A reader followed up on my mention of “Gusev” and read the Richard Pevear/Larissa Volokhonsky translation in Stories. He writes:
“This line from the story caught my attention: `Life can't be repeated, it must be cherished.’ Don't do this enough.”
The honest among us would agree. A well-nursed gift for grievance makes cherishing anything difficult. My student has a gastrostomy, a surgical opening into her stomach. On her abdomen is a feeding button. Twice each school day I open the button and attach a feeding tube and syringe, and into it I pour the contents of a ten-ounce can of formula and four ounces of water. The procedure takes about fifteen minutes. Unlike some of the kids, my student, who cannot speak, sits quietly and doesn’t fidget. She plays with a button or zipper on her sweater, worrying it with thumbs and index fingers.
Three others kids in the room are also tube-fed but take no solid food. Most mornings my student eats a half-cup of yogurt or applesauce, which I feed her with a spoon. She doesn’t chew, and swallows with difficulty. She weighs eighty-three pounds and is almost nineteen years old.
In “Gusev,” the title character is an orderly returning aboard a ship to Russia after service in the Far East. Gusev, like Chekhov, is sick with consumption. Most of the story consists of his conversations in the ship’s infirmary with another soldier, Pavel Ivanych, and his increasingly hallucinatory visions of life at home. Pavel Ivanych angrily complains about everything. Gusev is good-natured, optimistic, big-hearted. When Pavel Ivanych dies, a soldier asks Gusev, “Will God rest his soul or not?” Gusev answers:
“He will…he suffered long. And another thing, he was from the clerical estate, and priests have big families. They’ll pray for him.”
When told he is soon to die Gusev feels “eerie” and suffers from “some sort of yearning.” He is not frightened but dismayed. Gusev likens his state of mind to “sitting in a dark forest.” Chekhov writes:
“He dreams that they have just taken the bread out of the oven in the barracks, and he gets into the oven and has a steambath, lashing himself with birch branches. He sleeps for two days, and on the third day two sailors come from topside and carry him out of the sick bay.”
Gusev’s body is sewn into a canvas sack weighted with iron bars, and slid overboard off a plank. A shark rips open the sack. Here is Chekhov’s final paragraph, one of the loveliest and most mysterious I know:
“And up above just then, on the side where the sun goes down, clouds are massing; one cloud resembles a triumphal arch, another a lion, a third a pair of scissors…A broad green shaft comes from behind the clouds and stretches to the very middle of the sky; shortly afterwards a violet shaft lies next to it, then a golden one, then a pink one…The sky turns a soft lilac. Seeing this magnificent, enchanting sky, the ocean frowns at first, but soon itself takes on such tender, joyful, passionate colors as human tongue can hardly name.”