Sunday, July 05, 2020

'Courage, Curiosity and Affection for Human Beings'

Who among the Russian masters wrote this?:

“Masha! Hurry home, because your absence has caused our intensive domestic economy to fall into utter disarray. There is nothing to eat, the flies have taken over, there is an appalling miasma emanating from the WC, the mongoose has smashed a pot of preserves, and so on and so forth.”

There’s a Marxian (as in Groucho) feel to the scene that might suggest Gogol. Call it comedic chaos. Babel? Bulgakov? It’s easier to deduce who didn’t write it: Tolstoy, Turgenev, not even Dostoevsky in one of his more anarchic, Dickensian passages. Here’s another sample, another clue:

“Spider Man busies himself from morning to night with his spiders. He has already itemized five spider legs, now there are only three to go. When he has finished with the spiders, he will start work on the fleas, which he is going to catch on his aunt.”

You know by now it’s Chekhov. His taste for silliness – what the professors used to call The Absurd – resembles our own. He relishes our (and his) frequent ridiculousness. He’s writing on this date, July 5, in 1891, from the village of Bogimovo in Kaluga Governorate, where he spent that summer. An 1896 story, “An Artist's Story” (trans. Constance Garnett; also titled “The House with the Mezzanine”) is said to be set in Bogimovo, 115 miles south of Moscow. “Masha” is his younger sister, Maria Pavlovna Chekhova (1863-1957), who outlived him by fifty-three years.

The translators tell us “Spider Man” is the zoologist Vladimir Vagner. The mongoose had been adopted by Chekhov in Ceylon, during his return trip the previous year from Sakhalin Island. To Ivan Leontiev he had written about his Rikki-Tiki-Tavis on Dec. 10, 1890:

“[I]f you only knew what sweet animals I’ve brought back from India with me! Two mongooses, about the size of a young cat, most cheerful and lively beasts. Their qualities are: courage, curiosity and affection for human beings. They will take on a rattlesnake and always win, they are not afraid of anyone or anything; as for their curiosity, if there are any parcels or bundles in the room they will not leave a single one untied; whenever they meet a new person the first thing they do is wriggle into his pockets to have a look and see what’s there. If you leave them alone in a room they start to  cry.”

One hears self-identification in Chekhov’s description of his beloved mongooses.     

[You’ll find the quoted letters in A Life in Letters (trans. Rosamund Bartlett and Anthony Phillips, Penguin, 2004).]


Jeff Gee said...

I will do my best to work "there is an appalling miasma emanating from the WC" into a conversation as soon as I appropriately can. Which, since I work at a creamery located on a dairy farm, will be very soon...

Thomas Parker said...

My first guess was correct! What do I win?

Baceseras said...

Shouldn't the curious mongooses be untying parcels rather than tying them? But "they will not leave a single one untied" -- is it the translators' slip, or Chekhov's own?