Wednesday, November 24, 2004

The Grasshopper

I am in the midst of reading all of Anton Chekhov's short stories in chronological order. So far I have completed 17, written during a three year period, 1884-1887. The sixteenth was the first to contain anything like a sharp note in the last paragraph. The rest have been evocative vignettes featuring characters living not so much at the margin but within the cracks of nineteenth century Russia, individuals caught in the act of confronting the cruelties of personal, social and metaphysical indifference.

The last story I read, The Grasshopper, was also the longest so far and focusses on people whose predicament is, on the surface at least, more modern and opportunity-laden.

The lead character is Olga Ivanovna, a worshipper of false idols, who is eventually exposed as something of a false idol herself. I don't know anything about the origins of this story, but I find it hard to believe that Chekhov never made the acquaintance of a lady like Olga.

She belongs to that class of people in which men and women can aspire to become distinguished. Olga is a multi-talented social groupie in an arty, chattering crowd. "Whatever she did...turned out to be artistic, graceful, charming...even if it was simply tying someone's tie". She paints, she plays the cello and she accumulates talented men around her. Indeed in Olga's circle "there were no ladies present because Olga Ivanovna considered all women, except actresses and her dressmaker, trivial and boring".

However, somewhat out of character, she has decided to marry a comparatively dull doctor called Dymov. "Amidst these favourites of fortune, who, while perfectly urbane and well-bred, remembered the existence of doctors only when they were ill...Dymov seemed like a stranger, superfluous, small."

Olga adores her quirky medical practitioner but lacks any sturdy connection to his world and his goals and the relationship is weakened by neglect. She is mystified by his geeky colleagues, observing of one - "Surely it must be a bore to be such an insignificant person with such a puckered up face and such bad manners?"

Dymov is the noble savage of this tale. Chekhov deftly deploys him to undermine the prevailing view amongst Olga's family and friends about what it means to be a person of significance. It's hard to tell exactly how much bitterness there is behind this satire. Olga pursues an affair with a painter friend that barely gets beyond consummation - they seem to recoil from each other's mediocrity. Olga and Dymov's domestic life unravels and Dymov dies after a suicidal act of sacrifice that highlights the true meaning of distinction. Olga is left rueing a missed chance and a lost celebrity.

(I have since discovered that Chekhov's close friend the landscape painter Isaac Levitan was the model for Olga's lover Ryabovsky. Olga herself was based on Levitan's groupie, a young unmarried teacher called Lika Mizinova. In real life it was Levitan who was married not his pupil. Chekhov was of course himself a doctor. 11/1/05)

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