Monday, February 08, 2010

`Comic Variousness and Oddity'

“He was remarkable for always wearing galoshes and a warm wadded coat, and carrying an umbrella even in the very finest weather. And his umbrella was in a case, and his watch was in a case made of grey chamois leather, and when he took out his penknife to sharpen his pencil, his penknife, too, was in a little case; and his face seemed to be in a case too, because he always hid it in his turned up collar.”

We know the type, in life and literature. Could this be a thumbnail portrait in Gogol? Dickens? Isaac Bashevis Singer? Could it be the furtive little man in the apartment down the hall? The shoe salesman or that skinny clerk in accounting? It’s Belikov, the Greek master in Chekhov’s “The Man in a Case.” This is Chekhov the caricaturist, the brisk cartoonist of character, though the story was written in his maturity as a writer, in 1898. As a teenager, ranging for the first time among the world’s storytellers, I relished the deft capturing of character. This was among fiction’s first attractions – a core sample of a person, as unique as fingerprints, in a few sentences. I found it reliably in Bellow, Tolstoy, Faulkner and Chekhov.

I reread “The Man in a Case” after reading James Lasdun’s “The Wonder of Chekhov” on Saturday. My translation is Constance Garnett’s. Lasdun uses another in which the title is “A Hard Case.” He writes:

“However tragic or despicable or exasperating the moralist in [Chekhov] found the world, the writer in him was constantly drawn to its comic variousness and oddity. No other writer has evoked boredom, dreariness, ennui with such richly entertaining specificity. Who but Chekhov could have conceived a story such as `A Hard Case,’ built around a living embodiment of stifling conventionality in the person of Belikov, who reduces a whole town to his own state of cowering joylessness before the inhabitants finally turn against him? The exorcising of such baleful spirits seems to have been one of the primal drives underlying the production of the 800-odd stories Chekhov left behind: happiness, in his work, almost always occurs against an encroaching darkness that requires constant warding off. In life he was known as an aficionado of jokes, pranks, festivities, the burlesque spirit in general.”

One of the after-effects of reading Chekhov is growing hyper-sensitive to the ridiculousness of the human realm. On Saturday, the landlord and I spent seven hours drilling holes and pumping insulation into the walls of our house. We felt like Laurel and Hardy, except both of us were Laurels – hapless amateurs, well-intentioned ittle boys outclassed by machines, dolts pretending we knew what we were doing, a couple of Belikovs, Chichikovs, Gimpels, Tommy Wilhelms. We spent the itchy, sweaty time telling each other stories that didn’t make us look good – the best kind.

At the end of Chekhov’s story (told by a character in the framing story), after Belikov’s death, the town of Mironositskoe rejoices. Berkin the schoolmaster says:

“`We returned from the cemetery in a good humour. But not more than a week had passed before life went on as in the past, as gloomy, oppressive, and senseless – a life not forbidden by government prohibition, but not fully permitted, either: it was no better. And, indeed, though we had buried Byelikov, how many such men in cases were left, how many more of them there will be!”

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