Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Black Monk by Anton Chekhov

Monk by the Sea by Caspar David Friedrich

There is nothing better than finishing a book that really didn't fly with you and starting one that makes you fall in love with reading like it's the first time.  When I finished The Wings of the Dove I honestly went to my bookshelf and picked up the shortest book I could find.  Am I pathetic for doing this?...I think so.  Regardless, what I found in my hands was The Black Monk and Peasants, two short stories by Anton Chekhov, an author I'd never read nor known anything on.  What followed was a nail-biting reading on the train ending with the book clutched to my heart with eyelashes fluttering.  He's amazing!  And I can't wait to read more of his work!

The Black Monk brings us Andrey Kovrin, an intellectual man, exhausted and looking for some peace in his friend, Yegor Pesotsky's sprawling gardens and estates.  He spends his time resting, exploring the gardens with Pesotsky's daughter Tanya, but overall feeling happy and content.  A legend of a Black Monk comes to his mind one day and later out in the fields has a brief encounter with him.  Days later, Kovrin meets this seemingly beatific vision again and this time converses about his own supposed Divine purpose.  After each meeting his face is aglow and his spirits are raised.  Tanya becomes his wife and the years pass without meeting the monk again until one night when they have a similar conversation while Tanya sleeps next to him.  She's awakened, startled to see the husband she loves talking to himself, and insists his overexhaustion has taken the best of him and forces 'help' on him.

Chekhov was a physician, so the fact that he so vividly portrayed the 'healing' process fascinated me!  Kovrin becomes miserable and starts hating the world.  Was he better off seeing visions?  Or is he better living a numb life, where nothing is imaginary?  This quote, to his wife, was my favorite:

'How fortunate Buddha, Muhammad or Shakespeare were in not being treated by kind-hearted relatives for ecstasy and inspiration!' Kovrin said. 'If Muhammad had taken potassium bromide for his nerves, had worked only two hours a day and drunk milk, then that remarkable man would have left as much to posterity as his dog.  In the long run doctors and kind relatives will turn humanity into a lot of morons.  Mediocrity will pass for genius and civilization will perish.  If only you knew, Kovrin added with annoyance, 'how grateful I am to you!'

What path does Kovrin choose?  I'll let you find that yourself, and I suggest you do!

Russian writers are something new for me (despite pretentiously trying to read War and Peace when I was 13 years old), but after reading these two shorts I have such a thirst for all things Chekhov and Russian!  Recommendations welcome, dears!

Portrait of Chekhov by Issak Levitan, 1886


CW said...

Your first paragraph made me smile so. I love when that happens.
I'm not terribly well acquainted with Russian literature, but I do like Tolstoy. I tried War and Peace when I was in high school, and stalled out somewhere near page 875... but I recently (a year or two ago) picked up the new translation (Pevear and Volokhonsky)and positively devoured it. I read Anna Karenina some years ago, and also enjoyed that.
Dostoyevsky doesn't really do it for me, at least not Crime and Punishment, but I haven't written him off. There's a copy of The Brothers Karamazov waiting on my shelf.
I've also enjoyed Bulgakov - The Master and Margarita and Heart of a Dog.
I'll be picking up some Chekhov soon, I think...

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