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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