Excellent People by Anton Chekhov

“Once upon a time there lived in Moscow a man called Vladimir Semyonitch Liadovsky.”

Wow, Chekhov was in fine form with this short story!  A narrator relates a story of a literary man trained at law, Vladimir Semyonitch Liadovsky, and his sister, Vera Semyonovna, a listless woman who has been disappointed in life.  At the start of the story, Vladimir has compassion and love for his sister, who had her new husband die, survived a suicide attempt, and now is living with him, quietly revering his talents.
And although there is a peaceful harmony at the beginning of the story, we sense a restlessness within Vera, and a somewhat egotistical, intolerant manner within Vladimir who displays a rather self-satisfied demeanour with regard to his talents and an intellectual judgement over his those who cannot share is views.
However, one day their quiet and predictable life is shaken when Vera poses an unsettling and unexpected question, “What is the meaning of non-resistance to evil?” Suddenly a new idea is brought upon Vladimir by someone close to him, someone whom he is used to seeing as a subordinate and one who praises him, no matter what the situation.  It is a liberal question that presses against his conservatism, a progressive question that goes against tradition, an elephant in the room, so to speak.  At first he cannot quite comprehend but Vera persists, “Where would we all be if human life were ordered on the basis on non-resistance to evil?”  Vladimir attempts to slough off the idea, by approaching it lightly in his next article but his sister is not satisfied, “Why would a gardener sow for the benefit of thieves and beggars, as one did in the story she just read?  Did he behave sensibly?” Vladimir is further distressed as he senses for the first time, the admiration he is used to receiving from her is uncomfortably absent.  He expounds that to write in such a way is to allow the thought that thieves deserve to exist. What garbage!
Moscow in Winter (1872)
Ivan Aivazovsky
source Wikiart
Their interactions increasingly degrade, as the question and Vera’s change in manner begin to tear apart the equanimity and peace of their previous existence.  Vera wants to explore ideas, to search for answers; Vladimir simply wants to remain grasping his ideas, the ideas he has survived on during his life.  They talk and they discuss.  They do not understand each other.
The ending I will leave uncommented on if others want to read this tale, but needless to say, it is not happy. Again, I’m so impressed with this story.  Chekhov explores tradition versus progress through this interaction of genders and siblings.  Who should better understand each other than people of the same blood, people who have lived together in close community and have a certain respect and love for one another?  However, they not only cannot agree, they cannot even understand one another.  But yet, one has to ask themselves what their relationship was built on, as it was only in harmony when the sister admired the brother and only gave compliments?  Was it their lack of a truthful and deep relationship that undermined their ability to comprehend one another, or was it really a clear picture of the struggles of Russian society between the old tradition and the new ideas of the time.  And we must not forget the title, Excellent People.  Both the brother and sister are good people but each have different ideas.  If we focus on “ideas” or “philosophies” and forget that we are dealing with people do we become less human and less able to understand each other?  And while life would have been more harmonious if the sister remained in her apathetic devotion to her brother, and the brother remained happy in his narrow-minded pursuits, would it have been better?  Their lives would have been more comfortable and untroubled, yet not as real.  Ask yourself, is it better to remain peaceful and happy in a life of past tradition and apathy, or is it more “human” to strive for goals and struggle for something better for self and society, but remain miserable within this quest?  And a question from Mudpuddle’s comment below:  I wish I knew if Chekhov meant the title to be serious, in that we can all have good intentions and different points of view and yet still experience unsatisfying and disharmonious outcomes, or sarcastic in that both the brother and sister where not able to communicate their views and come to a resolution, their inner lives became more turbulent from examining them, and nothing really changed, so then they were really “excellent” only in the way they viewed themselves?  Great questions with no easy answers!
I definitely have to read this again at a later date after it settles and percolates a little.  I encourage anyone who has a spare ten minutes to read it and if you decide to come back and leave your thoughts, I’d love it.  While it’s only a 7-8 page short story, it would have made a great read-along.  Who would have thought!
Deal Me In Challenge 2018 #1 ~ Two of Clubs

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

“Alexey Fyodorovich Karamazov was the third son of Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, a landowner of our district, who became notorious in his own day (and is still remembered among us) because of his tragic and mysterious death, which occurred exactly thirteen years ago and which I shall relate in its proper place.”

What a marvellously mysterious first sentence which brings all sorts of questions to mind.  Why was the Karamazov father only remembered because of his horrific death?  What else did he do in life?  Why has the narrator waited thirteen years to tell the story?  And why does it need to be told in its “proper place”?

