Saturday, April 04, 2009

Chekhov's Stories (3): Neighbours

On first reading I was sure that Neighbours (1892) might not make it into my personal short count of favourite Chekhov tales, so transparently did it appear to be little more that a platform for the intriguing character study that is Vlassitch.

It kicks off on the cusp of a moment of domestic instability in an upper-class household. Pyotr Mihalitch Ivashin, a country bachelor, is perhaps the least overtly distraught member of this household in the immediate aftermath of his sister Zina's departure to live with Vlassitch, a married man residing in the neighbourhood.

This man is, to use a literary term, a formal oddity, and one whose peculiarities were probably more relevant to Chekhov's society than our own. Vlassitch is presented to us as an impulsive rebel, and in modern parlance, a bit of a loser.

Pyotr Mihalitch has a keen sense of the Darwin-reading Vlassitch's failings and cannot see how his passionate, free-thinking sister could have fallen for such a simple and ultimately ineffectual man. And yet he is fond of Vlassitch and is "conscious of a sort of power in him".

Driven by a confused sense of duty and by the pervading grief of his mother, Pyotr Mihalitch rides out to confront the pair in Vlassitch's home, a "petrified and dreary" house with a dispiriting history that effectively becomes the fourth key cast member.

That this strained get-together should have such a barren outcome is forseeable because Pyotr Mihalitch has admitted up front that "for some reason he has never had the heart to contradict" his neighbour.

The deeper lessons of the tale only dawned on me a little later. That when we make bold changes in our lives designed to fill the core of our being with an intense form of happiness, it is only then that we become more conscious of the melancholy and heartache encrusting itself around that core.

And for those who remain at the one spot where they have always enjoyed a thorough sense of tranquility that might even be a passable substitute for real happiness, it is only a matter of time before changes in the lives of those they love bring about a discomfiting awareness of emotional entropy.

And I have to admire the way Chekhov has been able to artfully nest two more mini-tales into the structure of this one: that of Vlassitch's brave but follish gesture in marrying an 18-year old strumpet seduced and abandoned by one of his fellow officers, and that of the cruel Frenchman Olivier, a former tenant of Vlassitch's gloomy property who made the local priest walk hatless for half a mile around it, and who tortured his daughter's student-agitator b/f to death.

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