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Tuesday
Jul012008

The Lady with the Lap Dog

Should you have any doubts about the intentions of this story’s protagonist, look no further than his first spoken line: “If she’s here without a husband and without anyone she knows, it wouldn’t be a waste of my time to get to know her.”  Gurov is a still-young playboy on vacation from his wife and children on the beaches of Yalta, and there is no immediate reason why he should gain a morsel of our sympathy.  Not that his wife, whom we only see once much later on, has anything great to offer this world.  For to understand Gurov and why he is in Yalta to meet a woman he will never be able to do without, it is his wife one should consider:

She read a lot, didn’t write the hard sign in her letters, didn’t call her husband Dmitri, but rather Dimitri; and he secretly thought of her as intellectually limited, narrow, unrefined; he feared her and didn’t like being at home.

Yet Chekhov, too subtle a writer for modern tastes, does not allow Gurov to find his wife’s opposite.  That would be too easy, the fodder for romance novels where every maudlin expectation is gratified.  Instead, he comes upon the titular Anna Sergeevna and her Pomeranian, who may or may not be better examples of moral creatures, but whom he loves completely and absolutely.  This story has nothing to do with honeycombed love and the effusive, romanticized backwash of pink weddings and little white houses; this is a tale of destiny, of suffering akin to that of “two migratory birds, a male and female, caught and forced to live in separate cages.”  This is about the conundrum of finding your fated twin soul, and not being able to cast away the dregs of your previous life.

The love affair, like the seasons, has four parts.  Gurov and Anna Sergeevna are first seen around a summery boardwalk, and Gurov is portrayed as the rakish misogynist.  That he calls women “a lowly race” but cannot do without them for “two days” coincides with the most prolific clichés about Lotharios.  How strange is it that in this story which will do anything to convince us of Gurov’s artistic authenticity, of his difference from the Philistine masses who have assumed the contours of his daily existence, we find he is nothing more than the commonplace womanizer.  I cannot be persuaded by literature’s thousand and one tales featuring immoral beasts and hedonistic daredevils, that under some of these exteriors lurk true artistic souls.  How you treat the world reflects your innermost passions and beliefs.  If you believe in saying and doing whatever is necessary for monetary, political  or sexual gain, then you are as empty and as meaningless as the moments you spend deceiving others.  We wonder to what extent deception is part of Gurov’s repertoire.  What does he say to these lonely women as he comforts them, albeit for “a short time”?  What is his role in life outside of a comforter of women who have no interest in his personality (another tedious chestnut)?  What motivation might he have for continuing in this vein?  Why is Anna Sergeevna any different?  Is this a cautionary tale or an allegory for pursuance of the Good?

It is in the fall, our story’s next section where little time has actually passed, that we catch a glimpse of their immortality.  Where modern literary critics might dissect “the old women dressed as young women and the bevy of generals” on the pier in some kind of countercultural gibberish, the fact is that these critics have never actually bothered to look at pictures and books of the Crimea of that time period as well as lack any imagination whatsoever.  Men all aspire to some title of greatness, while women really only want to be young enough to be coy (to paraphrase this author), and there is nothing more to it than that.  Those generals and old women are as fraudulent as any sentiment that you cannot understand and deem fraudulent because your narrow world has yet to experience it.  Against this backdrop, we are given a taste of what to expect once the seas have calmed and our last breaths have slowed, and stopped:

It was so noisy below, and here there was no Yalta, no Oreanda; now it was noisy and would continue to be as indifferently and deafly noisy when we were no longer here.  And in this constancy, in this indifference to life and death, each of us is covered, perhaps, by the price of our eternal salvation, of the unending movement of life on earth, of unending perfection.  And sitting beside that young woman who at dawn had seemed so beautiful, so serene, so enchanting before the fairy tale landscape around her, the sea, the mountains, the clouds, the wide blue sky, Gurov came to see that if one thought about it, everything in this world was essentially beautiful − everything except when we think and ponder, when we forget about the higher goals of existence and our own human dignity.

So later, when Gurov has gone through another season, this time a harsh winter, and realized that everyone’s “true life” is hidden beneath the surface, he makes one mistake.  He assumes that Anna Sergeevna thinks the way he does.  Men, especially those in more conservative societies, have the luxury of withdrawing from human interaction and relegating their secrets to a covert smile to a mirror or window pane when no one is looking.  But women, in those same circumstances, certainly cannot.  A woman will always be branded for her adulterous machinations, while a man may very well escape unscathed.  Yes Anna is also married, to someone whom we never quite meet but to whom she has bestowed one of our language’s most ignominious labels.  In fact, her husband seems to trot beside her as a reminder of her guilt, almost as if he were her Pomeranian (the Russian word for Pomeranian, shpitz, and his surname von Dideritz have some Germanic affinity), and almost like the two adolescents smoking above Anna and Gurov’s secret encounter in the opera remind the careful reader of Gurov’s two high school−aged boys. 

It is also no coincidence that the only line uttered by Gurov's wife is, "playing the fop, Dimitri, doesn't suit you at all."  And why would "Dimitri" have to be dressed so well if it weren't in his interests to look good to women around him?   We are not supposed to trust Gurov's wife because she is a classic manifestation of poshlost', of that smug vulgarity that is the absolute antithesis of art.  So then maybe Dmitri is very good in his role as seducer, and maybe his alleged love for Anna Sergeevna is no more than a delusion  Chekhov only hints in one direction but does not compel us.   The only compulsion we have, in fact, is to read on to the end, where Gurov asks himself another, much more important question. 

Reader Comments (2)

Your review does great honor to Chekhov's story. I'm bitterly jealous you can read it in the original--your observation about the Pomeranian and Anna's husband, linking the similar sounds in the two, just shows me how much I miss reading Garnett's translation.

How I do love this story. The memory of Gurov looking in the mirror... my God, Hadi. I must have been there in the room with them, I can see this so clearly.

He's looking at the mirror, resigned to his fate, maybe--what is that look on his face mean?--he's confused, somehow true love has found him. What confronts him is a sad, very real image he cannot escape--the two of them, holding each other for a few more minutes, in yet another shabby hotel room, hiding out; they are true lovers but oh... what do to? What to do?

(Perhaps not quite right but I refuse to look it up because pedantic accuracy isn't my point here.)

Sometimes my enthusiasm for this story makes me feel as though I have become a reader like Emma Bovary. But I'm not as embarrassed about that as I should be. Madame Bovary, c'est moi!

July 1, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMelancholy Korean

Your memory is quite right, my dear Steven. Very glad you enjoyed the story; I had not read it in many years and it brought back wonderful memories. Its amplitude always made me think it was so much longer; but it is barely ten pages and yet complete and satisfying. A true gem.

July 1, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterdeeblog

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