The Duel (Movie Tie-in Edition) (Vintage Classics) - Anton Chekhov I picked up this version of The Duel on an impulse. I was shopping for a friend's Xmas gift and saw it on the shelf. I've wanted to read one of the Pevear translations - either Fyodor Dostoyevsky or Anton Chekhov - and compare them with the Magarshack and Garnett translations.

Why The Duel?

I have to admit that it was the cover. I fear that I am quite smitten with the young woman depicted (presumably Nadezhda), and look forward to seeing the upcoming movie. (Yes - gasp - I can be that shallow.)

The story itself is set in an unnamed Caucasian seaport and revolves around Ivan Laevsky and Nadezhda Fyodorovna. The former is a dissolute nobleman full of Romantic rubbish that justifies his ennui and his plans to abandon his lover. Nadezhda is a beautiful young woman, well educated for her class, sex and time, who married a man she didn't love and has run away with Laevsky, overwhelmed by his charms, his promises and his unrealistic dreams. Two years later, Laevsky has grown out of love with Nadya and plans to leave her but retains enough of a moral sense to agonize over how to do it with the least pain. Nadya, too, feels frustrated and trapped but she still loves Laevsky, and blames herself for their difficulties. Her frustration, indeed, has led to a brief affair with the town's police chief, Kirilin, who refuses to accept that the affair is over and forces Nadya to sleep with him. (Reflecting, I think Kirilin is one of the most odious characters in Chekhov's oeuvre.)

Around these two is a cast of characters, including Samoilenko, a physician and Laevsky's friend. He's not so naive as to be ignorant of Laevsky's weaknesses but he chooses to ignore them. And there are Pobedev and von Koren. Pobedev is a deacon and a friend to both Samoilenko and von Koren. The last is a zoologist, social Darwinist and the second man in the duel of the story's title. He despises Laevsky for his laziness, faux intellectualism and weakness, as he does Nadya for her uselessness. On top of that, Laevsky and Nadya scandalize the community by living together openly as man and wife (unlike proper adulterers who try to remain discreet and show the proper guilt for their sin). The only family that receives them are the Bitiugovs, whose matriarch, Marya Konstantinovna, is a good-hearted woman who takes pity on Nadya.

Two of the several many reasons I read Chekhov are the realistic (if oft times depressing) depiction of human relationships - "the idea enters into no relationship with the ideas of others; each consciousness is isolated and impenetrable; there is a polyphony of voices, but no dialogue; there is compassion, but no communion" (p. xvi) - and Chekhov's "irrational intuition that there is meaning and beauty in the cosmos" (p. xiii).

The Duel is a perfect illustration of these two points. None of the characters ever speak to each other. They continually talk past each other, wrapped up in their own miseries and passions. Despite that, however, the lovers somehow find a measure of peace, happiness and meaning in their lives.

I quote two passages from the book that particularly struck me. The first occurs after Laevsky discovers Nadya and Kirilin together but before he goes off to the duel:

"She suddenly jumped and sat up in bed. Raising her pale face and looking with terror at Laevsky, she asked:

`Is that you? Is the thunderstorm over?'

`It's over.'

She remembered, put her hands to her head, and her whole body shuddered.

`It's so hard for me!' she said. `If you only knew how hard it is for me! I was expecting you to kill me,' she went on, narrowing her eyes, `or to drive me out of the house into the rain and the storm, but you put it off ... put it off...'

He embraced her impulsively and tightly, covered her knees and hands with kisses, then, as she murmured something to him and shuddered from her memories, he smoothed her hair and, peering into her face, understood that this unfortunate, depraved woman was the only person who was close, dear, and irreplaceable to him.

When he left the house and was getting into the carriage, he wanted to come back home alive."
(pp. 103-104)

The second comes from the end of the story as Laevsky watches a boat taking von Koren away to his long anticipated expedition to Siberia:

"`The boat is thrown back,' he thought, `it makes two steps forward and one step back, but the oarsmen are stubborn, they work the oars tirelessly and do not fear the high waves. The boat goes on and on, now it can no longer be seen, and in half an hour the oarsmen will clearly see the seamer's lights, and in an hour they'll already be by the steamer's ladder. So it is in life ... In search of the truth, people make two steps forward and one step back. Sufferings, mistakes, and the tedium of life throw them back, but the thirst for truth and a stubborn will drive them on and on. And who knows? Maybe they'll row their way to the real truth...'" p. 123

Of the two translations, I prefer the Pevear by a hair's breadth. Overall, they're nearly identical but there are some important passages in the Pevear that read better to me than in the Garnett. The differences are minimal, however, and I'd recommend either.