Sunday, May 11, 2014

Chekhov Writes A Dostoyevsky Story: "An Attack of Nerves"

How many of Chekhov's stories have I read? I have no idea. Hundreds of them. All 201 in the Ecco 13-volume set of Constance Garnett's translated tales. A bunch translated by Ann Dunnigan. Peter Constantine's collection of 38 stories from the young Chekhov. Lots more, though most translators mine the same vein of tales that Garnett worked. But let's say I've read some 300 stories by Anton Chekhov, and I can only think of one of those stories that seems to have been directly influenced by the works of Fyodor Dostoyevsky. I am going to claim that the 1889 story "An Attack of Nerves" (also known as "A Nervous Breakdown") is inspired by the fourth section of Dostoyevsky's Notes From Underground, the encounter between the Underground Man and the prostitute Liza.

I steal the following summary from the NYU School of Medicine "stories about doctors" website:
A night on the town with two friends turns into "an attack of nerves" for Vasilyev, a law student. The three students spend the night drinking and visiting houses of prostitution; Vasilyev is horrified and repulsed by the women, who he thinks are "more like animals than human beings." The social problem of prostitution becomes an obsession; he is so fixated on finding a solution that he is in moral agony. His friends, among whom is a medical student, are concerned only with his health; they take him to a psychiatrist who "cures" Vasilyev with bromide and morphine.
I will ignore the NYU School of Medicine's shallow comments on the story and give you my own.

While both the Dostoyevsky and Chekhov stories are part of a long and dense tradition of Russian "fallen women" fiction, I claim that they are more closely linked than by just that tradition. Notes and "Nerves" share important symbolism; Chekhov's formal structure pushes against Dostoyevsky's in an asymmetrical manner to form a kind of balance; Chekhov's protagonist is strikingly similar to the Underground Man; both tales end with frustration at the protagonist's inability to solve the problem of subjugation. I hope I remember to mention that Chekhov seemingly implies a sympathy with Chernyshevsky's idea that woman can only be freed when men become civilized enough to free them. We'll see how well I do. This entire essay might be beyond my abilities. You've been warned.

Let's start with the snow, which is an important symbol in both stories. Dostoyevsky's snow is the element which opens Part II of Notes, the element to which he returns in the tale of Liza:
Snow is falling today, yellow and dingy. It fell yesterday, too, and a few days ago. I fancy it is the wet snow that has reminded me of that incident which I cannot shake off now.
Chekhov's story is also set on a snowy night, but his snow is beautiful and mysterious:
The first snow had not long fallen, and all nature was under the spell of the fresh snow. There was the smell of snow in the air, the snow crunched softly under the feet; the earth, the roofs, the trees, the seats on the boulevard, everything was soft, white, young, and this made the houses look quite different from the day before; the street lamps burned more brightly, the air was more transparent, the carriages rumbled with a deeper note, and with the fresh, light, frosty air a feeling stirred in the soul akin to the white, youthful, feathery snow.
Dostoyevsky's snow is always "wet" and sometimes even "warm," and is never anything but part of the world's antagonism, another marker of the Underground Man's misery, pointing in the same direction as everything else in the Liza story:
The wet snow was falling in big flakes; I unbuttoned myself, regardless of it. I forgot everything else, for I had finally decided on the slap, and felt with horror that it was going to happen NOW, AT ONCE, and that NO FORCE COULD STOP IT. The deserted street lamps gleamed sullenly in the snowy darkness like torches at a funeral. The snow drifted under my great-coat, under my coat, under my cravat, and melted there. I did not wrap myself up--all was lost, anyway.
Chekhov's protagonist, on the other hand,
liked the snow, the pale street lamps, the sharp black tracks left in the first snow by the feet of the passers-by. He liked the air, and especially that limpid, tender, naïve, as it were virginal tone, which can be seen in nature only twice in the year -- when everything is covered with snow, and in spring on bright days and moonlight evenings when the ice breaks on the river.
Dostoyevsky, then, uses the snow to show that the world itself--including the weather--is a force set against man, whereas in Chekhov it is man who is the force of evil set against nature:
If one looked upwards into the darkness, the black background was all spangled with white, moving spots: it was snow falling. As the snowflakes came into the light they floated round lazily in the air like down, and still more lazily fell to the ground. The snowflakes whirled thickly round Vassilyev and hung upon his beard, his eyelashes, his eyebrows. . . . The cabmen, the horses, and the passers-by were white.

"And how can the snow fall in this street!" thought Vassilyev. "Damnation take these houses!"
these houses are bordellos, where Vassilyev has been dragged, from one to the next, by his friends. His friends are looking for a good time; Vassilyev is horrified by what he sees, by the objectification of the women, by the base nature of man--even of his good and beloved friends.

