, it is his wife one should consider:

She read a lot, didn’t write the hard sign in her letters, didn’t call her husband Dmitri, but rather Dimitri; and he secretly thought of her as intellectually limited, narrow, unrefined; he feared her and didn’t like being at home.

Yet Chekhov, too subtle a writer for modern tastes, does not allow Gurov to find his wife’s opposite.  That would be too easy, the fodder for romance novels where every maudlin expectation is gratified.  Instead, he comes upon the titular Anna Sergeevna and her Pomeranian, who may or may not be better examples of moral creatures, but whom he loves completely and absolutely.  This story has nothing to do with honeycombed love and the effusive, romanticized backwash of pink weddings and little white houses; this is a tale of destiny, of suffering akin to that of “two migratory birds, a male and female, caught and forced to live in separate cages.”  This is about the conundrum of finding your fated twin soul, and not being able to cast away the dregs of your previous life.

The love affair, like the seasons, has four parts.  Gurov and Anna Sergeevna are first seen around a summery boardwalk, and Gurov is portrayed as the rakish misogynist.  That he calls women “a lowly race” but cannot do without them for “two days” coincides with the most prolific clichés about Lotharios.  How strange is it that in this story which will do anything to convince us of Gurov’s artistic authenticity, of his difference from the Philistine masses who have assumed the contours of his daily existence, we find he is nothing more than the commonplace womanizer.  I cannot be persuaded by literature’s thousand and one tales featuring immoral beasts and hedonistic daredevils, that under some of these exteriors lurk true artistic souls.  How you treat the world reflects your innermost passions and beliefs.  If you believe in saying and doing whatever is necessary for monetary, political  or sexual gain, then you are as empty and as meaningless as the moments you spend deceiving others.  We wonder to what extent deception is part of Gurov’s repertoire.  What does he say to these lonely women as he comforts them, albeit for “a short time”?  What is his role in life outside of a comforter of women who have no interest in his personality (another tedious chestnut)?  What motivation might he have for continuing in this vein?  Why is Anna Sergeevna any different?  Is this a cautionary tale or an allegory for pursuance of the Good?

It is in the fall, our story’s next section where little time has actually passed, that we catch a glimpse of their immortality.  Where modern literary critics might dissect “the old women dressed as young women and the bevy of generals” on the pier in some kind of countercultural gibberish, the fact is that these critics have never actually bothered to look at pictures and books of the Crimea of that time period as well as lack any imagination whatsoever.  Men all aspire to some title of greatness, while women really only want to be young enough to be coy (to paraphrase this author), and there is nothing more to it than that.  Those generals and old women are as fraudulent as any sentiment that you cannot understand and deem fraudulent because your narrow world has yet to experience it.  Against this backdrop, we are given a taste of what to expect once the seas have calmed and our last breaths have slowed, and stopped:

It was so noisy below, and here there was no Yalta, no Oreanda; now it was noisy and would continue to be as indifferently and deafly noisy when we were no longer here.  And in this constancy, in this indifference to life and death, each of us is covered, perhaps, by the price of our eternal salvation, of the unending movement of life on earth, of unending perfection.  And sitting beside that young woman who at dawn had seemed so beautiful, so serene, so enchanting before the fairy tale landscape around her, the sea, the mountains, the clouds, the wide blue sky, Gurov came to see that if one thought about it, everything in this world was essentially beautiful − everything except when we think and ponder, when we forget about the higher goals of existence and our own human dignity.

So later, when Gurov has gone through another season, this time a harsh winter, and realized that everyone’s “true life” is hidden beneath the surface, he makes one mistake.  He assumes that Anna Sergeevna thinks the way he does.  Men, especially those in more conservative societies, have the luxury of withdrawing from human interaction and relegating their secrets to a covert smile to a mirror or window pane when no one is looking.  But women, in those same circumstances, certainly cannot.  A woman will always be branded for her adulterous machinations, while a man may very well escape unscathed.  Yes Anna is also married, to someone whom we never quite meet but to whom she has bestowed one of our language’s most ignominious labels.  In fact, her husband seems to trot beside her as a reminder of her guilt, almost as if he were her Pomeranian (the Russian word for Pomeranian, shpitz, and his surname von Dideritz have some Germanic affinity), and almost like the two adolescents smoking above Anna and Gurov’s secret encounter in the opera remind the careful reader of Gurov’s two high school−aged boys. 

It is also no coincidence that the only line uttered by Gurov's wife is, "playing the fop, Dimitri, doesn't suit you at all."  And why would "Dimitri" have to be dressed so well if it weren't in his interests to look good to women around him?   We are not supposed to trust Gurov's wife because she is a classic manifestation of poshlost', of that smug vulgarity that is the absolute antithesis of art.  So then maybe Dmitri is very good in his role as seducer, and maybe his alleged love for Anna Sergeevna is no more than a delusion  Chekhov only hints in one direction but does not compel us.   The only compulsion we have, in fact, is to read on to the end, where Gurov asks himself another, much more important question.