Wednesday, January 14, 2015


(14) Love and Mushrooms

Anton Chekhov is often considered the first great short story writer in the modern vein. He is known for the story of mood, of minor but significant detail, the story in which psychological atmosphere is all-important. But it is sometimes amazing how much Chekhov owes to Tolstoy. A perfect example of this is Part 6, Ch. 5 (p. 590-92), which could be read entirely apart from the action of "Anna Karenina" as a whole, as a short story titled something like "Love Amidst the Mushrooms," of "Why Mushrooms and Love are Incompatible." Here is that "story" in its entirety:

"Varvara Andreevna, when I was young I set before myself the ideal of the woman I loved and would be happy to call my wife. I have lived through a long life, and now, for the first time, I have met the one I sought--in you. I love you, and offer you my hand."

Sergey Ivanovich was saying this to himself while he was ten paces from Varenka. Kneeling down, with her hands over the mushrooms to guard them from Grisha, she was calling little Masha.

"Come here, little ones! There are so many!" she was saying in her sweet, deep voice.

Seeing Sergey Ivanovich approaching, she did not get up and did not change her position, but everything told him that she felt his presence and was glad of it.

"Well, did you find some?" she asked from under the white kerchief, turning her beautiful, gently smiling face to him.

"Not one," said Sergey Ivanovich. "Did you?"

She did not answer, busy with the children who thronged about her.

"That one too, near the twig." She pointed out to little Masha a mushroom, split in half across its rosy cap by the dry grass from under which it had thrust itself. Varenka got up while Masha picked the mushroom, breaking it into two white halves. "This brings back my childhood," she added, moving apart from the children by Sergey Ivanovich.

They walked on for some steps in silence. Varenka saw that he wanted to speak; she guessed of what, and felt faint with joy and panic. They had walked so far away that no one could hear them now, but still he did not begin to speak. It would have been better for Varenka to be silent. After a silence it would have been easier for them to say what they wanted to say than after talking about mushrooms. But against her own will, as it were accidentally, Varenka said:

"So you found nothing? In the middle of the wood there are always fewer, though." Sergey Ivanovich sighed and made no answer. He was annoyed that she had spoken about the mushrooms. He wanted to bring her back to the first words she had uttered about her childhood; but after a pause of some length, as though against his own will, he made an observation in response to her last words.

"I have heard that the white edible mushrooms are found principally at the edge of the wood, though I can't tell them apart."

Some minutes more passed, they moved still farther away from the children, and were quite alone. Varenka's heart throbbed so that she heard it beating, and felt that she was turning red and pale and red again.

To be the wife of a man like Koznyshev, after her position with Madame Stahl, was to her imagination the height of happiness. Besides, she was almost certain that she was in love with him. And this moment it would have to be decided. She felt frightened. She dreaded both his speaking and his not speaking.

Now or never it must be said--that Sergey Ivanovich felt too. Everything in the expression, the flushed cheeks and the downcast eyes of Varenka betrayed a painful suspense. Sergey Ivanovich saw it and felt sorry for her. He felt even that to say nothing now would be a slight to her. Rapidly in his own mind he ran over all the arguments in support of his decision. He even said over to himself the words in which he meant to propose, but instead of those words, some utterly unexpected refection that occurred to him made him ask:

"What is the difference between the birch mushroom and the white mushroom?"

Varenka's lips quivered with emotion as she answered:

"In the top part there is scarcely any difference; it's in the stalk."

And as soon as these words were uttered, both he and she felt that it was over, that what was to have been said would not be said; and their, emotion, which had up to then been continually growing more intense, began to subside.

"The birch mushroom's stalk suggests a dark man's chin after two days without shaving," said Sergey Ivanovich, speaking quite calmly now.

"Yes, that's true," answered Varenka, smiling, and unconsciously the direction of their walk changed. They began to turn toward the children. Varenka felt both hurt and ashamed; at the same time she had a sense of relief.

When he had returned home and went over the whole subject, Sergey Ivanovich thought that his previous decision had been a mistake. He could not be false to the memory of Marie.

"Gently, children, gently!" Lyovin shouted quite angrily to the children, standing in front of his wife to protect her when the crowd of children flew with shrieks of delight to meet them.

Behind the children Sergey Ivanovich and Varenka walked out of the wood. Kitty had no need to ask Varenka; she saw from the calm and somewhat crestfallen faces of both that her plans had not come off.

