After finishing Dostoevsky’s Demons two weekends ago I proceeded to read a bunch of books a selection of stories and fragments by Chekhov.
A young provincial living in the latter parts of 19th Century Russia narrated My Life, one of Chekhov’s few novellas. It opens with the young man, a son of a prominent architect and member of the nobility, getting dismissed from his job in the civil service.
The young man is not the archetypal “superfluous man” – cultured, well meaning, but ultimately disillusioned and thus apathetic and ineffective politically or otherwise. While he found his work in the service boring, he did opt to be employed as a manual laborer much to the chagrin of his strict conservative father, providing the conflict that will cast a shadow on the unfolding narrative.
Previous selections of Chekhov I read like A Russian Affair and The Kiss and Other Stories focused on hopeless love and provincial life. The tales in this one offer more or less the same theme and just as despondent.
In The Moscow Hamlet, the unnamed tormented narrator presents a treatise on boredom that ends with
“Oh, you take a piece of telephone cord and hang yourself on the nearest telegraph pole! That’s all that’s left for you!”
In Exile told the story of a heartless old man who ferried detainees through the River Volga to Siberia. He orients a young new comer to the barren region’s hard way of life: a case study in dehumanization.
Goussiev is a sick private heading back to Russia in the hospital ward of a steamboat along with other ailing comrades. I think it wouldn’t surprise anyone if I reveal that he dies in the end.
Meanwhile, an ironic situation takes place in the story Typhus where a young officer survives his affliction but unknowingly infects his lovely sister who will suffer the consequences of the fatal disease.
Altogether, the characters wallow in a fit of uselessness and helplessness. ■