Monday, July 25, 2016

`Neither Sweet Nor Simple'

Again, Chekhov is in Nice, in September 1897, taking a room in La Pension Russe on the Rue Gounod:

“Its attraction, apart from cheapness, was its Russian owner (a Mme Vera Krugloleva). The Russian cook was a former serf who had stayed in France thirty years ago when her owners returned to Russia, and now occasionally made the borshch or shchi her guests pined for. She lent the pension mystery: she was married to a negro sailor and had a mulatto daughter, Sonia, who was seen at night as she plied her trade on Nice’s streets.”

Chekhov had an uncanny gift for inhabiting a Chekhovian world, whether in Russia, the French Riviera or Badenweiler, where tuberculosis would kill him in seven years. Our world too is Chekhovian when we read his stories. That is, he reminds us that life is remarkably sad and amusing, usually without a lesson attached, and always interesting in its excitement and tedium, if we pay sufficient attention. Whatever happened to the negro sailor and Sonia? Chekhov might have written their subsequent fate. Even non sequiturs make sense. His final words were: “It’s been such a long time since I had champagne.” His body was shipped home from Germany to Russia in a crate labeled “oysters.” Because of an error in the train schedule, his brother Aleksandr missed the funeral, as he had missed their father’s. More than four thousand mourners accompanied Chekhov’s body on a four-mile procession across Moscow to the cemetery.

The quoted passage above is from Anton Chekhov: A Life (Henry Holt and Co., 1997) by Donald Rayfield, who says of his subject: “Chekhov’s life was short, but neither sweet nor simple.”

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