Reading Chekhov III: “Gusev”

Each one of Anton Chekhov’s short stories, like each of Beethoven’s string quartets, can feel like a fresh experiment. They all seem different in size, shape and feeling, each one a reinvention of the form. “Gusev,” the third in our reading-aloud series, is just such a one-off surprise, in 12 dense pages — nothing like our first two, “Vanka” and “Dreams.”

Chekhov wrote “Gusev” on shipboard, returning from his stark study mission to the prison island of Sakhalin in 1890. He was 30 years old, ten years into a concentrated writing career that would end with his death of tuberculosis in 1904. The story is about a peasant soldier, ill and yearning for family and home, on a troop ship ferrying him back from a military assignment in the East. It is full of the sorrows of empire, of loneliness and alienation.

To our chorus of actors, general readers and amateurs in my living room, however, more memorable, more marvelous, more instructively “Chekhovian” was something very like ecstasy in the underwater ending of the story. It reminded me of Sandra Bullock’s return to earth and seawater in last summer’s astonishing film Gravity. Or more precisely, as I watched Alfonso Cuarón’s movie months ago, I was sure that he had learned a lot from Chekhov’s “Gusev”, in the realm of the space-travelers’ spiritual longing and then in the astonishing palette of colors and the vitality of fish and vegetation in the closing scene.

And up above just then, on the side where the sun goes down, clouds are massing; one cloud resembles a triumphal arch, another a lion, a third a pair of scissors… A broad green shaft comes from behind the clouds and stretches to the very middle of the sky; shortly afterwards a violet shaft lies next to it, then a golden one, then a pink one… The sky turns a soft lilac. Seeing this magnificent, enchanting sky, the ocean frowns at first, but soon itself takes on such tender, joyful, passionate colors as human tongue can hardly name.

The close of “Gusev,” p. 121 in Anton Chekhov: Stories, translated by Richard Pevear and Larrissa Volokhonsky. Bantam, 2000.

We took the story to be a meditation on inescapable death and, just as powerful, the transcendence of life in nature. It brought to mind a conversation with a compleat Thoreau in our time, Bernd Heinrich, and his prize-winning book, Life Everlasting, and his revision of the Ash Wednesday reminder, “dust thou art, to dust thou shall return.” Isn’t it provocatively true to observe, “from life thou art, to life thou shall return.” Which affirms in turn Dostoevsky’s epigraph in The Brothers Karamazov from the Gospel of John 12:24: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.”

James McConkey of Cornell has written beautifully of “Gusev” along some of the same lines.

Our “Gusev” readers are Luke Salisbury, who teaches literature and writing at Bunker Hill Community College; Sarah Barton, “a librarian by day, an actress by night,” as she put it; Ken Cheeseman, a stage and screen actor and artist in residence at Emerson College; and Donna Sorbello, an actress in Boston. Among the voices heard in our chorus were Dan Pritchard of the Boston Review, actor Nijazi Jusufi and writer Sarah Lydon. We’ve been reading from the Bantam collection of the Stories of Anton Chekhov, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Thanks to Yo-Yo Ma for his version of the Rococo Variations composed by Chekhov’s friend Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Special thanks to the audio pro on so many stages Jim Donahue, who wired us all for sound.

Listeners out there, we’d be delighted to hear your take on “Gusev” and on our impressions of it. Next up, if you care to read ahead, will be the mini-story “The Student.” Not everybody loves it, but Chekhov called it his favorite.

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  • I love all of these recently posted recitals and discussions… I’m lured to care deeply for the people in Chekhov’s stories, but I like that he doesn’t tell me exactly how he wants me to think about anything– he invites different perspectives without favoring one stance over another… so when this group shares their impressions of Chekhov’s text, I have the feeling that I’m learning as much about the personality of each individual reader as I am about the author’s own intentions – and I like this atmosphere very much.

    RE the ending of ‘Gusev’, the vision of the sky made me feel optimistic until I reflected that it is not Gusev but the readership that is allowed to enjoy it, and not Gusev but the narration that relays it to us…. I then began to imagine what a difference it would make, and how much more or less uplifting the tale would be, if Gusev were not distinct from the narrator – I mean, if Gusev were to tell the story the way Joe Gillis (William Holden) does in the movie Sunset Boulevard: narrating it even after having died….. By mentioning this, I’m mostly trying to say something humorous, but my (small) point is that the optimism that I feel when the story concludes would be increased if I could know that its teller’s consciousness once belonged to Gusev.

    …Near the end of the audio, having also to do with the quote from John’s gospel, Mr. Lydon mentions the idea of Gusev’s life continuing through the life of the shark, if the beast consumes the corpse. …..This just brought a couple other brief quotes to mind; maybe they’re not relevant, but I like when texts trigger memories of texts (I appreciated when the gentleman in the above audio discussion quoted WCW), so here is an enigmatic saying from ‘The Gospel According to Thomas’ (Bentley Layton’s translation)—

    Jesus said, “Blessed is the lion that the human being will devour so that the lion becomes human. And cursed is the human being that the lion devours; and the lion will become human.”

