Includes a new forward by the screenwriter Mary Bing
In Anton Chekhov’s The Duel the escalating animosity between two men with opposed philosophies of life is played out against the backdrop of a seedy resort on the Black Sea coast.
Laevsky is a dissipated romantic given to gambling and flirtation; he has run off with another man’s wife, the beautiful but vapid Nadya, and now finds himself tiring of her. The scientist von Koren is contemptuous of Laevsky; as a fanatical devotee of Darwin, von Koren believes the other man to be unworthy of survival and is further enraged by his treatment of Nadya. As the confrontation between the two becomes increasingly heated, it leads to a duel that is as comically inadvertent as it is inevitable. Masterfully translated by the award-winning Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, The Duel is one of the most subtle examples of Chekhov’s narrative art.
Together, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, translated works by Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Checkhov, and Gogol. They were twice awarded the PEN/Book-of-the-Month Club Translation Prize (for their versions of Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov and Tolstoy's Anna Karenina), and their translation of Dostoevsky's Demon was one of three nominees for the same prize. They are married and live in France.
it was eight o'clock in the morning-the time when officers, officials, and visitors, after a hot, sultry night, usually took a swim in the sea and then went to the pavilion for coffee or tea. Ivan Andreich Laevsky, a young man about twenty-eight years old, a lean blond, in the peaked cap of the finance ministry and slippers, having come to swim, found many acquaintances on the shore, and among them his friend the army doctor Samoilenko.
With a large, cropped head, neckless, red, big-nosed, with bushy black eyebrows and gray side-whiskers, fat, flabby, and with a hoarse military bass to boot, this Samoilenko made the unpleasant impression of a bully and a blusterer on every newcomer, but two or three days would go by after this first acquaintance, and his face would begin to seem remarkably kind, nice, and even handsome. Despite his clumsiness and slightly rude tone, he was a peaceable man, infinitely kind, good- natured, and responsible. He was on familiar terms with everybody in town, lent money to everybody, treated everybody, made matches, made peace, organized picnics, at which he cooked shashlik and prepared a very tasty mullet soup; he was always soliciting and interceding for someone and always rejoicing over something. According to general opinion, he was sinless and was known to have only two weaknesses: first, he was ashamed of his kindness and tried to mask it with a stern gaze and an assumed rudeness; and second, he liked it when medical assistants and soldiers called him "Your Excellency," though he was only a state councillor.
"Answer me one question, Alexander Davidych," Laevsky began, when the two of them, he and Samoilenko, had gone into the water up to their shoulders. "Let's say you fell in love with a woman and became intimate with her; you lived with her, let's say, for more than two years, and then, as it happens, you fell out of love and began to feel she was a stranger to you. How would you behave in such a case?"
"Very simple. Go, dearie, wherever the wind takes you- and no more talk."
"That's easy to say! But what if she has nowhere to go? She's alone, no family, not a cent, unable to work . . ."
"What, then? Fork her out five hundred, or twenty-five a month-and that's it. Very simple."
"Suppose you've got both the five hundred and the twenty-five a month, but the woman I'm talking about is intelligent and proud. Can you possibly bring yourself to offer her money? And in what form?"
Samoilenko was about to say something, but just then a big wave covered them both, then broke on the shore and noisily rolled back over the small pebbles. The friends went ashore and began to dress.
"Of course, it's tricky living with a woman if you don't love her," Samoilenko said, shaking sand from his boot. "But Vanya, you've got to reason like a human being. If it happened to me, I wouldn't let it show that I'd fallen out of love, I'd live with her till I died."
He suddenly felt ashamed of his words. He caught himself and said:
"Though, for my part, there's no need for women at all. To the hairy devil with them!"
The friends got dressed and went to the pavilion. Here Samoilenko was his own man, and they even reserved a special place for him. Each morning a cup of coffee, a tall cut glass of ice water, and a shot of brandy were served to him on a tray. First he drank the brandy, then the hot coffee, then the ice water, and all that must have been very tasty, because after he drank it, his eyes became unctuous, he smoothed his sidewhiskers with both hands, and said, looking at the sea:
"An astonishingly magnificent view!"
After a long night spent in cheerless, useless thoughts, which kept him from sleeping and seemed to increase the sultriness and gloom of the night, Laevsky felt broken and sluggish. Swimming and coffee did not make him any better.
