Owing to a conversation I recently had with fellow blogger Claire ‘Word by Word‘ I have decided that this week’s short story shall be taken from my very, very short list of “books that changed my life.” Getting the preliminaries out of the way, Anton Pavlovich Chekhov (1860-1904) is very possibly my favorite author and his story ‘Excellent People’ is (possibly tied with ‘The Duel’) my favorite of what I have so far read of him. This so you’ll know how very biased I am about the work. Technically, this write-up shall refer to the Constance Garnett translation.
Chekhov was a fine chronicler of boredom, triviality, pointlessness, futility and all-around pathetic people doing very little. This was entirely his intention, as this rather famous quote shows: “I simply wanted to say to people honestly: ‘Look at yourselves, look at how bad and boring your lives are!’ The important thing is, that people should understand this, and when they understand it, they will, without fail, create themselves another and better life. I will not see it, but I know — it will be completely different, and nothing like this life. And until it arrives, I will say [this] to people again and again….”
And the importance of his intent lies in its execution – Chekhov was no satirist; he did not mock and sneer or offer up even the most banal characters for a laugh. His art was thoughtful and he treated his characters with a great respect. This Russian is still known today as the finest writer of short stories the world has produced. People are always looking for the next Chekhov, and I’ve heard the phrase “our Chekhov” leveled at Alice Munro, William Trevor and V.S. Pritchett, but the truth is that there is no inheritor to his legacy. Chekhov was kind, and that’s a hard thing to replicate.
Among his stories, 1886’s ‘Excellent People’ is one of the kindest. I mentioned in my last Saturday Short how Somerset Maugham seemed to distance himself from his characters by employing a first-person narrator with no interest in the action – Chekhov here takes the opposite approach; this first-person observer, unnamed, unknown, is a close friend to the main character. As things turn out, his only friend; and this narrator takes so little trouble over fixing his own place in the story that the effect becomes one of unbreakable reality, the feeling that this man isn’t even an alter-ego, just the writer himself, describing someone he really knew. (For more in that style, seek out Colette)
Once upon a time there lived in Moscow a man called Vladimir Semyonitch Liadovsky. He took his degree at the university in the faculty of law and had a post on the board of management of some sailway; but if you had asked him what his work was, he would look candidly and openly at you with his large bright eyes through his gold pincenez, and would answer in a soft, velvety, lisping baritone:
“My work is literature.”
Liadovsky, a good and gentle man, having devoted most all of his life to reviewing literary matters, is then the main focus. Likable? Oh, yes. Vain, aggrieved over the limited circulation afforded him by the paper he works for, and decidedly isolated, he also makes for a slightly ridiculous figure – but in a manner more likely to stir affection than exasperation. He was one of those writers to whom phrases like, “We are but few,” or “What would life be without strife? Forward!” were pre-eminently becoming, though he never strove with any one and never did go forward. It did not even sound mawkish when he fell to discoursing of ideals. Every anniversary of the university, on St. Tatiana’s Day, he got drunk, chanted Gaudeamus out of tune, and his beaming and perspiring countenance seemed to say: “See, I’m drunk; I’m keeping it up!” But even that suited him. Liadovsky sounds much the sort of person one would wish to have for a friend, but all this information about him is given also for the sake of the conversations ahead – this is not merely a story of excellent people, but of their ideas.
Liadovsky has a sister, Vera, a widow, an attempted suicide, miserable and broken – all in all a tragic figure come to live with her only apparent family. She, trained in medicine, reveres her brother though does not appear to understand his writings, not being the literary type. Usually when he was at his work she used to sit beside him, her eyes fixed on his writing hand. She used at such moments to look like a sick animal warming itself in the sun…. A peaceful balance exists between these two until Vera starts to develop her own ideas:
“Volodya,” Vera Semyonovna interrupted his critical effusions, “I’ve been haunted by a strange idea since yesterday. I keep wondering where we should all be if human life were ordered on the basis of non-resistance to evil?”
“In all probability, nowhere. Non-resistance to evil would give the full rein to the criminal will, and, to say nothing of civilisation, this would leave not one stone standing upon another anywhere on earth.”
“What would be left?”
“Bashi-Bazouke [see below] and brothels. In my next article I’ll talk about that perhaps. Thank you for reminding me.”
Filtering her notion through the lens of his own profession turns out to be a mistake. Vera does not approve of his article, they quarrel and his authorial vanity, untroubled by dint of obscurity, is hurt. The rest of the story becomes no more than a series of arguments between them; Vera having decided that non-resistance to evil is the best way to live one’s life (and perhaps avoid pain) whilst Liadovsky considers such to be an outrageous solution. Their relations become strained and painful.
Months go by in this sorry state, the two of them carping and criticizing one another; unable to understand, each calls the other “morbid” and “a fanatic.” Vera, who lies about the house all day in an excess of depressionary boredom, accuses Liadovsky of “wasting your best years in goodness knows what,” while Liadovsky complains of her to the narrator. They see one another’s flaws but cannot see their own. Efforts at reconciliation fall short and for this – for a mere difference in opinion – the only solution is to part ways. Neither is a truly bad person and yet how they dislike each other in the end.
Readers expect resolution, particularly to the short story. A novel, after all, can be excused with the old phrase “it’s the journey that matters, not the destination.” Perhaps a reader will expect this story to resolve, for the siblings to meet up again or otherwise come full circle. But, no. No, in the end the narrator again steps forward and calmly admits to not knowing what happened to Vera after she left. As for Liadovsky….he died. After all the philosophical detail from their conversations, the narrator returns to the unadorned storytelling voice from the beginning and gives the simple facts before capping off with a singular anecdote:
One day we writers were sitting in the Tatars’ restaurant. I mentioned that I had lately been in the Vagankovsky Cemetery and had seen Vladimir Semyonitch’s grave there. It was utterly neglected and almost indistinguishable from the rest of the ground, the cross had fallen; it was necessary to collect a few roubles to put it in order.
But they listened to what I said unconcernedly, made no answer, and I could not collect a farthing. No one remembered Vladimir Semyonitch. He was utterly forgotten.
In the end, I do believe Chekhov had something more to say than simply “look how boring your lives are.” The title of this piece indicates it: Excellent people, individuals who are quite fine in their own ways, and how they treat each other. Liadovsky dies alone, estranged from his sister and forgotten – and for what? What did he do? What made him so awful? Nothing.
People focus on Chekhov’s powers of observation which is probably why they expect to find a successor, but there have been a hundred storicists to equal that. It’s his kindness, as I said. ‘Excellent People’ is profoundly melancholy in its outlook and it doesn’t seem to be one of his famous works, but in my opinion it is one of his finest.
A Note on Editions: As far as I can tell, the only place you’ll locate this is in The Duel and Other Stories, volume 2 in Ecco Press’ Tales of Chekhov series. While Constance Garnett is a very out-of-date translator, no one more modern seems to have stepped up to the plate and made so thorough a set of translations. Also, the Ecco publications are extremely fine to look at if you have a complete or semi-complete set on your shelves. Here’s a picture of some of them: