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About Love (Text)

Anton Chekhov

About Love

CHEKHOV, Anton (Pavlovich) (1860-1904). Russian dramatist and short-story writer. Chekhov studied medicine at Moscow, and began to write while a student. He combined his medical practice with writing short humorous stories for journals. His first book of stories (1886) was successful, and gradually he adopted writing as a profession. His early full-length plays were failures, but when Chayka (1896, The Seagull) was revived in 1898 by Konstantin Stanislavsky at the Moscow Art Theatre, it was a great success. He then wrote his masterpieces: Dyadya Vanya (1900, Uncle Vanya), Tri Sestry (1901, The Three Sisters) and Vishnyovy Sad (1904, The Cherry Orchard). He continued to write many many short stories, the best of which have continued to be highly acclaimed. In 1897 he fell ill with tuberculosis and lived thereafter either abroad or in the Crimea. In 1901 he married the actress Olga Knipper (1870-1959) who remained for many years the admired exponent of female parts in his plays. Chekhov's work portrays upper-class life in pre-revolutionary Russia with a blend of naturalism and symbolism and almost imperceptible shifts from comedy to tragedy. In all his work he equates worldly success with loss of soul. It is the sensitive, hopeful, struggling people, at the mercy of forces almost always too strong for them, who are his heroes. This is why his work has a timeless quality; it reflects the universal predicament of the "little man."

In "About Love," Alyohin's first-person narrative of his relationship with Anna forms the core of the story. But his story is enclosed by an account of the occasion and of the setting in which his narrative occurs. This "framing technique" affects our understanding of Alyohin and his story.

For breakfast next day delicious little patties, crayfish and mutton croquettes were served, and while we were eating Nikanor the cook came up to ask what the guests would for dinner. He was a man of medium height, with a puf y face and small eyes; he was clean-shaven, and it looked as though his mustache had not been shaven off but plucked out.

According to Ayohin, the beautiful Pelageya was in love with this cook. As he drank and had a violent temper, she did not want to marry him, but was willing to live with him just so. But he was very devout, and his religious convictions did not allow him to live "just so"; he insisted that she marry him, and didn't want it otherwise, and when he was drunk he used to swear at her and even beat her. Whenever he was drunk she would hide upstairs and sob, and on such occasions Alyohin and the servants stayed in the house to defend her if necessary.

The conversation turned to love.

"How love is born," said Alyohin, "why Pelageya hasn't fallen in love with somebody more like herself both inwardly and outwardly, and why she fell in love with Nikanor, that mug—we all call him the Mug—to what extent personal happiness counts in love—all that is uncertain; and one can argue about it as one pleases. So far only one incontestable truth has been stated about love: 'This is a great mystery'; everything else that has been written or said about love is not a solution, but only a statement of questions that have remained unanswered. The explanation that would fit one case does not apply to a dozen others, and the very best thing, to my mind, would be to explain every case separately without attempting to generalize. Each case should be individualized, as the doctors say."

"Perfectly true," Burkin assented.

"We Russians who are cultivated have a weakness for these questions that remain unanswered. Lo e is usually poeticized, embellished with roses, nighting les; but we Russians embellish our loves with these fatal uestions, and choose the least interesting of them, at that. In Moscow, when I was a student, there was a girl with whom I lived, a charming creature, and every time I held her in my arms she was thinking about what I would allow her a month for housekeeping and about the price of beef. Similarly, when we are in love, we never stop asking ourselves whether it is honorable or dishonorable, sensible or stupid, what this love will lead to, and so on. If that is a good thing or not I don 't know, but that it is a hindrance and a source of dissatisfacti011 and irritation, of that I am certain."

It looked as though he wanted to tell a story, People who lead a lonely existence always have sotnething on their filinds that they are eager to talk about. In town bachelors baths and restaurants in otdcr to have a chan($ to talk, and sometimes tell very intetvsting stories to and mniters•. in thc country they usually unbosom themselves to their guests. At the tnonlent we could see a gray sky from the "indows and trees drenched with rain; in such weather could go nowhere and there was nothing for us to do but to tell and listen to stories.

"l have been living at Sofyino..and been farming for a long time." Alyohin began, "ever since I graduated from the University. My education did not fit temperamentally I am a bookish fellow but when I came here the estate was heavily mortgaged as my father had gone into debt partly because he had spent a great deal on my education, I decided not to leave the place but to work till I had paid off the debt. I made up my mind to this and set to work, not, I must confess, without some repugnance. The land here does not yield much, and if you are not to farm at a loss you must employ serf labor or hired help, which comes to almost the same thing, or work it like a peasant—that is, you must work in the fields yourself with your family. There is no middle way. But in those days I did not go into such niceties. I did not leave an inch of earth unturned; I got together all the peasants, men and women, from the neighboring villages; the work hummed. I myself plowed and sowed and reaped, and found it awfully tedious, and frowned with disgust, like a village cat driven by hunger to eat cucumbers in the kitchen garden. My body ached, and I slept on my feet.

"At first it seemed to me that I could easily reconcile this life of toil with civilized living; to achieve that, I thought, all that was necessary was to secure a certain external order. I established myself upstairs here in the best rooms, and had them serve me coffee and liqueurs after lunch and dinner, and every night I read The Messenger of Europe in bed. But one day our priest, Father Ivan came and drank up all my liqueurs at one sitting, and The Messenger of Europe went (he daughters, because in summer, especially at haymakin tirne, I couldn't drag myself to bed at all, but fell asleep on sledge in the shed or somewhere in a shack in the woods, how could I think of reading? Little by little I move( downstairs, began to eat in the servants' kitchen, and nothin is left of my former luxury but the people who were i father's service and whom it would be painful to discharge.

"Before I had been here many years I was electe honorary justice of the peace. Now and then I had to go to town and take part in the assizes of the peace and t e Sessions of the circuit court, and this diverted me. When y u live heré for two or three months without seeing a soul, pecially i winter, you begin at last to pine for a black coat. And at the circuit court there were black coats and uniforms and frock coats, too, all worn by lawyers, educated men; there were always people to talk to. After sleeping on the sledge and dining in the kitchen, to sit in an armchair wearing clean linen, in light boots, with the chain of office around one's neck—that was such luxury!

"I would be warmly received in the town. I made friends readily. And of all my friendships the most intimate and, to tell the truth, the most agreeable to me was my acquaintance with Luganovich, the assistant president of the circuit court. You both know him: an extremely charming man. This was just after the celebrated arson case; the preliminary investigation had lasted two days and we were worn out. Luganovich looked at me and said:

" 'You know what? Come and dine with me. '

"This was unexpected, as I knew Luganovich very slightly, only officially, and I had never been to his house. I went to my hotel room for a minute to change and then went off to dinner. And here came my opportunity to meet Anna Alexeyevna, Luganovich's wife. She was then still a very

young woman, not more than twenty-two and her first baby had been born just six months before. It is all a thing of the past; and now I should find it hard to determine what was so exceptional about hers what it was about her that I liked so much; but at the time, at dinner, it was all perfectly clear to me. I saw a young wotnan, beautiful, kind, intelligent, ascinating, such a woman as I had never met before; and at nee I sensed in her a being near to me and already familiar, s though I had seen that face, those friendly, intelligent eyes ong ago, in my childhood, in the album which lay on my Wnother's chest of drawers.

"In the arson case the defendants were four Jews who were charged with collusion, and in my opinion they were quite innocent. At dinner I was very much agitated and out of orts, and I don't recall what I said, but Anna Alexeyevna ept shaking her head, and saying to her husband,

" 'Dmitry, how can this be?'

"Luganovich is one of those good-natured, simple•nded people who firmly adhere to the belief that once a man is indicted in court he is guilty, and that one should not express doubt as to the correctness of a verdict except with all legal formalities on paper, but never at dinner and in private conversation.

" 'You and I didn't commit arson,' he said gently, 'and i you see we are not on trial and not in prison.'

"Both husband and wife tried to make me eat and drink as much as possible. From some details, from the way they made the coffee together, for instance, and the way they understood each other without completing their phrases, I gathered that they lived in peace and harmony, and that they were glad of a guest. After dinner they played a duet on the piano; then it got dark, and I drove home.

"That was at the beginning of spring. I spent the whole summer at Sofyino without a break, and I had no time even to think of the town, but the memory of the willowy, fair-haired woman remained in my mind all those months; I did not think of her, but it was as though her shadow were lying lightly on my soul.

"In the late autumn a benefit performance was given in the town. I entered the governor's box (I had been invited there in the intermission); and there I saw Anna Alexeyevna sitting beside the governor's wife; and again there was the same irresistible, striking impression of beauty and lovely caressing eyes, and again the same feeling of nearness. We sat side by side, then went out into the foyer.

" 'You've grown thinner,' she said; 'have you been ill?'

" 'Yes, I had rheumatism in my shoulder, and in rain weather I sleep badly. '

" 'You look listless. In spring, when you came t dinner, you seemed younger, livelier. You were animated, and talked a great deal then; you were interesting, and I must confess I was a little carried away. For some reason I often thought of you during the summer, and this evening when I was getting ready to go to the theater it occurred to me that I might see you. '

"And she laughed.

" 'But you look listless tonight,' she repeated; 'it makes you seem older. '

"The next day I lunched at the Luganoviches'. After lunch they drove out to their summer villa, to make arrangements to close it up for the winter, and I went along. went back to the town with them, and at midnight we had te together in quiet domesticity, while the fire glowed, and the young mother kept going to see if her little girl were asleep. And after that, every time I went to the town I never failed to visit the Luganoviches. They grew used to me and I gre used to them. As a rule I went in unannounced, as though were one of the family.

" 'Who is there?' would be heard from a faraway room in the drawling voice that seemed to me so lovely.

" 'It is Pavel Konstantinovich,' the maid or the nurs would answer.

"Anna Alexeyevna would come out to me with an anxious air and would invariably ask, 'Why haven't we see you for so long? Is anything wrong?'

"Her gaze, the elegant, exquisite hand she gave me, her situple dress, the way she did her hair, her voice, her gait, produced the sallie itnptession on me of something new and extraordinary, and very significant. We would talk together for hours, there would be long silences, while we each thinking our own thoughts, or she would play to for hours on the piano. If I found no one in, I stayed and chatted with the nurse, played with the child, or lay on the couch in the study, and read a newspaper; and when Anna Alexeyevana carne back I met her in the hall, took all her parcels from her, and for some reason I carried those parcels every time with as much love, as much solemnity, as if I "ere a boy.

'The old woman had it easy,' the proverb runs, 'so she bought a pig.' The Luganoviches had it easy, so they made friends with me. If I was long in coming to the town, I must be ill, or something must have happened to me, and both of them would be very anxious. They were distressed that I, an educated man with a knowledge of languages, instead of devoting myself to scholarship or literary work, should live in the country, rush around like a squirrel in a cage, work hard and yet always be penniless. They imagined that I was unhappy, and that I only talked, laughed, and ate to conceal my sufferings, and even at cheerful moments when I was quite at ease I was aware of their searching eyes fixed upon me. They were particularly touching when I was really in trouble, when I was being hard pressed by some creditor and was unable to meet a payment on time. The two of them, husband and wife, would whisper together at the window; then he would come over to me and say with a grave face:

" 'If you are in need of money at the moment, Pavel Konstantinovich, my wife and I beg you not to stand on ceremony, but borrow from us.'

"And in his agitation his ears would turn red. Or again, after whispering in the same way at the window, he would come up to me, his ears red, and say, 'My wife and I earnestly beg you to accept this present from us.'

"And he would hand me studs, a cigarette case, lanu), and I would send them fowls, butter, and flowers from the farrn. Both of them, by the way, were very well off. In early days I often borrowed money, and was not very choosy about it borrowed wherever I could—but nothing in would have induced me to borrow from Luganoviches. But why mention the matter?

"I was unhappy. At home, in the fields, in the shed kept thinking of her. I tried to understand the mystery of beautiful, intelligent young woman marrying someone uninteresting, almost an old man (her husband was forty), and having children by him; I tried to fathom th mystery of this dull, kindly, simple-hearted man, reasoned with such tiresome good sense, who at parties and balls kept near the more substantial people, looking listless and superfluous, with a submissive, apathetic expression, as though he had been brought there for sale, who yet believed in his right to be happy, to have children by her; and I kept trying to understand why she had met just him first and not me, and why such a terrible mistake need have happened in our lives.

"And every time I came to the town I saw from her' eyes that she had been expecting me, and she would tell me herself that she had had a peculiar feeling all that day and had guessed that I would come. We would talk a long time, and I then we would be silent, yet we did not confess our love to ach other, but timidly and jealously concealed it. We were I traid of everything that would reveal our secret to ourselves. loved her tenderly, deeply, but I reflected and kept asking yself what our love could lead to if we did not have the ength to fight against it. It seemed incredible to me that my gentle, sad love could all at once rudely break up the even course of the life of her husband, her children, and the whole household in which I was so loved and trusted. Would it be honorable? She would follow me ,but where ? Where could I take her ? It would have been different if I had led a beautiful, interesting life - if I had been fighting for the liberation of my country me, for instance, or had been a celebrated scholar , an actor. or a painter; but as things were it would mean taking her fronl one humdrum life to another as humdrum or perhaps more so. And how long would our happiness last? What would happen to her if I fell ill, if I died, or if we simply stopped loving each other?

