Friday, July 28, 2017

Notes on Chekhov's "Little Trilogy" CHEKHOV WINKS AT TOLSTOY: (2) THE GOOD COUNTRY LIFE

CHEKHOV WINKS AT TOLSTOY: (2) The Good Country Life

One of Tolstoy’s obsessions throughout much of his life was his dream of good country living, surrounded by wife and family and in close communion with nature. He exalted this sort of life in both of his two major novels, War and Peace and Anna Karenina. Furthermore, he tried to live exactly such a life himself, on his country estate at Yasnaya Polyana. Tolstoy hated cities, trains, loved peasants and Mother Earth. But his attempts to find happiness in the good country life were never entirely successful. In the final pages of Anna Karenina the author’s alter ego Levin—despite his having achieved a happy family life and contentment on his country estate—is in constant depression and contemplates suicide on a daily basis.

Chekhov has a lot of fun taking Tolstoy’s themes and circumstances, then making a travesty of them. This is most obvious in the story “Gooseberries,” which depicts how the dream of good country living results in a man becoming a miser, then marrying a woman for her money, then practically starving her to death in his parsimony. All this so that he can buy a paltry little landed estate, where he vegetates out his life, being a pig, eating hard and sour gooseberries.

As if the take-off on Tolstoy were not clear enough, Chekhov makes an obvious allusion to one of Tolstoy’s short moralizing stories, “How Much Land Does A Man Need.” This is a parable about a peasant who is told he can buy very cheaply as much land as he can walk over in a given day. But the peasant is so greedy that he overstrains himself and dies of exhaustion at the very moment he is on the verge of acquiring a huge plot of land. The moral of a story and the answer of the question in the title: a man needs really only six feet of earth to be buried in.

Chekhov has one of his characters, Ivan Ivanovich, reply to Tolstoy. “They say man needs only six feet of earth. But it is a corpse, and not a man, who needs six feet . . . . these country estates are nothing but those same six feet of earth. To escape from the town, from the struggle, from the loud bustle of life, to escape and hunker down on a country estate is not life, but egoism, idleness . . . . It is not six feet of earth, not a country estate that man needs, but the whole globe, the whole of nature, where he will have room to display his personality and the individual characteristics of his free soul.”

Don’t make the mistake, however, of assuming that the above is Chekhov’s own personal reply to Tolstoy. That is not the way Chekhov writes fiction. Everything tends to cut two ways, and the authenticity of the above opinion is undercut, at least in part, by the fact that the blowhard melancholic Ivan Ivanovich is the person voicing it.

As we move on to the next story, “About Love,” the theme of good country living/or the lack thereof moves with us. Alyokhin the landowner in “About Love” is a travesty of Levin the landowner and alter ego of Tolstoy in Anna Karenina. One of the most famous scenes in all of Russian literature is the episode that depicts Levin out mowing with his peasants, exulting in the sweat of his brow. He tells his idle half brother that he has found a new therapy, known as Arbeitskur: the work cure.

But Alyokin is bored stiff living in the country. He works like a peasant only because he has no choice, but he finds the work exhausting and stultifying. He “ploughed, sowed and reaped” and felt “like a village cat driven by hunger to eat cucumbers in the kitchen garden.” So much for the Arbeitskur.

As for the little pokes at Tolstoy, especially at Anna Karenina, the list could be extended indefinitely. In an important episode in Tolstoy’s novel a man falls under a train at the station and is killed. Anna Karenina is present at this time, and the death haunts her for the rest of the novel. In Chekhov’s “Gooseberries” Ivan Ivanovich tells of a man who fell under a train; his leg was cut off. Taken away for treatment to the waiting room, the bloodied man pleads desperately for someone to find the leg: it had twenty rubles in the boot and he doesn’t want to lose his money.

Why all the literary poking at Tolstoy and his works? For one thing it’s fun. For another it takes Tolstoy’s literary works and subtly rewrites them, showing some of the multivaried possibilites for new works based on the same materials. Finally, it is a way Chekhov has of asserting: “I too am a writer, and I too can show you a thing or two about writing.” This is the age-old business of the competition between literary “fathers” and their literary “sons.”

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