I began to look through my books on hand to see what I could read for the challenge. I wanted to pick something worthy of the challenge. At first I thought I would read Hard Boiled by one of my favorite Japanese writers, Banana Yoshimoto as I wanted to read it soon and I could include it among my reviews for the Japanese Literature 3 Challenge. I decided I should give this new challenge the respect of dedicating a work to it only. I saw The Complete Short Novels of Anton Chekhov, translated by Richard Peavear and Larissa Volokhonsky (2005-Vintage Press-originals from 1888 to 1896). In early in 2008 I read two novellas from this collection. "The Steppes" is a simply wonderful account of a journey across the great steepes of late 19th century Russian by a young noble boy of 12 or so who is being escorted to a boarding school by two of the family servants. The trip is very long. All sorts of dangers are encountered and imagined. We really get the feel of just how huge the Russian steppes must have felt to those who traveled through them in the late 19th century. We also see class struggles, stay at some pretty scary inns, eat some very strange to me food, and feel some real fear at night in he total blackness of the steppes. I also read "The Story of an Unknown Man", a very sharply observed study in bad faith about a man who becomes a servant on a rich family so he can spy on them to aid those wishing to overthrow the Czarist system.
Once I read these lines at the opening of "My Life" in which he describes his early job experience I knew I would enjoy reading it.
As the story begins Misail, the son of an architect from a noble family in small town Russia in the 1890s decided, to the horror of his father, that it is morally imperative that he become a laborer. His father threatens to disown him for this. In the introduction to the collection Richard Prevear says that the story can be seen as in part a reaction to Tolstoy's belief that the true virtue of Russia resided in its peasants.
The story is told in the first person by Misail. We see the real difficulties he has in moving from the life of a pampered son of a noble man to the life of a common laborer. As he adjusts he discovers that the corruption which so offended him in the upper echelons of society are mirrored at its lowest levels. The noble worker might be seen as a myth believed in by sons of noblemen whose leisure time to reflect is built on the backs of the very peasants they idealize, without every knowing one. There are some philosophical and political debates between characters in My Life however they do not go on forever. The conversations in the work are long enough to be interesting but not long enough to lose credibility as an actual conversation between real people.
We get a good look at life in small town Russia as Misail goes through a number of jobs. (He is not very good at holding onto a job.) He has romances with three very different women. His father tries to scare him back to respectability with the Czarist secret police. We get to know his sister. We learn how painting contracts were completed and how one got a job as a clerk on the railroad. The characters are well done and the narrative is well paced. The narrator is not a complaining son of a noble. Maybe his decision was not the right one but he makes the best of it and gets on with his life.
I liked this novella a lot. There are no very long meditative interludes, no thirty pages conversations about the meaning of life ( I am not saying these things are bad and in the right hands they are great but we do not always feel like them!). My Life is not Russian Lit Lite. It is a work of art that will pay us back well for the time we invest in it. To me it is classic work of literature that all can enjoy.