"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

March 20, 2013

Best Stories by Chekhov (2): The Years of High Production (1886-87)

The years 1886 and 1887 were the period of the highest short story production for Anton Chekhov (1960-1904). We have more than 180 stories from these two fruitful years. In 1885, none other than the dean of Russian letters, D.V. Grogorovich, had been so impressed with Chekhov's early story "The Huntsman," that he wrote him with encouragement and the advice to write less, but spend more time on each story. Chekhov wanted to act on this advice, but was not immediately able to do so: he still needed the money from the humorous magazines (he constantly had to pay off the debts his two brothers were making).

So in the years 1886-1887 we see Chekhov on the one hand keeping up his high production of comical situation stories, and on the other hand also write more serious work, in which he gradually did away with plot. My selection below reflects this mix. And although there is a certain amount of pathos in some stories, generally speaking Chekhov maintained a strict detachment, viewing the situation through the minds of his characters and telling the story through the registration of significant details, while strictly evading authorial preaching or moralizing. Chekhov was also criticized for this, especially in the case of stories as "Mire" ("rummaging in a dung heap", it was called), but he answered that literature has to depict life as it actually is - a writer has to be as objective as a chemist. In other words, it is the duty of the artist to pose the question correctly, not to solve the problem.

A major theme in this period is formed by the various complications of love - often his characters are desperately trying to find a partner or desperately trying to be unfaithful to one.

[Chekhov. Photo from Wikipedia]

