Sunday, July 24, 2005

A kiss in Chekhov

One of the best depictions in literature of the heart's yearning, and of the ability of the needy imagination to fill out a little sliver of reality with a hundred details and through it derive a kind of hope and strength, can be found in Anton Chekhov's story 'The Kiss'.

In the story an army battalion on their way to camp halts for the night at a village called Myestetchki, and the officers are invited to a get-together at the house of a local man, Lieutenant-General von Rabbek. Von Rabbek has many people from his extended family also visiting him, including several charming young ladies, and soon the evening is flowing smoothly, music is playing, and many members of the company are dancing in the drawing-room. Among the officers is a very shy and unassuming man - "in spectacles, with sloping shoulders, and whiskers like a lynx's" - called Ryabovitch. Ryabovitch, who envies his comrades for their skill with women (though not grudging them their enjoyment), is ill at ease and has nothing to do, hovers on the edge of proceedings, and wanders from place to place getting bored. While walking through the house he takes a wrong turn and finds himself in a dark room adjoining the main room where the music is playing. And suddenly he hears the rustling of a dress in the darkness, and then a woman - who has probably arranged a secret rendezvous there with someone else - greets him breathlessly, throws her arms around him and gives him a kiss. She immediately realises her mistake, shrieks, and flies out of the room, but it is difficult to say who is more surprised - we are told that Ryabovitch, too, "almost shrieked". Bemused and very embarrassed, he returns to the drawing-room feeling as if all eyes are on him, but soon he realises that this not the case. Now:
Something strange was happening to him….His neck, round which soft, fragrant arms had so lately been clasped, seemed to him to be anointed with oil; on his left cheek near his moustache where the unknown had kissed him there was a faint chilly tingling sensation as from peppermint drops […]; all over, from head to foot, he was full of a strange new feeling which grew stronger and stronger….He wanted to dance, to talk, to run into the garden, to laugh aloud….
All evening he keeps scanning the different women present, wondering which of them it was who kisses him, but none of them are completely to his liking, and (notice how Ryabovitch already associates this woman who now lives in his imagination with a kind of perfection) from them all he forms a composite image "of the girl who had kissed him, the image that he wanted her to have, but could not find at the table…."

The next day the company has to leave, but Ryabovitch's thoughts are still consumed by the kiss, and he cannot resist all the beautiful fancies it throws up:
…he tried to persuade himself that the incident of the kiss could only be interesting as a mysterious little adventure, that it was in reality trivial, and to think of it seriously, to say the least of it, was stupid; but now he bade farewell to logic and gave himself up to dreams. […] In his imagination he talked, caressed her, leaned on her shoulder, pictured war, separation, then meeting again, supper with his wife, children….
Months pass like this, and Ryabovitch cannot forget the woman from Myestetchki, who lives with him in everything he does - among of the interesting details Chekhov advances is that when he visits a brothel with his fellow officers, he feels guilty afterwards and inwardly begs forgiveness from the woman who kissed him. Three months have passed since the evening at the von Rabbeks when it is time for he soldiers to return from camp, and Ryabovitch becomes very excited at the thought of spending another evening in Myestetchki, for von Rabbek is sure to invite the officers again when he hears they have arrived, and he, Ryabovitch, will have a chance to meet the woman who held him once so fleetingly.

When Ryabovitch arrives, he waits many hours for an invitation from von Rabbek, but to his great disappointment none arrives. Finally, mad with impatience, Ryabovitch himself heads for the big house, walks around the periphery of the estate, and sees how everything here is going on as normal, without the slightest inkling of what he is feeling. After all these months it become clear to him how insignificant an incident was the accidental kiss in the dark room, and how his thoughts and yearnings have no relation whatsoever to reality. At this point, close to the ending of the story, we see him standing by a river he had admired when he had last visited in May:
The water was running, he knew not where or why, just as it did in May. In May it had flowed into the great river, from the great river into the sea; then it had risen in vapour, turned into rain, and perhaps the very same water was running now before Ryabovitch's eyes again….What for? Why?
Chekhov was a master at this kind of grafting of an internal mood upon an external scene, and this is one of the most beautiful paragraphs in his work, though it is forceful as well, and those two questions at the end have a sharp sting to them.

Several translations of Chekhov into English have appeared in the last decade, but the first ones, made by a remarkable Englishwoman called Constance Garnett in the early years of the twentieth century, remain among the best. In this essay, the writer Henry Shukman considers the relative merits of the older translations of Garnett and some newer ones by Rosamund Bartlett. The writer Janet Malcolm wrote an excellent book a couple of years ago called Reading Chekhov, an extract from which can be found here. And in this essay, which I also cited once before in a post on Monica Ali, the novelist William Boyd presents us with a Chekhov lexicon.

And finally, does not the Ryabovitch of Chekhov's story seem almost a blood brother of Akaky Akakievich in Nikolai Gogol's story "The Overcoat", for just as Ryabovitch dreams about the unknown woman who kissed him and imagines her as his wife, Akaky Akakievich, too, feels when he thinks about his soon-to-be-bought overcoat that it is "as if he were not alone but some pleasant life's companion had agreed to walk down the path of life with him".

