Today’s story has roughly 1470 words: http://www.chekhovshorts.com/stories/035.html
It seems Alphonse Champoun has it made. The native Frenchman no longer tutors the wealthy landlord Kamyshev’s children since they’ve grown up and are leading successful military careers. He gets paid to “be properly dressed, to smell of scent, to listen to Kamyshev’s idle babble, to eat and drink and sleep.” Sounds like a dream job, but being a paid friend is not as great as it seems. If somebody is paying you to be around, they might have issues. (I’ve seen this working in Hollywood years ago.) Kamyshev has petty side reminiscent of Stepan Stepanitch in the Head of the Family story. After biting into a ham with Russian mustard that causes Kamyshev to swear and makes his eyes water, he declares “Your French mustard would not do that, you know, if you ate the whole potful.” He goes on a jingoistic tirade, tearing apart everything French. Eventually Champoun can no longer handle the insults as they turn personal and “with a tragic wave of his arm the Frenchman flings his dinner napkin on the table majestically, and walks out of the room with dignity.” I loved that line. Although Kamyshev reveals himself to be terribly lonely, he is also a cutthroat manipulator who has “lost” Champoun’s passport. This is his ace in the hole for keeping the Frenchman on his estate as he implies that police will search for him if he leaves. We also find out that Kamyshev abuses a tenant much worse. Although Champoun is well paid, he find himself a prisoner and his “sufferings have no end.” It’s like he’s a soldier dodging bullets in a foxhole, thinking this is not the job I signed up for as he remembers the recruiter promising him he’d get to see the world.
Today’s story is a tribute to pathologic dinner conversation as the lonely master of the house (Kamyshev) dishes out insults to his French manservant (Champoun) until he can take no more. We are led to believe that after many years as a tutor to Kamyshev’s children, Champoun’s only duty now is to listen to the mindless babble of Kamyshev. The insults begin when Kamyshev chokes on his Russian mustard and proceeds to belittle the French variety. Most of the insults hinge on the perceived pride that Kamyshev thinks Champoun has for his status as a Frenchman and all things French. Addressing Champoun, Kamyshev asserts that “if one were to give you a bit of baked glass and tell you it was French, you would eat it and smack your lips.” Kamyshev is clear that “as a rule” he does not like Frenchmen but makes an exception for Champoun. My favorite ironic insult was when Kamyshev claims Russian intellectual superiority by noted that “I have read somewhere that all of you have intelligence acquired from books, while we Russians have innate intelligence.” The fact that he read that in a book was priceless. He continues to pile on ethnic insults until Champoun has had enough and with a “tragic wave of his arm [he] flings his dinner napkin on the table majestically” noting “my worst enemy could not have thought of a greater insult than the outrage you have just done to my feelings! All is over!” OK…truth be told. I couldn’t help reading every line from Champoun with an outrageous French accent of the Monty Python taunter. Fast forward to the next meal and Kamyshev, now sitting alone, realizes there is no target for his verbal abuse. He convinces Champoun to stay through coercion and half apology. During this dialogue we are introduced to a second room in the house — where Champoun sleeps. Chekhov makes a point to note how orderly the room appears and how everything has an “air of elegance and effeminancy.” I didn’t even realize that was a word. They return to the dining room where after a brief respite the abuse continues with the second course.