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His wife came up to him, and he glanced at her. She was gazing at him open-mouthed, with undried tears on her nose and cheeks and a despairing look on her face. He felt sorry for her, too.

"'Yes, I'm making them wretched,' he thought. 'They're sorry, but it will be better for them when I die.' He wished to say this but had not the strength to utter it. 'Besides, why speak? I must act,' he thought. With a look at his wife, he indicated his son and said: 'Take him away—sorry for him—sorry for you, too — ' He tried to add: 'Forgive me,' but said 'Forego—' and waved his hand, knowing that He whose understanding mattered would understand.

"And suddenly it grew clear to him that what had been oppressing him and would not leave him was all dropping away at once from two sides, from ten sides, and from all sides. He was sorry for them, he must act so as not to hurt them : release them and free himself from these sufferings. 'How good and how simple!' he thought. . . .

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Vladimir Nabokov: Lectures on Russian literature

"He sought his former accustomed fear of death and did not find it. 'Where is it? What death?' There was no fear because he could not find death.

"In place of death there was light. " 'So that's what it is!' he suddenly exclaimed aloud. 'What joy!'

To him all this happened in a single instant, and the meaning of that instant did not change. For those present his agony continued for another two hours. Something rattled in his throat, his emaciated body twitched, then the gasping and rattle became less and less frequent.

'It's all over!' said someone near him. "He heard these words and repeated them in his soul.

'Death is all over,' he said to himself. 'It's no more.' "He drew in a breath, stopped in the midst of a sigh, stretched out, and died."

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Vladimir Nabokov: Lectures on Russian literature

ANTON CHEKHOV (1860-1904)

Nabokov's assignment list for his lectures on Chekhov.

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Vladimir Nabokov: Lectures on Russian literature

Anton Pavlovich Chekhov's grandfather had been a serf but for 3,500 rubles had bought his own and his family's freedom.

His father was a petty merchant who lost his money in the 1870s, whereupon the whole family went to live in Moscow while Anton Pavlovich remained behind in Taganrog (Southeast Russia) to finish high-school. He supported himself by his own work. After finishing school, in the autumn of 1879 he too went to Moscow and entered the university.

Chekhov's first stories were written in order to ease the poverty endured by his family.

He studied medicine and after graduating from the Moscow university became an assistant of the district doctor in a small provincial town. It was there that he began to accumulate his wealth of subtle observations of the peasants who came to his hospital in search of medical assistance, of the army officers (for a battery was stationed in the little town—you will find some of these army men in The Three Sisters), and of those innumerable characters typical of provincial Russia of his time whom he recreated later in his short stories. But at this period he wrote mostly humoristic little bits which he signed with different pen-names, reserving his true signature for medical articles. The little humoristic bits of writing were published in various dailies, often belonging to violently antagonistic political groups.

Chekhov himself never took part in political movements, not because he was indifferent to the plight of the simple people under the old regime, but because he did not feel political activity to be his predestined path: he too was serving his people, but in a different way. He believed that the first thing needed was justice, and all his life he raised his voice against every kind of injustice; but he did it as a writer. Chekhov was in the first place an individualist and an artist. He was therefore no easy "joiner" of parties: his protest against existing injustice and brutality came in his individual way. Usually critics who write about Chekhov repeat that they are quite unable to understand what induced him, in 1890, to undertake a dangerous and fatiguing trip to Sakhalin Island to study the life of those sentenced to terms of penal servitude there.*

His first two collections of short stories— Speckled Stories and In the Twilight—appeared in 1886 and 1887 and were immediately acclaimed by the reading public. From that time on he belonged among the leading writers, could publish his stories in the best periodicals, and was able to abandon his medical career and give all his time to literature. He soon bought a small estate near Moscow where all his family could live. The years spent there belong among the happiest. He thoroughly enjoyed his own independence, the comforts he was able to provide for his aging parents, fresh air, work in his own garden, visits from numerous friends. The Chekhov family seems to have been full of fun, full of jokes: fun and laughter were the main feature of their life.

"Not only was Chekhov eager to turn everything green, to plant trees and flowers, to make the soil fruitful, he was always eager to create something new in life. With all his life-confirming, dynamic, inexhaustibly active nature, he gave himself up not merely to describing life but to transforming it, to building it up. He would bustle about the building of Moscow's first People's Home, with a library, reading room, auditorium, and theatre; he would see about getting Moscow a clinic for skin diseases; with the help of the painter Ilya Repin he would organize a Museum of Painting and Fine Arts in Taganrog; he would initiate the building of Crimea's first biological station; he would collect books for the schools on the Pacific island of Sakhalin and ship them there in large consignments; he would build three schools for peasant children, not far from Moscow, one after the other, and at the same time a belfry and a fire department for the peasants. Later, when he moved to the Crimea, he built a fourth school there. And, generally, any construction work fascinated him, for in his opinion such activity always increased the sum total of man's happiness. He wrote to Gorki: 'If every man did what he could on his little bit of soil, how marvelous our world would be!'

"In his notebook he made this entry: 'The Turk digs a well for the salvation of his soul. It would be good if each of us left after him a school, a well, or something of the kind so that our life would not pass into eternity without leaving any trace behind.' This activity often demanded much hard labor of him. When, for instance, he was building the schools, he himself had all the fuss and bother of dealing with the laborers, bricklayers, stove-installers, and carpenters; he bought all the building material himself down to the tiles and doors for the stoves, and he personally supervised the construction work.

*

At the beginning of this lecture, VN interpolated passages from Kornei Chukovski's "Friend Chekhov," Atlantic Monthly, 140 (September 1947), 84-90. Ed.

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Vladimir Nabokov: Lectures on Russian literature

"Or take his work as a doctor. During the cholera epidemic he worked all alone as a district doctor; without any assistant he took care of twenty-five villages. And take the help he gave to the starving during the years when the harvest failed. He had many years of practice as a doctor, chiefly among the peasants of the Moscow suburbs. According to his sister, Maria Pavlovna, who helped him as a trained nurse, he 'treated more than a thousand sick peasants a year at his home, gratis, and he supplied them all with medicines.' " A whole book could be written about his work in Yalta as a member of the Board of Guardians for the Visiting Sick. "He burdened himself to such an extent that he was practically the entire institution in himself. Many tubercular people came to Yalta at that time, without a copper in their pockets, and they came all the way from Odessa, Kishinev, and Kharkov just because they had heard that Chekhov was living in Yalta. 'Chekhov will fix us up. Chekhov will arrange lodging for us, and a dining room, and treatment' (Chukovski)."

     

 

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