    & since I happened to glance at William Blake’s ‘Auguries of Innocence’ yesterday, the following two lines, which seem similarly enigmatic to me, came to mind:

    To be in a Passion you Good may Do
    But no Good if a Passion is in you

    …& in the above article’s text, I loved the comparison of Cuarón’s ‘Gravity’ to the ending lines of ‘Gusev’. —That same end passage in Chekhov’s story reminded me of some lines from an early notebook fragment that Walt Whitman would eventually rework into section 49 of Song of Myself. I associate the two passages because Chekhov and Whitman both mention something that is hard to be named by human language, and also they both give us an exchange between the sky and the sea. Here are Whitman’s lines:

    There is no word in any tongue,
    No array, no form of symbol,
    To tell his infatuation
    Who would define the scope and purpose of God.

    Mostly this we have of God; we have man.
    Lo, the Sun;
    Its glory floods the moon,
    Which of a night shines in some turbid pool,
    Shaken by soughing winds;
    And there are sparkles mad and tossed and broken,
    And their archetype is the sun.

  • Mark Wilcoxson

    My love of Anton Chekhov was rekindled last night after briefly seeing his name during the opening ceremonies of the Sochi Olympics. A quick internet search brought up your website. Thanks for taking the time and effort to produce such a wonderful piece on Gusev.

  • chris

    Spot on, Bryan and Mark! These Chekhov conversations could go on and on in all directions. Bryan, I wonder if you are really Harold Bloom — the man who reads (and remembers) everything. Your extensions on “Gusev” remind me of that notion (maybe from Professor Bloom) that the world of literature is one great skein, also that we do not so much read books and authors as those books and authors read us. And yes, Mark, up with the Sochi Olympics. It is great to have Russia in much fuller view these days — and Chekhov helps a lot. Specially since last August when Putin led the world chorus (including Pope Francis, Ban Ki Moon, pretty much all of Europe) against an American hammering of Syria, I’ve been feeling that in some multi-layered way “Russia is back.” This weekend, for example, my sister in Lisbon, who saw the same Metropolitan Opera production of Dvorak’s “Ruselka” that we did on Saturday, writes to me this morning: “Reneé Fleming is out of this world. We worship Netrebko, but Fleming is right up there. 25 years at the Met! There are increasingly singers from all over, and the production yesterday reminded one again that, despite Putin, the musical world in Russia and the former Soviet satellites is astonishingly deep and strong…even when they throw acid in faces from time to time.” So we’ll keep reading Chekhov!

  • Potter

    I have only just read Gusev and have not yet listened to the podcast but I have to say that what you wrote above about this story, Chris, is really beautiful, informative and resonant for me. And the quote is just the one I would have picked. I’ll have to say too, that Samuel Becket again came to mind; how modern Chekhov is! As well I would compare this story to the Dream in the sense that both treat imagination as a vital part of the human spirit.

    Consumption was a such a fact of life not that long ago.

  • Potter

    Thank you Bryan.

    Chekhov lived almost 20 years with tuberculosis, all the while supporting his family, working as a doctor, writing amazingly. Though he was brought up in an orthodox Russian home, it was important for me to learn he grew to become an atheist.

    After listening I remembered some thoughts that I had when I first read the story:
    The ending was a most beautiful seamless description of life into death. If this were filmed the camera would be drawing further and further back away from the closeup of Gusev, to the ship’s deck to the dark devouring shark sea up to the glorious moving colored sky. It’s a beautiful passage. This is the physical transformation and return that we all make one way or another. Chekhov’s depiction did shock also for it’s quick pace from life to death. It was eerie for the darkness and disorder of the sea, with it’s flesh eating fish.

    It’s Beckettian because it’s existential, about life and death. What life is for, what happens after life, is for the reader. Gusev is a believer; he accepts. He has been cheated of his life, been conscripted, taken away from family. He has only his reveries and memories to keep his spirit alive to the end. He is of no use to his country as a soldier anymore. So he has nothing—like the dreamer in the previous story. Pavlov, on the other hand is not a believer. He needs to be boosting his ego, elevating himself, beating his chest. He thinks that he is in control but he is not. He is in denial of his illness; he believes he has a future. But ironically he goes sooner than Gusev.

    Chekhov’s description of nature conforms to the mood; it’s alive: the mountains, the ocean, the waves and the wind pushing them, the clouds, the light in the sky. All are agents, alive almost and maybe also messengers, powerful everlasting, eternal. At the same time, in contrast, the characters become weaker, lose their energy. So life is short, so much not in control, and we hardly know what to make of it.

  • Nils Blatz

    I’m not sure how important this is, but the symbol for St. John is an eagle; the lion is the symbol for St. Mark.
    But………Please help me with those scissors!!!