Posted by: ktzefr | May 11, 2016

Love at First Listen…

“A chicken is not a bird; and a woman is not a man.” 

~ old Russian saying

It was love at first sight.  It happened on a Wednesday afternoon in the autumn of 1966.  Freshman English class.  A note to this effect is written clearly inside the front cover of my literature text.  I’m a pack rat.  Some things are hard to toss.

antonIt was love at first sight – when I met Anton.  Or, perhaps, to be more accurate, it was not the “sight” of him that got my attention.  It was what he had to say.  The way he said it…the words he chose.  Example: a young man on glancing at a girl who was handing him a glass of tea, “felt all at once as though a wind were blowing over my soul and blowing away all the impressions of the day with their dust and dreariness.”  Or on spotting a lovely girl standing on a railway platform: “it seemed as though a gust of wind…or a fall of rain, would be enough to wither the fragile body and scatter the capricious beauty like the pollen of a flower.” 

 “The Beauties” (quoted above) is one of his most famous stories.  Though some would say it’s not really a story at all.  It’s barely an anecdote.  Nothing happens.  There is no plot.  It’s simply a telling of two incidents when a young man is struck by the appearance of a beautiful girl.  There is no surprise ending, no coincidence in which the two incidents are somehow connected.  It is what it is – a tale that focuses on exactly the right details to convey a deep sense of the mystery of beauty. 


When I started reading a novel the other day and had to toss it aside after the first few paragraphs because it was so utterly BAD, I went in search of quality fiction.  It felt sort of like eating fast food for several days and then having a hunger for a really good meal.  There is too little time and too little money to waste on junk. 

booksSo, I spent the weekend with Anton.  Listening to his stories about women.  Yes, listening, for on a quiet day with only the birds singing in the background, his “voice” was as clear as if he were sitting alongside me, telling about the Marshal’s widow or the old colonel’s wife or Julia the “nincompoop” or Natalia with the “long tongue.”  His women may be rich or poor, weak or strong, simple or complex.  Some are highly intelligent; others are downright stupid.  They are all Russian women living in the late 1800s, at a time when they had very few rights.  And yet each woman in these 30 tales (Stories of Women) manages to carve out her own sense of identity and self-worth in spite of the prejudice and traditions of the time. 

All of Chekhov’s writing reflects who he was as a person.  He understood the importance of the trivial in everyday life and had compassion for ordinary people.  He has been described often as kind and generous and always an optimist.  On his deathbed, he wrote: “life and people are becoming better and better, wiser and more honorable…”  I’m not sure I agree with him about this, but I suppose optimism never hurts.  I do agree with his belief that one should not shift responsibility for his or her behavior to circumstances and society.  Behavior – good choices and bad ones – define who we are as individuals. 

Every time I read or re-read a Chekhov story I am stunned by its relevance to life in the 21st century.  So much has changed in society and in the world, but the things people cherish – family, freedom, stability – are the same.  We humans still make good choices and bad ones, experience joy and sorrow, and hold fast to both reality and illusions.   Guillermo Erades, author of Back to Moscow, writes about “Reading Chekhov in Baghdad” as research for his novel:  “I realized Chekhov was not only writing about life in 19th century Russia, he was writing about life.  Ours.”

This is what I like most about Chekhov and why I’m always a willing listener:  The stories are never the way we would like things to be, neatly arranged with joy here and sorrow there and no connection between.  Different emotions are felt at the same time – the way things happen in real life. 


Listen to “The Beauties” read by Philip Pullman for The Guardian podcast.



  1. Chekhov is one of my favorite authors. I got hooked in my teens. Thanks for bringing him up. I have to reread him!

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