Following my reading of Francine Prose's book 'Reading Like a Writer' and her recommendation to start with Chekhov, I have been continuing to read Chekhov's short stories and am now on the final six in the Norton Critical Edition. For each one I have been summarising it, and also summarising why I think it works so well. I am enjoying the stories very much and think I am getting a lot out of them; particularly through my efforts to write each one of them up on my blog.
I find they make me think not only about plot, character and structure, but also about wealth, celebrity and happiness. The two stories that follow are typical:
The Man in a Case (1898)
Rather like Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (and probably lots of other books I'm not aware of or can't think of at the moment) this story is almost entirely a tale within a tale: told by a teacher to a vet as they sit in a hunting lodge together one night.
The story concerns a teacher who is a recluse who somehow comes to dominate a village through his glowering and general disapproval of everything. When a new teacher comes to the school and is accompanied by his sister, who is handsome and desperate to marry since she is about thirty years old, there is a conspiracy involving everyone to marry the reclusive teacher off since they think this will make him more bearable. At first he is interested but then his relationship is ridiculed by a cartoonist, sees the woman in question riding a bicycle (which he thinks disgraceful), is pushed downstairs by the brother much to the obvious amusement of the sister. He then takes to his bed and a couple of months later, dies. His funeral brings much relief.
The story then goes back to the two men in the lodge. The teacher says that within a week the funeral everyday life had resumed its usual bleak course because 'there are still plenty of men who live in a shell'.
The vet agrees. He says that merely living a life in town in stuffy rooms with 'litigious boors' is living in an oyster shell too. He then goes on to show that he is just as intolerant as the teacher in the story. The story ends with the teacher who told the tale falling asleep, while his discontented companion lies awake.
The same two characters appear in the next story. Again it consists of a tale within a tale, but this time told by the vet. However the story around the story is also interesting this time and is a wonderful character-study of a miller who lives alone with his beautiful young maid Pelugia. The school teacher and the vet are caught in the rain and are forced to take shelter in the house of a miller. The description of the miller is endearing: 'a stout man of some forty years, with longish hair, looking more like a professor or an artist than a landed proprietor. He was wearing a white shirt greatly in need of washing, belted with a piece of string, and long drawers with no trousers over them. His boots, too, were caked with mud and staw. His eyes and nose were ringed with dust. He recognised Ivan Ivanich and Burkin, and seemed glad to see them.'
He suggests that they all go to the bath-house since he drops into the conversation that he probably needs one since he has not had a bath for six months. They then go swimming and the teacher, who is younger, enjoys the experience so much they have trouble enticing him out. I found this description enchanting. I read it out to Hodmandod Senior and he agreed it was excellent too, but neither of us could say quite why it worked so well. There was nothing fancy, just a straightforward description of a man swimming, and yet it made us both feel happy.
This commonplace description, which was quite light, was in contrast to the tale that followed which was about the vet's brother. They had been brought up in a small estate and grown to lovely the countryside. However, after their father had died the estate had to be sold off to cover debts and the brothers had gone their separate ways. The brother had become a clerk in town and had spent the rest of his life pining for a country seat with gooseberry bushes. His obsession made him into a mean human being who was cruel to a wife he married just for her money. When the wife died he eventually acquired a country house and declared himself happy.
However, when the vet visited, he saw things in a different light. His brother was now responsible for an estate and ruled it somewhat despotically and erratically. He declared himself happy and demanded that the vet share his first crop of gooseberries. As the brother ate he declared each gooseberry delicious, but to the vet they were sour and green. The gooseberries were a metaphor for the brother's life; he declared it delicious, but it made the vet sad: 'There had always been a tinge of melancholy in my conception of human happiness, and now, confronted by a happy man, I was overcome by a feeling of sadness bordering on desperation.'
He then goes on to reflect how 'we neither hear nor see those who suffer, and the terrible things in life are played out behind the scenes.' He realised he too was happy and content in the countryside but found town life intolerable.
The teacher and the miller had been forced to listen to this long story and it was not really the sort of thing they wanted to hear. However the miller was determined to stay awake because he liked to hear about life outside his own. Despite this everyone soon goes to bed. The story ends with another amusing touch: the vet leaves his stinking pipe by his bed and the teacher lies awake - not with angst (as the vet was wont to do), but wondering where smell is coming from.
This story made me think a lot about human happiness and our attitudes today. 'Mislit' abounds and every day in the news we are assailed by real-life miserable stories, and so, perhaps, things have changed in this regard since Chekhov's time. However I think we all have a tendency to neither see or hear those that suffer around us and assume all is well; and that those that do have miserable lives do still seem to suffer in silence...or else use the anonymity of the internet to reveal all.