Posted by: zhiv | February 19, 2009

Chekhov #4: About Love

So it turns out that Ivanich and Bourkin have a trilogy, as the story “About Love” picks up their stay with Alekhin “at lunch the next day.” And this means that The Man in the Case comes first, when “the sportsmen” spend the night at Prokofy’s barn and consider Prokofy’s wife Mavra, prompting Bourkin to tell the story of Byelikov. Ivanich tells the story of his brother Nicholai and the gooseberries next, and then at lunch it’s Alekhin’s turn.

I should mention that failing to see that this sequence is a trilogy, or knowing that they are connected at all, seems to be an honest mistake, although one assumes that they often appear in courses as a single assignment. I have a hodgepodge of editions of Chekhov’s stories, 5 different paperbacks, with a little bit of overlapping. The part that’s making me nuts is the spelling of the names, and some of the language, as two of my editions are thin Dover thrift editions, which are reprints of early translations and they have old-fashioned spelling. One had Gooseberries in it, and the other had The Man in the Case. I picked up our copy of the Norton Critical editon from my daughter last week, and that volume has Case, Gooseberries, and About Love all together and in the proper order, but all of the names are different (and better): Bourkin becomes Burkin, Byelikov is Belikov, and Aliokhin is Alekhin. It’s a minor annoyance–should I go back and change the other names, so that I can use Alekhin in this post? More significantly, I probably need to get a little better organized in my approach and backgrounds, rather than just stumbling around through these different volumes of stories. I haven’t gone through Janet Malcolm and made any notes either. These are some of the the minor quibbles about this blogging form of studies, and the particular case of Chekhov and his dozens of stories. I’ll try to get around to the organization and background guides at some point, and reading a few introductions would help, even though the Dover editions don’t have them, and in general I don’t like reading intros until after reading the book. But stumbling and reading stories as stories has its enjoyments I suppose.

At the beginning of About Love, as they’re eating lunch, Alekhin’s cook, Nikanor, “with a puffy face and little eyes,” who “drank and was of a violent character,” asks the men what they’d like for dinner. We have no reason to believe that Ivanich and Burkin will still be around at dinnertime, but no matter. Alekhin tells Ivanich and Burkin that the beautiful maid Pelagea is in love with Nikanor, but she won’t marry him because he beats her when he’s drunk. The is an important first signal in a story called “About Love.” Nikanor, complex as well as ugly, is also very devout, he won’t live in sin, and he’s angry that she won’t marry him. It’s a brief, poignant introduction, a bookend to the glimpse of Prokofy’s wife Mavra in The Man in the Case, who has never been outside her village.

It prompts a general comment that there is no accounting for love:

“How love is born,” said Alekhin, “why Pelagea does not love somebody more like herself in her spiritual and external qualities, and why she fell in love with Nikanor, that ugly snout–we all call him “the Snout”–how far questions of personal happiness are of consequence in love–all that is unknown; one can take what view one likes of it. So far only one incontestable truth has been uttered about love: “This is a great mystery.” Everything else that has been written or said about love is not a conclusion, but only a statement of questions which have remained unanswered. The explanation which would seem to fit one case does not apply in a dozen others, and the very best thing, to my mind, would be to explain every case individually, without attempting to generalize. We ought, as the doctors say, to individualize each case.”

Alekhin adds an aside about how “in Moscow, when I was a student, I had a friend who shared my life, a charming lady, and every time I took her in my arms she was thinking what I would allow her a month for housekeeping, and what was the price of beef a pound.” This is another ominous sign for a story “about love.” The narrator steps in: “It looked like he wanted to tell some story. People who lead a solitary existence always have something in their hearts which they are eager to talk about.”

And so Alekhin tells the story of his great love. It’s straightforward and poignant, a capsulized version of years of yearning. He was elected an honorary justice-of-the-peace and enjoyed going to town for the sessions. There he met Luganovich, vice-president of the circuit court, “a good-natured man, one of those simple-hearted people who firmly maintain that once a man is charged before a court he is guilty.” Luganovich takes Alekhin home to meet his young wife Anna Alekseevna, then just 22, with a 6 month old baby.