The Brothers Karamazov centers around three brothers, Dmitry, Ivan and Alyosha, each of whom appear to represent different aspects of human beliefs: sensual materialism, rational nihilism and faith.  Within the framework of their relationships with their father, Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov a harsh and unyielding man, their characters are illuminated and these philosophies highlighted. In the case of Ivan Karamazov, his worldview has been formed through the legends and mystery plays of the Middle Ages, the Spanish Inquisition, and Christ’s return to earth and his temptations by Satan.  On the other hand, Dimitry Karamazov is wrapped in the atmosphere of the Hellenism of Schiller and the struggles of the Olympian gods with the dark forces that proceeded them.  Father Zosimas embodies the beliefs and rituals of the Eastern Church, and likewise Alyosha Karamazov his protégé, yet doubt creeps into Alyosha’s faith and is only overcome by his realization of earth being linked to heaven.

The author brings into relief the struggle of reconciling a just God with a fallen and depraved world.  With Ivan, we see a mutiny against a Christian ideology that allows free will to cause suffering, and with the speech of the Grand Inquisitor, even an indictment against Christ.  Father Zosima answers Ivan’s torment with his insistence on a faith in God being the only way to express an active love for humanity.  We see each character struggling to make a leap of faith in consequence of their actions, a putting aside of “self” for something greater, a struggle for each to interact with his conscience in spite of outside influences. 

Dostoyevsky’s notes for Chapter 5
of The Brothers Karamazov
source Wikipedia

With his sparse expository setting and minimal action, Dostoyevsky’s story unfolds mainly through his characters and their thoughts, their internal monologues often being more revealing than any physical action.  With great acumen, he examines the breakdown of a Russian family from a social-psychological level, which itself points to a breakdown of moral values of society as a whole and the consequences arising from this underlying issue.  Values within the construct of faith are what make a healthy society and without them, a sickness pervades, culminating in tragedy.

Reason is set against the intangible mystery of human behaviour and an inexorable conflict is evaluated as reason encounters Christian faith.  Dostoyevsky sets about illustrating the limitations of reason.  At the end of the novel, even though reason points to an inevitable conclusion, it does not allow the people in judgement to discover the truth, and its failure is effectively apparent.

Sketch of a Russian Village
Konstantin Alexseevich Korovin
source ArtUK

While the book is rife with questions about faith, strife, family disharmony and moral failings in a most human form, it also has echoes of positive aspects of life.  The monastery is a fortress of true faith and hope, and even the children in this story are able to overcome prejudices and act in a manner of love and reconciliation. Unlike some of his other novels, the author leaves us with a hope for humanity.

Dostoyevsky is a master of the psychological novel and I suspect that I still have not come close to penetrating the fascinating workings of his unique mind.  One finishes his novels, sits down to review them, and then wonders “where on earth do I start?”  The minute psychological details that embellish each character’s thoughts kept me in mental gymnastics from beginning to end.  His novels are not easy reads and the first read through it seems as if you only peal off a layer at a time, however the deeper that you slide into them, you find that they change you in a way that you never expected.

I’ve seen some reviews that express frustration with this book and Dostoyevsky’s treatment of the themes but I wonder if its presentation, to a certain extent, mirrors life with its disjointed narrative and its sometimes apparent dead ends which pick up later and lead to something revelatory.  The author presents mystery …. both the mystery of God and the mystery of human psychology —- and as 21st century intellectually influenced moderns, we simply have difficulty understanding this approach.  His works are certainly challenging, but as I sit with them and let Dostoyevsky’s narrative percolate within me, I know that I have much more to discover about, not only the novels but life itself.  I will, without a doubt, read this particular book again!

A View of the Solevyetski Monastery with its Founders
Saints. Zossim and Savatti
unknown artist
source ArtUK

Some favourite quotes:

We are responsible for everyone else in this world, apart from their sins.

