There is another world, but it is in this one.

Paul Eluard. Œuvres complètes, vol. 1, Gallimard, 1968.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Review: A Night in the Cemetery and Other Tales of Crime and Suspense by Anton Chekhov

.....Freddie experienced the sort of abysmal soul-sadness which afflicts one of Tolstoy's Russian peasants when, after putting in a heavy day's work strangling his father, beating his wife, and dropping the baby into the city's reservoir, he turns to the cupboards, only to find the vodka bottle empty.
-The Best of Wodehouse: An Anthology

....The best critical observation on Chekhov that I have encountered is a remark that Gorky made about the man rather than the stories and plays: "It seems to me that in the presence of Anton Pavlovich, everyone felt an unconscious desire to be simpler, more truthful, more himself." That is the effect upon me of rereading "The Student" or "The Lady with Dog," or of attending a performance of Three Sisters or The Cherry Orchard. That hardly means we will be made any better by Chekhov, but on some level we will wish we could be better. That desire, however repressed, seems to me an aesthetic rather than a moral phenomenon. Chekhov, with his artist's wisdom, teaches us implicitly that literature is a form of desire and wonder and not a form of the good.
--Harold Bloom, Bloom's Modern Critical Views: Anton Chekhov—New Edition (2009).











A Night in the Cemetery and Other Tales of Crime and Suspense by Anton Chekhov is packed tight with stories by turns gelastic, sober, angry, and compassionate. There is no bathos, and elements of melodrama are winked-away or happily demolished. Each criminal thinks himself (or herself) unique; but as readers know, every crime is exhaustingly the same. Chekhov's precocious craft finds strength in the ironies of each all-to-human fool's activity.

Not every story is a murder mystery. There are embezzlers, horse thieves, and hapless security guards at every turn.

Peter Sekirin's translation is masterful, catching the informality and drollery of Chekhov's assured and perfect style.

Notes and excerpts:

A NIGHT IN THE CEMETERY
....My story begins, as do most traditional well-written Russian stories, with the phrase "I was drunk that day."

WHAT YOU USUALLY FIND IN NOVELS
A jocular litany of the elements of genre fiction.

THE SWEDISH MATCH
A detective and a doctor prove through clues and ratiocination that they are fools.

A NIGHT OF HORROR
....How had this very expensive coffin, designed for a rich young lady, come to be in the tiny apartment of a poor office worker like me?

WILLOW
A postman is murdered, but the murder is observed.

A THIEF
A embezzler in Siberian exile realizes he did not embezzle enough to be really comfortable.

THE ONLY WAY OUT
....We've had nine accountants in the last five years, and now, during the holiday season, we get postcards from all of them, from Krasnoiarsk, Siberia. All of them went to prison.

AN EXPENSIVE DOG
An owner tries to unload an unworthy dog on his friend.

CURVED MIRROR
....My wife also came closer to the mirror and looked at it, and then something terrible happened. She blanched, trembled all over, and screamed. The candlestick fell from her hands and rolled onto the floor, and the candle was snuffed out. We were in total darkness. I heard some heavy object fall onto the floor. It was my wife, who had fainted.

A COURT CASE
...."Just look into his eyes," the defense lawyer continued. His chin trembled; his voice trembled also, and his suffering was clear in his eyes. "Do you think those tender, humble eyes could look upon a crime in cold blood, without any feelings? No, those eyes can cry; they can shed tears. A very sensitive disposition is hidden underneath that rough, rugged, square-jawed face. A tender heart, not a criminal's, but a human being's, beats beneath that rough, crippled chest. And you would dare call him guilty?"

THE BROTHER: A SLICE OF LIFE
...."Sister, do you wish to destroy both of you, Michael as well? He has started drinking! Sister, all you ever want is money and jewelry. All you ever do is calculate how to make a profit from your marriage. But this is appalling. How can you marry an illiterate?"

A CONFESSION
....["This is where the editor found the story too long, and crossed out 73 lines, thus cutting down on the author's royalties."—Chekhov's comment.]

IN THE DARKNESS OF THE NIGHT
....The driver falls from the carriage and vanishes into the darkness. The second horse stumbles at the cliff, and the engineer feels the carriage is falling
somewhere into the abyss.

