My recent visit to New Orleans got me reading Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, which I thought was very fine, and somehow that led me to Anton Chekhov. Maybe it’s because I read some of Chopin’s short stories, a literary form I don’t spend much time with, that I decided to try Chekhov’s stories.
First, I read “A Chorus Girl,” which introduced me to the sad humor and unflinching perception of the author, and then I read the novella, My Life: The Story of a Provincial. It was a free ebook, and the translation was by the prolific and oft disrespected Constance Garnett, but nevertheless, I was deeply impressed. I felt that I was reading a kindred spirit to Italo Calvino, perhaps my all-time favorite writer, with his critical and accurate eye that makes observations tempered by a very deep sense of connection to all things human. Indeed, the story of My Life, with and the somewhat hapless but likeable, and fundamentally honest main character, reminded me of one of my Calvino favorites, “Smog.”
Written and taking place at the end of the 19th century, the story tells of Misail, a young man born to an architect-father who is, in some way, never explained, of noble extraction. Misail, to the father’s dismay, decides to abandon the pursuit of a “respectable” career, as a professional, in a government clerkship, or in some other walk of life that requires no manual labor, and becomes a simple workman. This makes his narrow-minded and class-obsessed father apoplectic, and matters are not helped when Misail’s adoring younger sister starts to take after him, at least as far as not acting the part of a proper young woman of means.
At times, the story seems to be running along the lines of the old plot of a young and foolish idealist who is chastened by exposure to the hardships of the real world, but Chekhov is deeper than that. It turns out that Misail actually does have the courage of his convictions. He is, diverted, however, by an attractive young woman, who also has a “sledge-driver” of a father, who marries him, and sets them up on a defunct estate, with dreams of creating a model society there. Her convictions don’t run so deep, and she dumps poor Misail, running off to the metropolis to carry on properly as a sensitive intellectual with visible means of support.
Misail’s sister gets pregnant by a married man, a pompous doctor, and then falls ill. He goes to their father, half convinced that now is the time to fall on his knees to beg forgiveness, if only to get help for his sister. After his father makes clear that he despises both him and his sister, and that he blames Misail for his sister’s plight, that notion is put to rest for good, and Misail delivers a blistering indictment of his father’s self-centered life and mentality:
“And who is to blame?” cried my father. “You, you scoundrel!”
“Yes. Say that I am to blame,” I said. “I admit that I am to blame for many things, but why is your life, which you have tried to force on us, so tedious and frigid, and ungracious, why are there no people in any of the houses you have built during the last thirty years from whom I could learn how to live and how to avoid such suffering? These houses of yours are infernal dungeons in which mothers and daughters are persecuted, children are tortured…. My poor mother! My unhappy sister! One needs to drug oneself with vodka, cards, scandal; cringe, play the hypocrite, and go on year after year designing rotten houses, not to see the horror that lurks in them. Our town has been in existence for hundreds of years, and during the whole of that time it has not given the country one useful man—not one! You have strangled in embryo everything that was alive and joyous! A town of shopkeepers, publicans, clerks, and hypocrites, an aimless, futile town, and not a soul would be the worse if it were suddenly razed to the ground.”
Not a pretty picture of provincial life. Nor is it a nice picture of those who criticize it, and those who live it. As Meville would have it, …ah humanity!