” …. but first the period of human isolation will have to come to an end …….  the sort of isolation  that exists everywhere now, and especially in our age, but which hasn’t reached its final development …. For today everyone is still striving to keep his individuality as far apart as possible, everyone still wishes to experience the fullness of life in himself alone, and yet instead of achieving the fullness of life, all his efforts merely lead to the fullness of self-destruction, for instead of full self-realization they relapse into complete isolation.  For in our age all men are separated into self-contained units, everyone crawls into his own hole, and hides away everything he possesses, and ends up by keeping himself at a distance from people and keeping other people at a distance from him.  He accumulates riches by himself and thinks how strong he is now and how secure, and does not realize, madman that he is, that the more he accumulates the more deeply does he sink into self-destroying impotence.  For he is used to relying on himself alone and has separated himself as a self-contained unit from the whole.  He has trained his mind not to believe in the help of other people, in men and mankind, and is in constant fear of losing his money and the rights he has won for himself.  Everywhere today the mind of man has ceased, ironically, to understand that true security of the individual does not lie in isolated personal efforts but in general human solidarity …..  a man has to set an example at least once and draw his soul out of its isolation and work for some great act of human intercourse based on brotherly love, even if he is to be regarded as a saintly fool for his pains.  He has to do so that the great idea may not die ……”

I was quite surprised by the mysterious visitor’s revelation, as my thoughts had been percolating on the same ideas for a week or so before I read it.  Still in somewhat of a pensive, philosophical mood left over from my summer vacation, I wondered why we appear so engaged with people, when, if you truly gaze into people’s hearts, we are really very alone.  Why, when we think someone is suffering, do we feel sympathy for them and wish them well in our minds, yet walk away because we either do not have the time, or don’t honestly want to become involved in something that might require effort, or compassion, or sacrifice for someone other than ourselves?  We’re more connected with our work, or our possessions, or our own perceived needs than we are with people, blind to the personal connections and the deeper caring that will truly make us happy …. truly make us human.  It’s all very sad ….

“And what’s strange, what would be marvellous, is not that God should really exist; the marvel is that such an idea, the idea of the necessity of God, could enter the head of such a savage, vicious beast as man.” 


“Above all, don’t lie to yourself.  The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others.  And having no respect he ceases to love, and in order to occupy and distract himself without love he gives way to passions and coarse pleasures, and sinks to bestiality in his vices, all from continual lying to other men and to himself” 


“What is hell?  I maintain that it is the suffering of being unable to love.” 


“Be not forgetful of prayer.  Every time you pray, if your prayer is sincere, there will be new feeling and new meaning in it, which will give you fresh courage, and you will understand that prayer is an education.” 


“Life is paradise, and we are all in paradise, but we refuse to see it.” 


“Love is a teacher, but one must know how to acquire it, for it is difficult to acquire, it is dearly bought, by long work over a long time, for one ought to love not for a chance moment but for all time.  Anyone, even a wicked man, can love by chance.” 


“The awful thing is that beauty is mysterious as well as terrible.  God and the devil are fighting there and the battlefield is the heart of man.” 


“They have succeeded in accumulating a greater mass of objects, but the joy in the world has grown less.” 


“Love all God’s creation, both the whole and every grain of sand.  Love every leaf, every ray of light. Love the animals, love the plants, love each separate thing.  If thou love each thing, thou wilt perceive the mystery of God in all; and when once thou perceive this, thou wilt thenceforward grow every day to a fuller understanding of it; until thou come at last to love the whole world with a love that will then be all-embracing and universal.” 


“Love is such a priceless treasure that you can buy the whole world with it, and redeem not only your own but other people’s sins.  Go, and do not be afraid.”

Further Reading:
The Mantle of the Prophet, 1871-1881 by Joseph Frank

The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy

“Inside the great building of the Law Courts, during the interval in the hearing of the Melvinsky case, the members of the judicial council and the public prosecutor were gathered together in the private room of Ivan Yegorovitch Shebek, and the conversation turned upon the celebrated Krasovsky case.”

Wow!  My last Tolstoy novel read was War and Peace over two years ago and I’d forgotten the depth that Tolstoy could create within his stories with a clear, straight-forward narrative.  The Death of Ivan Ilyich appears to be merely a tale of the last days of a Russian court judge, yet Tolstoy brings the human condition into vivid and startling colours.

Ivan Ilyich has a typical Russian childhood, becomes a respected and accomplished young adult who manages to climb the social strata with aplomb and an admirable acuity.  He takes a wife who, though a nag, through his very avoidance of her, manages to give him a sharper focus to his work, and therefore her very shrewishness assists him in his social ascension.  They have the average and respectable number of two children, a girl and a boy, along with the typical infant deaths of that period, and Ilyich’s life is complete.  Except for one problem.  He is dying.