"Well?" her husband questioned her as they were going home again.

"It didn't bite," said Kitty, her smile and manner of speaking recalling her father, a likeness Lyovin often noticed with pleasure.

"How didn't bite?"

"I'll show you," she said, taking her husband's hand, lifting it to her mouth, and just faintly brushing it with closed lips. "Like a kiss on a bishop's hand."

"Which didn't bite?" he said, laughing.

"Both. But it should have been like this. . ."

"There are some peasants coming. . ."

"Oh, they didn't see."

END (from Modern Library Paperback, 1965, Constance Garnett translation, as revised by Leonard J. Kent and Nina Berberova)

Of course, even though this chapter is self-sufficient as a work of art, it helps to know something about the back-grounding for the two characters, Sergey Ivanovich Koznyshev and Varenka. Neither of them is sure that he/she is in love and neither is sure that marriage is the best thing. Both have long lived alone and are somewhat frightened by the prospect of marriage.

These feelings come out in the constraint of their conversation, in the conventional phrases that pop out of their mouths at the very moment when they should be saying entirely different things. There is a vein of irrationality running throughout all of "Anna Karenina," constant reaffirmation of the fact that moods, subtle subconscious feelings are often more responsible for motivating human behavior than any carefully reasoned facts.

This story of the non-proposal seems to indicate that had the characters been in the right psychological frame of mind, the proposal would have been made and accepted. Then the whole future of the two would have been different. Since neither of them is really sure about marriage the psychological restraints subconsciously motivate their words. Note that both are secretly relieved when the moment passes.

On the other hand, only a few moments before this fruitless conversation it appeared that both characters were in the right frame of mind. Sergey Ivanovich watches Varenka as she stands "in the glowing light of the slanting sunbeams" (589) and has the impression that she blends harmoniously with "the yellow oatfield lying bathed in the slanting sunshine, and beyond it, the distant ancient forest flecked with yellow and melting into the blue of the distance" (590).

So it is as if Nature itself is conspiring to make the match; the beauty of nature sets things up ideally for the coming proposal. You get the impression that the main culprits are the mushrooms. Mushrooms and romantic love are, so to speak, incompatible. Sergey Ivanovich should have approached Varenka, say, when she was picking roses, and all would have been well.

Or would it have? Maybe they would have begun speaking of the relative sharpness of the thorns in different varieties of roses. Who knows? After all, no one can account for the myriads of subconscious and conscious feelings that account for any human action. Tolstoy would have been fascinated by recent discoveries in modern brain science, which suggest that there are eons of neurons in the brain, all competing with one another to influence any human action. He did not know anything about neurons, but he had the intuitive sense of an artist, and this is demonstrated by the mushroom story.

It is interesting to compare this scene of the non-proposal to Lyovin's second, wordless proposal to Kitty (p. 417-19). This proposal scene takes place in direct proximity to a discussion of the "woman question" by other characters who are present. Lyovin and Kitty stand apart from all this, ignoring the discussion and speaking to each other with their eyes--as if to demonstrate that abstract theoretical discussions are insignificant in comparison to the real thing: genuine loving feelings between a man and woman. The other characters indulge themselves in words; Lyovin and Kitty are in an elevated state, where words are irrelevant.

Note that nothing such as a mere mushroom is going to get in their way. One of them tries to cause a bit of psychological mischief, but Kitty completely ignores it:

"You've killed a bear, I've been told!" said Kitty, vainly trying to catch with her fork a perverse mushroom [in the Russian, "nepokornyj, otskal'zyvajushchij grib"--literally "an un-submissive, slithering away mushroom"] that was trying to slip away. . . . "Are there bears on your place?" she added, turning her lovely head toward him and smiling."

Of course, she as well is talking around the subject of love (she is off on bears), but the feelings between the two characters as this point are so right that it makes no difference what they are talking about. She could even talk about mushrooms!

"There was apparently nothing extraordinary in what she said, but what unutterable meaning there was for him in every sound, in every turn of her lips, her eyes, her hands as she said it! There was entreaty for forgiveness, and trust in him and tenderness--soft, timid tenderness--and promise and hope and love for him, which he could not but believe in and which choked him with happiness" (405).

What a writer Tolstoy is. WHAT A WRITER.

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