Oh. My. God.
As you might expect from a book hoarder, I have several very large short story anthologies. And, I have Chekhov’s Lady With the Dog story in three different translations.
I have read The Lady With the Dog before and found it to be a big snooze. This time I found it rather captivating. Quick to blame myself, I think: have I changed? Is it me?
I took one of the anthologies to work with me today, thinking that I would analyze the story over my lunch hour. It didn’t happen as I got into a discussion about a trip to Yellowstone National Park.
This evening when I returned home, I left the book in the car, and too lazy to go downstairs and get it, I simply picked up another version of the story in a different book.
The first sentence was startling:
“The talk was that a new face had appeared on the embankment: a lady with a little dog.”
I got this mental image of a face on an embankment. Very odd. Then the phrase after the colon indicates that the face is “a lady with a little dog.” This struck me as odd too and momentarily gave me a startling image as well.
The translation that captivated my attention began like this:
“People were telling one another that a newcomer had been seen on the promenade—a lady with a dog.”
“Promenade” seems the better choice than “embankment.” “Newcomer” seems to me the better choice than “face”—although, I admit that “face” is understandable. You also get the idea of people gossiping, which foreshadows the content of the story. It’s a much better beginning.
OK, but what kind of dog was it? One translation has “Pomeranian” while the other says “spitz.” I haven’t lost my mind have I? A Pomeranian is not a Spitz!
For all the Russian books I hauled back with me from Russia, not one of them is a collection of stories by Chekhov, meaning that it is very likely that my Pomeranian/Spitz conundrum will go unsolved.
Anyway, The Lady With the Dog is aptly named, as opposed to The Lady AND the Dog, because the dog only makes a brief appearance. This story might have been named The Lady and the Scammer, The Lady and the Player, etc. The dog turns out to only have one line: “Grrrrr.”
Or, if we could stretch the word “dog” a bit, the dog could have been Dmitry Dmitrich Gurov, the protagonist and adulterer. While one translation has the story as The Lady with the Little Dog, the other simply has Dog (not little). But I don’t know that Russians call men who misbehave “dogs” as Americans tend to do.
I will note that the translation that appealed to me was by Ivy Litvinov. Kudos to Ivy!
Our protagonist, Dmitry, has gone to Yalta and spotted the young beautiful Anna Sergeyevna Von Diederitz, who has come to Yalta alone. He decides to make her acquaintance in order to get to know her.
Dmitry is much older than Anna. He has a disdain for women and considers them the lower race: “their beauty aroused nothing but repulsion, and the lace trimming on their underclothes reminded him of fish scales.”
But he is still drawn to them.
“One evening, then, while he was dining at the restaurant in the park, the lady in the toque came strolling up and took a seat at a neighboring table. Her expression, gait, dress, coiffure, all told him that she was from the upper classes, that she was married, that she was in Yalta for the first time, alone and bored…”
“But when the lady sat down at a neighboring table a few yards away from him, these stories of easy conquests, of excursions to the mountains, came back to him, and the seductive idea of a brisk transitory liaison, an affair with a woman whose very name he did not know, suddenly took possession of his mind.”
The concise way Chekhov has of summing people up is impressive. We get an interesting sense of Dmitry’s wife when we learn that she omits the hard sign at the ends of words. The other translator relates this detail as “using the new orthography.” Boring. ZZZZZ. The rest of the story, as you might imagine, is kind of sad and disgusting, as stories of betrayal are bound to be. But on second thought, maybe “the new orthography” goes a step further to describe his wife as with the times, or progressive? Either way, this little fact simply stated tells us that there is a fundamental difference between Dmitry and his wife. He is apart from her in a fundamental way, and perhaps their marriage isn’t a very happy one.
I could not figure out Dmitry. He was hot and cold throughout, which I suppose was intentional. That’s how this type of guy tends to be. So maybe as a character study, this story is quite valuable indeed.
The end, which I won’t ruin for you, left me bewildered. But I suppose I understand it if I accept that Dmitry has at last fallen in love. But that’s the problem. I can’t see why. Why now? Because he has gotten old? This isn’t believable to me. I don’t see an old player reforming.
“His head was beginning to turn gray. And it seemed strange to him that he had aged so much in those last years, had lost so much of his good looks…Why did she love him so? Women had always taken him to be other than he was, and they had loved in him, not himself, but a man their imagination created, whom they greedily sought all their lives; and then, when they had noticed their mistake, they had still loved him. And not one had been happy with him.”
Interesting. And sad. A cautionary tale?
I feel for Dmitry. I want him to heal. I want him to be happy. It doesn’t have to be with Anna. I’m certain there is good in him, even if Chekhov doesn’t reveal it.