- "The Joy of The Rus'":Literature and Food
It took me many years of reading Chekhov to realize how obsessed he was with food. His stories move so quickly, are so packed with non-comestible detail and psychic complexity, it's easy to miss how often and what his people are eating; and—although passionate in character and rhetoric—the narratives, long and short, are bereft of animal pleasures, and if those pleasures are present, they're assigned to a character who is either a pig, a fool, or a jerk, like the asinine brother in "Gooseberries," gorging on a dish of his homegrown sour fruit. Yes, there is some banqueting in "Lady with a Lapdog," and a fair quantity of tea, vodka, and kvass (the Russian beer made of black bread), but the reader doesn't get the kind of gustatory tease to be found in, say, Hemingway's Paris. But, look again, and the Chekhovian world, dismal and bleak as it is, is rich in food, both appealing and not. Even in as dark a story as "Ward Six," where one woebegone character drags another—through the force of pure argument—into a hellish mental ward, time is taken out to describe the delectable snacks Dr. Ragin savors as he reads into the night. The passion this lazy medic evinces for his glass of vodka and pickled cucumber is a solitary and singular one. The doctor has time to read and enjoy his snack because he's given up practicing medicine to practice an epicureanism based on the following: since we're all going to die anyway, why bother treating the sick?
"In the Ravine," an even bleaker tale, where a jealous stepmother kills a baby with boiling water, what people remember about this village, sunk in a poisonous pit, is not its ugliness or inbred criminality, but the day when "the verger ate all the caviar," four pounds to be [End Page 88] exact. "The old verger spotted caviar among the hors d'oeuvres and began to eat it; they pushed him, pulled him by the sleeve, but he was as if frozen with pleasure; he felt nothing and simply ate."
In his last week on earth, the saintly, moribund cleric in "The Bishop" is distracted in his urgent attempts to sum up the meaning of his life, by his mother, nattering in the next room, "'so we said our prayers, and had tea,'" and yet again, "'we drank a glass of tea' as if all she ever did in her life was drink tea." This, in a story that turns on the mother's failure to see in this lofty church figure the little son, longing for a maternal farewell.
Perhaps, the most memorable instance—if not intrusion—of food occurs at a critical moment in "Lady with the Lapdog," when Gurov, after making adulterous love to Anna Sergeyevna, is offended by her effusions of guilt. "Her features drooped and faded, and her long hair hung down sadly on both sides of her face, she sat pondering in a dejected pose, like a sinful woman in an old painting."
So, what does Gurov do?
"There was a watermelon on the table in the hotel room. Gurov cut himself a slice and unhurriedly began to eat it. At least half an hour passed in silence."
Now, there's a chance that—with this insertion of food—Chekhov was following his own diktat for presenting in his fiction real life instead of idle dreams. In a letter chiding his elder brother, Alexander (also a writer), on his love scene, Anton (age 23) writes:
One of your stories is about a young married couple who go through a whole meal doing nothing but kissing each other. . . . You wrote this because you enjoy this sort of aimless babbling. But if you were to describe the meal, the kind of food, how they ate it, what the cook was like, if you were to show the vulgarity of your hero who is so pleased with his idle happiness, your heroine's vulgarity and absurd love for her overfed, benapkined, stuffed goose of a husband. . . . You need something...