Friday, April 14, 2017

`We Began a Conversation About Literature'

Here is an anecdote about Anton Chekhov that reads like one of his stories, recounted by Ivan A. Belousov (1863-1930), a Moscow-born poet and translator. The story is collected in Memories of Chekhov (edited and translated by Peter Sekirin, 2011).

Late in the evening, Chekhov is seated by his fireplace, lost in thought, when the maid calls him. He walks out of the room, leaving Belousov alone. Chekhov returns, explains that he has seen a new patient, and says: “I saw her for the first time in my life. She needed a prescription for a medicine that can be poisonous. They can only dispense it from a pharmacy with a prescription.” Belousov asks, “You did not write it, did you?” Chekhov says nothing at first. He adds wood to the fire and says:

“Maybe this is better for her. I looked into her eyes, and understood that she had made a decision. There is a big river not far from here, and the Stone Bridge. If she jumps, she would be in great pain before she died. With the poison, she would be better off.”

Belousov concludes his story: “He was silent. We grew silent as well. Then, to change the subject, we began a conversation about literature.”

The story’s veracity is unknown. Has Chekhov violated the Hippocratic Oath? Did he voluntarily enable what we would call “assisted suicide”? Why did he not, instead, diagnose and treat his patient? Was prescribing the toxic medicine an act of kindness?

It’s the dying fall at the end of Belousov’s story – “we began a conversation about literature” – that feels most Chekhovian. After the drama, we’re given not a gloss or summation but a non sequitur. In “A Story without an End” (trans. Constance Garnett, 1886), Chekhov describes the attempted suicide of an actor, Vassilyev, who shoots himself once in the side after his wife has died. He recites lines from Hamlet while lying on the floor, bleeding. The narrator calls him a “poser” despite his wound. At the end, he gives Vassilyev a copy of the story we have almost finished reading – an uncharacteristically self-reflexive device for a Chekhov story. It concludes:

“`How will it end?’ I ask myself aloud.

“Vassilyev, whistling and straightening his tie, walks off into the drawing-room, and I look after him, and feel vexed. For some reason I regret his past sufferings, I regret all that I felt myself on that man’s account on that terrible night. It is as though I had lost something . . .”

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