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Three years

May 11, 2016

In Proust I think the narrator keeps saying that promises are necessarily lies, because the person who has to keep them is a different person from the person who made them. Anton Chekhov’s second-longest piece of fiction, “Three Years” (Три года, 1895), could have been written to illustrate that bit of psychology. It’s interesting straying into the 1890s after spending so much time with the 1850s-1870s, and not primarily for the brief telephone call in the story. A lot seems to change as the powerful are measured in how many souls they have, then (briefly, with less emotional force) how many dessiatines they have, then how many rubles they have, or more often whether they have a million.

There are some metaliterary passages that seemed out of the blue, the first of which seems initally like a forceful but funny parody of would-be Turgenevs, but they end up enmeshed with each other and the story. Here they are in Constance Garnett’s 1916 translation (the Russian is below the fold):

At first Yulia Sergeyevna did not like Kostya; his bass voice, his phrases such as “Landed him one on the beak,” “filth,” “produce the samovar,” etc., his habit of clinking glasses and making sentimental speeches, seemed to her trivial. But as she got to know him better, she began to feel very much at home with him. He was open with her; he liked talking to her in a low voice in the evening, and even gave her novels of his own composition to read, though these had been kept a secret even from such friends as Laptev and Yartsev. She read these novels and praised them, so that she might not disappoint him, and he was delighted because he hoped sooner or late[r] to become a distinguished author.

In his novels he described nothing but country-house life, though he had only seen the country on rare occasions when visiting friends at a summer villa, and had only been in a real country-house once in his life, when he had been to Volokolamsk on law business. He avoided any love interest as though he were ashamed of it; he put in frequent descriptions of nature, and in them was fond of using such expressions as, “the capricious lines of the mountains, the miraculous forms of the clouds, the harmony of mysterious rhythms…” His novels had never been published, and this he attributed to the censorship. (chapter 9, 261-62)

Kostya made it this far from Moscow, once

Kostya made it this far from Moscow, once

This seems harsh, and delightful to people like me who only care about nature descriptions to the extent they change the pacing or possible interpretations of a story about human beings. I didn’t exactly expect this from Chekhov, though I didn’t expect the opposite either. Instead I imagine Chekhov telling Gor’kii to find the places where he has two adjectives and cross out one of them, then to go back and cross out the other, or telling L. A. Avilova to try to be colder. But what this unsuccessful Kostya says about literature in the next chapter doesn’t match:

“A work of art is only significant and valuable when there are some serious social problems contained in its central idea,” said Kostya, looking wrathfully at Yartsev. “If there is in the work a protest against serfdom, or the author takes up arms against the vulgarity of aristocratic society, the work is significant and valuable. The novels that are taken up with ‘Ach!’ and ‘Och!’ and ‘she loved him, while he ceased to love her,’ I tell you, are worthless, and damn them all, I say!”

“I agree with you, Konstantin Ivanovitch,” said Yulia Sergeyevna. “One describes a love scene; another, a betrayal; and the third, meeting again after separation. Are there no other subjects? Why, there are many people sick, unhappy, harassed by poverty, to whom reading all that must be distasteful.”

It was disagreeable to Laptev to hear his wife, not yet twenty-two, speaking so seriously and coldly about love. He understood why this was so. (chapter 10, 267-68)

This last part seems like the heart of Chekhov. The ideas the characters are arguing about might be interesting in themselves — similar ideas are discussed in a less pithy way in other Russian fiction — but the story seems to be telling us that the ideas can’t be separated from the characters’ personal inner lives, from Yulia Sergeyevna not loving her older husband, to him being hurt by this, to Kostya dreaming of fame and wanting to sound like a writer, to everyone’s consciousness of the Laptevs’ wealth.

I find it interesting that Kostya picks a 34-year-old fight, the abolition of slavery, as his first example, though he seems concerned with what writers should write now. It had seemed like a look at the distant past when Leskov protested against serfdom a full decade earlier.

Also, as I’ve said many times, I like Constance Garnett, but “Pyotr, you’re not a sturgeon” (for “Петр, ты не осетр”) could be Exhibit A against “literal” translation.

