Sunday, September 01, 2013

`Things Stand By Themselves'

Vanya is thirteen, thin, pale, no scholar, probably a fool. Beyond a doubt, Vanya’s mother and aunt and their lodger, Yevtihy Kuzmitch Kuporossov, are fools; but worse, violently self-centered. They act out of unexamined impulses with little thought for their impact on others. The mother is feckless and self-pitying, a sadist-at-one-remove, happy to enlist another to inflict her abuse. Aunt Nastenka argues with the mother not in defense of the boy but in favor of him going “into business” at age thirteen like her son Kuzya. (“Five hundred roubles is worth having, isn’t it?”)  When, in Chekhov’s “The Classical Student” (The Cook’s Wedding and Other Stories, trans. Constance Garnett, 1922), Vanya fails his examination in Greek, his mother’s tirade is a tour-de-force of maternal nastiness: 

“`No, it’s not you but I who am miserable, you wretched boy! It’s I that am miserable! You’ve worn me to a threadpaper, you Herod, you torment, you bane of my life! I pay for you, you good-for-nothing rubbish; I’ve bent my back toiling for you, I’m worried to death, and, I may say, I am unhappy, and what do you care?’” 

This is early Chekhov, written in 1884 for the newspapers. At four and a half pages, it’s deftly sketched, mostly dialogue, a snapshot at once unhappy and comic, indelible in the reader’s memory. Who can forget Yevtihy Kuzmitch, seated in his room reading “Dancing Self-taught.” He is, the narrator tells us, “a man of intelligence and education. He spoke through his nose, washed with a soap the smell of which made everyone in the house sneeze, ate meat on fast days, and was on the look-out for a bride of refined education, and so was considered the cleverest of the lodgers.” We know him and are not surprised to learn he enthusiastically thrashes Vanya with his belt. The story concludes: 

“Vanya did not utter a single sound. At the family council in the evening, it was decided to send him into business.” 

In “The Two Gides” (The Age of Enormity, 1962), Isaac Rosenfeld contrasts Chekhov with the Frenchman: 

“Things stand by themselves [in Chekhov]; the writer need not present himself. The whiskers, shoes, trousers, medals, and watch fobs with which Chekhov loads his pages, the snatches of dialogue and plot, the sometimes silly notations, answer for the man. Imagination does the work for him of defining his relationship to the world. Whatever Chekhov touches becomes his own object, and it is in the confidence that he has left his mark that he absents himself with the observation that a certain lady wears a lorgnette, a certain gentleman, a fur collar.”

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