Monday, July 18, 2005

Visions of truth in Naguib Mahfouz

The word 'truth' has a meaning and a resonance for each one of us: we apply it whether we are thinking about the events of our own lives, or about history, or about a particular belief system, or even when we argue that something is untrue. Crucially, we make use of it not just with respect to facts - say, "I met A at X place on Y date" - but also with respect to interpretations of facts - for example, "B did this to C and this proves such-and-such thing about B's nature". Every interpretation, of course, can have a rival interpretation, and there has never been a time in history when the idea of the truth has not been a contentious one. In fact, we could go further and argue that societies in which the 'truth' is generally agreed upon or imposed from above and hence not open to question - for example, societies where adherence to a particular set of political or religious ideas is compulsory - are narrower, more complacent, and overall much poorer places to live in than societies in which there is a tradition of robust debate about the truth, even if that debate itself is sometimes divided along clear ideological lines that may often lead us to despair of ever finding the truth.

In our day and age the search for the truth is commonly associated with rational inquiry and empirical reasoning, but it was not always so. For the greater part of recorded history, the pursuit of truth has been connected in some way to religion and faith. Those in search of the truth held that the highest truths were those revealed in the scriptures, and immersed themselves in the study of religious texts, in pilgrimages, and in religious striving. One of the best portrayals in literature of the respective appeals of these two different conceptions of the truth - which we may term the truth of reason and the truth of religion or faith - can be found in the Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz's luminous novel Akhenaten, Dweller in Truth.

Akhenaten was a pharaoh in ancient Egypt who, upon acceding to the throne, overthrew Egypt's traditional polytheism and decreed the worship of a single god, the sun god Aten. Akhenaten, then, might be said to have disallowed the coexistence of many visions of the truth prevalent in his kingdom, insisting instead that everybody follow the one truth that he had seen in a religious vision and which he considers it his duty to propagate. There is great resistance among the people to his edicts, and finally even Akhenaten's generals rebel and place him under house arrest, where he wastes away and dies. After his demise Egypt returns to its old polytheism, and Akhenaten is fixed in public memory and in history as 'the heretic king', who took his kingdom and his people to the brink of destruction.

But Akhenaten is not the novel's only protagonist. The second is a figure entirely of Mahfouz's invention: a young man called Meriamun who grows up during the years of religious strife precipitated by Akhenaten's rule. On a trip down the Nile with his father, himself a prominent personality with 'a passion for knowledge and for recording the truth', Meriamun sees the remains of the deserted capital city of Akhenaten, and he is filled with curiosity about the life of a man whom everybody now remembers as 'the heretic king'. Was Akhenaten just a madman given to hallucinations, as many believe, or was there something authentic about his religious vision and his teachings? Even though it is not long since his demise, have people forgotten everything about him except for the fact that he was an alleged heretic? The only way of knowing, Merimun decides, is by systematic investigation, by taking the testimony of every single person still alive who was close to Akhenaten, and then putting together the evidence gleaned from all these accounts. If this is done, he explains to his father: "Then I could see the many facets of truth before it perishes like this city."

'Truth' is a word of the most vital importance to both Meriamun and Akhenaten, but the most important contrast offered by the novel between their respective conceptions is this: Meriamun is a seeker of truth; Akhenaten, a self-confessed dweller in truth. One might suppose that the novel privileges the first kind of truth over the second, more personal kind, but in fact its difficult beauty lies in its refusal to set up such a hierarchy and tell us which side is 'right'. Meriamun's quest often yields up puzzles or competing claims that, instead of illuminating the life of Akhenaten, render it even more murky and enigmatic. And while several people denounce Akhenaten as a fraud, some of the dead pharaoh's followers convincingly describe the ecstasy and bliss to be found in the surrender to the divine that, if at all we admit of the authority of religion, we know as being one of the authentic experiences of faith.

Meriamun's search shows us what a rocky and difficult road is the pursuit of the truth through patient scrutiny and inquiry, which allows us to understand why people often - to allude to a recent post on India Uncut - prefer simple interpretations of reality to complex ones. One of the wonders of Mahfouz's book is its final sentence, which shows how, even when one is committed to the path of rational truth-seeking, it is still difficult to resist the seductive temptations of religious truth, with its reassuring confidence and certainty.

The historian Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, who made an appearance on The Middle Stage in a previous post about food, has also written a book about truth called Truth: A History. Here, in the transcript of a radio interview, he discusses four techniques of truth seeking which he believes have been used in different combinations throughout history. In this recent piece, Salman Rushdie discusses how the concepts of 'facts' and 'truth' have become embattled in our age of 'bitter disputes about reality'. And here, in his Nobel prize lecture, Mahfouz himself argues that 'Truth and Justice will remain for as long as mankind has a ruminative mind and a living conscience'.