Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Art for an audience of one - Chekhov's "Rothschild's Fiddle" and "Easter Eve"

How many Chekhov stories are the saddest Chekhov story?  So many candidates.  “Rothschild’s Fiddle” (1894) is one of them.  It is unusual in that it feels like a Yiddish story, from the title on.  It is also one of the small number of Chekhov stories about artistic creation.

“Yakov made good, solid coffins.”  He also occasionally plays fiddle with a Jewish wedding band, even though he hates Jews, especially the musician Rothschild, who makes everything sound so sad.  Yakov, who always thinks in terms of money, of loss and gain, spends the first half of the story watching his wife die, and the second half dying himself.

He is a narrow man, but his wife’s death and his illness make him more reflective, even if he has trouble escaping his favorite metaphor:

As he went home afterwards, he reflected that death would be nothing but a benefit; he would not have to eat or drink, or pay taxes or offend people, and, as a man lies in his grave not for one year but for hundreds and thousands, if one reckoned it up the gain would be enormous.  A man’s life meant loss; death meant gain.

But finally something changes:

Thinking of his wasted, profitless life, he began to play, he did not know what, but it was plaintive and touching, and tears trickled down his cheeks.  And the harder he thought, the more mournfully the fiddle wailed.

Rothschild hears and is moved by the melody.  The fiddle, and the song, become his.  “[T]he merchants and officials used to be continually sending for Rothschild and making him play it over and over again a dozen times.”

“Rothschild’s Fiddle” reminded me of an earlier story of Chekhov’s where art had found its ideal audience of a single person.  In “Easter Eve” (1886 – yes, another holiday publication) the Chekhov-like narrator, visiting a monastery for Easter services – people are mostly there to have their Easter cakes blessed – meets a low-ranking monk, stuck ferrying guests across the river, who tells him of a local genius, the monk Nikolay, who when he lived wrote hymns of praise of great beauty, although no one cared, no one but this one monk:

“And he cared for me more than anyone, and all because I used to weep over his hymns.  It makes me sad to remember.  Now I feel just like an orphan or a widow.  You know, in our monastery they are all good people, kind and pious, but… there is no one with softness and refinement, they are just like peasants.”  (ellipses in original)

The service makes the narrator “unbearably sore on [the ferryman’s] account.”  The one person most sensitive to the beauties of the Orthodox service is forced to miss it.  He imagines the dead hymn writer going out at night “to call to [the ferryman] over the water,” imagines how the poet “filled his hymns with flowers, stars and sunbeams.”

Chekhov himself wrote popular magazine fiction, more popular in 1894 than 1886, but still.  Do these lovely stories depict an ideal for Chekhov, or something he would have done if he had not had to write for money?  Or are they something he is doing, by depicting the thing he does not normally do?  He can create the melancholy, beautiful artistic effect and share it with more than one reader.

“Rothschild’s Fiddle” is in Constance Garnett’s The Chorus Girl & Other Stories.  “Easter Eve” is in The Bishop & Other Stories.  I do not notice any personified trees in the former (edit: see comments, it's there), but in the latter: “It seemed to me that the trees and the young grass were asleep.”


  1. Yes, this was the same tree, so green and peaceful and sad. How old it had grown, poor thing!

    [...]On the opposite shore, where that meadow now was, there had stood in those days a wood of tall birch-trees, and that bare hill on the horizon yonder had been covered with the blue bloom of an ancient pine forest. And sailboats had plied the river then, but now all lay smooth and still, and only one little birch-tree was left on the opposite bank, a graceful young thing, like a girl...

    (Garnett's translation)

    Most of the critical attention "Rothschild's Fiddle" gets is aimed at Chekhov's portrayal of Jews, the first story where Jews are sympathetic, etc. Yakov's selfishness is taken for granted, I guess.

    "Easter Eve" is a lovely story. Chekhov had pretty strong opinions about the gulf between observing religious forms and actually being a good person.

  2. Ah, yeah, there's the tree! It's a signature.

    The Jewish aspect of "Rothschild's Fiddle" is of high interest. But so is the artistic theme.

  3. "Easter Eve" was published by Alexey Suvorin, a serious reader and publisher of the New Times, who allowed Chekhov pretty much free rein to write what he wanted, at whatever length. He also paid a whole lot more than Chekhov's previous publishers. So writing was important as a source of Chekhov's income (it never wasn't important, even in his later years when he was a famous prizewinning author reinventing theater with Stanislavsky; Chekhov was always concerned about making money), but literary quality and artistic vision were being encouraged by his new publisher. Suvorin was certain Chekhov was a genius, and more or less became his patron for a while.

  4. Publisher as audience of one. Probably true more often than I realize.

  5. You tap into such an interesting question, and the answer(s) are probably different for different authors. For whom does a writer write? Self? Others? (What others?) How does that answer for any particular writer and any particular text affect and particular reader? I defer to you and Scott, the Chekhov experts, for how all of this pertains to Chekhov. My "expertise" involves other writers (e.g., Flannery O'Connor, Samuel Beckett, William Shakespeare, and Emily Dickinson), and each author with whom I am more familiar provokes different answers to the foregoing. Well, the ball is now in the Chekhovian experts' court. Play on!

  6. Surely an endless number of answers to this question. Case by case. The curious thing is Chekhov turning the question into fiction.

    1. I might suggest that the principal audience for the hymn-writing monk was God, an audience of one. Nikolai, the ferryman, is upset that none of the brother monks showed an interest in the hymns, but I don't think there's any evidence that the monk who composed them was put off by that. He kept writing the hymns anyway. He showed them to Nikolai, but they were not for him.

      This could be taken as a statement about for whom an artist works, or it could be something better: a particular story about a particular group of characters whose concerns do not necessarily match those of the author.

  7. Right, it's the Chekhovish narrator who gets worked up on behalf of the ferryman, who is full of sympathy for this sensitive reader. In this case the artist remains a creature of the imagination.

    It is repetition of the theme several years later that raises the question. Its two particular stories etc.