Why we should read Part 36

"Hugeous," "Thank you most dumbly," were among the sallies of wit which Ivan hurled at his audience from time to time.

The object of the story is as usual to emphasise the uselessness of the narrow lives of the inhabitants of a provincial town where men and women did absolutely nothing, took no interest in anything and looked askance at anyone who tried to speak intelligently on any topic of importance.

There was nothing to do except eat and play vint. Tchehov shows us these people growing older but otherwise changing not at all, dragging down to their level even those who in their youth endeavoured to break loose from the bondage of aimlessness and inertia.

There is, however, a side of Tchehov which one would not expect in so relentless a realist. In _The Black Monk_ we cross the border of the unseen and are in the society of mystics. No writer has so severely handled those who rely on old wives' fables and ignorant superst.i.tions, but in this story he probes far down into the spiritual world and comes into line with Dostoievsky in a field which we are astonished to see him approach.

The phantom that appears periodically to Kovrin and so enhances his happiness may be an hallucination: it is completely in the vein of Smerdyakov and Ivan _The Brothers Karamazov_, though the conclusions are very different.

"'And what is the object of eternal life?'" asks Kovrin of the black monk, and the spirit answers: "'As of all life--enjoyment. True enjoyment lies in knowledge, and eternal life provides innumerable and inexhaustible sources of knowledge, and in that sense it has been said: "In my Father's house there are many mansions."'"

One of Tchehov's most remarkable traits is his capacity for getting right inside the very body of his characters. In _An Anonymous Story_, with a sureness of touch that we can only wonder at, he paints for us the hardships of a flunkey's life. Just as Turgenev seems to have been able to see into the most secret recesses of a young girl's heart, so Tchehov can put on the guise of an old man or a young boy lover, a jealous wife or an unfaithful husband, a garrulous father or a f.e.c.kless waster at will, and actually become them for ten, twenty, fifty pages at a time without once giving us a chance to doubt the truth of his creation.

There are moments when we imagine that he leans rather to that side of life which we a.s.sociate with authorship, hatred of domesticity. So many of his characters fall foul of conjugal relationships, but it is one of his worst characters who says that love is only a simple physical need, like the need for food or clothes, and instances the French workman who spends ten sous on dinner, five sous on wine, five or ten sous on women, and devotes his brain and nerves entirely to his work, and it is surely the voice of Tchehov himself who replies: "'Your everlasting attacks on female logic, lying, weakness and so on--doesn't it look like a desire at all costs to force woman down into the mud that she may be on the same level as your att.i.tude to her?'"

There are many places in this long "anonymous story" where Tchehov himself seems to be speaking to us across the footlights. It is his voice again that I hear in Zinaida's "'The meaning of life is to be found only in one thing--fighting. To get one's heel on the vile head of the serpent and to crush it. That's the meaning of life. In that alone or in nothing.'"

In the pseudo-valet's "'One can serve an idea in more than one calling.

If one has made a mistake and lost faith in one, one may find another.'"

And once more in "'Man finds his true destiny in nothing if not in self-sacrificing love for his neighbour.'" And lastly in the same man's "'All I ask for is an objective att.i.tude to life: the more objective, the less danger of falling into error. One must look into the root of things and try to see in every phenomenon a cause of all the other causes. We have grown feeble, slack--degraded, in fact. Our generation is entirely composed of neurasthenics and whimperers: we do nothing but talk of fatigue and exhaustion. Life is only given us once and one wants to live it boldly, with full consciousness and beauty. One wants to play a striking, independent, n.o.ble part: one wants to make history so that those generations may not have the right to say of each of us that we were nonent.i.ties or worse.... Why should my ego be lost?'"

But if I had to select one characteristic story of Tchehov's to ill.u.s.trate his method more perfectly than any other I should choose _The Husband_. It is simply on account of a tax-collector and his wife going to a dance held in honour of the coming of a regiment to the town. The wife under the influence of the music, the drink and the unaccustomed society begins to revel in the function: her husband immediately orders her to return home, merely to satisfy a whim.

The final paragraphs of the story, in which we see the wretched couple walking home in the dark, the mud slushing under their feet, choking with hatred of each other, are inimitable.

The fourth volume of tales is called _The Party_, and contains a wonderful story called _Terror_, in which we again get Tchehov's favourite plot of a man making love to his friend's wife.