THE INTENTIONAL DECEPTION
....The waiting was terrible! Waiting for a drink is one of the worst things. It is better to wait for a train for five hours outside in the snow than it is to wait for a drink for five minutes. Diadechkin looked angrily at the clock, took a few steps across the room, and moved the big hand five minutes ahead.

ON THE SEA: A SAILOR'S STORY
A superbly organized story with a real kernel of shock resting right at the center of its web.

IVAN THE CABMAN
....I am a tender and spoiled man, your honor. I was spoiled by my parents. They did not think I would end up being a groom. They treated me with such tenderness, God bless them. They put me as a baby next to the warm oven in our country house, and I slept there until I was ten. I stayed there eating pies like a stupid pig. I was their beloved son. They dressed me in the best clothes, taught me how to read and to write for my future happy life. When I wanted to run barefoot, they warned me: 'You will get a cold, boy,' as if I were not a peasant but a landlord or man of prominence....

PERPETUAL MOBILE
...."We are heading to the autopsy. A dead body has been found at the crime scene. But we cannot seem to get there. It appears we are in a magic circle, and we cannot get out...."

EVILDOER
....On July seventh of this year, you were observed by the railway security guard, Mr. Ivan Akintov, while walking along the seventy-sixth kilometer of the railway to be unscrewing the nuts that fix the rails to the railway ties. Here is his deposition. He caught you while you were holding this iron nut in your hands. Is this true?"

DEATH OF AN OFFICE WORKER
....Many stories have that phrase, "but suddenly." Authors are right: life is filled with unexpected turns of events.

75 GRAND
...."I remember him very well," said the red-haired man. "I remember him. He spent somebody else's money at a restaurant to show off in front of his girlfriend, and he wound up crying on her shoulder, although he wasn't crying before he did it...."

AT THE CEMETERY
...."I knew this man. He loved his wife, had medals of honor, and never read anything in his life. His stomach was working properly. He died from an accident. Truly, but if not for that accident he would have kept on living. He died as a victim of his own observations. One day, he was eavesdropping behind a door, which swung to hit him so hard he was given a severe concussion from the blow, dying shortly after. Now, look at this monument. This man hated poetry all his life, see his headstone there? Do you see the irony? His entire tombstone is completely covered with poetry; what an ironic twist of fate!...."

THE CONVERSATION OF A MAN WITH A DOG
"I am a gossiper as well. And I whisper in other people's ears. Right now, I am reporting to the overseer on other people. Do you think that George Korney was fired without my help, hmm? Hmm? And what do you think—who was it, if not me, who stole the two thousand from the charity money and then blamed it all on Mr. Staples? Was it not me? Yes, I am a hypocrite, a Judas, a liar, a yes-man, an extortionist, and usurper. I really am a nasty, bad man."

THE WALLET
"Truthfully, those two friends of mine—Smirnov and Drummer—are terrible actors. They have no talent. They are complete buffoons. They would waste this money on nothing important, but me, I would bring some happiness to our country and become famous. I know what I will do—I will poison the vodka. Unfortunately, they will die, but there will be a theater in the town of Kostroma, a huge and magnificent theater the likes of which this country has never seen. I seem to recall the British prime minister, McMahon, saying that any actions can be justified if they serve the proper purpose. And he was a great person."

A DEAD BODY
"You are a strange man, Sam! Others would laugh, tell stories, but you—well, you just sit here staring at the fire, like a scarecrow, with your eyes wide open. You cannot even say a word properly. You speak as if you are afraid of something. You've already passed fifty, and you have less intelligence than a child. Are you disappointed that you are a half-wit?"

TOO MUCH TALKING!
....At the thought of sitting here in this dark cold forest for the whole night, listening to the wild animals and the echoes of his voice, the land surveyor felt shivers run down his spine, as if someone had poured a glass of ice water down his collar.

CONVERSATION OF A DRUNKEN MAN WITH A SOBER DEVIL
"....There is no path of good—it does not exist anymore among humans, and so there is nothing to seduce people away from. Besides, people have now become smarter than we are. How can you possibly seduce a person who graduated from college and has seen so much in this world? How can I teach someone how to steal a penny if he, without my help, has already stolen thousands, or even millions?"

PSYCHOPATHS
....Mr. Nianin, the older man, is suspicious of everything; ever frightened and distrustful, he stops eating and becomes even more pale. George also stops eating. The father and the son are both cowards, alike in their fear of everything. They are filled with some undefined, inexplicable fear; it comes to them irregularly from nowhere, from beyond measurable time and space.