With Tolstoy’s astute and penetrating acumen, the reader shares Ivan Ilyich’s last days as he slowly sinks into the realization of his approaching demise.  In life, Ilyich was able to focus on the impermanent: his career, the appearance of a normal family life, his status in the community.  All his worth was embodied in these transient things, but suddenly in illness, these symbols fade into obscurity and death forces him, almost against his will, to view his life in stark reality.

Initially, Ivan is confused, and cries out to a God whom he had previously seen only as a inconvenient afterthought:

“Why has Thou done all this?  What brought me to this?  Why, why torture me so horribly?”

Yet slowly a “strange idea” begins to form in his mind.  He does not want to suffer, yet live.  But how does he wish to live?

“As you used to live before — happily and pleasantly?” queried the voice.  And he began going over in his imagination the best moments of his pleasant life.  But strange to say, all these best moments of his pleasant life seemed now not at all what they had seemed then.  All — except the first memories of his childhood …..  As soon as he reached the beginning of what had resulted in him as he was now, Ivan Ilyitch, all that had seemed joys to him then now melted away before his eyes and were transformed into something trivial, and often disgusting ……..  And the further he went from childhood, the nearer to the actual present, the more worthless and uncertain were the joys …..  

He was living ….

“…. as though I had been going steadily downhill, imagining that I was going uphill.  So it was in fact.  In public opinion I was going uphill and steadily as I got up it life was ebbing away from me …..  Can it be I have not lived as one ought?”

Death brings echoes of truth to him, but instead of accepting this burgeoning enlightenment, Ivan chooses to hang on to the mirage of the life he has lived and dismisses the idea.  The reader wonders if Ivan will die as he’d lived, merely existing, and if the true meaning of life itself will elude his grasp?

Death and Life (1908-16)
Gustav Klimt
source Wikiart

In spite of the title, much of the story is about Ivan’s life and through his life, we view his death.  With each sentence Tolstoy drives home the futility and meaninglessness of Ilyich’s daily actions, that brought material success but failed to feed the soul within the man.  It is only at the very end, with the touch of his son’s hand and a kiss, that Ivan experiences an epiphany that expands his whole world.

The universality of the story echoes with a profound yet practical resonance.  Drawing from the narrative, Ivan’s life, though complete with success in business, a (on the surface) contented family life, and respect of his peers, it is really bereft of human relationship in all areas.  Tolstoy himself says Ivan’s previous life “was the simplest, the most ordinary, and the most awful.”   Ivan could be you or I and with his novella, Tolstoy prods us to examine the purpose of our existence.  We need to evaluate our lives ….. not only just skate on the surface, but to dig deeply.  What is truly important in life? What genuinely gives us life as soulful beings and not simply as materialistic creatures who live only for pleasure and business?  And a question that has been on my mind often lately:  How do we struggle against societal pressure to conform to the latter and find a meaningful existence, to live in the “now” yet reach beyond it?

The Runaway by Anton Chekhov

I’m trying to get back on track with my Deal-Me-In Challenge, and I finally drew the first short story of the year, The Runaway by Anton Chekhov.

Science and Charity (1897)
Pablo Picasso
source Wikiart

After a long journey, young Pashka and his mother wait at the hospital to see the doctor. Pashka has a boil on his elbow, but the mother has waited too long and the doctor scolds her, declaring that the wound is infected and the boy may lose his arm.  A stay is required, about which Pashka is not thrilled but he is lured by the doctor’s promises of seeing a live fox and eating sugar-candy.  After a sumptuous dinner of soup, roast beef and bread, the boy awaits the doctor to honour his commitment but when he doesn’t come, he explores the wards, finally returning to his own where he hears the patient, Mikhailo, coughing and wheezing.  When he wakes late in the night, he finds three people at the dead Mikhailo’s bed, yet when they leave, the old man’s chest wheezes again.  Terrified, Pashka screams for his mother, leaps out of bed and tears through the wards and into the yard, intending to run home but a graveyard looms ahead, and Pashka is intensely relieve to spot the kind doctor through a window in a building.  When he burst inside the doctor’s words echo:  “You’re a donkey, Pashka!  Now aren’t you a donkey?  You ought to be whipped ….”

The Runaway (1958)
Norman Rockwell
source Wikiart



Well, what to make of that?  There is the danger of infection, the tension of being separated from his mother, the doctor’s promises that manipulate (for good or ill, who knows) yet come to nought, the wards of sick people and the boy’s terror, perhaps at hearing a dead man who appears to still live.  It’s curious, especially since Pashka’s condition appears serious, yet the reader never has a whisper as to its outcome.  Chekhov himself spent most of his life in the medical profession, so one wonders if he is also exploring the psychological methods physicians might use on their patients.  Through the boy’s eyes the doctor is “kind” but is he really?  The boy has a serious medical condition yet no one seems to be rushing him to surgery, and the doctor has promised many delights for Pashka and is delivering none of them.  What is behind Chekhov’s tale?  Is it a simple tale or a story with a deeper meaning?