"Let's continue our conversation, Alexander Davidych," he said. "I won't conceal it, I'll tell you frankly, as a friend: things are bad between Nadezhda Fyodorovna and me, very bad! Excuse me for initiating you into my secrets, but I need to speak it out."
Samoilenko, who anticipated what the talk would be about, lowered his eyes and started tapping his ﬁngers on the table.
"I've lived with her for two years and fallen out of love . . ." Laevsky went on. "That is, more precisely, I've realized that there has never been any love...These two years were a delusion."
Laevsky had the habit, during a conversation, of studying his pink palms attentively, biting his nails, or crumpling his cuffs with his fingers. And he was doing the same now.
"I know perfectly well that you can't help me," he said, "but I'm talking to you because, for our kind, luckless fellows and superfluous men, talk is the only salvation. I should generalize my every act, I should find an explanation and a justification of my absurd life in somebody's theories, in literary types, in the fact, for instance, that we noblemen are degenerating, and so on... Last night, for instance, I comforted myself by thinking all the time: ah, how right Tolstoy is, how pitilessly right! And that made it easier for me. The fact is, brother, he's a great writer! Whatever they say."
Samoilenko, who had never read Tolstoy and was preparing every day to read him, got embarrassed and said:
"Yes, other writers all write from the imagination, but he writes straight from nature."
"My God," sighed Laevsky, "the degree to which we're crippled by civilization! I fell in love with a married woman, and she with me . . . In the beginning it was all kisses, and quiet evenings, and vows, and Spencer, and ideals, and common interests...What a lie! Essentially we were running away from her husband, but we lied to ourselves that we were running away from the emptiness of our intelligentsia life. We pictured our future like this: in the beginning, in the Caucasus, while we acquaint ourselves with the place and the people, I'll put on my uniform and serve, then, once we're free to do so, we'll acquire a piece of land, we'll labor in the sweat of our brow, start a vineyard, fields, and so on. If it were you or that zoologist friend of yours, von Koren, instead of me, you'd live with Nadezhda Fyodorovna for maybe thirty years and leave your heirs a rich vineyard and three thousand acres of corn, while I felt bankrupt from the first day. The town is unbearably hot, boring, peopleless, and if you go out to the fields, you imagine venomous centipedes, scorpions, and snakes under every bush and stone, and beyond the ﬁelds there are mountains and wilderness. Alien people, alien nature, a pathetic culture-all that, brother, is not as easy as strolling along Nevsky in a fur coat, arm in arm with Nadezhda Fyodorovna, and dreaming about warm lands. What's needed here is a fight to the death, and what sort of ﬁghter am I? A pathetic neurasthenic, an idler... From the very first day, I realized that my thoughts about a life of labor and a vineyard weren't worth a damn. As for love, I must tell you that to live with a woman who has read Spencer and followed you to the ends of the earth is as uninteresting as with any Anﬁsa or Akulina. The same smell of a hot iron, powder, and medications, the same curling papers every morning, and the same self-delusion..."
"You can't do without an iron in the household," said Samoilenko, blushing because Laevsky was talking to him so openly about a lady he knew. "I notice you're out of sorts today, Vanya. Nadezhda Fyodorovna is a wonderful, educated woman, you're a man of the greatest intelligence . . . Of course, you're not married," said Samoilenko, turning to look at the neighboring tables, "but that's not your fault, and besides...one must be without prejudices and stand on the level of modern ideas. I myself stand for civil marriage, yes...But in my opinion, once you're together, you must go on till death."
"I'll explain to you presently," said Samoilenko. "Some eight years ago there was an agent here, an old man of the greatest intelligence. And this is what he used to say: the main thing in family life is patience. Do you hear, Vanya? Not love but patience. Love can't last long. You lived in love for two years, but now evidently your family life has entered the period when, to preserve the balance, so to speak, you must put all your patience to use . . ."
"You believe your old agent, but for me his advice is meaningless. Your old man could play the hypocrite, he could exercise patience and at the same time look at the unloved person as an object necessary for his exercise, but I haven't fallen so low yet. If I feel a wish to exercise my patience, I'll buy myself some dumbbells or a restive horse, but the person I'll leave in peace."
Samoilenko ordered white wine with ice. When they had each drunk a glass, Laevsky suddenly asked:
"Tell me, please, what does softening of the brain mean?"
"It's . . . how shall I explain to you? . . . a sort of illness, when the brains become softer... thin out, as it were."
"Yes, if the illness hasn't been neglected. Cold showers, Spanish ﬂy...Well, something internal."