ASSIGNMENT
Charming story: journalist Pavel Sergeevich tries to draft a "a scary Halloween story" for his editor. He does this at home. In the next room his wife and her friends play the piano (badly), sing (badly) and then pester him for a ride in the country.

FIRE IN THE STEPPE: AN EVIL NIGHT
....The landlady and the servants alike feel inner cold—the kind of cold where the hands, the head, and the voice start to tremble. The fear is great, but their impatience is even greater. They want to get to a higher elevation to see the fire, its smoke, and the people better. Their desire to experience this emotional situation and its stress becomes stronger than their compassion for the misfortunes of others.

IGNORAMUS
"They sent him to prison for no reason. He was drunk, your lordship, he didn't remember anything, and he even stroked father on the ear, he cut his own cheek through on a branch, and two of our villagers—see, they wanted some Turkish tobacco—told him to break into the Armenian man's shop at night to get tobacco. And drunk as he was, he agreed, the fool. They broke the lock, you know, got in, and made a complete mess. Everything upside down, windows broken, flour all over the floor. They were drunk, in short!...."

TASK
....The subject is highly disagreeable and delicate. Sasha Uskov sold a false promissory note to a bank, and three days ago the note becamfor payment. At present, his two uncles on his father's side, and Ivan Markovich, his uncle on his mother's side, are considering whether they should pay the note and save the family honor, or wash their hands of it and let the case go to court…..

DREAMS
"....When I was still a boy of eighteen or so, my mamma had an accidental oversight. She dropped some arsenic into the master's glass instead of soda and acid. There were all sorts of boxes in the storeroom, lots of them; it was very easy to have made a mistake over them."

A CRIME: A DOUBLE MURDER CASE
"Listen, boys, we have to deal with that little girl somehow. We've got to get rid of her. If we leave her here, she'll be the first one to turn us in."

DRAMA
Has anyone ever approached you and asked that you listen to their five-act play? Crime is the only justifiable response.

AN AMBULANCE
A drunk is saved from a river but dies of ministrations of village first-responders.

BAD BUSINESS
Security guards come in for a lot of abuse in these stories.Chekhov delights in scaring his night watchmen.

MISFORTUNE
Another of Chekhov's stories about swindling bank employees and the bank directors whom they dupe.

THE MAN WHO WANTED REVENGE
"I must recommend to you, my dear sir, this wonderful handgun made by the company Smith and Wesson. This is the finest achievement of the handgun industry. It has three different switches, an extractor for the next cartridge; it can hit any target from six hundred paces, and it is very easy to aim. I would like to draw your attention, my dear sir, to the beautiful and very clean finish of this particular piece. This is the most fashionable handgun nowadays. Every day, we sell at least ten of them to robbers, wolves, and lovers. It has a very powerful and precise performance, and uncompromising quality. With one shot you can kill both your wife and her lover, and for suicides, I do not know of a better system."

THIEVES
"Listen, Merik," said Lyubka, as her voice turned tender. "I know you'll find mother's money, and will do away with both her and me, and will go to Kuban to love other girls. Whatever happens will happen. There's only one thing I ask of you, sweetheart: stay now!"

MURDER
....Since coming to live in the prison together with men from all over Europe—Russians, Ukrainians, Tatars, Georgians, Chinese, Finns, Gypsies, Jews—he began to listen to their conversations and watched them suffering, his faith began to grow again, as he felt that finally he had learned the true faith, the very faith that his whole family had longed for and for which they had searched in vain. He knew now where God was, and how He was to be served. There was only one thing now that he did not understand: why did one person's destiny differ so much from another's? Why did this simple faith, that some got for free while living their lives, come at such a price, with his limbs trembling like a drunk's from all the horror and suffering that apparently would go on without end until his death.

CRIMINAL INVESTIGATOR
"If she forgave so fast, it means that she intended on revenge. Young wives do not forgive very easily or so fast."

THE DRAMA AT THE HUNT
A brilliant novella to round out this collection, with strong flavors of such later crime fiction masters as Nabokov and Highsmith.
    "....Yet what caught our attention and what shocked us all were his hands: they were covered with blood. Both hands and shirt sleeves were thickly coated with blood, as if he had just washed them in a blood bath."


Jay

25 May 2019







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