Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 16, 2021

‘The Darling’, by Anton Chekhov, translated by Avrahm Yarmolinsky, in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, by George Saunders

Anton Pavlovich Chekov (1860-1904) (Wikipedia)

The third story that George Saunders explores in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain is The Darling, by Anton Chekhov.

The Darling is the kind of story that would get a male writer ‘cancelled’ today.  It’s about a woman without a mind of her own.

However, let’s not be hasty.  This woman, who parrots the opinions of the males in her life because she doesn’t have any opinions of her own, is smart enough to be an indispensable part of two husbands’ businesses, in very different fields.  When Olenka marries Kukin, who runs a theatre called The Tivoli, she presided over the box office, looked after things in the summer garden, kept accounts and paid salaries; and her rosy cheeks, the radiance of her sweet artless smile showed now in the box office window, now in the wings of the theatre, now at the buffet. When she marries the timber merchant Pustovalov, he works in the lumberyard until dinnertime, then he went out on business and was replaced by Olenka, who stayed in the office till evening, making out bills and seeing that orders were shipped.  (She masters the vocabulary of lumber too: beam, log, batten, plank, box board, lath, scantling, slab.)

Clearly this adaptable, versatile, hard-working woman is wasted in her third relationship, which is with a married vet.  This means that she can’t be an indispensable helpmeet and her habit of parroting his opinions soon reveals the state of their relationship to everybody.  If ever a story revealed the stupidity of denying women a meaningful place in society where they could enjoy equal rights, The Darling is it.  A copy of this one should be sent to all those patriarchs in the Middle East without delay.

What the story also shows is that, after a long period of mourning, she is suddenly revitalised by the arrival of the vet back in her life, along with wife and son.  Now she attaches herself to the son, smothering him a bit it must be said, but guess what… when she helps him with his schoolwork, she begins the same journey towards education.  And lo! she begins to have a mind of her own.  Just in time, it must also be said, because the son rejects her motherliness, and an empty nest is looming.

Incidentally, the translation is a bit painful in parts.  The word ‘scram’ just doesn’t belong in 19th century Russian fiction.


Why does Saunders include this story in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain?

Well, the previous story featured male protagonists, and In the Cart was more about the miserable life of a schoolteacher in Imperial Russia than about its female protagonist, so perhaps he wanted to say something about the depiction of women in fiction?  He uses only four authors for the seven stories in this book: they are all great writers but they are all male.  Assuming that the course he teaches has to be confined to great Russian writers of the 19th century, I wonder why there is not one by a woman.  Yes, I know, there are no names that spring immediately to mind, but still, Wikipedia has a list of Russian women short story writers that’s long enough to stop me surfing through it to see if any wrote in that era. (I’ve read Sofia Khvoshchinskaya’s City Folk and Country Folk, but that’s a novel.  Not much of her work has been translated and I can’t tell from WP whether any of it is short stories.)

However, I visited the Russian Fiction and Lit catalogue at Columbia University Press to explore further, and found A Double Life by Karolina Pavlova, translated by Barbara Heldt.  Although it’s poetry and prose rather than short stories, I ordered it, resisting—probably only temporarily—some other very enticing titles.  Perhaps Saunders could ask these publishers who specialise in lesser-known Russians if they could help him out? It does look terribly old-fashioned to teach a whole course without any women writers included…

(As with my previous posts, I have written about my response to the story before reading his.  From here on, I’m responding to his chapter ‘A Pattern Story’.)

Hmm.  As the title suggests, Saunders is on about patterns in writing, as in the repetition of events that we recognise in those fairy stories about three sons seeking their fortunes.  (I used to discuss these patterns in storytelling with my Year 1 & 2 library classes, so I hope that for students in the US this is not really a startling revelation).   The Darling, he says has the ‘baseline pattern’: a woman falls in love and that love comes to an end.  This pattern occurs three times with a variation in the fourth time with the boy.  He teaches the story as a brisk little primer on just how much organisation the story form can bear and will reward. He has charts and diagrams to elucidate this.

Saunders is quite confident that the story is not ‘about women’, it’s about a woman who’s an anomaly, he says.  It’s a story, he says, which asks whether her way of loving is positive and exceptional or peculiar and regrettable, a rare, saintly quality or a stunted, obnoxious one. He thinks that the central protagonist could just as easily have been a man who derives his identity from the one he loves.  Really?? *sigh*

Author: Anton Chekhov
Title: ‘The Darling’, in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders.
Translated from the Russian by Avrahm Yarmolinsky for The Portable Chekhov, Viking Penguin, 1947
Publisher: Bloomsbury 2021, first published in the No.1, 1899, issue of Semya (Family) magazine, Moscow
ISBN: 9781526624284, hbk., 408 pages
Review copy courtesy of Bloomsbury

Image credit:

Anton Chekhov: By V. Chekhovskii, Moscow – Christie’s, LotFinder: entry 5140875, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15472347


Responses

  1. I’m *so* enjoying your take on this! And there is *no* way this would have been written as a story about a male character!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • You know, I get the feeling from the way he rambles on, that he’s recorded his lectures and reproduced them to take advantage of Post Booker Fame.
      And maybe there was something in his tone of voice that conveyed that he was satirising those feminist concerns, and it hasn’t translated to the page?

      Liked by 2 people

      • I wouldn’t be surprised – it’s very unedited and he does go on. Not tightly or well written in my view.

        As for his tone of voice – if what he needed to say had to be conveyed by that, I kind of feel he should have reviewed and rewritten so the proper effect came across… ;D

        Liked by 1 person

        • True, but this is what sometimes happens when someone wins a big prize. Publishers want something quickly to take advantage of the buzz and things get rushed. A ‘previously unpublished’ novel that wasn’t published for very good reasons gets published and bunnies like me buy it because we think it will be like the winning book.

          Liked by 2 people


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