‘My Life’ by Anton Chekhov – “Worms eat grass, rust eats iron, and lying eats the soul!”

 

‘My Life’ by Anton Chekhov (1896) – 106 pages          Translated from the Russian by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

 

I am always up for reading more Anton Chekhov so I grabbed the chance to read Chekhov’s novella ‘My Life’ especially since it was translated by the current gold standard in Russian translation, the team of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.

In the novella, young man Misail is the son of the town architect who is well-respected in the town. At first, friends of Misail’s father were happy to hire the young man. So far his father has lined Misail up for nine office desk jobs around town, and Misail has been dismissed from every one of them.

I keep you only out of respect for your esteemed father, otherwise I’d have sent you flying long ago.”

Many townspeople look upon Misail as a ne’er do well, but he isn’t enamored of the town either. Misail sees the corrupt underside of the most prominent people in the town. Even his own father is not exempt.

I didn’t know a single honest man in the whole town. My father took bribes and imagined they were given him out of respect for his inner qualities; …And those who didn’t take bribes – for instance the court administration – were haughty, offered you two fingers to shake, were distinguished by the coldness and narrowness of their judgments, played cards a lot, drank a lot, married rich women, and undoubtedly had a harmful corrupting influence on their milieu.”

Everywhere Misail looks in these upper echelons of town society, Misail finds dishonesty, chicanery, and mendacity. After losing his ninth office job, Misail finally decides to forsake his family’s position in the community and takes a job involving physical labor; he becomes a house painter. His father threatens to disown him.

Here he encounters the rough peasants of the town, but are they any more dishonest than the upper classes? Misail finds satisfaction in honest physical work. He actually becomes a town sensation among the younger people of the town for making this choice to forsake the town’s conventions. This is probably Chekhov’s most political work.

But as always with Chekhov, some of the main characters are female. We have Misail’s sister who tries to bridge the gap between him and his father. We have Misail’s girlfriend who is one of the young people who is enamored of him for choosing to do hard physical labor. Both of these young women figure in poignant story lines in ‘My Life’. There is always an emotional payoff in reading Chekhov.

‘My Life’ is a good indicator of the Russian people’s mindset just before the Communist revolution. What does a people do when the upper classes of society are rampant with corruption?

 

Grade:    A-

 

 

3 responses to this post.

  1. A good question.
    Now that the triumphalism about the end of communism is over, perhaps there will be a more reasoned analysis of the Soviet experiment. I’ve read a few works (i.e. the Russian classics) about the dire situation in Russia before the revolution: the attempts at reform over a long period of time, the uselessness of the Tsar, the repression of any dissent (famously including Dostoevsky); the dire state of an economy that had bypassed the industrial revolution, and the peasants resentment at being used for cannon fodder during WW1. There was no mechanism for improvement, not as there was in the UK and other parts of Europe, and when the Tzar wouldn’t listen to the aristocrats and the intellectual elite (who were often one and the same), only a revolution seems possible.
    And it did deliver on many fronts. The problem, it seems to me, was evil leadership beginning with Stalin, and with the isolation of the USSR from the world economy and the exchange of ideas. But I would like to know more about why a centralised economy is a fatal concept, only I don’t want to read a book about economics. I want a novel that illustrates this is all its complexity. And I want it written by a Russian, not by an emigré with an axe to grind.

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    • Hi Lisa,
      The thought I have while reading “My Life” is “Oh, yes, under Vladimir Putin, Russia is reverting back to the way it was in Chekhov’s time when there was not one honest man in the country.”
      As far as Communism goes, it seems that a centralized economy also means a centralized government which amounts to a dictatorship. I much prefer the socialist systems of the Scandinavian countries where the government is not all powerful.
      China still seems to be buying into Communism, and they have been successful in an economic sense. I would not classify Russia today as Communist but more as an organized crime syndicate.

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      • I don’t know. It’s hard to work out what’s going on because of the relentless anti-Soviet rhetoric coming out of the USA, which, since it’s not exactly squeaky-clean itself, seems as unreliable to me as it was during the Cold War.

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