“The Duel” by Anton Chekhov

“The Duel” by Anton Chekhov  (1891) – 123 pages

Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

    “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness” – Samuel Beckett

 Let me ask a not very jolly question.  Have you ever known someone who has total contempt for you, who utterly dismisses you and despises you as a person?

In Anton Chekhov’s novella “The Duel”,  Von Koren absolutely despises Laevsky.   Why?  Let us discuss these two vivid characters.

Laevsky moved down here to this resort on the Black Sea from St. Petersburg bringing along his mistress Nadya who is another man’s wife.  Laevsky is what you would call an intellectual dilettante   He doesn’t have a job, borrows money from his friends and gets money from his mother back in St. Petersburg.  He likes to drink and gamble.  Lately he’s been whining to his friends about Nadya, how he’s growing tired of her and will have to leave her soon.  Laevsky is a sociable enough fellow, but he wallows in self pity. His unhappiness would be almost laughable if it were not so real.

Von Koren does not find Laevsky funny at all. Von Koren is a scientist and a strict moralist, a disciple of Darwin and a believer of the “survival of the fittest”.  He maintains a rigid military discipline and expects that of others too.  He is planning to lead a scientific expedition into the far eastern regions of Russia near Vladivostok. 

Von Koren’s contempt of Laevsky is philosophical and not personal since Von Koren has no personal reason to hate Laevsky. Here are some of the things Von Koren says about Laevsky.

    “Whether he (Laevsky) walks, sits, gets angry, writes, rejoices, everything comes down to drink, cards, slippers, and women.”
    “His (Laevsky’s) harmfulness consists first of all in the fact that he has success with women and thus threatens to have progeny, that is, to give the world a dozen Laevskys as feeble and perverted as himself. “
    “Whatever vileness he (Laevsky) may commit, everyone will believe that it’s good, that it should be so, since he is an intellectual, a liberal, and a university man.”

So here we have the rigid disciplinarian and the lazy immoral intellectual dilettante.  What could possibly go wrong between these two guys?  Somehow Laevsky stumbles into a duel with Von Koren which Von Koren is only too happy to oblige.  By this time even in Russia duels are disappearing.  The people barely remember the rules.  The duel between Von Koren and Laevsky could almost be called the last duel.    

 Anton Chekhov is famous for having said (although there is some question as to whether or not he actually did say it) that if there is a pistol hanging on the wall in the first act, it better go off in the last act.  I suppose the quote applies more directly to “The Duel” than most of his stories.  There is a direct straightforward quality to Chekhov’s stories and novellas that make them have a vivid and dramatic impact that I’ve always appreciated.   I love the Chekhov stories and novellas, but I’ve had my troubles appreciating the plays.  I keep watching Chekhov’s plays in the hope that I will come to fully appreciate them in time.    

Have you ever wondered like I did what famous Russian translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky look like?  Wonder no more.  Here is another excellent translation of a classic Russian writer.


3 responses to this post.

  1. Great review Tony … it’s so long since I read/saw any Chekhov that I really can’t remember any details. Perhaps I should rectify that. Meanwhile, every now and then I go searching for that pistol quote and have the darnedest time finding it. I think it’s because in my head I was confusing it with “smoking gun”!


  2. Hi Whisperinggums,
    There does seem to be a lot of question as to whether Chekhov really did say that pistol quote, so they usually put in a disclaimer before printing it. That might be why it doesn’t appear on the Chekhov quote pages either.


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