"So...So you see what my position is like. Live with her I cannot: it's beyond my strength. While I'm with you, I philosophize and smile, but at home I completely lose heart. It's so creepy for me that if I were told, let's say, that I had to live with her for even one more month, I think I'd put a bullet in my head. And at the same time, it's impossible to break with her. She's alone, unable to work, I have no money, and neither does she . . . What will she do with herself ? Who will she go to? I can't come up with anything ...Well, so tell me: what's to be done?"
"Mm-yes . . ." growled Samoilenko, not knowing how to reply. "Does she love you?"
"Yes, she loves me to the extent that, at her age and with her temperament, she needs a man. It would be as hard for her to part with me as with powder or curling papers. I'm a necessary component of her boudoir."
Samoilenko was embarrassed.
"You're out of sorts today, Vanya," he said. "You must have slept badly."
"Yes, I did . . . Generally, brother, I feel lousy. My head's empty, my heartbeat's irregular, there's some sort of weakness . . . I've got to escape!"
"There, to the north. To the pines, to the mushrooms, to people, to ideas...I'd give half my life to be somewhere in the province of Moscow or Tula right now, swimming in a little river, getting chilled, you know, then wandering around for a good three hours with the worst of students, chattering away...And the smell of hay! Remember? And in the evenings, when you stroll in the garden, the sounds of a piano come from the house, you hear a train going by . . ."
Laevsky laughed with pleasure, tears welled up in his eyes, and, to conceal them, he reached to the next table for matches without getting up.
"And it's eighteen years since I've been to Russia," said Samoilenko. "I've forgotten how it is there. In my opinion, there's no place in the world more magniﬁcent than the Caucasus."
"Vereshchagin has a painting: two men condemned to death languish at the bottom of a deep well. Your magniﬁcent Caucasus looks to me exactly like that well. If I were offered one of two things, to be a chimney sweep in Petersburg or a prince here, I'd take the post of chimney sweep."
Laevsky fell to thinking. Looking at his bent body, at his eyes ﬁxed on one spot, at his pale, sweaty face and sunken temples, his bitten nails, and the slipper run down at the heel, revealing a poorly darned sock, Samoilenko was ﬁlled with pity and, probably because Laevsky reminded him of a helpless child, asked:
"Is your mother living?" "Yes, but she and I have parted ways. She couldn't forgive me this liaison."
Samoilenko liked his friend. He saw in Laevsky a good fellow, a student, an easygoing man with whom one could have a drink and a laugh and a heart-to-heart talk. What he understood in him, he greatly disliked. Laevsky drank a great deal and not at the right time, played cards, despised his job, lived beyond his means, often used indecent expressions in conversation, went about in slippers, and quarreled with Nadezhda Fyodorovna in front of strangers-and that Samoilenko did not like. But the fact that Laevsky had once been a philology student, now subscribed to two thick journals, often spoke so cleverly that only a few people understood him, lived with an intelligent woman-all this Samoilenko did not understand, and he liked that, and he considered Laevsky above him, and respected him.
"One more detail," said Laevsky, tossing his head. "Only this is between you and me. So far I've kept it from Nadezhda Fyodorovna, don't blurt it out in front of her ...Two days
ago I received a letter saying that her husband has died of a softening of the brain." "God rest his soul . . ." sighed Samoilenko. "Why are you keeping it from her?"
"To show her this letter would mean: let's kindly go to church and get married. But we have to clarify our relations ﬁrst. Once she's convinced that we can't go on living together, I'll show her the letter. It will be safe then."
"You know what, Vanya?" said Samoilenko, and his face suddenly assumed a sad and pleading expression, as if he was about to ask for something very sweet and was afraid he would be refused. "Marry her, dear heart!"
"Fulﬁll your duty before that wonderful woman! Her husband has died, and so Providence itself is showing you what to do!"
"But understand, you odd fellow, that it's impossible. To marry without love is as mean and unworthy of a human being as to serve a liturgy without believing."
"But it's your duty!"
"Why is it my duty?" Laevsky asked with annoyance.
"Because you took her away from her husband and assumed responsibility for her." "But I'm telling you in plain Russian: I don't love her!" "Well, so there's no love, then respect her, indulge her . . ." "Respect her, indulge her . . ." Laevsky parroted. "As if she's a mother superior...You're a poor psychologist and physiologist if you think that, living with a woman, you can get by with nothing but deference and respect. A woman needs the bedroom ﬁrst of all."