Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Double Life

Kate has begun a once a month short story reading group at A Curious Singularity. Our first story, due today, is Chekhov's Lady with the Dog. At first I wasn't sure what to make of the story. It is told from the limited third person perspective of Dmitri Dmitrich Gurov. Gurov is an upper middle-class man in his late 30s who is married with children. He works at a bank and is in Yalta, without the wife and kids, for a little vacation. Right off he does not strike me as a nice man. He blames dissatisfaction with life on his wife and women in general it seems, but also admits that he needs them. He even prefers their company to that of men and considers himself a bit of a lady's man. Suddenly in Yalta appears a woman with a dog, strolling on the promenade all alone. No one knows who she is. Gurov contrives to meet her and then decides he will have a fling with her. But he gets more than he bargains for--he falls in love. But Anna is married too and after a few weeks her husband summons her back to the town of S where they live and both Anna and Gurov, heartbroken at their parting, know the relationship is over. But Gurov has to go and "ruin" it by showing up in the town of S where Anna lives because he can't bear to be apart from her any longer. So their affair begins again. They can't keep going on like they are and eventually they reach a point where they need to make a decision. That's where the story ends. Because I didn't like Gurov I imagined all kinds of things as I read. He was cruel and heartless, seducing an innocent woman. But then Anna at one point didn't seem so innocent either, or rather, she appeared to be playing at innocence and I thought, "Oh-ho, she's pulling the wool over his eyes!" But then it became clear that both of them were honestly in love which brought an abrupt end to my imagined intrigues. What the story seems to be about to me is finding the real self beneath all the outer show and lies. As their parting nears, Gurov tries to distance himself emotionally from Anna by trying to convince himself that she doesn't know the real him:

She had insisted in calling him good, remarkable, high-minded. Evidently he had appeared to her different from his real self, in a word he had involuntarily deceived her. . . .
But it doesn't work. After he gets back home to Moscow he can't stop thinking about her. He realizes their relationship was actually an honest one, perhaps the only honest relationship in his life:
What savage manners, what people! What wasted evenings, what tedious, empty days! Frantic card-playing, gluttony, drunkenness, perpetual talk always about the same thing. The greater part of one's time and energy went on business that was no use to anyone, and on discussing the same thing over and over again, and there was nothing to show for it all but a stunted wingless existence and a round of trivialities, and there was nowhere to escape to, you might as well be in a madhouse or a convict settlement.
He realizes he, and everyone else, is leading a double life:
He led a double life--one in public, in the sight of all whom it concerned, full of conventional truth and conventional deception, exactly like the lives of his friends and acquaintances, and another which flowed in secret. And, owing to some strange, possibly quite accidental chain of circumstances, everything that was important, interesting, essential, everything about which he was sincere and never deceived himself, everything that composed the kernel of his life, went on in secret, while everything that was false in him, everything that composed the husk in which he hid himself and the truth which was in him-his work at the bank, discussions at the club, his "lower race," his attendance at anniversary celebrations with his wife-was on the surface
Anna is going through the same thing. The story ends with the two of them not yet arriving at a decision, but knowing they had to be together. At last they were going to be honest with themselves, with each other, with the people in their lives, knowing that it is going to be hard and complicated, but also worth it. I like that.