Friday, January 09, 2009

Chekhov's Stories (2): The Kiss

At the start of this story it is May, and "all six batteries" of a Cossack artillery brigade have halted for the night in a village called Myestetchki. Following an invitation delivered by a servant on horseback, nineteen officers make their way to the home of retired general Von Rabbek.

Chekhov gradually introduces us to certain individuals within this pack. There's Lieutenant Lobytko, "renowned in the brigade for his peculiar faculty for divining the presence of women at a distance", and the lynx-whiskered Ryabovitch, whose conduct in company betrays his consciousness of a lack of physical distinction.

At one point in the evening Ryabovitch slouches after two of his fellow officers who have been invited to play billiards in another part of the house. He watches a while but feeling somewhat ignored, decides to head back to the drawing room, but manages to take a wrong turn and winds up in a darkened room.

Suddenly there's a feminine presence in there with him. She whispers "at last", throws her arms around him and kisses him, before recoiling with a shriek. He too flees the scene in haste.

It's a chance event, most probably experienced as an embarrassing mishap by the lady in question. But for Ryabovitch it is transforming.

"Something strange was happening to him...His neck, round which soft, fragant arms had so lately been clasped, seemed to him to be annointed with oil; on his left cheek near his moustache where the unknown had kissed him there was a faint tingling sensation as from peppermint drops, and the more he rubbed the place the more distinct was the chilly sensation; all over from head to foot, he was full of a strange new feeling which grew stronger and stronger..."

The 'unknown' is clearly something more than just an anonymous young woman. Emerging from the dark room, his whole outlook on the life he has yet to lead has been touched with some powerful positive magic.

For Ryabovitch his first kiss has awakened within him Love, but as this emotion is to have no definite object - rather an imaginary compound of all the women he finds back in the drawing room on his return there - Chekhov is able to show how we often experience love as a heightening of our senses, which alters our perceptions of time and space and our scale of meaning.

Ryabovitch and the other officers move off with their batteries the next day. Eventually the awkward young officer summons up the courage to share his story with his peers, but however minutely he describes the incident, its magnitude evades his narrative capabilities.

"In the course of that moment he had told everything, and it surprised him dreadfully to find how short a time it took him to tell it."

Worse still, Lieutenant Lobytko then lets on that "a similar thing once happened to me." He was on a train and had drifted off beneath his rug. "I opened my eyes and only imagine - a woman. Black eyes, lips red as a prime salmon, nostrils breathing passionately - a bosom like a buffer..." This analogue of course serves only to debase the founding myth behind Ryabovitch's own passion.

The brigade eventually makes its way back to Myestetchki, presumably in the Autumn, and Ryabovitch's sense that a return to the point of origin will allow him to re-kindle the flame within his soul is destined for disappointment.

Perhaps the author is suggesting that love can be rather like the disciplined and insincere smile of La Señora Von Rabbek "which instantly vanished from her face every time she turned away from her guests."

Chekhov wrote this story when he was 27.

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