Posted by: zhiv | February 7, 2009

Chekhov #3: Crate Life: Gooseberries and The Man in the Case

CRATE LIFE

A compact, beleaguered man pulls into his driveway at the end of the day.  He gets out of his Prius, expressionless, takes his briefcase and walks to the door of his modest house.  Going inside, we hear his wife call out to him, “is that you honey?”  Her voice is tinged with deep anxiety.  Her two small boys race around through the house like twin cartoon characters.  “Thank God you’re home!” his wife says, relieved after hours of being unable to manage the boys.  The man remains expressionless, walking through the entry and the hall and climbing up the stairs to his bedroom.  It’s a good-sized master suite, and next to the bed is a 6’x6′ metal wire crate, like the ones used for dogs.  Inside the crate is a comfortable chair.  The man enters the crate, sets down his briefcase, and sits in the chair, facing us.  His breath slowly settles as he closes his eyes, and then he opens them and shows the slightest hint of a smile.  He is in his crate.

Crate Life shows us middle-aged Crateman experiencing home, family, and working life.  He loves his crate and is happy, content, and at peace within it.  As he goes through his home activities, we see the digitized outline of the crate surrounding him.  He eats a spare meal, some vegetables and a small square boneless and skinless chicken breast.  He is always busy, completely responsible for everything, childcare, cooking and cleaning, calming the nerves of his anxious wife, he never stops, constantly expressionless until he is back in the wire crate with his small smile. 

At his office we see him with the crate outlined around him, setting his work onto a desk.  He puts on a headset and gets onto a large wheel, like a hamster wheel, and he starts walking slowly, making calls and looking at his computer monitor and discussing things with the same deadpan expression, the wheel turning.  At times the wheel moves faster, as he sprints on it, but it’s mostly turning at a steady pace throughout the day.

His friend comes to his office on a Friday evening.  Crateman is turning the wheel, moving at a good clip.  His friend tries to get Crateman to step off the wheel for a moment.  After some discussion, and as Crateman gives a forlorn look at the work left on his desk, he steps off the wheel.  The outline of the crate disappears. 

We see Crateman in his friend’s car.  He sticks his head out the passenger window, feeling the air on his face, smiling broadly, his eyes closed.  He is outside of the crate.  They pull up to a nice Italian restaurant and wine bar and get out. 

Now Crateman is drinking, laughing, telling stories, eating meat and cheese with gusto.  We see him talking about work, and flash to moments when he is sprinting at top speed on the wheel, near collapse, pushing himself harder and harder.  He and his friend laugh and laugh, drinking and eating, telling more stories:  we see them skiing in the winter snows, hiking in the mountains in midsummer past sparkling  lakes and through forests, climbing to a summit in the glaring sun, a spectacular view all around them.  This is life outside the crate, their glory days.  They glance at women across the barroom, as they finish another bottle of wine. 

They stumble outside to listen to music at a club next door, smiling, chatting and excited.  As the music continues we see Crateman’s high spirits start to fade; he’s tired.  He fires up from time to time, trying to keep up the excitement.  And then his friend is dropping Crateman off, as they laugh at some last joke out in front of Crateman’s house.  Crateman is quite tipsy and very tired, and he has to concentrate carefully, wearing his serious expression once again, as he walks to the door and lets himself in, the house dark.  He silently walks up the stairs and steps into his crate and stumbles into his chair.  His wife rolls over in the bed beside the crate.  The man settles in and lets out a deep sigh.  His small smile returns and he closes his eyes.  Next we see him in the bed, asleep and spooning with his wife, surrounded by the outline of the crate.  In his dreams he is out of the crate, running free:  sticking his head out the window of the car, skiiing, laughing and drinking and talking to the bar girl, reaching the mountain summit and raising his arms in triumph as he’s silhouetted by the setting sun.  He sleeps peacefully, the small smile on his face and the outline of the crate glowing brightly in the dark.

