Although I've read Lolita and Anna Karenina, my desultory efforts continue with regard to reading a big swath of the great Russian novels. When I do manage to pull something out of the cobwebs, it's by Anton Chekhov. The Duel is one such title. I'm not quite sure if it was while I was attending Saint Leo University or shortly thereafter that I came to adore the works of Chekhov. His Russian prose is astonishingly simple for a novice to read, but his writing is far from simplistic. The Duel reminded me once again why I enjoy his work.
Chekhov is not your stereotypical Russian classic author. It's for this very reason I'd recommend him to you. Especially those of you who love classic literature, but like me, are a bit subdued when it comes to the Russian novels affectionately referred to as doorstops. Chekhov is really a superb master of shorter forms, (The Duel is 128 pages in my edition) - He's much more focused on the everyday life of his characters. He leaves the philosophical and the interpretations in the background for the reader to mull over and devise. He describes his characters with such precise detail that it's easy to forget they're fictitious - for instance, there's this line:
"the young zoologist Von Koren, who came to the Black Sea in the summers to study the embryology of jellyfish."
How can you not resist getting to know Von Koren? What I savored most about The Duel is the way the main characters were all too intellectual for their own good. Laevsky continually sees his life and every emotion through the lens of literature, and not at all as it really is. He's recently become disenchanted with Natasha, his mistress (who left her husband by the way to live with him), and thus references Tolstoy and Anna Karenina when he's with her or talking about her. The story opens with him deciding whether he even has a moral obligation to stay with her, or if he can leave her like he wishes too, and one chapter ends with:
"In my indecision I am reminiscent of Hamlet," Laevsky thought on the way. "How rightly Shakespeare observed it! Ah, how rightly!"
Von Koren, meanwhile, has been seduced by evolution theory and its darker counterpoint, social Darwinism. He sees the world in black and white with an uncompromising and unflinching perspective. His ideas include the notion that those who are morally weak should be eliminated before they have the chance to reproduce.
Chekhov also manages to weave wonderful humor throughout the story. There's a lot of Pushkin tributes too, and the subtle respect to Chekhov's predecessors are admirable. Chekhov's willingness to suppress expectations are astonishing as well, and I challenge any reader to guess how things will inevitably conclude.
With the Governor's stay-at-home orders in place and my home filled to capacity for hours on end, it often feels and sounds like Camp Hiawatha meets Fight Club. The tensions are sometimes palpable, and as an essential worker, I humbly confess that on occasion, I'm all too happy when Monday's roll around and I have to go back to work. On the weekends there is very little peace and quiet except when everyone's asleep, so The Duel was a captivating and ironic (in title only) way to spend two hours of quiet time before anyone was awake. As usual, I plan to read more Russian literature in the coming year, but truth is, I'll probably only read more Chekhov.
Anton Pavlovich Chekhov
January 29 1860 - July 15 1904
Taganrog, Ekaterinoslav Governorate, Russian Empire
“It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones. Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.”
–C.S. Lewis, “Introduction” in St. Athanasius, De Incarnatione Verbi Dei (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1944/1993),