Valerie Martin on Chekhov’s “The Duel”

Valerie Martin is in New York tonight to read from her latest short story collection, The Unfinished Novel and Other Stories. As a prelude to her visit, she was happy to talk about one of her favorite short stories by one of the masters of the form.

valerie-martin.gifAnton Chekhov’s story “The Duel” concerns a number of characters, all residents of a hot seaside town in the Caucuses, who pass their time in light “official” duties and in conversation with and about one another. Ivan Andreich Laevsky, a young man who works for the finance ministry, lives unhappily with his mistress, Nadezhda Fyodorovna, a married woman who has run away with him, forsaking her husband and causing a rift between Laevsky and his mother who “couldn’t forgive me this liaison.” The couple is hard up for money and their passion for each other has turned to dust in the hot sun.

Laevsky is a typical Chekhov character, filled with self-loathing and angst, constantly imagining that he will be happy if he can only make some change in his circumstances. In Petersburg he thought he would be fulfilled by running away to the Caucuses with Nadezhda where they would settle, make new friends and buy a piece of land, “labor in the sweat of our brow, start a vineyard, fields, and so on.” Now, faced with the tedium of small town life and a horror of the fields full of “venomous centipedes, scorpions and snakes under every bush and stone,” all he wants is to leave his mistress and return to St. Petersburg. “If I were offered two things, to be a chimney sweep in Petersburg or a prince here, I’d take the post of chimney sweep.” He confides this to his friend, Dr. Samoilenko, a soft-hearted, peaceable man, “infinitely kind, good-natured, and responsible,” who advises Laevsky to take pity on his beautiful, intelligent mistress and offer her respect and indulgence. “Marry her, dear heart!” he concludes. But Laevsky cannot endure the notion that he has any duty to Nadezhda, and goes away with one thought in mind—to escape—though he isn’t sure how to do it. “In my indecision I am reminiscent of Hamlet,” Laevsky thinks as he goes out for a game of vint. “How rightly Shakespeare observed it! Ah, how rightly!”

A host of other characters will weigh in on the question of what Laevsky owes his mistress. Nadezhda has a limited view of her plight and guiltily accedes to her desire to be desired by engaging in a sordid affair with the local police chief. A cold and furious zoologist, Von Koren tries to persuade Samoilenko to abandon Laevsky because, in his view, he poisons everyone he touches, doesn’t deserve to live, and should be drowned for the general good. The young deacon, Pobedov, muses, “Is drowning a man a good deed?”

Ultimately the gossip, Nadezhda’s outrageous behavior, and Laevsky’s increasing desperation will result in the eponymous duel, an event all consider unnecessary and from which all expect an unsatisfactory and ludicrous conclusion. And this is exactly how it turns out.

I came to Chekhov late. In school I’d dutifully read the standard anthologized stories “The Darling” and “The Lady With the Pet Dog,” and when I became a teacher, dutifully I taught these two stories to my students. Once I was commissioned to purchase a book as a prize for a student writer and I chose a collection of Chekhov stories, though I had never read any of the ones in the collection. Now I understand what an absurdly Chekhovian gesture that selection was. Chekhov’s sillier characters often refer to and recommend writers whose work they know nothing about and haven’t read.

Sometime in my forties I picked up a volume of Chekhov stories that had been on my bookshelves for many years, sat down and started the first one, “The Duel,” a very long story, sometimes described as a novella. Hours later I arrived at the last lines in a state of exhaustion and mental excitement such as is so often experienced and described in minutest detail by Chekhov’s characters. I knew that the story I had just read had changed my understanding of what was possible, and that my own writing would never be the same.

How did I describe it to myself? “What fabulous fruitcakes!” I thought. What crazy speechifying, what rants, what strange fits of lucidity, what a spider’s web of a plot, what a touching yet goofy conclusion, what a world of wonders hitherto unimagined by me. My own stories appeared to me as timid examinations of uninteresting exchanges between anemic characters who had no business populating my imagination, much less a story. As is often the case when moved by a powerful writer, for a few days my thoughts took on the color, syntax, and meter of the story I had just read. “How absurd that is”! I observed of my own thoughts. “And how boring!” “The Duel” gave me a thorough shaking-up at just the moment when I needed it.

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16 May 2006 | selling shorts |