В первое время Костя не нравился Юлии Сергеевне; его бас, его словечки вроде выставил, заехал в харю, мразь, изобрази самоварчик, его привычка чокаться и причитывать за рюмкой казались ей тривиальными. Но, узнавши его покороче, она стала чувствовать себя в его присутствии очень легко. Он был с нею откровенен, любил по вечерам поговорить с нею вполголоса о чем-нибудь и даже давал ей читать романы своего сочинения, которые до сих пор составляли тайну даже для таких его друзей, как Лаптев и Ярцев. Она читала эти романы и, чтобы не огорчить его, хвалила, и он был рад, так как надеялся стать рано или поздно известным писателем. В своих романах он описывал только деревню и помещичьи усадьбы, хотя деревню видел очень редко, только когда бывал у знакомых на даче, а в помещичьей усадьбе был раз в жизни, когда ездил в Волоколамск по судебному делу. Любовного элемента он избегал, будто стыдился, природу описывал часто и при этом любил употреблять такие выражения, как прихотливые очертания гор, причудливые формы облаков или аккорд таинственных созвучий… Романов его нигде не печатали, и это объяснял он цензурными условиями. (chapter 9)


Ярцев и Киш обыкновенно приходили вечером к чаю. Если хозяева не уезжали в театр или на концерт, то вечерний чай затягивался до ужина. В один из февральских вечеров в столовой происходил такой разговор:

— Художественное произведение тогда лишь значительно и полезно, когда оно в своей идее содержит какую-нибудь серьезную общественную задачу, — говорил Костя, сердито глядя на Ярцева. — Если в произведении протест против крепостного права или автор вооружается против высшего света с его пошлостями, то такое произведение значительно и полезно. Те же романы и повести, где ах да ох, да она его полюбила, а он ее разлюбил, — такие произведения, говорю я, ничтожны и черт их побери.

— Я с вами согласна, Константин Иваныч, — сказала Юлия Сергеевна. — Один описывает любовное свидание, другой — измену, третий — встречу после разлуки. Неужели нет других сюжетов? Ведь очень много людей, больных, несчастных, замученных нуждой, которым, должно быть, противно всё это читать.

Лаптеву было неприятно, что его жена, молодая женщина, которой нет еще и 22 лет, так серьезно и холодно рассуждает о любви. Он догадывался, почему это так. (chapter 10)

4 Comments leave one →
  1. May 12, 2016 6:49 pm

    I’ve always wondered about that sturgeon line. Is it a Russian figure of speech? One common complaint against Garnett is that she was unfamiliar with a lot of idiomatic speech.

    I think Chekhov is making fun of his contemporaries, who criticized him for not making social/political arguments in his work. I think he’s slyly demonstrating that one can write seriously about life without being Chernyshevsky, and one can write about people and relationships without writing a bad romance novel. One of my favorite pieces of advice Chekhov gave a writer is, “All you need for a story is a man, a woman, and a reason for them to be unhappy.” So It was disagreeable to Laptev to hear his wife, not yet twenty-two, speaking so seriously and coldly about love. He understood why this was so. really does seem to be the heart of Chekhov. The most important thing in this and other great stories like “A Dismal Story” are the inability of people to love and live sincerely.

    • May 12, 2016 7:30 pm

      It’s always possible I’m missing an idiom, but I think Kish is just picking a word that rhymes with Pyotr when he says “PyOtr, you’re not an osyOtr.” The line isn’t very funny and doesn’t make much sense in either Russian or English, but without the rhyme it’s unclear what’s even going on. Maybe something like “Pyotr, you should have a motor” would work better.

      I’m going to defer to you on what’s most important in Chekhov overall (I made that remark without thinking too long about the other possibilities), but do you really see “Three Years” as a story about the inability of people to love and live sincerely? I thought Laptev really loved Yulia Sergeyevna, and she really loved him — just not at the same time, tragically but through no fault of either of them.

      • May 13, 2016 10:48 am

        Looks like I don’t remember the story well enough, and the details I recall (“Irregardless!”) don’t express the characters of Laptev and Yulia, so I’m reading it again. I’ll let you know what I think. About 20 pages in, it’s all heaps of irony, very nicely done.

  2. May 16, 2016 1:47 am

    My comment here has turned into a very long post on my own blog.

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