Sunday, May 31, 2020

"Rothschild's Fiddle" (1894)

It's short and even obvious in some ways, but Anton Chekhov loaded a tremendous amount into this story. Yukov, the main character—Rothschild is important too, but in a supporting role—is a 70-year-old coffin maker who is self-centered and profoundly unhappy with his lot. He is full of regrets for all the things he wishes he had done, such as working harder and saving more money, but they are also things he still doesn't want to do. In addition, he's a detestable anti-Semite. Rothschild is one of his particular targets for abuse and hatred. Rothschild plays the flute in a mostly Jewish orchestra. When the orchestra needs a violin player, Yukov is invited. He takes the work for the money but he is unpleasant company so he is not asked often. Yukov is worse to his wife of 52 years—he has even forgotten they had a child who died as a baby. He is never kind to her and often abusive. In the story she takes sick and dies, and then, of course, Yukov begins to see the error of his ways and find himself full of more regrets. It's hard to feel much sympathy for him, but Chekhov stays close to him, faithfully grinding through his feelings and revelations. Somehow Yukov's epiphany—even as his own death suddenly closes on him—becomes quite moving and believable. He has thoughts like, "If it were not for hatred and malice people would get immense benefit from one another," and somehow they are convincing. Perhaps more so to the other characters in the story, such as Rothschild, than the reader. But Rothschild gets to hear the music Yukov makes in this redemptive state (his only response: "Vachhh!" and tears), and he also receives the violin as a gift after Yukov's death. Chekhov was in his mid-30s when he wrote this, but his approximation of an embittered man passing into his old age and facing death seems uncanny and on the nose. Is it partly because he made Yukov so unlikable? Possibly. His poor wife never gets to see a lot of these fruits (after 52 years!), as it's her death which sets them in motion. And Yukov does not get so many of them himself, as he dies shortly after her. It sounds like a matter of weeks, if not days. I don't think we're intended to learn a lesson here about letting go of our own regrets and their causes before it's too late. Ultimately it's just a story of a sad old man coming to his sad old end, full of surprising pathos and beauty.

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