The terror lies in the fact that the man loves his wife while she is indifferent to him and gives herself to her husband's friend, who leaves her as soon as he has won her.

In _A Woman's Kingdom_ he reverts to machinery and capital, and in pa.s.sing introduces a very sound criticism of Maupa.s.sant's work.

_The Kiss_, which is just the story of an officer being kissed in the dark in mistake for somebody else, is a supreme example of Tchehov's genius in making a completely successful story out of the merest trifle.

_The Teacher of Literature_ is a man who chafes, as so many of Tchehov's heroes do, at the littleness of life. "I am surrounded," he writes in his diary, "by vulgarity, and vulgarity. Wearisome, insignificant people, pots of sour cream, jugs of milk, c.o.c.kroaches, stupid women....

There is nothing more terrible, mortifying, and distressing than vulgarity. I must escape--I must escape."

In volume five _The Wife_ is a poignantly pathetic story of a man who loves his wife desperately but meets with no response to his affection; it differs from other tales of the same sort in that the wife in this case states most plainly and forcibly exactly why they fail to get on.

"'You bring suffocation, oppression,'" she says, "'something insulting and humiliating to the utmost degree. Law and morality are such that a self-respecting healthy young woman has to spend her life in idleness, in depression, and in continual apprehension, and to receive board and lodging from a man she does not love.'"

_Difficult People_ shows us, as Tchehov is fond of doing, a family in the process of bickering and squabbling from day to day.

_The Gra.s.shopper_ is the picture of a married girl who jumps from one lover to another, only realising the purity and greatness of her husband when he dies heroically.

_A Dreary Story_ is the notebook of an old man who is about to die, having achieved fame but not found happiness. In this story there is a magnificent description of the fascination of lecturing.

"'No kind of sport,'" he concludes, "'no kind of game or diversion, has ever given me such enjoyment as lecturing. Only at lectures have I been able to abandon myself entirely to pa.s.sion, and have understood that inspiration is not an invention of the poets, but exists in real life, and I imagine Hercules after the most piquant of his exploits felt just such voluptuous exhaustion as I experience after every lecture.'"

We feel again that some autobiographical thread of the author's is creeping in when he makes his old man say: '"I am interested in nothing but science. I still believe that science is the most important, the most splendid, the most essential thing in the life of man: that it always has been and will be the highest manifestation of love, and that only by means of it will man conquer himself and nature.'"

The remaining stories in the volume, which are peculiar in that they are linked by having characters in common, dwell on the evils of Tchehov's days, the listlessness of the educated public, the refusal to break out of the case or the groove, the general hypnotism and blindness to suffering of the so-called happy.

"'There ought to be,'" says the hero in _Gooseberries_, "'behind the door of every happy, contented man someone standing with a hammer continually reminding him with a tap that there are unhappy people.'"

We learn in _About Love_ that Tchehov's apprenticeship to medicine "taught me one invaluable lesson as an artist, to individualise each case."

In the sixth and last volume we have _The Witch_, which gives its name to the volume, which is parallel with _The Chemist's Wife_ in that it again shows a wife dissatisfied with her husband endeavouring to secure a moment's romance with a postman who has lost his way.

_Peasant Wives_ dwells on the unfaithfulness of women, and in _Agafya_ he reverts to the style and plot of _The Witch_.

_Gusev_ is a horrible story of a man dying at sea: when dead his body is sewn up and thrown into the water, where he is eaten by a shark.

_In the Ravine_ is a picture of a girl not very different in her calculated brutality and heartlessness from Regan and Goneril: it is one of the most powerful stories that Tchehov ever wrote.

As a short story-writer Tchehov stands in a unique position. He relies very little on plot, he is interested only in characters: every one of his creations stands out definitely and clearly, and though he points no moral it is easy to come to quite certain conclusions with regard to his own view on life.

He obviously regards women as frail, easily dissatisfied, just as he looks upon the men of his age as invertebrate, lacking in energy, ideals, or any sense of the n.o.bility of work.

His scenic descriptions are clear-cut and beautiful, not less effective because they are so sparingly used.

He is obviously puzzled by the why and wherefore of existence, and refuses to shut his eyes when he finds himself confronted by uncomfortable truths.

But his main feature is his incurable optimism. He has no very great opinion of the men of his own day, but it is easy to see that he has unbounded faith in the future, and to stigmatise such a writer as "gloomy" only betrays the impotence and wrong-headedness of the critic.

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