Monday, June 4, 2012

"Gusev" by Anton Chekhov

"Seeing this magnificent, enchanting sky, the ocean frowns at first, but soon itself takes on such tender, joyful, passionate colors as human tongue can hardly name." (Pevear & Volokhonsky trans.)

"Gusev" is one of my very favorite stories, and its final line (above) reliably produces in me as much awe, wonder, and sheer happiness as staring up at a snow-capped peak or a black sky loaded with stars. Of course, I have to read the rest of the story first. It chronicles the last days of two soldiers in a ship's sick bay and is full of pitch-perfect psychological insights, but what makes the story truly special are the moments when Chekhov leaves the real world and shocks us with a healthy dose of wonder.

When Gusev dies we follow his body as it is sewn up in canvas and he "comes to resemble a carrot or a black radish" (Virginia Woolf liked this line too). The other soldiers prepare to throw him into the waves. "Can it really happen to anyone?" the story asks. Gusev is borne down by the current, but as he descends he "sways rhythmically, as if pondering, and, borne by the current, drifts more quickly sideways than down." He meets some pilot fish and a shark. Both are cruel, but we don't judge them for it the way we judged the men on the ship. It is simply their nature. Above, the sky puts on a show: "one cloud resembles a triumphal arch, another a lion, a third a pair of scissors... A broad green shaft comes from behind the clouds and stretches to the very middle of the sky..." And just like me, the ocean is skeptical at first, "frowns," "but soon itself takes on such tender, joyful, passionate colors as human tongue can hardly name."

1 comment:

  1. Matthew Arnold's poem, "Dover Beach", also captures the melancholy mood and beauty of "Gusev". Chekhov invites us to the same window of which Arnold speaks in his poem. He is just as clearly using the ocean as Arnold does and implicitly asking the same question: against this darkness and against this random background of seeming chaos and death, can you discern meaning and significance in the human spirit? Can you recognize whence the beatific vision emanates? What a great story, and what an ineffable mystery in that last sentence.