January 22, 2023

From Gerald R. Lucas

Russian Fantasy Life

This week in ENGL 4430, we’re reading some Russian short fiction: Anton Chekhov’s “The Lady with the Pet Dog” (1899), Vasily Aksenov’s “Little Whale Varnisher of Reality” (1965), and Vladimir Nabokov’s “Spring in Fialta” (1959). While I will probably be unable to post every week, I wanted to at least give a few thoughts and impressions about each of these stories. A theme that the texts seem to share is the necessity of love and wonder as a way to escape harsh reality, or at least take off its harsh edge.

I used to teach the Chekhov story all the time at USF. I think it was in one of the anthologies I used to use, and I grew fond of it. The students seemed to enjoy it, too, as the ambiguity at the end, albeit frustrating for a lot of them, left them to decide the fate of Gurov and Anna, exposing their expectations of reality at the same time. It was always a fun discussion.

Anna and Gurov // Midjourney 2023

Reading “The Lady with the Pet Dog”[1] this time—almost twenty years later—I have a different take. It’s much more obvious to me now that Dmitri Gurov is at best a boor and at worst a misogynist when it comes to his relationship with women. That said, Chekhov’s use of the Uncle Charles Principle aligns his sensibilities with the reader’s to a great extent, so we can’t help rooting for him to a degree. Chekhov makes it clear form the beginning that he is approaching 40, that he has had many affairs, and that he just wants to fuck in order to mitigate his tedious life. He married early—“They had found a wife for him when he was very young” (my italics)—which was probably not his idea, but as a member of the upper-middle-class, he was expected to marry at a designated time and to a certain person. It’s these social expectations that guided many of his decisions when he was younger and filled his daily life with “bitter experience” and makes him eventually realize that the health of the individual’s soul (“everything that constituted the core of his life, was going on concealed from others”) is at odds with social expectations (“full of conventional truth and conventional falsehood”). This may be the primary critique of “Lady,” as it is for many of the 19th-century Russians, like Leo Tolstoy.

"The Lady with the Pet Dog" tells the story of an extramarital affair between two unhappily married individuals: Dmitry Gurov and Anna Sergeyevna. The story begins in the seaside town of Yalta where Dmitry Gurov, a wealthy, successful and married man, meets Anna Sergeyevna, a woman on holiday with her family. They fall in love and begin an affair, but eventually they must return to their separate lives. They decide to meet again in Moscow but when they do, they find continuing their relationship is challenging while maintaining their daily lives. The story explores themes of love, loneliness, and the human need for connection.

“Lady” is an awakening for Gurov. Despite his being a pig, he is not fully to blame, it seems. He is, in a way, an everyman figure, negotiating his happiness with his social realities. Don’t we all? Don’t the expectations of those around us often influence our decisions for the worse—make them actually antithetical to what might make us happy? After a while of this, a cynicism and bitterness has a way of finding expression in the interstices of our daily interactions. Too much acquiescence to comme il faut robs us of something magical in our identities—some authentic part atrophies and is replaced by adulting—things we need to do to be responsible adults, spouses, parents, citizens.

I think this is why “Lady” has an ambiguous ending: Chekhov is not didactic, and he may not have the answer. Instead, he presents Gurov and Anna’s dilemma as symbolic of the contention in everyone between the ideas and practices that shape our realities and those that foster our inner light.

"Little Whale, Varnisher of Reality" concerns Vitaly (Tolya) who works as a varnisher of reality. His job is to paint over and obscure the reality that does not conform to the official version of history. Vitaly begins to question his role and the purpose of his job, and starts to see the cracks in the illusion that he has been helping to create. The story is both a fascinating human story and a subtle allegory about the Soviet way of life and thinking, as it critiques the censorship and manipulation of reality that was common in Soviet society. The story explores themes of truth, freedom, and the human desire for authenticity.

This contention seems to have come to a head in Aksenov’s story.[2] The conflict is centered around some ambiguous but serious adult problem (aren’t they all?) that Tolya does not want to address—represented by a phone call to some authority he actively avoids throughout. All of the adults in the story—mostly his wife and a friend—remind (nag?) him about his responsibilities which seem to symbolize adulting in this story: responsibility to family and society. We never find out why he was reluctant to make the phone call, but I don’t think that matters. What’s important here is the distinction between the oppressive world of adults and the innocent fantasy world of Whale. Tolya finds himself drawn to Whale’s world—who could blame him—where life is still full of wonder and the world corresponds to one’s inner life. By the end, Tolya has done what he needed to do as an adult, but maybe he has learned that the world needn’t be so grim: “I am filled with gladness, goodness, and light.”[3] Perhaps, avers Aksenov, reality is worse because our minds make it so. Maybe keeping some innocent perspective allows us to cope when times are dark.

The prospect of infidelity also links “Whale” to “Lady.” Whereas Toyla is able to dull the cut of the everyday by spending time with Whale, Gurov is able to soften his “bitter experience” through his authentic connection with Anna. “Whale,” too, suggests a potential infidelity with a “pretty lady” that Tolya and Whale encounter on their excursion to the “plywood monstrosities of Fantasy World.”[4] There’s an ambiguity here, but certainly the implication that Tolya and she are a bit more intimate than decorum would allow. Yet, rather than allowing Tolya an escape to his longed-for “tranquility,” she also encourages him to make the phone call and do the adult thing. He associates “romance,” then with adulting and allows Whale to come between them literally, implying that his own son holds the key to deal with reality.

"Spring in Fialta" tells the story of Victor who is visiting the coastal town of Fialta with his wife. He encounters an old flame, Nina, and reflects on their past relationship while also observing the present-day events in Fialta. The story explores themes of memory, regret, and the passage of time. As Victor wanders the streets of Fialta, he reflects on the details of his past encounters with Nina, which ended with her marrying another man. As he contemplates the choices he made and the roads not taken, he also muses on the nature of memory and how it can be distorted by time, desire, and longing.

Nabokov’s “Spring in Fialta”[5] shows the ironically named Victor coasting through life in search of love—for some connection with another person, in this case Nina who is already married and otherwise engaged with her own life. The story begins with definite spring-is-the-cruellest-month vibes, presaging what is to come. The narrative present is the eponymous Fialta and his last meeting with Nina. As they walk through the city, the narrative takes flashback detours that show the extent of Victor’s relationship with Nina and how she represents a symbol of his happiness that he will never achieve. This is, most simply, a story of unrequited love and a meditation on the nature of love.

Victor reminds me of one of Poe’s narrators: erudite and a bit supercilious. The narrative voice is more 19th-century, while the narrative structure seems quite postmodern. The narrative travels in time, as Victor recounts his various liaisons with Nina throughout the years. Nina is a reluctant muse, a woman who does not live for the pleasure or inspiration of a single man. She is a free spirit, and while she does have some attention for Victor, he will never be her primary focus. She is in love with life, and follows where her desire takes her. Victor cannot understand why—especially after sharing moments of intimacy with Nina—that she won’t consent to his version of love. They seem to define it differently, or her not at all. For the climax has Victor finally professing his love to Nina “but something like a bat past swiftly across her face, a quick, queer, almost ugly expression, and she . . . became embarrassed.”[6] Nina refused to be captured his signifiers not of her making.

The ending is like a tragedy: there’s a sense of loss at Nina’s death while all that’s miserable, mundane, and moribund lives on. Victor is anything but, and he seems to have lost a spark of joy in his life. What is to become of Victor? Anna and Gurov? Tolya and Whale? While Victor has lost the source of his magic, Anna and Gurov must live with theirs in secret. Whale will grow up and lose his childhood wonder to the onslaught of reality. Joy and connection seem fleeting in these stories, so maybe the lesson here is: enjoy them while you can.

notes & references

  1. Translated by Avrahm Yarmolinsky. I’m not sure what book I made the PDF from, but this story is ubiquitous. I don’t think this is the translation I used to teach, either.
  2. Aksenov, Vasily (1986) [1965]. "Little Whale Varnisher of Reality". In Halpern, Daniel. The Art of the Tale. Translated by Brownsberger, Susan. New York: Penguin. pp. 18–27.
  3. Aksenov 1986, p. 27.
  4. Aksenov 1986, p. 24.
  5. Nabokov, Vladimir (1986) [1959]. "Spring in Fialta". In Halpern, Daniel. The Art of the Tale. Translated by Nabokov, Vladimir; Pertzov, Peter. New York: Penguin. pp. 488–501.
  6. Nabokov 1986, p. 501.