Birthhouse of Anton Chekhov
source Wikipedia

Deal Me In Challenge #11

Notes from the Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

“I am a sick man …….. I am an angry man.”

Notes from The Underground is the third book in my unannounced and (spur of the moment) Turgenev/ Chernyshevsky/ Dostoyevsky challenge.  After reading Turgenev’s novel Fathers and Sons, Nikolai Chernyshevsky wrote in response to it, his then politically persuasive novel, What Is To Be Done? , and in response to Chernyshevsky, Dostoyevsky wrote his powerful Notes from the Underground.  I assumed that it would be an interesting literary, political and philosophical conversation.

Dostoyevsky begins this book with a monologue from a retired 40-year-old civil servant, living in St. Petersburg.  He is our man from the Underground.  His ramblings appear to be disjointed, sometimes silly and then, disturbingly insightful.  But in this novel, is anything as it really appears?

” ….. doesn’t there, in fact, exist something that is dearer to almost every man than his own very best interests, or — not to violate logic — some best good …. which is more important and higher than any other good, and for the sake of which man is prepared if necessary to go against all the laws, against, that is, reason, honour, peace and quiet, prosperity — in short against all those fine and advantageous things — only to attain that primary, best good, which is dearer to him than all else? ….. to justify his logic he is prepared to distort the truth intentionally.”

The Soul of the Underground (1959)
Jean Dubuffet
source Wikiart

The Underground Man argues that perhaps science is not the highest good. The behaviour of man under the laws of nature and of reason does not confirm them; man has a perplexing innate inclination to destroy his own happiness and well-being.  One may argue that man needs to be brought into order, to conform to demands that will improve his life.   But what if man does not want that, and further, what makes one think that this is even good for man?

“Even if we assume it as a rule of logic, it may not be a law for all mankind at all …… And why are you so firmly and triumphantly certain that only what is normal and positive —- in short, only well-being —- is good?  After all, perhaps prosperity isn’t the only thing that pleases mankind, perhaps he is just as attracted to suffering.  Perhaps suffering is just as good for him as prosperity.”

Using historical examples, the Underground Man strengthens his argument. Man is beyond nature, and beyond reality; he is infinitely more complex than science, and therefore beyond the ability of science to completely understand him.

With his Underground Man, Dostoyevsky is attempting to shatter the philosophy seen in Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s, What is To Be Done?, a novel that promoted a type of monistic materialism brought about through a rational egoism: if only one used reason to discern the higher purpose of man, working through enlightened self-interest the perfect society would be created. Chernyshevsky’s dogmatic ideology excluded the possibility of “free will”, labelling it as a mistaken perception of what was simply a causal process. However Dostoyevsky, from his years in a prison camp, had continually witnessed the innate human desire to express individual free will, often to the person’s own detriment, and with his Underground Man, he strove to prove the ridiculousness of Chernyshevsky’s philosophy:

“all the beautiful systems, these theories of explaining his best interests to man ……. are nothing but sophistry.  Isn’t there something that is dearer to almost every man than his own very best interests, some best good which is more important and higher than any other good, and for the sake of which man is prepared, if necessary, to go against all the laws — that is against reason, honour, peace and quiet, prosperity — only to attain that primary, best good, which is dearer to him than all else?”

“One’s own free and unfettered volition, one’s own caprice, however wild, one’s own fancy, inflamed sometimes to the point of madness — that is the one best and greatest good, which is never taken into consideration because it will not fit into any classification, and the commission of which always sends all systems and theories to the devil.  Where did all the sages get the idea that a man’s desires must be normal and virtuous?  Why do they imagine that he must be normal and virtuous?  Why do they imagine that he must inevitably will what is reasonable and profitable?  What a man meeds is simply and solely independent volition, whatever that independence may cost and wherever it may lead.”

