Tuesday, September 15, 2015

terrible truth, unutterable despair, reasonably big laughs - rambling through another volume of Chekhov stories

I did not take many notes on Volume 11 of Constance Garnett’s Chekhov stories (The Schoolmaster & Other Stories).  Not nearly as many as on Volume 12.  Maybe I have nothing to say.

The first story, “The Schoolmaster” (1886), kicks off the recurring “death and illness” theme.  An esteemed teacher attends  his fourteenth annual district banquet.  Everything is just a little bit off this time, because all of the other teachers and administrators know that the schoolmaster is mortally ill, that this will be his last banquet.

And at once on all the faces, in all the motionless eyes bent upon him, he read not the sympathy, not the commiseration which he could not endure, but something else, something soft, tender, but at the same time intensely sinister, like a terrible truth, something which in one instant turned him cold all over and filled his soul with unutterable despair.  (10)

So this book is rough going.  What relatively healthy  reader is not looking at the teacher similarly, so to speak?  Although we are likely to sympathize with his self-delusion in a way that his fictional colleagues cannot.

That sentence looked stranger even than I remembered it as I typed it out – “soft, tender.”

Oh, the next story, “Enemies” (1887), holy cow.  A doctor’s six year-old son has just died, minutes ago, when a man arrives demanding the doctor come treat his wife.  A tragedy, however ordinary, turns farcical, and becomes more absurd as the story progresses.  Chekhov is not above Maupassant-like twists – this book has a couple of good ones – although this story is more like a parody of the twist story.  No clever ending is going to bring that child back.

Look at these crows:

Then the carriage drove into dense shadow; here there was the smell of dampness and mushrooms, and the sound of rustling trees; the crows, awakened by the noise of the wheels, stirred among the foliage and uttered prolonged plaintive cries as though they knew the doctor’s son was dead and that Abogin’s wife was ill.  (23)

No pathetic fallacy is more genuinely pathetic than that of Anton Chekhov.

Luckily, Chekhov breaks the mood in the next one, “The Examining Magistrate” (1887), which is more of a genuine comic Maupassant twist ending story.  It features a doctor, a suicide, a betrayal, etc. but is nevertheless comic relief.

Lots of comedy in this book, I remind myself.  Chekhov may think that homeopathic medicine is a con, but he sets up a story so that the patients of a sincere homeopathic doctor are cheating her (“Malingerers”).  A man (“the man whose new galoshes were stolen last year,” the best joke in the book, a detail tossed out as if I will just nod along, oh yes, that fellow) accidentally drinks paraffin but has the devil’s time convincing his wife or anyone else that he has poisoned himself (“An Inadvertence”).  Another man is so afraid of being murdered by robbers that he overdoes it (“Overdoing It”).  “A Play,” in which a budding playwright reads her manuscript to a famous writer, is close to something Mark Twain might write.  “The jury acquitted him” is the last line.

I guess that last batch are mostly throwaway stories, but they make the book readable.  Thank goodness Constance Garnett had the sense not to compile the twenty most miserable Chekhov stories in one place.

Well, I had something to say.  A break from Chekhov now.  I’m sure I’ll be back to him soon enough.


  1. The more I read by and about Chekhov, the more multi-faceted he seems. There's this terrible cliche hanging around him, of provincial Russians suffering from ennui. But his works seem so many and various - and it certainly sounds like Garnett did a brilliant job of organising.


  2. Yes, exactly. That fellow in "The Lady with the Lap Dog" is just one kind of Chekhov character. There are so many.

  3. I recently read the collection, In the Twilight which included The Enemies and was probably my favourite story in the collection. I liked the way it turned from tragedy to farce and that both characters found the farcical situation objectionable.

  4. This story was a jaw-dropper. Chekhov keeps turning the crank on the tension.

  5. As Jonathan has noted, Alma's In the Twilight collection includes Enemies - such a clever little story, perfectly constructed.

  6. I'll have to keep an eye on how In the Twilight lines up with Garnett. She has all of the stories, I think, just scattered around.