Which brings us to the next important similarity between the stories, the protagonist's disgust with man. Dostoyevsky shows us this by having the Underground Man insult Liza in as cruel a manner as he can, demonstrating to her that she is a slave to men, maybe less than a slave, and that he is no better; she cannot possibly look to him for salvation (this is a direct attack on Chernyshevsky's novel). The Underground Man sees no end to this slavery and baseness, but it's all one with the evil that is the world so it does not particularly matter more than anything else. Chekhov's Vassilyev, on the other hand, determines that he is going to save women, to end prostitution:
It seemed to him that he must settle the question at once at all costs, and that this question was not one that did not concern him, but was his own personal problem. He made an immense effort, repressed his despair, and, sitting on the bed, holding his head in his hands, began thinking how one could save all the women he had seen that day. The method for attacking problems of all kinds was, as he was an educated man, well known to him. And, however excited he was, he strictly adhered to that method. He recalled the history of the problem and its literature, and for a quarter of an hour he paced from one end of the room to the other trying to remember all the methods practiced at the present time for saving women. He had very many good friends and acquaintances who lived in lodgings in Petersburg. . . . Among them were a good many honest and self-sacrificing men. Some of them had attempted to save women. . . .
The problem, however, is too big for one student in Moscow to solve. Vassilyev, who has always been a sensitive soul, goes mad from the pressure of the world's evil. He becomes a version of the Underground Man:
Vassilyev lay down on the bed and, thrusting his head under the pillow, began crying with agony, and the more freely his tears flowed the more terrible his mental anguish became. As it began to get dark, he thought of the agonizing night awaiting him, and was overcome by a horrible despair. He dressed quickly, ran out of his room, and, leaving his door wide open, for no object or reason, went out into the street. Without asking himself where he should go, he walked quickly along Sadovoy Street.

Snow was falling as heavily as the day before; it was thawing. Thrusting his hands into his sleeves, shuddering and frightened at the noises, at the trambells, and at the passers-by, Vassilyev walked along Sadovoy Street as far as Suharev Tower; then to the Red Gate; from there he turned off to Basmannya Street. He went into a tavern and drank off a big glass of vodka, but that did not make him feel better. When he reached Razgulya he turned to the right, and strode along side streets in which he had never been before in his life. He reached the old bridge by which the Yauza runs gurgling, and from which one can see long rows of lights in the windows of the Red Barracks. To distract his spiritual anguish by some new sensation or some other pain, Vassilyev, not knowing what to do, crying and shuddering, undid his greatcoat and jacket and exposed his bare chest to the wet snow and the wind. But that did not lessen his suffering either.
That particular scene closely echoes a scene in Notes From Underground. The other strong sign that "An Attack of Nerves" is related to Notes From Underground is the ending, atypical of Chekhov. It is atypical in that it is an actual rounding off of the through-action of the piece, which Chekhov rarely does, and it strikes a negative, cynical note which Chekhov rarely uses. It is not subtle, and its comedy is a cheerless sort of joking: "He had two prescriptions in his hand: one was for bromide, one was for morphia. . . . He had taken all these remedies before." Chekhov implies that the problems of civilization cannot be solved; they can only be pushed away and ignored. His own profession, or at least psychiatry, cannot cure depression caused by the shape of society. It is society which is sick, but we can only treat the individual, not the society.

And so on, in the same general style, as Chekhov would say. There are other Chekhov stories that deal with prostitution, but none which so closely echoes the form and content of Notes From Underground. So that's my attempt to extend the literary influence of Nikolai Chernyshevsky's What is to be Done? through Dostoyevsky's Notes From Underground and into Chekhov's oeuvre. Even if I'm wrong, "An Attack of Nerves" is a great story, written in beautiful language. I don't know why I ever read anything but Chekhov, I say yet again.


  1. Fascinating. Now that you point it out, I can of course see the parallels.But I hadn't before.Chekhov had struck me as being more in the line of Turgenev rather than in the line of Dostoyevsky, but I need to re-read those Chkhov stories again.

    One Chekhov story that had often strck me as being in Dostoyevskian territory is "The Black Monk". But I really to read it again.

    1. "The Black Monk" is a good choice, an excellent story, though to me it doesn't seem as mad as Dostoyevsky. Certainly it's as frantic. I'll try to read that one again tonight.

      It's funny that Chekhov barely acknowledges Dostoyevsky in his private letters. They were really working the same basic territory, that life is so hard because of man's mistreatment of his fellows, and calling for us to be decent and Christ-like. Dostoyevsky's call was more strident, his portraits more extreme, but people think Chekhov's work was fussy and mannered when in fact his stories were filled with drunken violence, lunacy, incredibly bad decisions, etc. All the stuff of life.

