Sunday, November 29, 2020

"The Darling" (1899)

I finally got to Anton Chekhov's version of "The Darling," going about it all ass-backwards and reading the Scott Bradfield demi-homage from 1990 first, a few years back. I like the Chekhov more, perhaps needless to say, though I appreciate Bradfield's stunt work. The stories have parallels but are rather different. Chekhov is more artful and lacerating about the comic aspects of his tale and the main character's strange emptiness. Olenka starts as a young woman whose father, a retired collegiate assessor (whatever that is), is dying. Kukin is a theater manager and impresario who lives at "the lodge" with them. He's always complaining about his business. After her father's death, Olenka falls in love with him and they marry. Olenka discusses the ins and outs of theater business with everyone she meets, and they live happily ever after. Until Kukin dies rather suddenly after a few years. Olenka retires within herself and mourns for several months. Then she meets a lumber merchant, they get along very well, and they marry. Now her conversation is full of remarks like, "Timber gets dearer every year; the price rises twenty per cent." Of course this guy dies too after a few years, equally untimely. And there's another one. On a certain level the psychological realism is remarkably modern, looking forward to Woody Allen's Zelig, Jerzy Kosinki's Chauncy Gardner, and a disorder known as environmental dependency syndrome. Olenka's style is a strange mix of disappearing and consuming. She disappears into her partners yet somehow also seems to be eating them up. Or maybe it's bad luck, or perhaps it's an ironical take. We learn nothing of her mother, which suggests another untimely exit in Olenka's life, another trauma. When we meet her she is losing her father. As a woman alone in the world at the turn of the 20th century, she was dependent on a man for her survival. Women could push against that and did, currents of suffrage and feminism were in the air by then, but the baseline was still dependency on men. Olenka does not seem to push against it—except, perhaps, in a passive-aggressive way—but rather to accept it whole-heartedly. She gives herself entirely to her men. "You darling!" they say. Later in the story, when she is much older and maternal instincts have taken hold, it's a boy. All things must pass, as our strange darling Olenka learns well. The pathos of her emptiness is drawn to a tee.

Delphi Complete Works of Anton Chekhov

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