"And she apparently reasoned the same way. She thought of her husband, her children, and of her mother, who loved her son-in-law like a son. If she yielded to her feeling she have to lie, or else to tell the truth, and in her position either would have been equally inconvenient and terrible. And she was tormented by the question whether her love would bring me happiness—whether she would not complicate my life, which as it was she believed to be hard enough and full of all sorts of trouble. It seemed to her that she was not young enough for me, that she was not industrious or energetic enough to begin a new life, and she often said to her husband that I ought to marry a girl of intelligence and worth who would be a go d'housewife and a helpmate—and she would add at once that such a girl was not likely to be found in the whole town.

"Meanwhile the years were passing. Anna Alexeyevna already had two children. Whenever I arrived at the Luganoviches' the servants smiled cordially, the children shouted that Uncle Pavel Konstantinovich had come, and hung on my neck; everyone was happy. They did not understand what was going on within me, and thought that I too was happy. Everyone regarded me as a noble fel ow Both grown-ups and children felt that a noble fellow was walking about the room, and that gave a peculiar charm to their relations with me, as though in my presence their life, too, was pure and more beautiful. Anna Alexeyevna and I used to go to the theater together, always on foot. We used to sit side by side, our shoulders touching; I would take the Opera glass from her hands without a word, and feel at that moment that she was close to me, that she was mine, that we could not live without each other. But by some strange misunderstanding, when we came out of the theater we always said good-by and parted like strangers. Goodness knows what people were saying about us in the town already, but there was not a word of truth in it all.

"Latterly Anna Alcxeycvna took to going away i frequently to stay with her or her sister; she began to be moody, she was coming to recognize that her life was without satisfaction, was ruined, and at such times she did not care to sec her husband or her children. Shc was already being treated for nervous prostration.

"We continued to say nothing, and in the presence of strangers she displayed an odd irritation with rne; no matter what I said she disagreed with me, and if I had an argument she sided with my opponent. If I dropped something, she would say coldly:

" 'I congratulate you.'

"If I forgot to take the opera glass when we were going to the theater she would say afterwards:

" 'I knew you would forget.'

"Luckily or not, there is nothing in our lives that does not come to an end sooner or later. The time came when we had to part, as Luganovich received an appointment in one of the western provinces. They had to sell their furniture, their horses, their summer villa. When we drove out to the villa and afterwards, as we were going away, looked back to see the garden and the green roof for the last time, everyone was sad, and I realized that the time had come to say good-by not only to the villa. It was arranged that at the end of August we should see Anna Alexeyevna off to the Crimea, where the doctors were sending her, and that a little later Luganovich and the children would set off for the western province.

"A great crowd had collected to see Anna Alexeyevna off. When she had said good-by to her husband and children and there was only a minute left before the third bell, I ran into her compartment to place on the rack a basket that she had almost forgotten, and then I had to say good-by. When our eyes met right there in the compartment our spiritual strength deserted us both, I took her in my arms, she pressed her face my breast, and tears flowed from her eyes. Kissing her face, her shoulders, her hand wet with tears—oh, how miserable we were! - I confessed my love to her, and with a burning pain in my heart I realized how needless and petty and deceptive was all that had hindered us from loving each other. I realized that when you love you must either, in your reasoning about that love, start from what is higher, more important than happiness or unhappiness, sin or virtue in their usual meaning, or you must not reason at all.

"I kissed her for the last time, pressed her hand, and we parted forever. The train was already moving. I walked into the next compartment—it was empty—and until I reached the next station I sat there crying. Then I walked home to Sofyino. . . ."

While Alyohin was telling his story, the rain stopped and the sun came out. Burkin and Ivamlvanych went out on the balcony, from which there was a fine view of the garden and the river, which was shining now in the sunshine like a mirror. They admired it, and at the same time they were sorry that this man with the kind, intelligent eyes who had told them his story with such candor should be rushing round and round on this huge estate like a squirrel in a cage instead of devoting himself to some scholarly pursuit or something else which would have made his life pleasanter; and they thought what a sorrowful face Anna Alexeyevna must have had when he said good-by to her in the compartment and kissed her face and shoulders. Both of them had come across her in the town, and Burkin was acquainted with her and thought she was beautiful.

(Translated from the Russian by Avrahm Yarmolinsky)