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".

1 comment:

S M Rana said...

Seems a wonderful story.