Monday, May 23, 2016

colours for which it is hard to find a name in human speech - Chekhov gives a character a gift

“The Beauties,” the 1888 story that followed “The Steppe,” is where Scott Bailey says to go next.  The nine year-old boy from “The Steppe” seems to have become the teenager in “The Beauties.”  He has transformed his personifications of nature, which, please remember, often involved plants coming to life in wind storms, in a natural direction, onto beautiful women:

It was that butterfly’s beauty so in keeping with waltzing, darting about the garden, a laughter and gaiety, and incongruous with serious thought, grief, and repose; and it seemed as though a gust of wind blowing over the platform, or a fall of rain, would be enough to wither the fragile body and scatter the capricious beauty like the pollen of a flower.  (289, The Bishop & Other Stories)

An earlier passage in the story is like a one page compression of “The Steppe,” but filtered through the boy’s matured sensibility – “crimson, orange, gold, lilac, muddy pink; one cloud is like a monk, another like a fish, a third like a Turk in a turban” and so on (281).  It is all color and metaphor now.

Not in “Gusev,” though, published two years later.  Gusev is a peasant soldier discharged for illness.  He had been in the far East service and is returning by ship, via the Pacific and Indian Oceans.  He will not make it home.  He is in the company of other sick men who will, like him, die at sea.

The story first appears to be about a conflict between reason and superstition.  Gusev is the latter:

Suppose the fish [that sank a ship] were as big as a mountain and its back were as hard as a sturgeon: and in the same way, supposing that away yonder at the end of the world there stood great stone walls and the fierce winds were chained up to the walls…  if they had not broken loose, why did they tear about all over the sea like maniacs, and struggle to escape like dogs?  If they were not chained up, what did become of them when it was calm?  (146, The Witch & Other Stories, ellipses in Garnett)

His poor companion, educated, dying, is driven nuts by this peasant nonsense.  He dies; Gusev thinks of home (“He still sat dreaming of the frost”); Gusev hopes he will live long enough not to be buried at sea.  “The sea has no sense and no pity”( 161).

Like in “The Beauties,” whatever metaphorical leaps Gusev might make, the story stays grounded in the kind of humanism I associate with Chekhov.  What a surprise, then to follow the sailcloth-wrapped body of Gusev into the ocean, down many miles (“It was said to be three miles to the bottom”).  Here comes a school of harbor pilot fish; here comes a shark.  “The harbour pilots are delighted, they stop to see what will come next” (165).  If I had been asked which  great Russian author wrote about the delight of a school of fish, it would be a long time before my guessing got to Chekhov, yet here it is.

The narrator – as omniscient as any I know – decides to surface and look at the clouds:

one cloud like a triumphal arch, another like a lion, a third like a pair of scissors…  From behind the clouds a broad, green shaft of light pierces through and stretches to the middle of the sky; a little later another, violet-coloured, lies beside it; next that, one of gold, then one rose-coloured…  The sky turns a soft lilac.  Looking at this gorgeous, enchanted sky, at first the ocean scowls, but soon it, too, takes tender, joyous, passionate colours for which it is hard to find a name in human speech.  (165, all ellipses in Garnett)

Gusev, it turns out, was correct; he was not superstitious but perceptive.  The physical world in which he lives is personified, capable of emotion and willed action, even if the will is supplied by the author, the boy from “The Steppe” and “The Beauties” grown into the world’s greatest short story writer, seen here giving a gift to one of his characters.  The world is not indifferent to his suffering.


  1. Thoughtful piece - you identify some telling passages in the stories. I read them a few years ago on my Kindle on a long plane trip, a mode of reading I don't much care for, and never manage to make notes, so it was good to be reminded of Chekhov's capacity to surprise.

  2. I was surprised. Chekhov looks behind the veil; Chekhov as Schopenhauer. I was tempted to put in a reference to "The Vane Sisters" but thought it might be too esoteric. "Icicles by Anton."

  3. This is a fabulous post. You're reading Chekhov well, I think.

    "Gusev" was one of the first Chekhov stories I read, long ago. I'd just gone through a Cheever phase and had been slowly oriented to read short stories in one particular Cheevery way. When "Gusev" got to the burial at sea, the pilot fish, and the shark--especially where the shark slits open the canvas shroud--I was completely disoriented, knocked wholly sideways, and then, as you say, the narrator looks up. It was something, I can tell you. As a writer, I have never forgotten that lesson.

  4. It's like Chekhov has discovered that he has a superpower.

  5. Superb posts on these stories. It has been awhile since I have read these works.

    You make an insightful point about Chekov's humanism, I find that it exudes from so many of his works.

    The passage on the burial at sea is so striking. I think that it is time for a reread of this story.

  6. In a way, the surprise of these stories was that I think of Chekhov as so purely humanistic, but here we see a strong strain of something else, something more cosmic or pagan.