Saturday, February 23, 2008

Chekhov Short Stories - tenth installment.

The House with the Mansard (1896)
This is an unusual love story. An idle artist falls in love with an idle girl called Missuse (from the name she gave her English governess, Miss Hughes). She is not the beautiful sister, and not the intelligent one, but the one who loves him. Her elder sister, Lida, is stern, intelligent, beautiful and ferocious, and even her mother is in awe of her. Lida teaches at the school, helps with the dispensary and is politically active. The artist is ideologically opposed to this saying that 'medical-aid posts, schools, libraries, dispensaries only serve the cause of enslavement under existing circumstances...the true horror of their situation is that they never have time to think of their souls, of themselves as images of God...' These spiritual activities, he says, distinguish human beings from animals and make life worth living. Giving aid '...enslaves more by introducing fresh superstitions into their lives, you increase their demands, not to mention that the fact that they have to pay the zemstvo for their leeches and their books, and, consequently, to work harder...'

This view is the opposite of that expressed in a previous story, The Teacher of Literature.

Lida and the artist constantly argue and irritate each other, and consequently, when Missuse falls in love with the artist, Lida insists that Missuse and the artist part. Missuse (who does seem to be pathetic, but nevertheless realistic) does not have 'the heart to grieve her by disobedience.' So she leaves for another part of Russia and the artist for St Petersburg. However he never ceases to pine for Missuse, the story ending with 'in moments of loneliness and melancholy, I yield to vague memories, till I gradually begin to feel that I, too, am remembered, that I am being waited for, and that we shall meet...'

The story takes place during one summer, and the weather is used symbolically. During the time of the developing love affair the world is warm and attractive; when Lida has her way autumn is beginning to set in.

The Pencheneg (1897).
An old cossack lives in an isolated farm. He has just suffered a life-threatening stroke and is forced to contemplate, what he believes to be, his imminent death (I just have to remark that this chimes very familiarly with me just now). He encounters a kind hearted unassuming attorney on a train, and since the attorney's destination is fairly close to the cossack's he invited him to stay the night.

The cossack, apparently, has earned the name 'Pencheneg' which alludes to barbarianism, when a previous house-guest left after spending the whole night listening to the cossack's relentless talking.

The character of the cossack is gradually revealed through his one-sided conversation; he is a misogamist ('I don't consider women human beings') who keeps his wife and two sons in an outhouse with the animals; he questions the attorney's vegetarian views at length; and when, after a thunderstorm, the attorney declares he needs some air, follows him outside. He doesn't sleep all night.

The next morning the attorney cannot wait to escape. As he flees on a cart he turns around and for a while he is prevented from calling out something similar to pencheneg as his kindness triumphs. Eventually though, he is stirred up enough to call out ' You bore me to death.'

Although the cossack has repellent views, I cannot help but feel sorry for him, as I feel sorry for many who just talk and talk. It is a need we all seem to have at sometime, I think. At one time or another we are all capable of being a pencheneg.

A Journey by Cart (1897).
This is just as it says - the journey of a school teacher by cart. It is a sad tale because this school teacher has had an unsatisfactory life and now is middle-aged an lonely. As the journey progresses she meets a middle-aged man who she can see is heading for ruin through drink and reflects that it is sad he does not have a woman to look after him; but this is just a transient thought - soon she is back considering aspects of her school. She stops at a tavern and is unregarded until her coachman reprimands a peasant for swearing in front of her; then she is acknowledged by everyone there. It then transpires that the people in her village, including her coachman, regard her as overpaid; and than she had no calling to be a teacher, and the only reason she has been unable to continue in her profession is that she is a beast of burden. 'Those who are sensitive, and impetuous and nervouse, and talk of a mission in life and of advancing a great ideal, soon become exhausted and give up the fight.'

How did Chekhov know all this? As I read it strikes me again and again how modern and familiar everything he writes sounds, to my ears at least.

The story ends poignantly. Her driver is too ambitious and coaxes the horse through too deep a ford and she is soaked. Later they are forced to wait for a train to pass and there the teacher sees a woman standing on the first class balcony and she, at last, remembers her mother, and then a happy family life in Moscow that she had forgotten. She weeps, but could not say why... a very sad and poignant piece.

Style Tip (from Strunk and White)
A singular subject remains singular even if other nouns are connected to it by 'with', 'as well as', 'in addition to', 'except', 'together with' and 'no less than'.

e.g. A teacher, together with most members of the various professions, often works for a higher purpose than just money.

N.B. correction in red - thanks to Karen (see comments).
New Word
hobbledehoy = clumsy or awkward youth


Blogger Dave Lull said...

"You will not find a better description of the type [i.e. hobbledehoy] than in Anthony Trollope’s The Small House at Allington" says Michael Quinion:

“Such young men are often awkward, ungainly, and not yet formed in their gait; they straggle with their limbs, and are shy; words do not come to them with ease, when words are required, among any but their accustomed associates. Social meetings are periods of penance to them, and any appearance in public will unnerve them. They go much about alone, and blush when women speak to them. In truth, they are not as yet men, whatever the number may be of their years; and, as they are no longer boys, the world has found for them the ungraceful name of hobbledehoy”.

Sun Feb 24, 04:58:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Exactly so, Dave - that's Hodmandod Minor to a tee. Excellent quote, thank you.

Actually, thinking about it, that description covers quite a few men I've known, as the quote says, 'whatever the number may be of their years'. It is endearing, I think.

Sun Feb 24, 05:09:00 pm  
Blogger Karen said...

Re your S&W tip, wouldn't your example need to say "works" instead of "work" to go with the singular subject "teacher"?

Mon Feb 25, 01:50:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Whoops, yes, you're right! Thanks Karen (she says, mightily embarrassed). I shall correct.

Mon Feb 25, 01:54:00 pm  

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