GOOSEBERRIES

Chekhov’s “Gooseberries” is a flawless, thoughtful, and charming (in spite of itself) story that introduces two peripatetic townsmen, the veterinary surgeon Ivan Ivanich and Bourkin, the schoolmaster. They are on a long ramble on one of Chekhov’s gray days when heavy rains force them to take shelter at the estate of Aliokhin, “a man of about 40, tall and stout, with long hair, more like a professor or a painter than a farmer.” They find Aliokhin hard at work with his farm hands, running a winnowing machine. He is ecstatic to see them, tells them to get out of their wet clothes and calls on the pretty young maid to make them comfortable, and decides that the occasion calls for a bath–he hasn’t had one since spring, he has been so busy. As the dirt and grime wash off of Aliokhin in greasy ripples, Ivan Ivanich is happy at their reception, swimming in the pond in the rain. Aliokhin sleeps in a simple room built for farm hands, but the manor house is opened up for the guests. Ivan Ivanich tells the story of his brother Nicholai, who worked for 40 years as a functionary at the exchange, dreaming of owning his own farm and having his own gooseberry bushes. After Nikolai’s wife died, he realized his dream and bought 300 acres and planted 20 gooseberry bushes. Ivan Ivanich visited him as Nikolai, firmly ensconsced as a man of property, ate his first batch of gooseberries. They were hard and bitter, but Nikolai loved them and was happy, and couldn’t stop eating them, returning to the bowl of gooseberries over and over in the night.

The simple story within the story doesn’t satisfy the listeners, Bourkin and Aliokhin. Aliokhin is tired and thinking about his work in the morning. Ivan Ivanich uses the story as an occasion to exclaim that we are pathetic in our simple means of gaining happiness, and silent as we ignore the long suffering and hardships of others. “Every happy man should have some one with a little hammer at his door to knock and remind him that there are unhappy people, and that, however happy he may be, life will sooner or later show its claws, and some misfortune will befall him–illness, poverty, loss, and then no one will see or hear him, just as he now neither sees nor hears others. But there is no man with a hammer, and the happy go on living, just a little flattered with the petty cares of every day, like an aspen tree in the wind–and everything is all right.” Ivan Ivanich talks about how he became restless after this night with his brother. “Why do we wait?” he keeps asking himself. The peacefulness of the quiet town at night oppresses him. He clasps Aliokhin’s hand: “While you are young, stong, wealthy, do good!” Aliokhin and Bourkin were hoping for a more charming tale, and Aliokhin is so tired that he can’t follow Ivan Ivanich’s line of thought. They all go to bed, Ivan Ivanich calling himself a wicked sinner as he prays, and the rain pounds on the windows through the night.

I didn’t realize, before reading Janet Malcolm’s “Reading Chekhov,” that Chekhov was so deeply concerned with nature in his work. This brief story bursts with that preoccupation, with its other outstanding feature the different layers and perspectives from which nature is viewed. Ivan Ivanich and Bourkin enjoy a grand view under the gray skies at the very beginning: “In the calm weather when all Nature seemed gentle and melancholy, Ivan Ivanich and Bourkin were filled with love for the fields and thought how grand and beautiful the country was.” The rain sends them to Aliokhin, “young, strong, and wealthy,” who is so absorbed in nature and his farm that he can’t bathe or think–or perform the higher good that Ivan Ivanich calls for, attending to the sufferings of others. The realization of Nikolai’s dream of a farm with gooseberries suggests to Ivan Ivanich that a whole life can be wasted before gaining a simple sense and taste of nature–how can we let this happen when life is all around us? Chekhov makes tidy use of the objective correlative in the story, as the hard and bitter gooseberries in the title hold all of the meaning the story tries to convey.

THE MAN IN A CASE

“You ride on a bicycle, and that pasttime is utterly unsuitable for an educator of youth.”

I mentioned in my Reading Notes/Strands post that I was happy to discover that Ivan Ivanich and Bourkin returned in the next story I read, “The Man in a Case” (both were written in 1898). They are spending the night in “the elder Prokofy’s barn,” telling stories, and Ivan Ivanich comments on how Prokofy’s wife Mavra has never left her native village. “There are plenty of people in the world, solitary by temperment, who try to retreat into their shell like a hermit crab or a snail. Perhaps it is an instance of atavism, a return to the period when the ancestor of man was not yet a social animal and lived alone in his den, or perhaps it is only one of the diversities of human character–who knows?” Bourkin is prompted to tell the story of Byelikov, his fellow teacher and housemate who died just two months before. Byelikov is the man in a crate /case.

