Our fiftieth reviewed story comes in at 2236 words. Find it here: http://www.chekhovshorts.com/stories/050.html
Today’s story about a procrastinating intellectual and his dense protégé makes me wonder if Chekhov was writing about himself in an abstract way. The “fairly well-known man of learning” tells his wife he’s going to fire his assistant, Ivan Matveyitch. For all of his blowhard threats, he doesn’t follow through when the eighteen-year-old of limited means, both financially and mentally, arrives. It’s interesting that the story is named after Ivan and not something else like “The Conversation” or “Dictation and Interruptions.” While the “man of learning” dictates pompous lines about forms for organizations, Ivan is able to sidetrack the intellectual by speaking about random minutiae. It’s hard to tell if he’s doing it intentionally so that he’ll stay in the house longer where there is food, warmth and peace, or if he can’t help from letting his thoughts wonder outside his head. The “man of learning” can’t help himself from wanting to find out more details about Ivan’s life, like capturing tarantulas and birds. This interest seems to mirror Chekhov’s writings of a wide variety of people, and peasants in particular. I enjoyed the story more on the second reading, finding it pleasant with a relatively happy ending for Chekhov. Perhaps it was pleasant because ultimately, it was because the story was about a writer and his muse.
Chekhov introduces us to a “man of learning” who is otherwise nameless despite the fact we are introduced by name to his wife, Katya, and his amaneunsis (new word for me) Ivan Matveyitch. Our man of learning professes absolute contempt for the repeated tardiness of Ivan and threatens to kick him out and “swear at him like a cabman“ when he arrives. Of course he doesn’t kick him out but invites him inside and feeds him prior to beginning their work. Ivan is a simple man of poor upbringing who “smiles with that broad, prolonged, somewhat foolish smile which is seen only on the faces of children or very good-natured people.” I think this is a polite way of calling him stupid. As the learned man begins to dictate he is distracted by thoughts of his young protege and the seemingly more interesting life Ivan lives apart from the learned man. Their conversation meanders between school uniforms, the early arrival of spring in Ivan’s home town, and how he would frequently capture tarantulas to pass the time. Despite my hearing exactly what the learned man dictated to Ivan, I am at a loss to summarize the subject. The learned man makes another attempt to gather his thoughts, but is drawn instead to the life of Ivan. Serving in a mentor role, the learned man offers advice on a career and offers to lend Ivan a copy of the essential Gogol. As their session is drawn to a premature close by the inability of the learned man to focus on anything but Ivan, we begin to see the true nature of their relationship. Ivan dreads leaving the learned man’s study where life is simpler, advice is given freely, food is abundant, and interest in his life is genuine. The learned man too is drawn to Ivan practically begging him to tell another story of his life–no matter how mundane. And here…at the end of the story…Chekhov surprised me. He overtly states the conclusion I had drawn from the narrative. The learned man scolds Ivan for his tardiness but really it’s “because he misses his chatter”. Whenever an author states, in one sentence, the conclusion I have worked for throughout the story, it makes me question whether I missed something extra. The only thing I can think of is that perhaps Ivan is being used by the learned man as the ultimate excuse for his own tardiness in finishing the manuscript he is writing. Perhaps he is not as learned as Chekhov made him out to be in the opening lines. Perhaps he is still learning the hard way and Ivan is, in an ironic way, the teacher.