Sunday, September 27, 2020

Little Trilogy (1898)

"The Man in a Case" / "Gooseberries" / "About Love"

It's tempting to make a joke about the efficiencies of Anton Chekhov writing a trilogy of short stories rather than novels. You can read this trilogy in an hour or less. He did intend the stories to be linked but for me it's more of an excuse to read three instead of just one, particularly as they are from one of his strongest periods. It is not one of those accidental trilogies, yoking together three unrelated things later under some semi-fabricated conceptual umbrella (e.g., random William Burroughs novels, Bugs Bunny cartoons, or Roman Polanski movies set in apartments). Chekhov wrote these stories consecutively, they are linked by continuing characters, and they are unified by a theme of people's tendency toward self-delusion (admittedly a theme in a lot of Chekhov). The frame is two sportsmen hiking the Russian countryside on a hunting trip, the younger schoolteacher Burkin and the elder veterinarian Ivan Ivanovitch, who are familiar companions. In "The Man in a Case," Burkin tells a story of another teacher, Byelikov, a social misfit who has an opportunity for marriage which he blows. Burkin sees the man as someone trembling forever inside a protective shell but Ivan Ivanovitch thinks he may not be so different from anyone else. "Isn't our living in town, airless and crowded, our writing useless papers, our playing vint—isn't that all a sort of case for us?" he says. It reminds him of another story, which he tells the next day in "Gooseberries." Now they are sheltering from rain in the country home of a third, Alehin. The story involves Ivan Ivanovitch's brother, a civil servant in a lifeless clerk's existence who dreams of a farm with gooseberry bushes, which he finally obtains through various unscrupulous means. He proudly serves the berries to Ivan Ivanovitch on his first visit at the farm. The berries are bitter, but Ivan Ivanovitch's brother cannot stop snacking on them and commenting how good they are. In "About Love," Alehin gets a chance to tell a story, with full membership now in this trilogy. It's the story of his own thwarted love affair with a neighbor who is married with children. It went on for years, until she and her family finally moved away for reasons unrelated. The affair was one of those cow-eyed unconsummated things, felt on both sides. The two often spent time together on walks and such but never came close to acknowledging their feelings until the very end. In fact, over the years it became so curdled that they had periods of being unpleasant to one another. Yet they always felt a bond of attachment. Alehin quite evidently still does, even as he tells the story years since her departure. After Alehin's story the rain finally stops and they can step outside and enjoy the fresh air and the view. All three stories, separately but even more so together, are a great example of the way Chekhov tells just enough to suggest vast interior worlds lost inside the equally vast exterior of the Russian countryside. He is always so quiet about being so remarkably good.

Delphi Complete Works of Anton Chekhov

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