Thoughts prompted by a Russian classic

In kicking off my Russian Reading Challenge, I thought it appropriate to begin with a famous Russian author. Thus, I started with The Story of a Nobody, an 1891 work by Anton Chekhov. The tale produced several diverse thoughts.

First, many people, myself included, might be tempted to think that there is little in common between ourselves and 19th century Russians. Yet just four pages in, I discovered I shared a long held feeling with the story’s narrator. Chekhov writes:

I was becoming a dreamer and, like a dreamer, did not know what it actually was that I needed. At times I wanted to retreat to a monastery, sit there for days on end by a window and gaze at the trees and fields; at other times I imagined myself buying a few acres of land and living like a country squire; at others I swore to myself that I would take up academic work and without fail become a professor at some provincial university.

Compare Chekhov’s passage to one from Hugh Prather’s Notes to Myself, published in 1970: “There is a part of me that wants to write, a part that wants to theorize, a part that wants to sculpt, a part that wants to teach…. To force myself into a single role, to decide to be just one thing in life, would kill off large parts of me.” This is a passage I’ve remembered since first reading his book more than 30 years ago. I never really thought a 19th Century Russian author would also express a similar inclination toward still dreaming about “what I’m going to be when I grow up.”

My surprise perhaps reveals an attitude bordering on arrogance on my part that I routinely assume that the ideas and characters in century old literature don’t reflect the thoughts and concerns of “modern” life.

Yet The Story of a Nobody also reflects one of the problems I have with certain “classic” literature. Most of the characters are aristocrats, with the men largely living the good life with no apparent concern about their means of survival. The women, meanwhile, tend to come off as vapid, concerned primarily about their wardrobe, gossip or love. While Chekhov challenges the roles of men, women and class in the story, the archetype remains. Perhaps I’ve seen such portrayals so often because they simply are accurate descriptions of aristocratic life at the time. Still, my “modern sensibility” seems to lead me to view these characters as little more than stereotypes and, as a result, to perhaps give less credence to such characters.

And the idea of preconceptions leads to another element of this edition that brought to mind prior irritations.  This book contains both a foreword and an introduction written for this particular edition. Yet if you read either or both before reading the story, much of the content and purpose is revealed. It’s kind of like watching a movie trailer that leaves you nothing to really discover while watching the film. I have no problem if “experts” want to opine on what particular scenes mean or what specific characters or their particular traits represent. But please do so AFTER I have read the book. Let me discover for myself what the book is about and reach my own conclusions first. After all, isn’t that why we read a book in the first place? Why make it introductory material and create the possibility a reader will approach a book with preconceived notions based on someone else’s views?

Personally, I never read this kind of material before reading the book. I make it a point to do so after I’ve completed the book as it allows me to see what the people writing the introduction or commentary think and how their views are similar to or different from mine. It is not uncommon for this to lead me to go back and re-read passages because of something I didn’t see or realize in my reading. I know everyone can skip over this introductory material like I do. But it would make life so much easier for the reader if this material appeared at the end of the work rather than the beginning.

I should also note that while The Story of a Nobody was prompted by the Russian Reading Challenge, I’m not actually planning on counting it toward the challenge at this point. That’s because it clocks in at only 99 pages, meaning, as the foreword notes, it is “too long to be a short story and too short to be a novella.” Instead, I will consider it an educational warm up — and one worth that investment.

Cynicism deadens pain.

Anton Chekhov, The Story of a Nobody

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1 comment to Thoughts prompted by a Russian classic

  • Russian Reading Challenge — great gift for yourself! Don’t know if you’ve finalized your list yet, but let me join a commenter on your earlier post in recommending “We” by Evgeny Zamyatin, a remarkable prefiguring of Brave New World and 1984, and especially interesting being written by an eager Russian futurist after the Bolshevik revolution.

    If you don’t like aristocrats, War and Peace may bug you, but as you said, how do you get away from aristocrats in classic literature? Still, War and Peace is worth the effort — it’s an utterly unusual book, trying to be both narrative and philosophy, rather like The Grapes of Wrath (at least that’s what I tell my lit students!).

    Ah, but then Crime and Punishment should be right up your alley. Great regular folks, heck of a story. (Maybe I’ll reread it this summer!) Keep us posted — your challenge should make for interesting blogposts!