Underground Chud (1928)
Nicolas Roerich
source Wikiart

The second part of the novel, entitled “Falling Sleet”, tells of the experiences of the Undergound Man.  First, he is disrespected by an officer on the street who will not give way to him and the Underground Man plots a revenge of deliberately bumping into him.  The narrative then moves to the Underground Man’s presence at a party for old school mates and his contentious behaviour towards them, as he feels the strength his inadequacies in their presence. Finally, he falls into a type of relationship with a sympathetic prostitute named Liza.  In the Underground Man’s interactions with the outside world, the reader sees a man struggling to use his faculties to assimilate himself into the situations around him, and failing in his attempts. Dostoyevsky created a character who believed in Chernyshevsky’s ideals, but demonstrated through his actions, his inability to live up to them.

And so finishes my “trilogy” of conversation between these three authors.  I have been educated not only historically, but politically and philosophically, and encourage anyone who wants to read any of these books, to read the three in sequence.  With Chernyshevsky and Dostoyevsky particularly, you can sense the antagonism within their writing, yet their passion for their ideologies are very effective and make for enlightening reading.

Trilogy:

Further Reading:
Dostoyevsky: The Mantle of the Prophet by Joseph Frank

The Princess by Anton Chekhov

Portrait of Anton Chekhov (1886)
Isaac Levitan
source Wikiart

This short story is my fourth read for my Deal Me In Challenge 2015.

What happened to Narcissus when he looked at his own reflection in the pool? This beautiful hunter from Boeotia fell in love with himself, and in fact was so deeply infatuated, in his self-obsession he fell into the pool and drowned.  Not a very fitting end for one with so much promise.

Narcissus (1594-96)
Caravaggio
source Wikipedia

In Chekhov’s story we meet the Princess, a lovely young woman who arrives at an isolated monastery for a night’s stay.  She is so thrilled to be there, gushing effusively about the setting and the priests and brothers who have received her.  She wants to forget her life in the city and the monastery and its occupants give her the tools to do so.  But the reader soon realizes that her arrival, instead of being a moment of interest and delight, is instead looked upon with discomfort and even dread by the good brothers of the monastery, and one feels that the Princess, in spite of her outward joie-de-vivre and vivacious personality, is only noticing the benefits that she gets from her visit, without concern for anything or anyone around her.

Soon she meets Mikhail Ivanovitch there, a doctor whom she’d earlier employed in her service, but instead of a warm reception for her, the doctor’s replies drip icicles.  Our poor, puzzled Princess cannot understand ….. why the reserve, especially when she condoles with him upon the death of his wife, an event that is certainly sad, but of course, life must go on.  When she mentions the mistakes she’s made in life and the doctor agrees, she begs him to enlighten her.  Perhaps she should have been more careful in what she asked for.  Directly he begins to catalogue her offenses, taking her to task for her lack of sympathy, her greed, her complete disdain for the feelings of others ………. in fact, the whole system of life that she has built around her is false and cruel, breeding those traits, and choking out any love or caring.  She has replaced God with herself, and therefore is no longer able to understand the creation in which she lives.

Oh!  The Princess is hurt, she is distraught, she is devasted!  That cruel, uneducated, ill-bred man!  How could he speak so to her, to HER, a princess?!  She must use her only defence against these horrid accusations, and so she begins to cry.  The doctor is immediately contrite and leaves her.  When they meet the next day, the princess is once again herself, gay and blithe as she prepares to leave, expecting everyone to admire and entertain her even as she promises to come again soon.  The unpleasantness of the day before is blotted from memory as once more she strives to be the centre of the world.

The Unsmiling Tsarevna (1916-26)
Niktor Vasnetsov
source Wikiart

In spite of the inclination to laugh at the princess’ stupidity and complete self-absorption, this story is quite a tragic one.  Her character is certainly one of a narcissist, and anything that exists around her, merely exists for her alone.  She is devoid of the character traits that make one truly human and, therefore, is not much better than a beast.

On November 15, 1888, Chekhov wrote to his publisher, stating that he was writing a story about a “vile woman”.  Three days later Chekhov wrote, “I want to write protest stories this season ——  I must learn the knack, but it bores me because I’m not used to it,” which makes one wonder if the doctor’s social protest was supposed to be the hub of the story.  In any case, both character’s roles offered a ripe opportunity for social and psychological examination.  This was an excellent story that certainly makes me want to read more of Chekhov’s works.

Deal Me in Challenge (#4) – Six of Clubs


Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev

“Well, Piotr, not insight yet?” was the question asked on May the 20th, 1859, by a gentleman of a little over forty, in a dusty coat and checked trousers, who came out without his hat on to the low steps of the posting station at S—–.”

