Monday, 29 August 2011

Art of the Novella Challenge: The DUELS - Chekhov vrs von Kleist

My next five novella reads will be the five "Duels" in which I'll pit one work against another and see which emerges victoriously as the last novella standing. 

First up is Anton Chekhov's Duel, translated by Margarita Shalina and first published in 1891. At one end of the field, we have Ivan Laevsky, a bored civil servant living in the Caucasus with Nadya, a married woman who has deserted her husband to run away with him. His days consist of gambling, borrowing money, and spending time moaning to his good friend Doctor Samoylenko about how he has fallen out of love and is desperate to leave the town and start over - alone. Nadya, also suffering from a restless malaise and romantic disappointment, begins flirting with the son of a shop owner she owes money to, and more dangerously, embarks on an unsatisfying affair with Kirlin, the town's chief of police. Other characters populating this drama are Von Koren, a zoologist and tenant of the doctor, who has read his Darwin a little too closely and thinks loafers such as Laevsky should be destroyed; Maria Kostantinova, a well-meaning hostess who nevertheless criticizes Nadya for her lifestyle in a tirade of entertaining and blunt language; and one of my favourite characters, the Deacon, a happy go-lucky religious man who wouldn't be caught publicly attending a duel, but thankfully, just can't stay away. There's despair and desperation, lies and lethargy and plenty of discussion about morality and mortality.
I'm hoping that one of the joys of reading these five duelling novellas will be in the suspense of either not knowing which characters will end up as opponents, how it will come about, or for those situations in which the participants are obvious, being surprised by the outcome.  Chekhov delivers deliciously on all counts, and I was very absorbed and engaged in this story.

Heinrich von Kleist's Duel, translated by Annie Janusch, was first published in 1810 but is set in the fourteenth century, and it took me back to undergrad days reading Chr├ętien de Troyes romances - at least in theme and plot if not in style. A Duke is murdered and suspicion falls on his half-brother, Count Jakob Rotbart. However he has a tight alibi; he spent the night with the beautiful and widowed Lady Littegarde who he had been courting unsuccessfully. He produces material proof and despite her protests of innocence, Littegarde's brothers denounce her and throw her out of their castle. She seeks the help of Sir Fredrich von Trota, one of her longest and ardent suitors, who promptly challenges Rotbart to a duel, or "trial by ordeal", wherein the outcome, decided by God, will be accepted as the indubitable truth. Only things don't go quite as planned.  This is a short novella so I won't reveal anymore, but it was a good fairytale adventure coupled with some ambiguous moral and religious questioning.  I enjoyed the fast paced plot and the melodrama of it all:

The battle now oscillated between the two fighters like two storm fronts swirling around each other - hurling and deflecting lightning bolts, towering above and rearing below the crack of heavy thunder.
So two very different types of duels, but for character development, atmosphere and the pure beauty of the prose, I have to go with the Chekhov.  Plus von Kleist loses points for always making sure Littegard had a "half-bared breast" at her moments of crisis and (while not the fault of von Kleist), there is a major mistake on the jacket flap copy (which is rare for Melville).

The victor for this joust is Chekhov!

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