Monday, January 21, 2013

`And Suddenly -- Sparks!'

Reading Chekhov again. His stories, like Kipling’s, never lose flavor and never disappoint. They grow as we grow or, rather, we grow into them, like clothing handed down from an older sibling when we’re kids. As we bring more experience to them, their elasticity accommodates us, and we come to understand the experience and the story more deeply. We trust we’ll never outgrow them. “Peasants,” from 1897, is about thirty pages long in the Constance Garnett translation (The Witch and Other Stories, 1918). It’s about Nikolay Tchikildyeev, a waiter in Moscow who becomes mysteriously ill and expects to die. Through it runs a seam of Chekhovian comedy: 

“His legs went numb and his gait was affected, so that on one occasion, as he was going along the corridor, he tumbled and fell down with a tray full of ham and peas. He had to leave his job.” 

Since last reading “Peasants,” I’ve learned something about the comedy of ill health, and I’ve renewed my appreciation for Chekhov’s narrative economy. While still in the first paragraph, Tchikildyeev leaves Moscow and returns to his native village, Zhukovo. “Peasants” is not protest literature, despite the title. Chekhov writes about people, not classes or case studies. Here’s a paragraph from late in the story that mingles reportage, comedy and satire: 

“On Elijah’s Day they drank, at the Assumption they drank, at the Ascension they drank. The Feast of the Intercession was the parish holiday for Zhukovo, and the peasants used to drink then for three days; they squandered on drink fifty roubles of money belonging to the Mir, and then collected more for vodka from all the households…Kiryak was fearfully drunk for three whole days; he drank up everything, even his boots and cap, and beat Marya so terribly that they had to pour water over her.” 

Vodka quietly suffuses the story but “Peasants” is not a temperance tract. Books have probably been written about vodka and the way it permeates Russian literature, especially in Dostoevsky. In my personal mythology, vodka is the quintessential intoxicant, pure, insidiously effective and corrosive of mind and body. A man will give up everything for it. In my family when I was a boy, the drinks of choice were the makings of a boilermaker, beer and whisky, known as “beer and a bump.” Vodka came later and seemed exotic in its colorless, odorless potency. 

Last May in Poland, I attended a family wedding. The reception in a country inn lasted two days. On the tables, supplementing the kegs of beer and carafes of wine, the young waiters and waitresses set up cases of quarts of vodka. They looked like condiments. Wedding celebrants, most of them Poles and Germans, drank rivers of vodka by the shot. I saw enormous quantities consumed, and much dancing and singing and general carousing but no fights or other melodramas. The Poles have a lot of practice, and for centuries the argument over who invented vodka, Poles or Russians, has raged. The Russians contend that the very name derives from voda, their word for water. The Poles counter that wodka is rooted in woda, Polish for water. Both pose sold claims, etymologically and culturally. In another story, “The Siren,” Chekhov, in the voice of a court stenographer, lovingly anatomizes the etiquette of Russian vodka consumption. Experienced consumers will nod their heads: 

“…when you sit down you should immediately put a napkin around your neck and then, very slowly, reach for the carafe of vodka. Now you don't pour the dear stuff into any old glass ... oh no! You must pour it into an antediluvian glass made of silver, one which belonged to your grandfather, or into a pot-bellied glass bearing the inscription `Even Monks Imbibe!’ And you don't drink the vodka down right away. No, sir. First you take a deep breath, wipe your hands, and glance up at the ceiling to demonstrate your indifference. Only then do you raise that vodka slowly to your lips and suddenly -- sparks! They fly from your stomach to the furthest reaches of your body.”

1 comment:

Roger Boylan said...

If I had to choose between my ancestral Bushmills and a bottle of decent Polish vodka--Belvedere, Sobieski, Monopolowa--I'd go for the "little water" every time. For one thing, it mixes a lot better with tomato juice, worcestershire sauce, and Tabasco.