Wednesday, December 17, 2008

`Foiling More Pretentious Emotion'

Stories about Christmas invite a reassuring formula: The main character must lose all, repent and – now chastened and forgiven -- regain everything. Think of A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life. It’s a primordial fantasy some of us furtively hope is true. How refreshing, then, to read a Christmas story that ignores the formula and proceeds on the assumption that life during the holidays is just as grimly comic as it is the rest of the year. I’m speaking of “At Christmas Time,” one of Chekhov’s last stories, published in 1900.

Vasilisa is illiterate. She hasn’t seen her daughter Yefimya in four years, since the girl married and moved to Petersburg with her husband. Christmas has come and Vasilisa hires Yegor, the brother of the innkeeper’s wife, to write a letter to Yefimya for a fee of 15 kopecks. Yegor addresses the letter to her husband, Andrey Hrisanfitch, a porter at a “hydropathic establishment.” Vasilisa can think of nothing to say so Yegor begins writing nonsense, confident she won’t be able to read it. The next morning Vasilisa and her elderly husband travel eight or nine miles to mail the letter.

In the Constance Garnett translation, the story is only eight pages long, though Chekhov divides it into two numbered sections. Mailing the letter is the end of part one. The second opens on New Year’s Day at Dr. B.O. Mozelweiser’s hydropathic establishment. The porter, Andrey Hrisanfitch, welcomes a dotty general who has come for his water treatment. The letter arrives. The porter opens it and gives it to his wife who is busy taking care of their three children. She reads the beginning of the letter and begins crying:

“Andrey Hrisanfitch, hearing this, recalled that his wife had on three or four occasions given him letters and asked him to send them to the country, but some important business had always prevented him; he had not sent them, and the letters somehow got lost.”

Yefimya resumes reading but hears her husband’s footsteps approaching:

“She was very much frightened of him -- oh, how frightened of him! She trembled and was reduced to terror by the sound of his steps, by the look in his eyes, and dared not utter a word in his presence.”

The dotty general returns and for the second time asks Andrey Hrisanfitch what’s behind a closed door in the clinic. The porter answers, in the story’s final words, “Charcot douche, your Excellency!” For a partial explanation, go here to read a 1901 textbook entry devoted to this dubious health regimen.

In the hands of another writer, this brief story could have been turned into a sermon on the evils of domestic abuse – The Color Purple dressed up in ushanka and valenki. Instead, Chekhov gives us greasy mendacity by the letter’s writer, Yegory, and its brutal addressee, Andrey Hrisanfitch, compounded by fear and ignorance. Throughout, the story is laced with comedy – the letter’s nonsensical contents, the bumbling general, the porter’s sycophancy.

“At Christmas Time” is one of only two stories Chekhov published in 1900, the other being an undisputed masterpiece, the novella-length “In the Ravine.” In his final three and a half years he wrote only two additional stories – “The Bishop” (1901) and “Betrothed” (1903) – and devoted most of his time to the theater. After more than a century, “At Christmas Time” remains an uneasy mixture of misery and humor, one Chekhov often employed. His reasons were mostly temperamental – that’s how he saw the world – but this strategy also acts as a buffer against sentimentality and other unearned effects.

Philip Larkin wrote of Barbara Pym: “Amusement is constantly foiling more pretentious emotion.”

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