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Pukirev, the Unequal Marriage

Pukirev, The Unequal Marriage

I’ve been trying to get my hands on some Chekhov prose for a while now and was pleased to find a copy of The Shooting Party at my local library.  It is Chekhov’s only full-length novel and was first serialised in News of the Day, before being published in 1885.

Written when Chekhov was in his early twenties, a newly qualified doctor, trying to support his family by writing for pulp publications; it’s a detective novel produced when the genre was still in its infancy.  It was published in the same decade as the first Sherlock Holmes novels, but influenced by the work of French author, Emile Gaboriau, whose Inspector Lecoq novels were popular in Russia at the time.  I say this, not because I’m familiar with Gaboriau’s work, but because Chekhov keeps referring to Lecoq throughout the novel!

In fact, it’s not the only literature referenced in the novel; there are many nods towards Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin.  This isn’t because Chekhov is showing off, but because they provide clues to the characters’ state of mind and presage future events.  I don’t wish to give too much away, but I would point out that Hamlet is defined by a suicidal impulses, cynicism and misanthropy.  These allusions also have the effect of drawing attention to the novel as a work of fiction, while the account of events is framed as a story within a story.

The narrative is written by a local magistrate, Kamyshev, who appears in his own story as a character named Zinovyev.  This story is then passed on to the Editor of a journal for publication, who comments that:

“The author has a weakness for striking effects and resounding phrases.  Obviously he’s writing for the very first time, with an inexperienced, untrained hand.”

It is said that Chekhov was not particularly proud of The Shooting Party, having only written it for commercial reasons, and it seems that by having the Editor point out its clumsiness he is drawing attention to the flaws in the narrative and execution.

Chekhov also refers to Pukirev’s painting, The Unequal Marriage, which depicts the wedding ceremony of an old man to a pretty young woman.  The painting caused quite a stir with the public and Chekhov may have been reflecting concerns of the time, by concentrating on the position of women in society and whether they should marry for love or financial security. The Shooting Party focuses on Olga, the attractive daughter of a humble forester on Count Karneyev’s estate, who attempts to use her beauty to secure an improvement in her fortunes.  She is portrayed as mercenary in Zinovyev’s telling of the tale, but he has personal reasons for abhorring her conduct.  However, in a conversation between Zinovyev and another female character, Nadezhda, Chekhov takes a more objective stance:

“You’ll be telling me next that marrying without love is dishonest and all the rest of it. […] But when this man whom you dislike so much has made me his wife, I shall have a purpose in life.”

All this is really interesting from a social historical point of view and it seems as though Chekhov is confined by the detective story genre and would rather be describing the society in which he lived.  Perhaps, had money not been an object, we would be enjoying a great novel from him, dissecting the political and social conditions of the time?  There is a hint of this in Zinovyev’s opinion of Count Karneyev:

“Only the spirtiually blind or poor could fail to see on every grey marble slab, in every painting, in every dark corner of the Count’s garden, the sweat tears and calloused hands of the people whose children now sheltered in those miserable little huts in the Count’s wretched village.”

I know nothing of Russian history, but apparently Chekhov’s own grandfather was a serf who bought his family’s freedom in 1841, twenty years before the Emancipation Reform effectively abolished serfdom.  This is interesting to bear in mind while reading the novel, which has a strong undercurrent of the corrupting influence of power and wealth.

Where Chekhov is strongest, is in his characterisation and the use of conversations and minor details to illuminate the character’s personality or psychological condition.  Ingenious details reveal Zinovyev’s true nature to the reader: for example, he lives in a home which is still furnished and decorated with the previous occupant’s belongings – he hasn’t even removed their personal photographs from the walls.  To say too much more would give away the plot (although, like me, you will probably guess whodunnit).

I would recommend this as a flawed but fascinating work of fiction, that has made me all the more determined to read the short stories for which Chekhov is renowned.