He was remarkable for always wearing galoshes and a warm wadded coat, and carrying an umbrella even in the very finest weather. And his umbrella was in a case, and his watch was in a case made of grey chamois leather, and when he took out his penknife to sharpen his pencil, his penknife, too, was in a little case; and his face seemed to be in a case too, because he always hid it in his turned-up collar. He wore dark spectacles and flannel vest, stuffed up his ears with cotton-wool, and when he got into a cab always told the driver to put up the hood. In short, the man displayed a constant and insurmountable impulse to wrap himself in a covering, to make himself, so to speak, a case which would isolate him and protect him from external influences.

Bourkin details how Byelikov protected himself with rules and regulations and absurd standards, terrorizing the school and its community. He was powerful in his abnegation and strictures, and everybody was afraid of him. The story takes a turn when Bourkin surprises Ivan Ivanich by saying that Byelikov was almost married, a shocking twist that in fact led to his demise. A new teacher, Kavelenko, joined the school, bringing with him his attractive, laughing sister, Varinka. When the sympathetic Varinka smiled at Byelikov, the
community took it into its head that they should be married. Byelikov responded to this, courting her in his deliberate, overly cautious manner, never quite committing to the step of marriage. Meanwhile Kavelenko, a young outsider and full of life, made no secret of detesting Byelikov and his strange hold on the community.

And the story makes its final turn on a fateful bicycle ride (that’s right, Dorothy). The teachers and the schoolboys are out on a walk,
and Byelikov is shocked when Kovalenko and Varinka ride past on bicycles. “What is the meaning of it? Tell me, please!” he (Byelikov) asked. “Can my eyes have deceived me? Is it the proper thing for high school masters and ladies to ride bicycles?” Later Byelikov confronts Kovalenko and says:

“I have been in the service for years, while you have only lately entered it, and I consider it my duty as an older colleague to give you a warning. You ride on a bicycle, and that pasttime is utterly unsuitable for an educator of youth.”
“Why so?” asked Kovalenko in his bass.
“Surely that needs no explanation, Mikhail Savvitch–surely you can understand that. If the teacher rides a bicycle, what can you expect the pupils to do? You will have them walking on their heads next!

Byelikov plans to go to the authorites, and Kovalenko throws him down the stairs. He looks like he stumbled and seems ridiculous, when Varinka comes in the door and laughs at him–“hahaha!” The confusion, confrontation, and ridicule crush Byelikov, who retreats to his bed, his case, and never gets up. He wills himself into non-existence, dying a month later.

Now when he was lying in his coffin his expression was mild, agreeable, even cheerful, as though he were glad that he had at last been put into a case which he would never leave again. Yes, he had attained his ideal!”
“Yes, that is just how it is,” repeated Ivan Ivanich; “and isn’t our living in town, airless and crowded, our writing useless papers, our playing vint–isn’t that all a sort of case for us? And our spending our whole lives among trivial, fussy men and silly, idle women, our talking and our listening to all sorts of nonsense–isn’t that a case for us too?”

Or a crate. My friends and I came up with the idea of Crate Life last summer and we have been getting a lot of mileage out of it as a useful shorthand. I was prompted to write up the basic idea after reading Chekhov’s excellent, amazing story, which steps away from realism and gains Kafkaesque overtones as it examines the workings of fear and power. And it’s interesting to pair it with Gooseberries, where Nikolai “attained his ideal” too.

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Responses

  1. Thank you promoting the Man in the Case and for lending me the book. Crate life looks much different now that Byelikov has demonstrated the art of living in such a way. Oddly he is small like our friend friend the crate man. Do we foregive such a person, or do we forbid this behavior? Accept this as a form of human nature or deny it as the most painful presence of fear? On to The Duel!

  2. Excellent work Doakie!


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