When Tolstoy told Anton Chekhov his plays were “worse than Shakespeare’s”, he meant it insultingly. But the forbidding old maestro, with his eccentric tastes and his nebulous beard, his old-testament gaze that seemed like it could stretch and take in everything from Kaliningrad to Vladivostok, nevertheless knew good prose when he saw it, and he saw it in his compatriot’s fiction, over and over and (with perhaps alarming consistency) over again. Curiously, one of his favourites was ‘The Malefactor’, an early four-page little piece which consists entirely of a peasant standing before a judge, failing to articulate a defence for having committed ‘an act of injury to the railroad’, i.e. for having unscrewed a nut from the tracks.
War and Peace this isn’t, and even by the scope and size of the classic Russian short story ‘The Malefactor’ feels slight – little more than a sketch, really. Yet there is a familiar Chekhovian warmth, and comedy, and sadness, that emerges out of the simplicity of its arrangement and the interplay of its voices.
I say ‘voices’ because the story is something like 95% dialogue (Chekhov the prose stylist and Chekhov the (sub-Shakespearean) playwright are seldom so closely aligned as they are in his early period). The first voice belongs to the examining magistrate, the familiar voice of the establishment and of the law: solemn, antiquated, weary, intimidating; at the same time decent and thoughtful and open to reason. The second belongs to Denis Grigoriev, a ridiculous and simpleminded country fool, the kind Gogol would have devoted hysterical reams to. His speech is peppered with repetitions, clichés, digressions, superstitious peasantisms, and, also, tends oddly towards the royal ‘we’ – as in “not only have we never killed anybody, we have never even thought of it.” To a modern reader, this probably seems a little too easy a formula for success (“put incoherent fool before judge, wait for social comedy to ensue”), not unlike, say, that of the emperor wandering around his capital in disguise to see what his subjects really think of him (a variation of which Chekhov actually used in a story called ‘Murder Will Out’), and, if I can leap a little down the cultural ladder, not a million miles off the mother-in-law staying for the weekend, or the meek paper-pusher getting stuck in an elevator with his obnoxious boss. Chekhov, though, possessed a kind of instinctual mistrust of the formulaic, and what gives ‘The Malefactor’ its striking sense of believability, of truth, is the authentic weirdness of its two clashing voices.
Denis, ‘a tiny, very thin little peasant’ is standing barefoot before a judge. He is told to come forward and listen to the charge that has been brought against him. The judge speaks:
While patrolling the track on the seventh of last July, Ivan Akinfoff, the railroad watchman, found you at the one hundred and forty-first verst unscrewing one of the nuts that fasten the rails to the ties. Here is the nut you had when he arrested you. Is this true?
To this unambiguous and pristinely worded statement the possibly hard-of-hearing Denis responds “What’s that?” He will go on to repeat the phrase several more times, in a kind of ludicrous and increasingly funny refrain (Chekhov is delicate enough to smuggle in the theme of mutual miscommunication via the idiosyncrasies of his characters rather than, as a postmodernist might, through a strictly imposed, top-down rubric). So, the judge goes on:
‘Did everything happen as Akinfoff reports?’
‘Yes; just as he reports.’
‘Very well. Now, what was your object in unscrewing that nut?’
‘Stop your “what’s that?” and answer my question. Why did you unscrew that nut?’
Jauntily Denis explains that he unscrewed the nut because he needed it for fishing; a nut, which is ‘heavy and has a hole in it’, makes for a perfect sinker. As he rambles on about the relative inferiority of ‘shiners’ and ‘roaches’, two things become clear – that in his time he’s taken several nuts from the tracks, and, more importantly, that he considers it something like his right to take them, as if he were picking wild berries from a bush. At one point, in fact, he actually mentions a bush: “Lead does not grow on every bush; it has to be bought, and a nail wouldn’t do. There is nothing so good to make a weight of as a nut.’ In the uneducated, impoverished peasant’s mind, all of this modern effluvia – all these trains and traintracks and the nuts that hold them together – are taken for granted, just as nature and weather is taken for granted. Modernity is something that ‘happens’, unassailably, the way snow just happens. In the end, the peasant pays for his ignorance. He is sentenced and taken away to prison. Before he is escorted out of the courtroom, he offers a final, absurd plea: “How do you mean – to prison? Your honour, I haven’t time! I have to go to the fair to collect three roubles that Gregory owes me for tallow.”
To speak of Chekhov in terms of grand themes and clever motifs is to mischaracterize him. He is a writer for whom the oddities of speech and the dingy splendour of half-captured details are always privileged above larger designs. Even in an early story such as this, which lacks the soulful exactitude of his mature work, he is discernibly working through the fixations of his literary fathers, getting towards his own unique style, which we might describe as a cool blend of the judger and the judged. Dostoevsky might well have envisioned the railroad with its missing nuts as a grand unifying metaphor for Russia’s fragile unity, but the peasant who declares, tragically, hilariously, that he hasn’t time to go to prison – that is pure Chekhov.
A few years after his friend’s death, Tolstoy wrote “Chekhov intended to curse, but the god of poetry commanded him to bless.” As a serious explanation for this writer’s exquisitely felt humanity, it is opaque and evasive and not very helpful. As an attempt to lay hold of his art and its essence, the words of il miglior fabbro are the best I have yet found.