Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Chekhov Short Stories - seventh installment

Chekhov, I have decided, is very bad for me. If I read his work and then look at my own it is like looking at a boiler suit after a velvet and diamante evening dress. It is dull, lifeless; says nothing. It does not glitter. It is not intense. It is clumsy, banal, useless.

Ah, I feel better now, a little self-loathing always clears the mind. I tell Hodmandod Senior about my misery and even read a fragment of a Chekhov-passage out to him and he is very kind. He says that such intensity is only possible in short stories and this reassures me a little. So I go back to my own work but still it seems stale. Maybe it is over-kneaded, I decide. Maybe writing is like dough and it is possible to revise too much. Or maybe, says Hodmandod Senior, it is simply that the last few days have been a bit of a strain.

So I decide to give up trying to do any work and relax into Chekhov - perhaps if I read enough some of his flare will rub off onto me.

In Exile (1892)

I am not sure what to make of this story. It is about a ferryman in Siberia and his encounter with a Tartar. The ferryman relates the story of a man from Moscow who is determined it is possible to 'live' (ie have a similar life to the one he had in Moscow) in Siberia. The ferryman mocks him for this idea; but the Tartar is of the same mind. He wants his wife to come and live with him. I suppose it is some analogy for the idea of progress and whether a person is happier if they leave things just as they are...but I am not sure.

Rothschild's Fiddle(1894)
Another strange little tale with black humour and anti-semitism. The coffin-maker Yakov makes a meagre living because people are not dying enough. He supplements it with his fiddle-playing but quarrels with the rest of the members of the orchestra who are mainly Jewish. His wife, whom he treats churlishly, dies after reminiscing about a child they once had which Yakov, quite unbelievably, can't recall. He then is cruel to Rothschild, a Jewish member of the orchestra, but then he happens upon the willow where his wife says they used to go and sit with the child. He then remembers the child and also realises wasted potential: he could have fished, raised geese, played his fiddle to audiences, but as it is he is owing one thousand roubles. Death, he considers, will bring relief.

While he is waiting to die (of the same fever that killed his wife), he plays his fiddle and Rothschild comes across him. Rothschild is much moved by his playing and Yakov regrets his cruelty to such an extent that he leaves Rothschild his fiddle (so it is not orphaned). After Yakov's death Rothschild and his fiddle are much in demand for their sad tunes.

I suppose, if the tale has a message, which I think actually it probably does not, it is to make the most of your talents and opportunities. A strange tale, and if anyone has come across it and has a view, I'd love to hear it.

The Student (1894)
A student of the clerical academy is walking home. It is cold, and this coldness seems important. He comes upon a couple of widows and tells them about Peter's betrayal of Christ (denying that Peter knows Christ three times before the cock crows). This makes the older widow, the mother, cry, and the younger widow, her daughter, look uncomfortable. The two women must have been moved by the story because what had happened nineteen centuries ago is related to present. The student realises that it was nothing to do with his narration but because the older widow's 'whole being was interested in what was happening in Peter's soul.' Joy stirs in the student's soul and the student thinks that 'the past is linked with the present by an unbroken chain of events flowing one out of the other. And it seemed to him that he had just seen both ends of the chain; that when he touched one end the other quivered.' The story ends by saying that 'life seemed to him enchanting, marvellous and full of lofty meaning.'

There is something about all this that I find oddly thrilling. I'm not sure I understand it all but it is invigorating, somehow, and I'm really glad I read it.


Blogger JL said...

Now, the thing about life being what it is... It is what you make it. I like Chekhov as he finds the dramatic in the everyday, and really, the concept of finding the nobility in the everyday is what makes societies function.

I've been in circumstances wherein the most mundane things took on immense importance; and that is where beauty lies in my opinion, in contrast, and the Slavs understand that as much or more than others.

I like Chekhov. I also like Turgonev (about whom I have a funny story) and Zemyatin.


Thu Feb 21, 03:37:00 am  
Anonymous Clare said...

Yes, JL - that's it exactly - the ordinary made fabulous, that's exactly what he does!

I've not read any Turgonev but have one ready on my shelves. Thanks for the tip.

Thu Feb 21, 01:17:00 pm  

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