Sunday, December 27, 2020

"The Bishop" (1902)

This late story by Anton Chekhov, written two years before his death at 44, is perhaps not surprisingly full of the foreboding of death. Chekhov had been battling, as we say, tuberculosis for some time. It does not feel much self-pitying but is instead artful and quiet, with a series of great moments, like the movie Wild Strawberries. It's Holy Week and Easter on the way and the bishop is dying. At the Palm Sunday service he is surprised to see his mother—a mother of nine and grandmother of 40 by now. It feels dreamlike. He has not seen her in nine years. Her behavior toward him has become more like a parishioner's, intimidated by his stature and fearful, and he feels sad and distant from her. The memories well forth: "Why did it, that long-past time that could never return, why did it seem brighter, fuller, and more festive than it had really been?" Why indeed. This story is a stark reminder that Chekhov was still getting better. Even in the face of eternity it's little details that tell, perhaps even more so in memory. The bishop may be sad for the distance he feels from his mother, but he is brave and stoic as he faces death and ruminates over his life. It's no crisis of faith, exactly. He continues with his rituals and their meanings. His most evocative memories have little to do with death or afterlife and everything to do with life, telltale moments of existence. I like the detail of electric lights first being installed in the town in some of these scenes. The times they are a-changing. People gather around to watch and look at the lights. In many ways this story feels like all encounters of parents and grown children—awkward, affectionate, strange. Are bishops generally middle-aged like Chekhov? This one feels older. He shows courage and dignity facing death but is peevish about his routines. The diagnosis of typhus appears to be news but he doesn't seem surprised, as if it only confirms what he has suspected. He dies and is replaced. Life just goes on. In the end his mother is seen saying "that she had a son, a bishop, and this she says very timidly, afraid that she may not be believed.... And, indeed, there are some who do not believe her."

Delphi Complete Works of Anton Chekhov

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