Here are my favorite stories from this fruitful period, the years 1886 and 1887:
  1. "The Witch" (1886). An elderly sexton living in a lonely spot believes his young wife is a "witch." Always when there is a snowstorm, the postman loses his way and miraculously ends up at the sexton's house to warm his cold bones before continuing on his journey. That postman is a young man and of course the only magic the young wife possesses is erotic attraction: the postman furtively strokes her neck and shoulders... and then has to hasten on, in the snow again. “Your witchery was all in vain: he’s gone off,” says the sexton malignantly to his wife, finally made aware of her attractiveness. But she rebuffs him when they are back in bed: "Yet, waiting till she was quiet and began breathing evenly, he touched her head with his finger . . . held her thick plait in his hand for a minute. She did not feel it. Then he grew bolder and stroked her neck."Leave off!” she shouted, and prodded him on the nose with her elbow with such violence that he saw stars before his eyes. The pain in his nose was soon over, but the torture in his heart remained."
  2. "Easter Night (1886) A mystical story with a grandiose description of an Orthodox Russian Easter service. On Easter Eve a traveler is ferried across a river to a monastery. The ferryman is a lay brother, who reveals his sadness over the death of a fellow monk who wrote beautiful prayers for saints’ days. In contrast to his loud and vulgar colleagues, the deceased was kind and tender. At the monastery the traveler participates all night in the services and experiences a sense of oneness with all creation. When he returns to the ferry on Easter morning. the lay brother is still hard at work, nobody has seen fit to relieve him. "At once there was the sound of a cannon shot. It rolled away in the darkness and ended somewhere in the far distance behind me. The peasant took off his hat and crossed himself. "Christ is risen,” he said. Before the vibrations of the first peal of the bell had time to die away in the air a second sounded, after it at once a third, and the darkness was filled with an unbroken quivering clamour. Near the red lights fresh lights flashed, and all began moving together and twinkling restlessly."
  3. "The Chorus Girl" (1886) A chorus girl called Pasha is staying with her lover in his summer villa, when suddenly the wife arrives. The husband is in another room at that time. The wife claims that her husband has made debts due to his extra-marital affair and asks the chorus girl to return all presents she has received from him. Although she never received anything, the chorus girl is intimidated in handing over her jewels. After the wife leaves, the husband comes into the room. He is angry with his mistress and treats her with contempt because his "proud wife" has had to go down on her knees before such a low creature... “No, I shall never forgive myself for this! I shall never forgive myself! Get away from me . . . you low creature!” he cried with repulsion, backing away from Pasha, and thrusting her off with trembling hands. “She would have gone down on her knees, and . . . and to you! Oh, my God!” He rapidly dressed, and pushing Pasha aside contemptuously, made for the door and went out." P.S. It is possible that husband and wife have together played a trick on the chorus girl to get her jewels.
  4. "Mire" (1886) "Scandalous" story that led to criticism of Chekhov's "amorality." A rich and unmarried heiress, Susanna, the owner of a distillery, tears up the IOUs her deceased father wrote when borrowing money, but pays back the lender with her charms... In fact, all the men in the area have fallen for her, and some even have difficulty tearing themselves away from her... "In silence, breathing heavily, stumbling against the furniture, they moved about the room. Susanna was carried away by the struggle. She flushed, closed her eyes, and forgetting herself, once even pressed her face against the face of the lieutenant, so that there was a sweetish taste left on his lips. At last he caught hold of her clenched hand. . . . With flushed faces and disheveled hair, they looked at one another, breathing hard." P.S. The passage I quote here should be studied by all contemporary authors as a lesson in how to write an erotic scene - not by explicitness, but by suggestion.
  5. "A Work of Art" (1886) A doctor receives an antique bronze candelabra from a grateful patient. As it is a rather vulgar piece featuring "two female figures in the costume of Eve and in attitudes for the description of which I have neither the courage nor the fitting temperament," the doctor soon gives the candelabra to a lawyer to whom he is indebted. The lawyer gives it away in his turn, and finally the chunk of heavy bronze ends up in an antique shop... where the patient from the start of the story buys it to make the doctor happy with the completion of the set! What goes around, comes around - a clever story.
  6. "On the Road" (1886) Set in the southern Russia of Chekhov's childhood. Holed up in an inn during a nighttime blizzard on Christmas Eve, an older ruined landowner tells his life story to a young woman. As the storm rages, he talks about his beliefs and past failures, having spent his time in thrall to one passion or another to the detriment of his livelihood and personal life. This story took Chekhov, who so far had written his stories in a day or so, three weeks to complete, but it was worth the effort, for the story created quite a stir. Rachmaninoff based his orchestral fantasia The Rock on it. At the end, the young woman is moved by the story of the older man but neither of them speaks out, and she leaves... "Whether his finely intuitive soul were really able to read that look, or whether his imagination deceived him, it suddenly began to seem to him that with another touch or two that girl would have forgiven him his failures, his age, his desolate position, and would have followed him without question or reasonings. He stood a long while as though rooted to the spot, gazing at the tracks left by the sledge runners. The snowflakes greedily settled on his hair, his beard, his shoulders. . . ."
