The Duel by Anton Chekhov (thoughts)
When I saw that my library had an ebook of one of my favourite Russian authors by my favourite Russian translators (Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear, whom I love enough to have written a post about), The Duel by Anton Chekhov was on my Nook as quickly as I could find my USB cable!
As I mentioned, in college I fell in love with Chekhov. His Russian prose is wonderfully simple for a student to read, but his writing is far from simplistic. In fact, I named my first blog (a private one about my time in Russia I kept for friends and family) after a Chekhov quote and still use it as my primary e-mail! Anyway, for no particular reason I drifted away and it’s been years since I’ve read anything by him. The Duel reminded me of what I’ve been missing.
Chekhov is not a stereotypical Russian classic author (for which reason I’d recommend him to fans of Victorian literature who are nervous about Russians): for one thing he’s a master of shorter forms (The Duel runs 140 pages in my ebook version, which includes the introduction and endnotes) but also he’s more focused on everyday life and his characters and plotting, leaving the philosophy and ideas in the background for the reader to discover. He describes his characters with loving exactitude and throws in details so precise it’s impossible to remember they’re fictitious. In The Duel, for instance, there’s:
the young zoologist von Koren, who came to the Black Sea in the summers to study the embryology of jellyfish.
How can you not want to get to know him?
But what I loved most about The Duel, and what I think will endear it to anyone bookish enough to be reading book blogs, is the way the primary characters are all too intellectual for their own good. Laevsky constantly sees his life and very emotions not as they are but through the lens of literature. He’s lately become disenchanted with Natasha, his mistress (who left her husband to live with him), and thus references Tolstoy and Anna Karenina when he’s with her or talking about her. The story opens with him deciding whether he has a moral obligation to stay with Natasha or if he can leave her like he wants to, and one chapter ends with:
“In my indecision I am reminiscent of Hamlet,” Laevsky thought on the way. “How rightly Shakespeare observed it! Ah, how rightly!”
Von Koren, meanwhile, has been seduced by evolutionary theory and its darker counterpoint, social darwinism. He sees the world with a black-and-white, Javert-esque uncompromising perspective that includes the idea that morally weak should be eliminated before they have the chance to reproduce. It’s one thing to make an intellectual argument regarding such possibilities, but it’s another to base actions on them, as von Koren comes to discover.
While this is a strong theme of The Duel, I don’t want to give the impression this is a dark book! In fact, Chekhov includes humour throughout, and one of my favourite moments in in the titular duel, when all the participants realise they have no idea what they should be doing and thus try to remember duels they’ve read about in Lermentov and Turgenev. There’s a lot of Pushkin tributes too, and the subtle love song to Chekhov’s predecessors is wonderful. Chekhov’s willingness to subvert expectations is wonderful as well, and I defy any reader to guess how things end.
All in all, Chekhov kept me on my toes, charmed me with his characters, made me giggle, and made me think. The Duel is a delightful way to spend an hour or two, and I certainly plan to read much more Chekhov this year. Luckily for me, Pevear & Volokhonsy have published two collections (Stories of Anton Chekhov and The Complete Short Novels). I just wish they’d done some of his plays, since he’s such a master! I suppose I should dust off my Russian instead. ;)
Suggested Companion Reads
- The Fall of Rome by Martha Southgate : like Laevsky and Von Koren, Jerome Washington (the anti-hero of Southgate’s novel) has created an identity for himself out of philosophical ideals. And just as Chekhov traces the collision of pure philosophy and messy reality in turn-of-the-century Russia, Southgate does so in late twentieth century New England.
- Natasha’s Dance by Orlando Figes: while the end notes in my edition of The Duel explained the literary & cultural references, if you’d like a broader acquaintance with Russian cultural history, this is an excellent choice. Figes has a wonderful style, vividly academic I suppose I’d call it, and the book mainly deals with imperial Russia instead of the USSR.
- The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johanne Wolfgang von Goethe: another slim story featuring self-involved young men too educated for their own good. ;)