Once I start looking for correspondences between Chekhov and Tolstoy, they become too easy to find. Such rich writers give me a lot to mess with. “’Anna on the Neck’” features a young woman named Anna who is married to a much older, ambitious civil servant. The “Anna” of the odd title refers to a medal he wants to earn, if necessary by means of his lovely wife flattering a superior officer. Is there some kind of parody of Anna Karenina here, the alternate timeline life of young Anna K.? Probably not! Anyway, this story has a happy ending for Anna. Happiness turns out to be a nightmare, a destruction of principles, an effacement of the self. Chekhov must have shaken off his Tolstoy anxiety by this point.
A minor, maybe, story of Chekhov’s called “Neighbours,” from earlier in his Tolstoyan phase (1892), is a nice example of his inability to be anyone but himself. Constance Garnett’s version in in The Duel & Other Stories. The story is about the impossibility of living a life based on abstractions. Or perhaps it is about living with inevitably irreconcilable principles.
Pyotr Mihalitch Ivashin was very much out of humour: his sister, a young girl, had gone away to live with Vlassitch, a married man. To shake off the despondency and depression which pursued him at home and in the fields, he called to his aid his sense of justice, his genuine and noble ideas – he had always defended free love! – but this was of no avail, and he always came back to the same conclusion as their foolish old nurse, that his sister had acted wrongly and that Vlassitch had abducted his sister. And that was distressing.
I wish every story summarized itself so cleanly in its opening paragraph.
After much dithering, he rides off to confront his neighbor – a duel, maybe, or a horsewhipping – but once at their home, setting aside his timidity, he is reminded that he likes Vlassitch, likes his sister, and sees them both as essentially human. The couple can’t marry, for example, because Vlassitch is already married to a woman he was trying to save from a worse fate, “a strange marriage in the style of Dostoevsky,” regrettable, now, but an act of compassion. His sister was hardly abducted, and has plunged into her freely chosen role as Vlassitch’s wife and homemaker.
“It’s a charming house altogether,” she went on, sitting opposite her brother. “There’s some pleasant memory in every room. In my room, only fancy, Grigory’s grandfather shot himself.”
A passage worthy of Uncle Vanya, there. The brother ends up in a state of “spiritual softening,” unwilling to do anything that will bring additional unhappiness to the couple – “he had a deep conviction that they were unhappy, and could not be happy, and their love seemed to him a melancholy, irreparable mistake” – although the truth is that he is the one who is unhappy, not the couple.
And thinking about his life, he came to the conclusion he had never said or acted upon what he really thought, and other people had repaid him in the same way. And so the while of life seemed to him as dark as this water in which the night sky was reflected and water-weeds grew in a tangle. And it seemed to him that nothing could ever set it right.
The End. Poor sap.
“Neighbours” has a beautiful pair of pagan trees, so I will add them to my collection: “Near the dam, two willows, one old and one young, drooped tenderly towards one another.”
I’ll be on vacation much of next week. Back on Thursday, let’s say, for a couple of posts on Antonio Machado, let’s say. Spanish Literature Month.