Monday, September 14, 2015

the lazy fellow’s soul is filled with a sense of glory and triumph - two supposedly minor Chekhov stories

“Shrove Tuesday,” published February 23, 1887 in a St. Petersburg newspaper.  I read it in The Cook’s Wedding & Other Stories.  Pavel Vassilitch should help his son Styopa with his math homework, but it is Shrove Tuesday, so everyone if full of pancakes.  The fast begins tomorrow.  Not a great time to concentrate on fractions.  “’To be sure after pancakes, lessons are nasty to swallow.’”  The father instead tells stories about his schooldays.

“He [the teacher] would begin explaining some theory, get in a tangle, and turn crimson all over and race up and down the class-room as though someone were sticking an awl in his back, then he would blow his nose half a dozen times and begin to cry.  But you know we were magnanimous to him, we pretended not to see it.”  (133)

The house is full of cats.

The samovar is hissing and puffing out steam which throws flickering shadows on the ceiling.  The cats come in from the entry sleep and melancholy with their tails in the air.  (134)

Melancholy cats.  The story is full of similes.  Styopa “is swaying to and fro like a Chinese idol and looking crossly at a sum book” (132).  “The old-fashioned clock in the drawing-room does not strike, but coughs ten times huskily as though it had a cold” (136).

Newspapers in 1887 St. Petersburg were different than newspapers now.  Better.

“Art” (1886) is in the same volume, near the end, not about children at all but about the creation of a religious artifact, a “Jordan,” directly on top of a frozen river for an Epiphany festival at which the river will be blessed.  The characters are a regional artist who is a prima donna and a lazy drunk but who has a real talent for this form, and his almost mindless assistant.  “If he were told to stand on the river for a day, a month, or a year he would stand there” (267).  They break the ice, make a frame and pegs – “whoever gets hold of a peg after the blessing of the water will be lucky for the whole year” – and dip a large cross in the water allowing them to care a dove in the ice that encrusts it.  The artist drinks and complains, but the work gets done.

[He] pulls away the mat… and the people behold something extraordinary.  The lectern, the wooden ring, the pegs, and the cross in the ice are iridescent with thousands of colors.  The cross and the dove glitter so dazzlingly that it hurts the eyes to look at them.  Merciful God, how fine it is! (272)

I usually assume that stories about visual art are really about writing.  In this case I am less sure.  Chekov had no assistant.  He was cranking out stories like I write these blog posts, and all in his own words, and at this level!  But did Chekhov think of his newspaper stories as similarly ephemeral?

Guns are fired, the bells peal furiously, loud exclamations of delight, shouts, and a rush to get the pegs.  Seryozhka [the artist] listens to this uproar, sees thousands of eyes fixed upon him, and the lazy fellow’s soul is filled with a sense of glory and triumph.  (273)


  1. I love those quotes from Shrove Tuesday - they're so full of imagery. Your post reminds me that I must read more of Chekhov's stories. I read the Alma Classics In the Twilight collection (tr. Hugh Aplin) earlier this year but there are so many stories still to explore.

  2. What a good post! It really does make a person want to read more Chekhov... Rather like the artist's ice dove-and-cross, which gives his audience a share in creation and wonder.

  3. I am always tempted to keep doing this, story by story, although they are not all as surprising as these two. Chekhov at this point is constrained by length but is pushing hard on form. I'm sure the In the Twilight collection shows some of that.

    Marly, thanks. The assistant, the crowd, and then finally the artist in that fine last sentence, where he loses his discontent for a moment. All of which lets me share in the creation, too. It is a generous story. How rare to find a story about collaborative art.

  4. All but two of the stories in In the Twilight were written after Chekhov had begun writing for Alexey Suvorin's New Times, which meant that he no longer had the length or subject matter restrictions. He was also getting paid about ten times as much per story, which is another reason (maybe the principle reason) he began writing fewer, and longer, stories at this point.

    I also generally assume the artist stories are really about writing, but Chekhov's brother Nikolai was a fine painter (and a dissolute person), and Chekhov knew a lot of artists in Moscow. A lot of his portraits of painters were about real people, a lot of unflattering portraits.

    (sorry about the accidental comment under ma femme's name)

  5. I will note that the two stories I describe here were both written for the earlier paper, The St. Petersburg Gazette. Chekhov was still cranking those out while also writing for New Times - I had not understood that there was so much overlap, over a year.

    As you might guess, these are both proper holiday stories - published on the holiday.

    The artist in "Art" could easily be someone he knew, or met. Feels like it.