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  • The Happiness of the Storyteller
  • David Weiss (bio)

My verse version of Chekhov's "The Student" goes:
First: fine weather, blackbirds,
and off in the swamp, some-
thing hooting as though
it were "blowing into an
empty bottle." A woodcock
whirrs by, vocalizing,
and a shot rings out in
     Then a hard
east wind comes up
silencing the meadow,
and with it come evening
and splinters of ice; the student
shoulders his gun, his cheeks
burn with the cold.
He calls to mind his father's
cough, his mother, barefoot
on the floor, polishing the
samovar, that it's Good
Friday, no dinner on the stove,
and as he walks the three [End Page 407]
miles to the village he thinks
bitterly: this same wind blew
in the time of Ivan the Terrible
and of Peter, the same hunger
and dire poverty, the same
ignorance and misery,
the same thatch roofs leaking;
in a thousand years it will be
no better, no different.
he reaches the widows'
gardens; a hot, crackling
fire broadcasts a glow
over the ploughed beds; he stops
to warm his hands and talk
with Vasilisa and her daughter
who's washing pots, the one
mistreated by her husband.
By just such a fire as this,
says the student, shivering,
did the Apostle Peter warm
his hands, on a night just
as dismal, and he begins
to tell the story of Peter
and his three denials; Peter
who is ready to follow Jesus
into prison, even into death:
Peter who, waking, sees
Jesus bound and beaten
terribly; Peter who follows,
behind, exhausted and confused,
certain that something awful
is about to happen on earth,
yet three times denies
knowing Christ before
the cock crows, and goes
"out of the courtyard [End Page 408]
and weeps bitterly." In the stillness
of the garden you can just
make out Peter's smothered
sobbing. Tears
come down Vasilisa's
smiling face and her daughter
stares at the student as
though holding back a terrible
    Firelight flickers over
a workman returning from
the river on horseback,
and the student takes his
leave of the women. The road
is cold, dark. Hard to believe
that Easter is two days away;
he looks back, the fire still
burning, no one in sight.
Vasilisa was crying,
he thinks, "it means that every-
thing that happened with
Peter on that dreadful
night has some relation
to her" and to her daughter
and to this village and to
him, too, and to all people;
what happened in Peter's
soul matters to her;
he crosses the river
striding toward the last
faint slash of sunset
he knows that what took place
nineteen centuries before
is going on unbroken
to this day—the truth and [End Page 409]
the beauty of it come
over him even as the wind
cuts through him: he is
only twenty-two, and life
seems wondrous, vast,
expectant. This is
happiness; it changes
not a thing, it isn't
a thing, yet nothing will
be the same. And it wasn't
the way he told it,
he tells himself, it
was the story itself,
the story itself.

Here, at the end of the story, emerges an understanding that surpasses the student's earlier social critique and and even the theology of Good Friday: real power, transformative power, lies in, or is exercised by, the story itself; its power is independent of the teller.

And it wasn't the way he told it, he tells himself, it was the story itself, the story itself.

So, anyway, "he tells himself." What's the evidence that this is true? The effect the story has on Vasilisa and her daughter. Not the words, but the drama. "Truth and beauty," Chekhov has the student think, an old pairing. For the student, the revelation is that a story can intervene in this way. Although, what a story does is the opposite of an intervention.

Not all stories have this efficacy. The first story we're told, which the student tells himself, is the centuries-long story of oppressive, unchanging life, and the effect on the student is embittering, although we might say that...


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pp. 407-413
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