What sort of relationship do you have with your father?  Is it one of respect, deference, and honour, or do you think his ways too traditional, his thought process too archaic, and to keep a tentative understanding between you, do you have to employ a somewhat forced amiability, while underneath feeling an impatient scorn?

In Fathers and Sons, Turgenev examines the ideas of the new and old, progress and stagnation, and generational differences.  Yet while Turgenev portrays these conflicts within families and people, the themes echos the struggles that were occurring in Russia itself, between the common liberals and a nihilism movement that was growing and expanding at an alarming rate. Immediately the reader is tossed into the battle and while you expect to be buffeted to-and-fro between the two forces, one is surprised to find a more gently tossing, a disturbing reminder of how subtly, yet how pervasively this new philosophy could spread into the ideas and actions of the people.

Arkady Nikolaitch returns home from university with his good friend, Bazarov, a self-confessed nihilist, who issues a dripping contempt for most people around him.  Arkady maintains a good relationship with his father Nikolai Petrovitch and his uncle Pavel Petrovitch, yet through Bazarov’s influence he begins to question what he values about their antiquated thought and primitive ways.

With Bazarov’s nihilistic charm and new trendy ideas, his challenging of the status quo makes him a hero of the younger generation, while the older regard him either as dangerous, or rather like an unusual specimen that they can’t quite figure out.  Yet, in spite of renouncing life and its perceived useless order, we find that Bazarov is unable to escape it.  While visiting the house of a widowed woman, Anna Sergyevna Odintsov, he becomes enamoured of her, his emotion overriding his philosophy and eroding some of its immutable strength.

Ivan Turgenev hunting (1879)
Nikolai Dmitriev-Orenburgsky
source Wikipedia

Turgenev does a masterful job of having nature interplay with the characters, their ideas and emotional struggles.  For example, Bazarov is blind to the beauty around him  He merely uses nature, as he engages in his hobby of dissecting frogs,  pulling Nature itself apart to examine its inner workings.  He can only appreciate the slaughtered bits, but is unable to interact with the whole, Nature as life and beauty.

I don’t believe that Bazarov’s nihilism was a true nihilism.  He obviously wanted to reject the status quo and, in fact, had a quarrel with it, which is apparent in his simmering anger when he speaks about it.  He doesn’t just want to contradict it, he longs to disparage it.  His philosophy is a quasi-nihilism that supports his self-importance and that he uses more as a crutch. He is passionate about it but appears to use it merely as a play for power.  He has developed a philosophy, which is truly an anti-philosophy that prevents him from interacting with life itself.

While with Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky you often feel buffeted by the high emotion or deep philosophy, Turgenev’s approach is more gentle, lulling his ideas into the reader’s head with his pastoral description, and lyric pace.  Yet for being gentle, it is no less powerful.  Turgenev has conducted a true masterpiece!

Translated by Constance Garnett


“In these days the most useful thing we can do is to repudiate – and so we repudiate …”

(Note:  Nikolai Chernyshevsky wrote a response to Fathers and Sons with his What is To Be Done? and Dostoyevsky wrote a response to What Is To Be Done?in his Notes From the Underground.  Further explanation of this triple conversation is contained in the reviews below.)



Trilogy:

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

“Well, Prince, so Genoa and Lucca are now just family estates of the Buonapartes …..”

I am very hesitant to even attempt to review this book.  How can one do even the slightest bit of justice to an epic like this? How can one even touch on the depth of the myriad of characters, not to mention communicate the complexities of a war that even the participants had difficulty distinguishing?  And how do you review such an epic tale without producing an epic review?

War and Peace follows the lives of five families of Tsarist Russia:  the Rostovs, the Bolkonskis, the Bezukhovs, the Kuragins and the Drubetskoys, their interactions and struggles, and the afflictions suffered by each set among the events leading up to and during Napoleon’s invasive campaign in the year of 1812.  Pierre Bezukhov is the illegitimate son of a nobleman and, through a series of circumstances, inherits a great  fortune.  His new position in society chafes against his natural character of simplicity, naiveté, and introspection. The Rostov family is a well-respected family, yet are in financial difficulties. The son, Nikolai, joins the Russian army, his brother, Petya, will soon follow, and their daughter, Natasha, a joyful free-spirit, becomes attached to a number of men throughout the story.  Sophia, an orphaned niece, is raised by the Rostovs, and shows a steady and loyal character as she pledges her love to Nikolai early in the novel.  Bolkonsky senior is a crochety old count who attempts to control his son, Andrei, and terrorizes his daughter, Maria.

