Suggested reading: Two stories, Anton Chekhov and Jo Ann Beard

by Mary Gaitskill

These are beautiful stories about death. Much of their beauty comes from the authors’ matter-of-fact gentleness regarding the subject, the way they come to it with humility rather than horror or even much drama. Although Chekhov was ambivalent about traditional spirituality and Beard is an atheist, both stories quietly revere life and celebrate its phenomena, even when it is absurd, painful and starkly impersonal at the end.

Gusev was written in 1890. It is named after it’s main character, a poor, deeply ignorant soldier sick with consumption, on his way back to Russia in the hold of a ship with other dying men. Much of the story is taken up by his comically cross-purpose dialogue with another poor but educated man from a higher class. Although the style is realistic, the story blends mundane events and memories with literal dreams and fanciful images as the solid, understandable structures that create human meaning and sentiment (family, work) begin to internally break apart in inchoate pieces dominated by a powerful, implacable image wreathed in smoke. The story opens with Gusev musing about a boat “running over” a fish so big it destroys the boat, introducing the element of fantasy that, by the end, will have given way to a real fish situation. I won’t say more now in case you (hopefully) want to read the story before going further—it’s only 13 pages! … (continue at Substack)

Published by Massimo

Massimo is the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York. He blogs at and He is the author of How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life.

One thought on “Suggested reading: Two stories, Anton Chekhov and Jo Ann Beard

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: