Monday, August 30, 2010

My Life

I continue to work my way through Chekhov's short novels, although not in chronological order.  I finished My Life (1896) the other night.  It is told through the point of a young man with the ostentatious name of Misail, who has opted for a workingman's life, much to the indignation of his father, the town architect.  Chekhov uses this character to voice his own misgivings about growing up in a provincial city of 60,000 inhabitants.  He offers a number of interesting character studies, including an amusing view of local theater.

Initially, Misail finds himself having as difficult finding a place among the workers as he did among bureaucrats, but in times settles on housepainting as his vocation, representing the flip side to his father.  Misail lives among the poor as he struggles to shed his noble bearing.  His father can't stand it and repeatedly tries to get his son to change his ways, but to no avail.  When Misail attracts the attention of some of the younger aristocrats, including his sister, this becomes too much for his father to bear and he has the governor of the town threaten his son with a public flogging.

Misail remains undeterred, but eventually his attraction for the daughter of a railroad engineer earns him a place back in society, as they opt to restore a farm her father had bought off an old lady along Tolstoyan lines.  Of course, Chekhov isn't content to revel in this rustic idealistic life and shows how Misail's and Masha's best laid plans go to ruin.  Misail felt Masha was like an actress who adopted her role as a countrywoman only to shed it when things didn't work out like she had imagined.

Misail comes across a bit too much like a paragon of virtue, admonishing himself for being taken in by the aristocratic life and their flirtation with the condition of the poor, criticizing everyone around him and eventually returning to his role as a housepainter as if it is his true nature.  I liked the way Chekhov initially pitted the son against the father, but I think it would have been a more effective story if Misail had not so easily been able to reconcile his feelings.

The painting is Spring, Kitchen Gardens (1893) by Alexei Savrasov.

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