  7. "Volodya" (1887) Seventeen year old Volodya, a shy young man, and his mother visit the home of wealthy acquaintances. Volodya falls in love with his cousin, a rather plump woman of thirty, who is already married. The awkward boy even confesses his love to her, but she only laughs and teases him, as do the others when they hear about it. Later, at home, the infatuated adolescent kills himself impulsively by putting the muzzle of a pistol in his mouth. The acute experience of his own awkwardness and lack of self-worth were too much for the boy. "Volodya put the muzzle in his mouth again, pressed it with his teeth, and pressed something with his fingers. There was a sound of a shot.... Something hit Volodya in the back of his head with terrible violence, and he fell on the table with his face downwards among the bottles and glasses. Then he saw his father, in a top-hat with a wide black band on it, wearing mourning for some lady, suddenly seize him by both hands, and they fell headlong into a very deep, dark pit."
  8. "Typhus" (1887) An army lieutenant, Klimov, returns home to his sister and aunt in Moscow, but falls ill on the train. Delirious with fever, he is in bed for several weeks and then suddenly feels better. He has survived a case of spotted typhus and feels extremely happy - but he has brought death into the house and his sister has died during his fever and has already been buried. “She caught typhus from you, and is dead. She was buried the day before yesterday.” This terrible, unexpected news was fully grasped by Klimov’s consciousness; but terrible and startling as it was, it could not overcome the animal joy that filled the convalescent. He cried and laughed, and soon began scolding because they would not let him eat. Only a week later when, leaning on Pavel, he went in his dressing-gown to the window, looked at the overcast spring sky and listened to the unpleasant clang of the old iron rails which were being carted by, his heart ached, he burst into tears, and leaned his forehead against the window-frame. “How miserable I am!” he muttered. “My God, how miserable!” And joy gave way to the boredom of everyday life and the feeling of his irrevocable loss."
  9. "The Kiss" (1887) When a brigade is passing through a certain town, the officers are invited to a local ball. One of them is a shy, bespectacled young officer Ryabovitch, who has however an interesting experience: when wandering through the mansion, he stumbles into a dark room where an unknown woman suddenly embraces and kisses him - before running away as she notices her mistake. The kiss fires Ryabovitch' passion and he becomes obsessed with finding the woman when the brigade later returns to the same town. But no new invitation to a ball seems to be forthcoming and Ryabovitch, standing on the riverbank, undergoes a sort of enlightenment. The previous experience can never be repeated. He realizes that life is "an unintelligible, aimless jest" from which one should not expect anything - a detached attitude is best. So when the invitation finally arrives, he neglects it. "At that moment, to his surprise, he heard hurried footsteps and the rustling of a dress, a breathless feminine voice whispered “At last!” And two soft, fragrant, unmistakably feminine arms were clasped about his neck; a warm cheek was pressed to his cheek, and simultaneously there was the sound of a kiss. But at once the bestower of the kiss uttered a faint shriek and skipped back from him, as it seemed to Ryabovitch, with aversion. He, too, almost shrieked and rushed towards the gleam of light at the door . . . Something strange was happening to him . . . His neck, round which soft, fragrant arms had so lately been clasped, seemed to him to be anointed with oil; on his left cheek near his mustache where the unknown had kissed him there was a faint chilly tingling sensation as from peppermint drops, and the more he rubbed the place the more distinct was the chilly sensation; all over, from head to foot, he was full of a strange new feeling which grew stronger and stronger . . . He wanted to dance, to talk, to run into the garden, to laugh aloud . . . "
  10. "Verochka" (1887) A young man in the countryside for research, has received important assistance from the father of a young woman, Vera, who has fallen in love with him. On the eve of his departure, Vera declares her love, but he has no such feelings for her and gives her the cold shoulder. "His conscience tormented him, and when Vera disappeared he felt as though he had lost something very precious, something very near and dear which he could never find again. He felt that with Vera a part of his youth had slipped away from him, and that the moments which he had passed through so fruitlessly would never be repeated. When he reached the bridge he stopped and sank into thought. He wanted to discover the reason of his strange coldness. That it was due to something within him and not outside himself was clear to him. He frankly acknowledged to himself that it was not the intellectual coldness of which clever people so often boast, not the coldness of a conceited fool, but simply impotence of soul, incapacity for being moved by beauty, premature old age brought on by education, his casual existence, struggling for a livelihood, his homeless life in lodgings."
