Find today’s 7,198 word story here: http://www.chekhovshorts.com/stories/087.html
It feels like Chekhov took a temptress out of a fairy tale and added a pair of cousins who go up to visit her mansion separately. While there are elements that feel the a little fantastical, the rest of the story is grounded in the psychological way people (or this case men) are intrigued and ultimately attracted to unusual behavior of the opposite sex. Susanna Moiseyevna has inherited her family’s vodka distillery. In many ways this is different from most the other wealthy characters we’ve met who have inherited land or earned money through government work. (The Requiem is the only exception that comes to mind.) Chekhov through Susanna keeps reminding us that she is a Jew, pushing the image of somebody different or foreign than the regular Russian folk. It seems that the few Jewish characters that Chekhov has identified usually have had a dark undertone or have been referenced as a joke, but Susanna is by far one of the most twisted characters he has created in all of his stories. He usually identifies his bad characters quickly or will explain the psychology of their cruelty, but Susanna’s manipulative motives remain a mystery. Alexandr goes to her for money so he can marry his betrothed, while Kryukov goes to her to get his cousin’s IOUs back. Both come back confounded and enchanted under her spell. There are several lines that give this story the gothic feeling of a vampire story (and it seems that Susanna is sucking the souls away from all of the local men.) Consider Susanna’s appearance: “...her nose and ears were astoundingly white, as though they belonged to a corpse, or had been moulded out of transparent wax. When she smiled she showed pale gums as well as her teeth…” This story was written before Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but she does come across as a vampire. Also consider her rant on garlic: “…I hasten to assure you that I’ve no garlic even in the cellar. And one day when a doctor came to see me who smelt of garlic, I asked him to take his hat and go and spread his fragrance elsewhere.” Stoker created Dracula from Eastern European folklore and Chekhov seems to be playing with those elements as well. Another tipping of the hat that Susanna may be sinister is the painting of Jacob and Esau as Jacob tricked his father into giving the family inheritance to him and not his brother. Although Susanna vacillates between joking and seriousness with Alexandr, her line: “If you stay here for good, it will make it livelier for me.” seems even more haunting by the end of the story. When Kryukov spots his cousin a week later at her house, I assume the worst for Alexandr: the marriage is off, the five thousands rubles are gone and he may be AWOL. What deal he is negotiating with the flabby man is unknown, but it can’t be positive. In spite of the anti-Semitic undertones, I like this story as Chekhov creates into a gothic horror tale that still holds together with reality.
The word “Mire” is variably defined as “a situation or state of difficulty, distress, or embarrassment from which it is hard to extricate oneself.” The title of today’s story could not be more appropriate. Travis makes an excellent connection with vampiric gothic folklore that escaped me on first reading but is obvious on further reflection. Lieutenant Alexandr Sokolsky visits the heir of a vodka distillery, Susanna Moiseyevna, to reclaim a debt owed by her late father. The debt does not belong to Alexandr but to his cousin, Alexey Kryukov. We first see Susanna sitting in a chair next to a bed with a “pink awning like a funeral canopy” with lingerie, cigarette butts, and candy wrappers strewn along the floor. The overpowering smell of jasmine was in the air and the room felt more “like a greenhouse” with flowers and vegetation decorating the walls. As for Susanna, she was in an “expensive Chinese dressing gown” and wrapped in a woolen shawl complaining about a headache from the previous day. The description of her was intriguing and I felt that Chekhov intentionally tried to entice the reader with the vivid descriptions of her eccentric tastes. Alexandr is on a mission to reclaim 2,300 roubles and initially Susanna seems willing to pay. When she probes for the reason behind the urgency of repayment, it is interesting the list she provides as candidates: dissipation, losing at cards, and marriage. It reminds me of the famous “Sex, Drugs, and Rock-N-Roll” list of vices with its various historical equivalents. Alexandr is on a mission to get married and must pay a deposit of 5,000 roubles to “the Service” in order to wed as an officer before he is twenty-eight years old. Susanna then launches into a diatribe about women which is full of ironies. She notes that women are “all affected minxes, immoral, liars” and is perfectly happy with her self-appointed mission to “openly display what they do their very utmost to conceal from God and man.” We also get a sense that she is not happy with her status as a woman with the line, “the violin is not responsible for the choice of its case.” This should have been seen as a warning for what to happens next as Susanna invites Alexandr to stay for lunch. She carefully works her way closer to Alexandr both physically and psychologically taking him “by the button” and without hesitation, while under her spell, she snatched the IOUs from the table which were the only proof of the debt owed. A struggle ensued but there was a hint of passion in the violence which ultimately infected Alexandr as he gave way to her seduction. We are left to ponder what else transpired as we transition into act 2 of the story where Alexandr’s cousin, Alexey, is waiting for the return of the Lieutenant five hours later. When he finally arrives the next morning, Alexandr tells the story of what transpired. Alexey is shocked at Alexandr’s transgression and is determined to get the IOUs back on principal alone. Of course, he too falls prey to Susanna whom he calls a “devil in petticoats” seduced by her “diabolic suddenness, the quick transitions, the swift shifting hues.” Drawn like a moth to the flame, neither was able to escape the thought of her. When Alexandr was given money to facilitate his escape we eventually find him at Susanna’s but only because Alexy too gives in to temptation. When Alexy arrives he finds at least 5 other land owners all within Susanna’s web who “were in tacit agreement with one another that it was more suitable for them not to recognize one another.” She barely remembers Alexy’s name but invites him in wherein he discovers Alexander. It’s worth noting the lyrics that one of the land owners is singing. I’m not certain of their origin but a quick online search yielded these possible Biblical connections:
“Brighter than lightning, more burning than flame…” (c.f. Songs of Solomon 8:6-7)
“Call her not heavenly, and leave her on earth…” (c.f. Revelation 18:4)
Alexy is able to escape but we are never told the fate of our dear Lieutenant. Susanna’s character is unlike any I remember in Chekhov stories to-date. She is a cunning adversary with mythical siren-like powers over men. I enjoyed this story tremendously which is unusual in that it was particularly long for Chekhov and I tend to favor his shorter narratives. It’s worth pondering why he divided the story into 2 acts rather than the more obvious 3 natural divisions in the story. Nevertheless, Susanna is certainly intriguing and begs for someone to paint her persona in the classical tradition of the mythological renderings of the Renaissance.