Find today’s 4049 word story here: http://www.chekhovshorts.com/stories/090.html
I didn’t care for this story. It was long and uninteresting, following the lives of a reclusive literary critic and his sister as they go through their routines and then their fight about non-resistance to evil and the worthless of reviewing old literature. (I guess we’re doing the latter.) I’m sure there was something deeper in the story about a man not achieving his goal of recognition (“Vladimir Semyonitch believed that sooner or later he would succeed in getting on to a solid magazine where he would have scope and could display himself”). Or how the rift between the brother and sister on a single ideal leads can lead to bigger issues, reversing the roles of a confident brother with his frail sister when she exploits his passion: “you are wasting your best years in goodness knows what…” I don’t know why the story is called Excellent People. The word “excellent” is only used twice: once Vladimir considers a story describing peasant life, and the other when a novel has an “excellent tendency of the story.” Unfortunately I’m not intrigued enough to look deeper. After a good string of recent Chekhov stories this was an exhausting read that let me down.
Nobody loves a critic…or remembers them…how ironic for my review. Today’s story centers around the life of a literary critic named Vladimir Semyonitch. Although he had a background in law and worked on the board of some railway, his life revolved around the idea of being a writer. Chekhov spends an inordinate amount of text describing the character and dedication of Vladimir who “had genuine faith in his literary vocation.” Vladimir was apparently quite gifted at both the spoken and written form but was scarcely recognized beyond the reputation he garnered from the “destitute students” and his sister. Vera Semyonovna, “a woman doctor”, was not only his sister but his most ardent fan…in the beginning at least. She had married “for love” but her husband died of typhus within a month of the wedding. Following his death, she gave up medicine and moved in with her brother where she would spend her days watching him write. Similar to the the writer in the previous story (Hush!), “the critic wrote rapidly, without erasures or corrections. The pen scratched and squeaked.” All was well with their relationship until she asked one simple question: “what is the meaning of non-resistance to evil?” It’s not clear what prompted such a question but eventually Vladimir took the challenge to write an article on the topic at which point Vera became the critic. The tables being turned, “almost for the first time in his life, his vanity as an author sustained a shock”, arguments soon tore apart their once peaceful sibling relationship. To her credit, I think Vera wanted more for her brother, stating at one point, “you are wasting your best years in goodness knows what.” The argument she seemed to be making was for him to focus on original thought-provoking narratives instead of the critic role of “rummaging in old rubbish that nobody wants”. Having spent all that time observing her brother’s talent, she notes, “it seems to me that if all you thinking people had set yourselves to solving great problems, all these little questions that you fuss about now would solve themselves by the way.” Herein, Travis and I must note the irony given the present Chekhov challenge. Vera exclaims that “everything has long ago been extracted that can be extracted from that rubbish in which you are always rummaging.” I couldn’t help but feel awkward in forming my own critique especially with passages like “making a brief summary of the novel, he selected the best passages and added to them in his account.” Vera certainly knew how to make her brother uncomfortable, but I also felt her jabs. The distance between the siblings widened still until eventually Vera moved away. That’s where her story ends. The narrator goes on to describe how Vladimir became ill and upon his death was buried in the section of the cemetery reserved for literary artists. After only a few years, despite his contributions as a critic, “he was utterly forgotten.” This final scene reminded me of the actor Mushkin (“In The Graveyard“) except Mushkin was remembered by those he harmed…whereas there is no love for a critic. Reflecting upon the title “Excellent People”, I wonder if Chekhov was referring to authors while simultaneously noting the ultimate historical amnesia for the critic. Or perhaps, Chekhov was trying to highlight that although given a gift for writing, some excellent people are nevertheless forgotten when they fail to create original content and instead waste their talent as a critic of others. Nevertheless, the irony of my own critique of the “excellent tendency of the story” is hard to escape.
STEVE’S COMMENT: I thought I would introduce something new below the rating for this story…it has happened more frequently than I care to admit that something I read in one of these stories is completely new to me. I have often tried to incorporate these ‘pearls’ into my review with reference links to external explanatory resources. I thought it would be interesting to highlight these ‘pearls’ below the review for others to consider at their leisure. I also tend to highlight what I consider to be insightful or well-crafted sentences/passages that often do not make it into the review but may be worth tracking. I will include these in the “notable quotes” section below.