Thursday, October 06, 2011

Life and Fate: Chekov, kindness

Continuing with some of the lesser points in Life and Fate…see my links post for Vasily Grossman and Life and Fate for reviews that cover both very well.

Many of the links in that post mention Grossman's love for Anton Chekov's work and some similarity in style. Several authors are mentioned in Life and Fate, but Grossman consistently has his characters praise Chekov:
"Chekov brought Russia into our consciousness in all its vastness—with people of every estate, every class, ever age…More than that! It was as a democrat that he presented all these people—as a Russian democrat. He said—and no one had said this before, not even Tolstoy—that first and foremost we are all of us human beings. Do you understand? Human beings! He said something no one in Russia had ever said. He said that first of all we are human beings—and only secondly are we bishops, Russians, shopkeepers, Tartars, workers. Do you understand? Instead of saying that people are good or bad because they are bishops or workers, Tartars or Ukrainians, instead of this he said that people are equal because they are human beings. At one time people blinded by Part dogma saw Chekhov as a witness to the fin de siècle. No, Chekhov is the bearer of the greatest banner that has been raised in the thousand years of Russian history—the banner of a true, humane, Russian democracy, of Russian freedom, of the dignity of the Russian man. …

Chekov said: Let’s put God—and all these grand progressive ideas—to one side. Let’s begin with man; let’s be kind and attentive to the individual man—whether he’s a bishop, a peasant, an industrial magnate, a convict in the Sakhalin Islands or a waiter in a restaurant. Let’s begin with respect, compassion and love for the individual—or we’ll never get anywhere. That’s democracy, the still unrealized democracy of the Russian people.” (283)

I don’t know that I would totally agree with Madyarov’s assessment of Chekhov but it clearly advances Grossman’s message that kindness not only makes us human but is the highest achievement of our soul. Ikonnikov, called a holy fool by other Soviet prisoners-of-war, pens a tract emphasizing the need for kindness, looking for

The private kindness of one individual towards another; a petty, thoughtless kindness; an unwitnessed kindness. Something we could call senseless kindness. A kindness outside any system of social or religious good. (408)

Does Ikonnikov’s tract represent Grossman’s viewpoint? I think to a large extent it does. Grossman highlights human weakness, especially when faced with the strength of the state, whether fascist or communist. But he also shows man’s strength to stand up to “the colossus of the state” through several of the characters, including Ikonnikov, who is executed because he refused to work on construction of an extermination camp. As the tract describes kindness, so it is with Ikonnikov—he is at his most powerful when completely powerless. Or, in describing a different character’s struggles, Grossman points out “A man may be led by fate, but he can refuse to follow.”

Grossman’s style has also been compared to Chekhov and while not delving into that assessment I will say that many of his chapters would make wonderful short stories. If you find yourself in a bookstore and see a copy of Life and Fate, read Part One Chapter 44 or Part Two Chapter 41. Each chapter is around two pages in length but each provides great insight and power in those few pages.


Richard said...

I wish I knew Chekhov better to evaluate Grossman's alleged Chekhovian connections for myself, Dwight, but I agree that that quote you pulled is a real winner (hope to come back to it myself, in fact, but there is just too much good stuff in the novel to touch on everything). Your choice of the two chapters here is also impeccable IMO. Cheers!

Dwight said...

Richard, thanks for your many looks like you're as moved by the novel as I was. And yes, there is too much good stuff to comment on it all. As always, I look forward to your posts on it.