By Jennifer Levasseur
As long as there are new audiences, novels will continue to speak. Lovers of literary quotes know that the most famous sentences can stand independent of their book’s plots and characters, making their own way into the personal mottos and mythologies of readers around the world.
I’ve found that often when I most need the comfort and escape of a novel—in times of grief, of uncertainty and anxiety—I’m too fragile and too distracted (perhaps too afraid of losing even more of myself) to fully enter a fictional landscape. But the result of this, of course, is that I feel even more disconnected from others without that constant conversation with people of different backgrounds, opposing views, challenging insights and alternate experiences. I don’t want to take my negative feelings into a much-loved book because I don’t want to infect or taint it. But I’m also finding it difficult to choose a new book. I don’t want to be a picky Goldilocks, but I’m leaning in that direction: this one is too light, this one too tough, another too topical, a fourth one too outrageous.
It’s time simply to pick one, something tried and stable from a respected writer. So, for no reason other than that he’s never disappointed me: Chekhov. But I won’t reread a story or play that holds the memory of a former me. It has to be something unknown. So here it is, a novella about a man who strives to be ordinary: “The Story of a Nobody.”
On the second page, a paragraph halts me. It contains the kind of nourishment I need and fear. I read it over and over, more concerned with the emotion that created it than with moving on with the story:
I do not know whether it was under the influence of the illness or of a change that was already under way, as yet unnoticed, in my outlook, but I was increasingly possessed from day to day by a passionate, nagging desire for the ordinary life of an ordinary person. I wanted peace of mind, health, good air, a full stomach. I was becoming a dreamer and, like a dreamer, did not know what it actually was that I needed. At times I wanted to retreat to a monastery, sit there for days on end by a window and gaze at the trees and fields; at other times I imagined myself buying a few acres of land and living like a country squire; at others I swore to myself that I would take up academic work and without fail become a professor at some provincial university. … I wanted to experience once more that inexpressible feeling when, while walking through a tropical forest or watching the sunset in the Bay of Bengal, you are transfixed in rapture, yet at the same time yearn for your homeland. I dreamed of mountains, women, music, and with curiosity, like a boy, I looked closely at faces and listened intently to voices. And when I stood by the door … I felt myself to be not a servant, but a man for whom everything in the world was of interest…
Chekhov first published this story in 1891. In the introduction to the 2002 edition, the translator, Hugh Aplin, writes, “One of the enduring attractions of Chekhov’s plays lies in their simultaneous illumination of both the specific problems of the Russia that he knew, and the universal questions that confront all who encounter the works. The same can be said of many of his short stories too…”
I still feel uncertain and, even, adrift, but it helps to know that this experience remains true throughout time. There’s an excitement intrinsic to the unknowable and a perfectly natural dialectic, one that calls for glorifying the exotic even while longing for the known.
That’s the comfort in literature: from 1891, Chekhov holds my hand and challenges me to remain honest as I move forward into the unknown.