Natasha Rostova (c. 1914)
Elisabeth Bohm
source Wikipedia

And so begins the dance between the cast of characters, sometimes a smooth waltz, and at others a frenzied tango.  There is contrast between generations, between old and new ideas, between life and its purpose, yet Tolstoy is adept as showing the gray tones overshadowing the blacks and whites; that situations are not always as they appear.

Tolstoy’s highest attribute is his ability to peel off the layers of each person and look into his soul.  His characters are crafted with such depth and such human motivations that the reader can only marvel at his skill.  And not only can he give birth to such characters, he understands them.  The scenes involving the Russian peasantry, who act completely contrary to reason, yet with such humanness, are evidence of Tolstoys profound comprehension of human nature and the human condition.

Count Leo Tolstoy, 1908
from Wikipedia

I love how Tolstoy lets humanity and compassion show through the animosity and the bloodletting of war.  One of my favourite characters of the novel was Ramballe, the French officer whom Pierre met in Bazdeev’s house and who showed brotherhood and goodwill despite that fact that, given the circumstances, they should have been pitted against each other as sworn enemies. Originally, Pierre is portrayed somewhat as a bumbling oaf, a man of a lower class who, by luck and circumstances has managed to rise to a position of prestige yet has never been able to cast aside his peasant-like origins. However by his actions in the novel, he becomes admirable, echoing a segment of humanity that shows kindness, goodness, bravery and integrity that shines out from the avariciousness and shallowness of high society.

Tolstoy himself was very ambiguous about his masterpiece stating that it was, “not a novel, even less is it a poem, and still less an historical chronicle.” He believed that if the work was masterful, it could not conform to accepted standards and therefore could not be labelled.

The Battle of Borodino by Louise-Françoise, Baron Lejeune, 1822
from Wikipedia 

“It is natural for us who were not living in those days to imagine that when half Russia had been conquered and the inhabitants were fleeing to distant provinces, and one levy after another was being raised for the desense of the fatherland, all Russians from the greatest to the least were solely engaged in sacrificing themselves, saving their fatherland, or weeping over its downfall.  The tales and descriptions speak only of the self-sacrifice, patriotic devotion, despair, grief, and the heroism of the Russians.  But it was not really so.  It appears so to us because we see only the general historic interest of that time and do not see all the personal human interests that people had.  Yet in reality those personal interest of the moment so much transcend the general interests that they always prevent the public interest from being felt or even noticed.  Most of the people at that time paid not attention to the general progress of events but were guided by their own private interests, and they were the very people whose activities at that period were most useful. Those who tried to understand the general course of events and to take part in it by self-sacrifice and heroism were the most useless members of society, they saw everything upside-down, and all they did for the common good turned out to be useless and foolish …….. Even those, fond of intellectual talk and of expressing their feelings, who discussed Russia’s position at the time involuntarily introduced into their conversation either a shade of pre tense and falsehood or useless condemnation and anger directed against people accused of actions no one could possibly be guilty of.  ………  Only unconscious action bears fruit, and he who plays a part in an historic event never understands its significance.  If he tries to realize it his efforts are fruitless. The more closely a man was engaged in the events then taking place in Russia the less did he realize their significance ……….”

Napoleon’s Retreat from Moscow
Adolf Northern
source Wikipedia

Perhaps Tolstoy is showing us that people are imperfect, with human vice and human foibles and that, in spite of trying to find heroics in war, the actions are only the actions of people trying to survive.  It is history looking backwards that make the heroes, but in reality, the characters in these trials of life are all people acting out their parts in a very human way.  There is no glory in war, only people trying to deal with the circumstances as best they can, and to get by with a little human dignity.  Success can be more a matter of chance than planning, and it is often luck or misfortune that places people in either the bright spotlight of fame, or the dark dungeons of villainy.

I know that many people shy away from War and Peace because of its length, and I did too for a long time.  Another criticism is that Tolstoy’s “war” parts are monotonous.  It certainly is a lengthy novel but by doing some cursive research on this period of Russian history, the reader can gain enough of a base to allow him to relax and be pulled into the story.  And by viewing the wars scenes, not only as history, but as a chance to learn from people’s reactions in situations of stress and conflict, I think they can give us more of an insight into human motivations.  So pick it up and let yourself be swept away into the Russia Empire of the early 1800s.  You won’t be disappointed!

(translated by Aylmer & Louise Maude)