It is all a thing of the past; and now I should find it difficult to define what there was so exceptional in her, what it was in her attracted me so much; at the time, at dinner, it was all perfectly clear to me. I saw a lovely, young, good, intelligent, fascinating woman, such as I had never met before; and I felt her at once some one close and already familiar…

Alekhin becomes established as the mutual friend of Luganovich and Anna Alekseevna. He falls deeply in love with her. We see that the course of the previous two stories has served the purpose of establishing Alkehin as a reliable, thoughtful 1st-person narrator: this is a very different story from Bourkin describing Belikov, or Ivanich talking about his brother. We have entered Alekhin’s private world and his heart slowly, deliberately. And his romance with Anna Alekseevna moved with excrutiating slowness, a glacier compared to the swifness of telling the story in retropsect.

We talked a long time, and were silent, yet we did not confess our love to each other, but timidly and jealously concealed it. We were afraid of everything that might reveal our secret to ourselves. I loved her tenderly, deeply, but I reflected and kept asking myself what our love could lead to if we had not the strength to fight against it.

“Meanwhile the years were passing.” Anna Alekseevna “began to suffer from low spirits, she began to realize that her life was spoilt and unsatisfied, and at times she did not care to see her husband nor her children. She was already being treated for neurasthenia.” Alekhin concludes: “Luckily or unluckily, there is nothing in our lives that does not end sooner or later.” Luganovich was sent to the western provinces. The time comes for Alekhin to say goodbye to Anna Alekseevna in a train car.

When our eyes met in the compartment our spiritual fortitude deserted us both; I took her in my arms, she pressed her face to my breast, and tears flowed from her eyes. Kissing her face, her shoulders, her hands wet with tears–oh, how unhappy we were!–I confessed my love for her, and with a burning pain in my heart I realized how unnecessary, how petty, and how deceptive all that had hindered us from loving was.

Alekhin reaches his own conclusion to this meditation “about love”:

I understood that when you love you must either, in your reasonings about that love, start from what is highest, from what is more important than happiness or unhappiness, sin or virtue in their accepted meaning, or you must not reason at all.”

I’m not quite sure what he means by that, but at least Chekhov brings the sun out:

When Alekhin was telling his story, the rain left off and the sun came out. Burkin and Ivan Ivanich went out on the balcony, from which there was a beautiful view over the garden and millpond, which was shining now in the sunshine like a mirror. They admired it, and at the same time they were sorry that this man with the kind, clever eyes, who had told them this story with such genuine feeling, should be rushing round and round this huge estate like a squirrel on a wheel instead of devoting himself to science or something else which would have made his life more pleasant; and they thought what a sorrowful face Anna Alekseevna must have had when he said good-bye to her in the railway-carriage and kissed her face and shoulders.

Pretty funny how Chekhov mentions Alekhin “rushing round and round this huge estate like a squirrel on a wheel”–that’s just like Crateman! It’s worth remembering how Ivanich had implored the sleepy Alekhin to “do good!” just the night before: “Don’t you fall into apathy, don’t you let your conscience be lulled to sleep.” Now in the next story we learn that Alekhin’s conscience spent years in overdrive, that love and happiness were denied him first by a simple twist of timing and fate, as Anna Alekseevna had recently married Luganovich when he met her, and then by their mutual “conscience,” their fear and insecurity about upsetting social norms and family values. “The man with a hammer” had been pounding away at Alekhin incessantly for years, pushing him to maintain the fabric of convention. He’s noble in his self-denial and sacrifice, his endless hard work on his “huge estate” is the agricultural bedrock of society, and we can’t forget how he hadn’t taken the time to have a bath in months. The bath is a baptism, and Alekhin is allowed to unburden himself, as he has the chance, at least, to share his story. But even with the sun out and beauty in the world, he’s not so different from Belikov and Nikolai Ivanich, he’s still just running on his wheel, a man in a case/crate, imprisoned by his fixed idea (gooseberries, or an impossible love), taking his small satisfactions where he can find them.


  1. How true that all three stories involve people with fixed ideas who live inside cases/crates of their own making. The view of human condition one gets from these stories is bleak, a prospect of a universal death march which leads nowhere but to bitterness, regret, and death. And the author is not detached and ironic here as in earlier work, he’s feeling the pain.

    I hate to say it but he was right to be gloomy. He died of TB at age 44, six years after writing this story.

    My Russian sources report that About Love is somewhat autobiographical, and that the prototype for Anna Alekseevna was a minor Russian writer Lydia Avilova. She met Chekhov when she was in her early twenties and newly married, and later wrote about how they were secretly in love for many years. There may have existed a letter from Chekhov to Avilova which he signed Alekhin.

    Chekhov’s sister doubted some details of Avilova’s story. She felt Avilova overstated the intensity of Chekhov’s feelings and that, really, he was just not that into her.

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