  11. "The Letter" (1887). Story about the clergy. A degenerate priest, Anastasy, gives more humane advice to a deacon whose son is living with a married woman, than the clerical supervisor of the district, advising him not to send the chastising letter composed with the help of that supervisor. Although Chekhov had early lost his faith, he depicts religious figures with sympathy. This tale made a deep impression on the composer Tchaikovsky, who wrote to Chekhov initiating a friendship between the two artists. “Do you know, deacon, don’t send it!” said Anastasy, pouring himself out a second glass of vodka as though unconsciously. “Forgive him, let him alone! I am telling you . . . what I really think. If his own father can’t forgive him, who will forgive him? And so he’ll live without forgiveness. Think, deacon: there will be plenty to chastise him without you, but you should look out for some who will show mercy to your son! Just sit down and write straight off to him, ‘I forgive you Pyotr!’ He will under-sta-and! He will fe-el it!  I understand it from myself, you see old man . . . deacon, I mean. When I lived like other people, I hadn't much to trouble about, but now since I lost the image and semblance, there is only one thing I care about, that good people should forgive me. And remember, too, it’s not the righteous but sinners we must forgive. Why should you forgive your old woman if she is not sinful? No, you must forgive a man when he is a sad sight to look at . . . yes!”
  12. "Happiness" (1887) A summer night on the steppe, with magical descriptions. Two shepherds chat with a horsemen about an old man from the neighborhood who has just died and who had sold his soul to the Evil One (one sign was that his "melons whistled"). The old man also knew the places where treasures were buried in the local hills - but as the treasures are bewitched, nobody can retrieve them. The shepherds live in a world of superstition and fear, where happiness, symbolized by the buried treasures, is beyond their grasp, for when the horseman asks what they would do with the treasure when they found it, they are unable to answer. They don't realize that the real treasure is within them all along. "And the old man could not answer what he would do with the treasure if he found it. That question had presented itself to him that morning probably for the first time in his life, and judging from the expression of his face, indifferent and uncritical, it did not seem to him important and deserving of consideration."
  13. Stories about animals and children. In these years, Chekhov also wrote various stories about very young children or animals, told from their point of view for comic effect. A good example of an animal story is "Kashtanka" about the dog of a drunken carpenter, who one day loses her way home, spends a frightening night on the street, and then is rescued by a man running an animal show. Kashtanka is trained to perform in his act, together with a goose and cat. The new master is kind and there is plenty of food. But when during a performance the old master is among the public and calls her name, she jumps down from the stage and follows him home - although the conditions under her new master were much better. Do old family values win from new materialism? Or is the dog like the Russian serfs, who gladly would return to their dependent position? In "Misery" the horse of an old cabman, who is mourning for the loss of his son, is the only creature who has an ear for his sorrows - when he pours out his heart, the mare "listen and breathes on her master's hands." "Vanka" is a typical children's story; a boy working for a cobbler where he is mistreated writes a letter to his grandfather in the country, full of fond memories and the request to be taken back, but he posts it without address to "Grandfather in the village."
  14. Funny stories about lovers. There are many of these and here are some pointers: "From the Diary of a Violent-Tempered Man" shows how a rather naive scholastic young man, with a high opinion of his own power, is helplessly caught in the marriage net by a manipulative young woman; "Love" demonstrates that love, indeed, makes us blind to the negative character points of the beloved one, even if it concerns matters that would normally have driven us mad; "Ladies" is about the power of "women behind the throne." In "Strong Impressions" a young man is talked out of his love for his fiancee by a glib lawyer, just as an experiment; and in "A Blunder" husband and wife wait anxiously next door to the room where their daughter, who is getting a bit on in years, has a conversation with a young man - they stand ready to rush in as soon as anything like love is spoken by the unfortunate male to bless the pair with the ikon on the wall, but in their haste they pick an ordinary painting and the victim gets away.
  15. Another category are "dacha stories," about life in the summer cottage - something essentially Russian. In "Bad Weather" a wife stays with her mother in the dacha, while the husband works in town, When due to a long spell of bad weather he can't come over and she instead goes to meet him in their city house, he appears not to be living at home - although guilty, he has a glib answer to explain the situation; in "Not Wanted" a husband who has remained in the city because of his busy job, visits the dacha where his family is staying, only to discover that there is no place for him, his wife and children have their own lives in the countryside. Love affairs were apparently easy in the dacha parks; in "In a Summer Villa" a man receives an ardent love letter with the proposal for a tryst - it disturbs him, there even seems to be a younger rival... but later it appears the work of his wife, to test him. In "A Misfortune" the wife of a notary, staying in their dacha out of town, has love declarations whispered into her ears by the solicitor living next door. She feels she is getting weak - she likes him - and tries to save her marriage, but her workaholic husband is so little interested in her that she is literally driven into the arms of the solicitor.