Sunday, February 23, 2020

"The Kiss" (1887)

This story by Anton Chekhov is lighthearted in its premise, almost sitcom material in a way, yet the yearning for connection, pathetic or otherwise, is where it somehow finds a strange fascination. It focuses on a small event that is improbable but not unlikely. A lot of us might have stories like it. A traveling brigade of soldiers puts up in a small village and the local land baron invites them to tea. It's mostly a matter of social obligation on both sides. The retired General von Rabbek is entertaining others as well at the same time and his hospitality is perfunctory. The officers briefly meet the general and his wife and then they are on their own. Ryabovitch, our hero, is young, shy, and inexperienced. He can't stand the crowd and follows some others to the billiard-room, where he is ignored. It is still some time before supper will be served, so he wanders off, exploring the mansion. He enters a room so dark he can't see. Then he realizes someone else is there. It's a woman. "At last!" she says, embracing and kissing him. Then she realizes her mistake, shrieks, and Ryabovitch leaves the room. He never sees her face or dress or anything that can identify her. He remembers everything about the moment—the lotion she wore, a drop of peppermint oil on his cheek, the sense of her presence. He will live on this experience for weeks, though he has no idea who she is and knows well she was in the room to meet someone else. Yet he spins out a life of happiness and marriage with her. It is a boost of confidence to a very shy man. He fights with his rational self for the meaning of the incident. In the end, when he returns weeks or months later to the village, his rational side appears to have won. But we also know how hard it is to vanquish the irrational. I like how Chekhov isolates the desire in such a hopeless situation. Not only does Ryabovitch have no idea who she is, but he already knows she's likely a philanderer. But he remembers her in his arms, kissing him, the lotion and the peppermint oil. In spite of everything it augurs hope and promise.

Delphi Complete Works of Anton Chekhov

No comments:

Post a Comment