Chekhov’s Burkin Tales

February 13, 2011 § Leave a comment

Finished: Chekhov’s Short Stories.

As you may know, and as I have come to learn about myself, one of my great and abiding literary loves if for the story cycle, or story-suite: short stories brought together by a framing device of some sort.  The Thousand and One Nights, Decameron, Manuscript Found in Saragossa, Don Quixote: I love tales within tales, the ease with which one can flow into another, interrupt another, comment on another.  Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine or Martian Chronicles are good examples of the short-story collection as novel, the framing device enriching each individual story and making the whole greater than the sum of the parts.

Another good example is Pushkin’s Belkin tales, which I read and loved in college.  It’s a fairly weak framing device, but the tales were so great, and I loved the conceit of each of them being told to the same listener by a different teller, deepening the context and mystery of the stories.  And here, in Chekhov, I was reminded of the Belkin tales by a kind of novella of three short stories, which appears to be known now as the “little trilogy” among Chekhovians but which I think of as the Burkin tales: “The Man in a Case,” “Gooseberries,” and “About Love.”

In the case of Chekhov’s trilogy, the frame is not a matter of just introducing the tales, but rather an integral part of them.  In each of them there is a tale within a tale, but each is about the telling of a tale as much as it is a delivery mechanism for the internal tale (which was more the case for Pushkin, or even Boccaccio or Potocki, I dare say).  The frame features Burkin, a high school teacher, and Ivan Ivanich Chimsha-Himalaisky, a veterinarian, out on a hunting expedition; in “The Man in a Case,” they take shelter for the night in a shed, and Burkin tells a quintessentially Russian tale about a pedantic “teacher of Greek” (is there any other kind?) who lives his life “in a shell,” terrified of change or passion, only to retreat to his bed forever after being pushed down a flight of stairs by his beloved’s brother.  It reeks of Gogol, in its descriptions of this encased man, always bundled up in one way or another, and of Kafka in its description of a man scared of his own shadow.  And then there’s the frame, and its surprising effect on Ivan, and his desire to tell a related story while Burkin wants to go to sleep, leaving Ivan to stay up smoking his pipe.

“Gooseberries” is an exquisite story, masterfully crafted, and perfectly divided between frame and interior.  Rain begins to fall just as Ivan is about to begin telling Burkin the story he didn’t tell the night before, and they take shelter at the house of their friend Alekhin.  There are these astounding scenes of the rain, the house, these astonishing juxtapositions of squalor and beauty:

The mill was working, and the noise made by its sails drowned the sound of the rain; the whole dam trembled.  Horses, soaking wet, were standing near some of the carts, their heads drooping, and people were moving about with sacks over their heads and shoulders.  It was wet, muddy, bleak, and the water looked cold and sinister.  Ivan Ivanich and Burkin were already experiencing the misery of dampness, dirt, physical discomfort, their boots were caked with mud…

It was a large two-story house.  Alekhin occupied the ground floor, two rooms with vaulted ceilings and tiny windows… They were poorly furnished, and smelled of rye-bread, cheap vodka, and harness….

The beauteous Pelagea, looking very soft and delicate, brought them towels and soap, and Alekhin and his guests set off for the bathing-house….

Ivan Ivanich emerged from the shed, splashed noisily into the water, and began swimming beneath the rain, spreading his arms wide, making waves all round him, and the white water-lilies rocked on the waves he made.  He swam into the very middle of the river and then dived, a moment later came up at another place and swam further, diving constantly, and trying to touch the bottom.  “Ah, my God,” he kept exclaiming in his enjoyment.  “Ah, my God…”

That image, of this provincial vet swimming ecstatically in a rainstorm, is unforgettable.  And then, back inside, in the richly appointed part of the house, with a fire burning, Ivan tells his tale of his brother Nikolai, obsessed with owning a country estate with gooseberry bushes.  Nikolai is trapped in his own sort of “case,” his view of the perfection of country life; and when Ivan visits him, and Nikolai presents a dish full of gooseberries, he weeps over their perfection when Ivan says they are “hard and sour.”  He can see the pomposity and falsehood of Nikolai playing the country squire, and gives us this passage:

There ought to be a man with a hammer behind the door of every happy man, to remind him by his constant knocks that there are unhappy people, and that happy as he himself may be, life will sooner or later show him its claws, catastrophe will overtake him — sickness, poverty, loss — just as he now neither sees nor hears the misfortune of others.

This image of a “man with a hammer” — another interpretation of the hammer in the hammer-and-sickle to come in the Bolshevik Revolution, no?  When the story is over, it “satisfied neither Burkin nor Alekhin… It would have been much more interesting to hear about elegant people, lovely women.”  In the end, Ivan asks for “mercy on us, sinners.”

The next day, in “About Love,” at a lunch of “pies, crayfish, and mutton cutlets” (aside: nothing seems more foreign to me than descriptions of meals in Russian novels, and one of the overlooked delights of many books is a glimpse at the mystery of how other people eat), Alekhin tells a story about himself, and an illicit love affair.  Again, it is a man constrained, encased — in this case, by his obedience to societal standards of how one treats another man’s wife, even if one happens to be passionately in love with that wife.  When Alekhin finally reveals his love for her just as she is leaving him, he “understood that when you love you must either, in your reasonings about that love, start from what is highest, from what is more important than happiness or unhappiness, sin or virtue in their accepted meaning, or you must not reason at all.”

It’s a terribly sad, beautiful story, and it ends with another kind of flat disconnect between listeners and teller, with Burkin and Ivan thinking of how beautiful Alekhin’s beloved was, whom they had both met.  And yet there’s perfection in this round-robin of three tales, and in their presentation.  Each tells a story, to others who hear his own story buried inside of it.  True communication always passes through a film of consciousness, and true comprehension of another’s meaning is well-nigh impossible.  I don’t know if that’s what Chekhov was trying to say, but it does seem to be a recurring theme in the stories in this volume.


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