Friday, December 30, 2016

`Like Everything Else on Earth, of Short Duration'

During a railway journey across Russia, Anton Chekhov, age twenty-seven, writes to his family in April 1887:

“A young woman (or a lady, who knows?) in a white blouse was sitting at the end window of the second floor [of a train station], languorous and beautiful. I looked at her, she looked at me . . . I put on my pince-nez, she put on hers . . . Oh miraculous vision! My heart leapt and I continued on my way.” (trans. Rosamund Bartlett and Anthony Phillips, Anton Chekhov: A Life in Letters, 2004)

A familiar experience: spying for moments a beautiful woman from afar, and never seeing her again. Flaubert rendered it in Frédéric Moreau. I remember sitting in a bus on West 25th Street in Cleveland while the driver waited for the light to change. It was the summer of 1970, and I watched a woman walk by on the sidewalk. She was beautiful, not unlike a thousand other women, and I recall the sight of her in embarrassing detail. Even cynics indulge in private romanticism.

A year after writing the letter to his family, Chekhov published “The Beauties” (trans. Constance Garnett), a two-part story that recounts two experiences similar to his vision in the train station. In the first part, the narrator, a boy in high school, is riding with his grandfather in a horse-drawn wagon to Rostov-on-the-Don. The day is hot and dusty. They stop at an Armenian village to feed the horses, drink tea and rest. They are waited on by the innkeeper’s beautiful daughter:
“I felt this beauty rather strangely. It was not desire, nor ecstacy, nor enjoyment that Masha excited in me, but a painful though pleasant sadness. It was a sadness vague and undefined as a dream. For some reason I felt sorry for myself, for my grandfather and for the Armenian, even for the girl herself, and I had a feeling as though we all four had lost something important and essential to life which we should never find again.”

Without exchanging words, the boy and his grandfather leave the inn and the girl, never to see her again. Before their departure, Chekhov describes the sensation with clinical precision:

“And the oftener she fluttered by me with her beauty, the more acute became my sadness. I felt sorry both for her and for myself and for the Little Russian, who mournfully watched her every time she ran through the cloud of chaff to the carts. Whether it was envy of her beauty, or that I was regretting that the girl was not mine, and never would be, or that I was a stranger to her; or whether I vaguely felt that her rare beauty was accidental, unnecessary, and, like everything on earth, of short duration; or whether, perhaps, my sadness was that peculiar feeling which is excited in man by the contemplation of real beauty, God only knows.”

The second part of the story is set in a train station, similar to the one Chekhov describes in the letter to his family. This time, the young woman is bewitching without being a classic beauty. Except for her hair, “all the other features were either irregular or very ordinary.” The narrator is smitten, rather, by “the combination of the subtle grace of her movements with her youth, her freshness, the purity of her soul that sounded in her laugh and voice, and with the weakness we love so much in children, in birds, in fawns, and in young trees.” He sees her for the last time as his train pulls away. Chekhov makes wistfulness almost acceptable. He reminds me of the closing lines of an appropriately titled Nabokov story, “A Russian Beauty” (A Russian Beauty and Other Stories, 1973), first published in Russian in 1934: 

“That’s all. Of course, there may be some sort of sequel, but it is not known to me. In such cases, instead of getting bogged down in guesswork, I repeat the words of the merry king in my favorite fairy tale: Which arrow flies forever? The arrow that has hit its mark.”

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