Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 21, 2021

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

Chekhov’s Gooseberries by T. Shishmaryova (Wikipedia)

The fifth story that George Saunders explores in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain is Gooseberries, by Anton Chekhov. It is the second story in Chekhov’s ‘The Little Trilogy’, along with “The Man in the Case” and “About Love“.

Like the gooseberry itself, it’s a somewhat sour little story.  (But sour for a reason.)

Out for a walk, a high school teacher called Burkin and a vet called Ivan Ivanych get caught in the rain, and they take refuge at Alyohin’s.  It’s a working farm with a mill, and Alyohin who looks more like a professor or an artist than a gentleman farmer is pleased to take a break from his labour.  He offers his mud-soaked guests a change of clothes, and since he himself has not had a wash since spring (!) he joins them in the bathing-cabin, turning the water brown, and then after another lathering, it turns dark-blue, the colour of ink.  Ivan promptly dives into the river to cleanse himself and stays there for a good long while. Burkin isn’t bothered by the dirty water, foreshadowing his indifferent response to other murky matters.

Once inside the house, savouring the warmth, the cleanliness, the dry clothes and light footwear, not to mention the pretty chambermaid Pelageya bringing a tray with tea and jam, Ivan Ivanych tells a story.  It’s about his brother Nikolay and his long-held dream to own an estate and to farm gooseberries.

Although not from the landed gentry, these brothers had grown up on a small estate because their father rose from the rank of private to be an officer and a gentleman.  And though they lost their inheritance due to a lawsuit from creditors, Nikolay never lost his yearning to return to the land.  He worked for years as a clerk in a provincial branch of the Treasury and saved assiduously, even marrying an elderly widow he did not love because she had money.  He lived in a miserly way, keeping her half-starved, and he put her money in the bank in his own name. 

Money, like vodka, can do queer things to a man, and it never occurred to him to blame himself for her death.  And then, surprisingly, he used the money to buy unwisely…

Through an agent my brother bought a mortgaged estate of three hundred acres with a house, servants’ quarters, a park, but with no orchard, no gooseberry patch, no duck-pond. There was a stream but the water in it was the colour of coffee, for on one of its banks there was a brickyard and on the other a glue factory.  (p.316)

Undeterred, Nikolay planted his gooseberry bushes, and settled down to the life of a country gentleman. 

Did it make him happy?

Well, yes, but his brother is disgusted with him. He deplores Nikolay’s sloth, his self-indulgence, his pretensions, and the way he has forgotten his own humble beginnings and apes the life of the landed gentry.

Ivan Ivanych has decided opinions about the educated class being drawn to the land:

To retire from the city, from the struggle, from the hubbub, to go off and hide on one’s farm—that’s not life, it is selfishness, it is a kind of monasticism, but monasticism without works.  Man needs not six feet of earth, not a farm, but the whole globe, all of Nature, where unhindered he can display all the capacities and peculiarities of his free spirit.  (p.315)

What is he on about??

Well, he’s on about excess, and in particular, about excess at the expense of others.  Chekhov was one of many impatient for reform in Tsarist Russia.  (I think perhaps that you need to see the palaces of St Petersburg for yourself to really understand how extravagant it was and how it failed utterly to make any of the reforms that had taken place in Britain and Europe.  Tsarist Russia was phenomenally wealthy. We visited a palace which was just one of four owned by the Yusopovs. No wonder Chekhov was angry).

Lying awake at night, Ivan Ivanych considers how many happy people there are. He despises their complacency.

Look at life! the insolence and idleness of the strong, the ignorance and brutishness of the weak, horrible poverty everywhere, overcrowding, degeneration, drunkenness. hypocrisy, lying— Yet in all the houses and on all the streets there is peace and quiet; of the fifty thousand people who live in our town there is not one who would cry out, who would vent his indignation aloud.  We see the people who go to market, eat by day, sleep by night, who babble nonsense, marry, grow old, good-naturedly drag their dead to the cemetery, but we do not see or hear those who suffer, and what is terrible in life goes on somewhere behind the scenes.  (p.319)

He recognises complacency in himself, and wants to act.  He rails against those who say that reform must wait. He implores the younger Alyohin not to be lulled to sleep and not cease to do good. 

But Ivanych’s story fell on deaf ears.  As calls for reform did so too, elsewhere in Russia…


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

Does he want his students to think about contemporary complacency about the inequities and injustice of the contemporary world?  Does he draw their attention to this line in the story?

…obviously the happy man is at ease only because the unhappy ones bear their burdens in silence, and if there were not this silence, happiness would be impossible.  (p.319)

Does he want them to break the silence with thoughtful writing that brings attention to the state of things today?  A 21st century version of The Grapes of Wrath perhaps?

Well, no.  He’s not teaching a course in moral philosophy, I guess…

But I am very surprised to see his interpretation of Ivan Ivanych’s pipe and how the smell of it bothers Burkin.  Saunders thinks this is Chekhov depicting Ivan Ivanych’s lack of consideration for others. He, the great moral thinker, says Saunders, hasn’t been ‘good enough’ to clean his pipe.

Isn’t it meant to symbolise that the stench of the misery Ivan Ivanych has been talking about isn’t going to go away? That even though Ivan Ivanych revelled in his swim, cleansing himself of the mud and muck of life, he could not forget it, and neither should we?

Author: Anton Chekhov
Title: ‘Gooseberries’, 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 1898 in the August edition of the magazine Russkaya Mysl.
ISBN: 9781526624284, hbk., 408 pages
Review copy courtesy of Bloomsbury

BTW Do not be misled by the Penguin Little Black Classics edition of Gooseberries, (ISBN: 9780141397092) which comes with two additional stories.  They may be terrific, they probably are, but they are not the two stories that make up the rest of the trilogy.

Image credit:

By Tatyana Shishmaryova – http://apchekhov.ru/books/item/f00/s00/z0000025/st006.shtml, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=54773104


Responses

  1. I’m with you in your interpretation….. ;D

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  2. Loved your post, Lisa! Thanks for sharing your thoughts! How are you liking George Saunders’ book?

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    • Well, Vishy, I love the Russian stories but I’m not much impressed by the bits that Saunders has written!

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      • Oh, sorry to know that, Lisa. Was hoping to read this book. Now I don’t know.

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        • Well, don’t let me put you off. I think a lot depends on whether it’s read from a reader’s POV or a writer’s one. So look around for other reviews to see what other people think:)

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          • Thank you, Lisa. Maybe will test read a few pages and see how it is.

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            • Always the best way when you’re not sure:)

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