    2. Though maybe where Chekhov was calling for the need to be kinder and better, Dostoyevsky was concentrating on the impossibility of being perfect imitations of Christ. I'll have to think about that. Neither of them, of course, can be reduced to one-sentence summaries; they both wrote enough that they contradicted themselves, which is perfectly respectable.

  2. Good lord, the Chekhov prose is so much better than - is so much closer to my idea of good writing than Dostoevsky's. I have been so immersed in FD, and of course the much worse NCh, that this is almost painful.

    The argument is quite plausible. I am quite sure I never read this story. I should comb it for further clues.

    "And how can the snow fall in this street!" Listen, pal, I don't know how you think weather works, but...

    1. Turning from Dostoyevsky to Chekhov was like having my head released from a vice, a huge relief and pleasure. I like FD, but I've never mistaken him for a great prose stylist.

      You should read this story, if only because it's so darned good. I could be seeing things that aren't there, reading too much into it. I don't think so.

      At the point where Vassilyev anthropomorphizes the weather, he begins to turn into a Dostoyevsky character.

  3. Chekhov's stories and plays have a peculiar effect upon me: In most cases, I am both amused and saddened. I wonder if that was Chekhov's intent. In any case, even though my own blogging is erratic (due to life's many monkey wrenches), I continue to follow your blog with interest. You always provoke me to read texts that I might have otherwise overlooked or ignored. Bravo to you, Scott.

    1. We should all read lots of Chekhov. Don't worry about your own blog so much, Tim!

    2. Rx = Chekhov. Just what the doctor ordered. Chekhov always allows me to meet interesting characters whose lives are both better and worse than real life. That is the paradox of Chekhov.

  4. Thanks for a very interesting essay! Now you have me thinking about Chekhov's endings. The one I always, always remember and have probably mentioned before (maybe at Tom's place?) is “About Love.” The last sentence of that story reveals that the two men listening to the story-within-the-story know the woman the story is about, and furthermore know that the storyteller must have been fooling himself thinking she loved him back but was kept from him by fate. I don't know that I'd call it a “negative, cynical note,” or unsubtle exactly, but it does abruptly destroy the uncynical atmosphere that the whole story up to the last sentence had created. To me that's always seemed like the essence of Chekhov, but maybe the fact that I keep coming back to the same example should make me think of it as an exception.

    Do you know “About Love,” and do you think its ending is anything like the ending of “An Attack of Nerves”? Or is that kind of partial twist forcing partial reevaluation the opposite of “a rounding off of the through-action of the piece”?

    1. "About Love" is in the 13-volume Garnett edition. I just read it again, and I have two (at least) observations. First, it's the only one of Chekhov's stories I know of that shares characters with another of his stories ("Gooseberries"). Second, the ending seems to me pretty much a typical (if I can use that word) ending from Chekhov's mature period. The story is built around the Chekhovian conceit that "for drama, all you need is a man, a woman, and a reason for them to be unhappy" (as he said in a letter to his brother, I think it was). Once the unhappy stage is reached, there is no resolution, no moving away from the unhappy state (which would be what I mean by "rounding off the through-action"), rather the characters remain suspended in an amber of unhappiness. The final paragraph first brings back the theme of appearances (first introduced in the passage about the four Jews wrongly-convicted of arson), and then repeats statements made by Alehin earlier in the story. The final sentence, "Both of them had met her in the town, and Burkin knew her and thought her beautiful" doesn't strike me as at all cynical, or changing the mood of the story. Though a lot of Chekhov's stories end with a sentence that seems to lead away from the story, to imply that something else is about to happen, but I think that just adds to he sense of suspended animation for the principle characters. Like in "A Lady's Tale," the last sentence is something like, "The maid came in and called my name, thinking that I was asleep." Life is going to continue, regardless of the narrator's unhappiness. I see the end of "About Love" as being the same idea, a sort of side-shadowing, and expansion that changes nothing in the way of the central meaning of the story. If you see what I mean. It's like the curtain drops while a new scene is just beginning, but the scene just finished will never be followed by a resolution of the problems just dramatized. I have no idea if I'm making a lick of sense here.

    2. "the storyteller must have been fooling himself thinking she loved him back but was kept from him by fate"

      Yeah, I guess I don't see that. The penultimate sentence is: "They admired it [Alehin's estate], and at the same time they were sorry that this man with the kind, clever eyes, who had told them this story with such genuine feeling, should be rushing round and round this huge estate like a squirrel on a wheel instead of devoting himself to science or something else which would have made his life more pleasant; and they thought what a sorrowful face Anna Alexyevna must have had when he said good-bye to her in the railway-carriage and kissed her face and shoulders."

      Maybe I'm being naive, taking the story's final paragraph at face value?

      I guess "The Man in a Case" is also linked to these stories, with the same characters. How handy that the Garnett edition puts all three of these stories next to each other for me!