Friday, August 07, 2009

`He Caught People in Their Solitude'

“The mark of genius is an incessant activity of mind. Genius is a spiritual greed.”

This is V.S. Pritchett on Chekhov in his essay “A Doctor,” the first thing I thought of when I read Nige’s account of reading “A Dreary Story” (in Ronald Hingley's translation). Nige also links to the portion of Pritchett’s Chekhov: A Spirit Set Free (1988) devoted to the story. On Thursday, the last day of Cub Scout camp, I reread “A Boring Story” (its title in the Richard Pevear/Larissa Volokhonsky translation) throughout the day, in the woods, surrounded by screaming boys.

A 62-year-old professor of medicine (the story is subtitled “From an Old Man’s Notes”), Nikolai Stepanovich, knows he is soon to die. Chekhov was a doctor and only 29 years old when he wrote “A Boring Story,” and it often has been read autobiographically. There’s truth to this, but it’s an oblique and fragmentary truth. Take this passage late in the 52-page story:

“In my predilection for science, in my wish to live, in this sitting on a strange bed and trying to know myself, in all the thoughts, feelings, and conceptions I form about everything, something general is lacking that would unite it all into a single whole. Each feeling and thought lives separately in me, and in all my opinions about science, the theater, literature, students, and in all the pictures drawn by my imagination, even the most skillful analyst would be unable to find what is known as a general idea or the god of the living man.”

On the story’s literal level, this is Nikolai Stepanovich castigating himself for his failures as physician, teacher and man, though it might also be read as Chekhov’s covert credo as an artist. Unlike other Russian writers – certainly unlike Tolstoy and Dostoevsky – Chekhov was constitutionally averse to general ideas, schemes and ideologies, whether political, social or religious. Nikolai Stepanovich’s confession reads like a condemnation of Chekhov’s stories and plays by one of his Russian critics. On a related theme, see “Chekhov & Tolstoy,” an essay by Anthony Daniels (aka Theodore Dalrymple) comparing “A Dreary Story” and Tolstoy’s better known and less successful “The Death of Ivan Illych”:

“`A Dreary Story’ offers no epiphany, no suggestion--as Tolstoy's story does--that if only men would learn to live in such and such a way, and not to chase after false gods, then their lives would be entirely satisfactory, without anxiety or a nagging sense of incompleteness.”

While eating my dinner and reading “A Boring Story,” an old man sat across from me at the picnic table. His grandsons are Cub Scouts and his son is a scout leader, and he seemed like a quietly affable fellow. I asked what he did for a living, and he said he had owned a construction company and built custom homes. I asked if he had sold the business, as he had spoken in the past tense, and he said, “When I lost my son…” and began to weep silently. His shoulders shook and he covered his eyes. He explained that his younger son, a 34-year-old track coach, had suffered a fatal heart attack five years ago. “After that, I didn’t care about anything,” he said. “There was nothing left.” In “A Doctor,” Pritchett writes:

“Like a great many, perhaps all Russian writers of the nineteenth century, Chekhov caught people at the point of idleness and inertia in their undramatic moment when time is seen passing through them and the inner life exposes itself unguardedly in speech. He caught people in their solitude.”


ricpic said...

" 'A Dreary Story' offers no epiphany..."

To me this is Chekov's greatest strength. He refuses a lesson and offers no instructions. Nietzsche wrote that, "The will to a system signifies a lack of integrity." Chekov's integrity is total.

Anonymous said...

Tolstoy the storyteller shows us, often with surgical precision, what we are up against in life. If he also nods by telling us how we ought to live, I can live with that.

I appreciate your mention of Chekhov's "A Boring Story". I have not read any Chekhov, but am adding this story to my reading list.


Richie said...

I am reading the same story while vacationing in a place that expresses all the bourgeois values that really annoy Chekhov's narrator.It can be a cruel story, but still emotional. Chekhov vividly and painfully depicts the longing the narrator feels for the beauty he married who turned into the materialist with whom he must cope. He lampoons the futility of science. All and all the story is a wonder of free judgment and convincing detail. And, like many Chekhov and Gogol stories, an introduction to Russian life, institutions and values.