Before too much time passes, I wanted to mention how much I enjoyed reading Anton Chekhov's novella, The Duel. I'd read a few of his short stories here and there in the past, but this cemented in my mind the fact that he is truly a master of the short form of fiction. While I'm guessing this is not his best work (?), I was suitably impressed as I was reading. I read somewhere that he believed it was the role of the artist to ask questions and not answer them, which I like though find it a little challenging as well, and this is perhaps why I've put off writing about the story.
The Duel is set in a small resort town on the Black Sea Coast. It seems like a backwater sort of place where where those of second rate personalities go when they can't make it elsewhere. Laevsky has been carrying on an affair with a married woman, the beautiful but shallow Nadya. The two live beyond their means in what you might consider genteel poverty. Laevsky is irresponsible and unambitious, willing to simply be carried along as long as the situation suits him. And Nadya spends much time preening and flirting with others getting herself into debt and having men try and blackmail and pressure her into more than simple flirtations when she can't make good on her purchases.
Von Koren, a zoologist, watches this parade of bad behavior with distaste. A social Darwinian he looks at matters scientifically and thinks how much better off the world would be without the sort that Laevsky is. However, Von Koren is himself in this same backwater doing research in a place that others have deemed unworthy of study. The situation has reached a boiling point when Laevsky has decided he's tired of Nadya, believes he's fallen out of love with her, and can think only of abandoning her to her fate. Short on funds he asks his friend, the doctor Samoilenko, to loan him enough to leave the city. But even Samoilenko can't raise quite enough and asks Von Koren to supplement the money he has to enable Laevksy to leave. Von Koran will agree but only if Laevsky takes Nadya along when he goes. What Laevsky sees as meddling on the part of Von Koran will result in a duel between the two.
Somehow the duel--the outcome of it really, after such a build up, left me feeling slightly deflated. I think, though, Chekhov is writing less with the idea in mind of narrative tension than in representing the world in front of him, and representing it realistically. I thought I might get a little help from the critics in terms of intentions, and to that end I found a book in the library of criticism on his work. The brief entry for The Duel, however, was less an explanation than a series of varying perspectives on the story by critics over time from just after the story was published through the mid-1980s. I'm not sure whether it makes me feel better or worse that there isn't agreement, but maybe it makes me feel better to know there isn't just one right answer. Rather it is a reminder that the best stories are rich enough that they can be read and interpreted differently with each reading.
Some bits I especially liked were the dressing down Nadya was given by her friend when it's discovered that the husband as died and Nadya can now marry Laevsky...and she refuses. She's willing to continue to live in sin so to speak, but she will no longer be welcomed into the homes of her former 'friends'. It's not that I liked the dressing down, rather the satirical way Chekhov writes about the attitude towards Nadya, who despite her shallowness is not a bad character. It's a reflection on society just how far people are willing to support their friends--as long as appearances are kept up. Laevsky also has an awful meltdown in the midst of a party when the pressure becomes almost too much. It makes me think there really is more to him than meets the eye. As a matter of fact all the characters are interesting in different ways.
According to the introduction by translator Richard Pevear (he translated it along with his wife Larissa Volokhonsky), Chekhov is the successor to Nikolai Leskov.
"One of the basic principles of Chekhov's artistic work is the endeavor to embrace all of Russian life in its various manifestations, and not to describe selected spheres, as was customary before him."
Chekhov greatly admired both Maupassant and Zola, but I think his work is a bridge to the modern short story. At least that's what I've gotten from my reading. It was also mentioned in the criticism I read that The Duel is the 'answer' to Tolstoy's The Kreuzer Sonata, so I can see I'll have to look for it to read as well. See how once again one story leads to another?
After I finished (really before I even finished) reading I immediately went and ordered several of his story collections and shorter works, though I think he only wrote one full length novel. Not being sure where exactly to go next I picked up a different classic to read, but now that I am once more in a Chekhov mode (in trying to think about what to write about him). As a matter of fact I feel like reading something else by him right now. Perhaps I'll have a little digression from my current classic. I want to read all the Duel Stories, but at the moment I'm thinking I might like to try either The Shooting Party or My Life. Well, we'll see where my reading ends up taking me.