The other day as I was writing about Gooseberries, my second favorite Chekhov story, I revisited my first favorite Chekhov story as well, because I suspected that the protagonist of each story shared the same name (they do). I was delighted, delighted, to discover how much else the stories had in common, and a little ashamed that I’d never noticed all of this before. And then I started to take note of the differences as well, all the more remarkable in face of the similarities.
They both begin with a man named Ivan walking through fields in moody weather towards the close of day.
Ivan Velikopolsky, the son of a sacristan, and a student of the clerical academy, returning home from shooting, kept walking on the path by the water-logged meadows. His fingers were numb and his face was burning with the wind. It seemed to him that the cold that had suddenly come on had destroyed the order and harmony of things, that nature itself felt ill at ease, and that was why the evening darkness was falling more rapidly than usual. All around it was deserted and peculiarly gloomy.
From early morning the sky had been overcast with clouds; the day was still, cool, and wearisome, as usual on grey, dull days when the clouds hang low over the fields and it looks like rain, which never comes. Ivan Ivanich, the veterinary surgeon, and Bourkin, the schoolmaster, were tired of walking and the fields seemed endless to them.
Both Ivans find a place to warm themselves, encounter people, and tell them stories. I told you all about Gooseberries last week, and I’ve talked about The Student in the past.
Both Ivans think of the poverty, ignorance and evilness of people as inevitable and eternal. Both are swayed by the weather. The fields that are dull and dispiriting in Gooseberries looked different in the spring, in the sunshine. “In the calm weather when all Nature seemed gentle and melancholy, Ivan Ivanich and Bourkin were filled with love for the fields and thought how grand and beautiful the country was.” And in The Student, Ivan’s mood shifts completely with the weather: “At first the weather was fine and still. The thrushes were calling…with a gay, resounding note in the spring air. But when it began to get dark in the forest a cold, penetrating wind blew inappropriately from the east, and everything sank into silence. Needles of ice stretched across the pools, and it felt cheerless, remote, and lonely in the forest.” And the cold weather brings on the depressed thoughts. “And now, shrinking from the cold, he thought that just such a wind had blown in the days of Rurik and in the time of Ivan the Terrible and Peter, and in their time there had been just the same desperate poverty and hunger, the same thatched roofs with holes in them, ignorance, misery, the same desolation around, the same darkness, the same feeling of oppression — all these had existed, did exist, and would exist, and the lapse of a thousand years would make life no better.”
But there are telling differences. In Gooseberries, Ivan has been trying to tell his tale since even before the story begins, since the last story in the trilogy. He has a sort of agenda and a message that he’s eager to share, but it keeps getting put off and interrupted. When the student stops at “the widows” he tells a story seemingly out of nowhere, almost surprising himself with the telling. And it’s a story from the Bible, one the widows tell him they’ve heard before.
And the stories are received very differently. The story Ivan had been waiting and wanting to tell in Gooseberries “…satisfied neither Bourkin nor Aliokhin. With the generals and ladies looking down from their gilt frames, seeming alive in the firelight, it was tedious to hear the story of a miserable official who ate gooseberries.” But the student’s story moves the widows to tears, “Still smiling, Vasilisa suddenly gave a gulp, big tears flowed freely down her cheeks, and she screened her face from the fire with her sleeve as though ashamed of her tears, and Lukerya, staring immovably at the student, flushed crimson, and her expression became strained and heavy like that of someone enduring intense pain.”
And Gooseberries ends with Ivan safe and warm in clean sheets, but unhappy and dissatisfied. And the student Ivan has a long trip home across the icy river by ferryboat–to a home with a barefoot mother sitting on the floor and a sick father coughing in his bed, but Ivan’s hopeful, he’s elated. Not just because it’s a good feeling to tell a story that people pay attention to and respond to, although certainly that’s a part of it. The student is moved by the widows’ reaction because that moment of connection and recognition travels throughout human history as surely as the ignorance and poverty do. “The old woman had wept, not because he could tell the story touchingly, but because Peter was near to her, because her whole being was interested in what was passing in Peter’s soul…And joy suddenly stirred in his soul, and he even stopped for a minute to take breath. ‘The past,’ he thought, ‘is linked with the present by an unbroken chain of events flowing one out of another.’ And it seemed to him that he had just seen both ends of that chain; that when he touched one end the other quivered. …and the inexpressible sweet expectation of happiness, of unknown mysterious happiness, took possession of him little by little, and life seemed to him enchanting, marvelous, and full of lofty meaning.”
And after days of rain and sleet with skies so heavy and grey they were barely distinguishable from the roofs of town, which are covered in feet of heavy grey snow, the sun shone brilliantly this morning. Sunshine on snow so bright is a pleasant confusion I can feel–a pricking behind my eyes, like tears or memories. I was thinking about these two Chekhov stories, and the thinking made me happy, and the sunshine made me happy, and the connection to Chekhov, to his characters, to his concerns and to the things I detected in his stories that I suspected he didn’t even know he was telling, seemed enchanting, marvelous, and full of lofty meaning.
This is a strange one for me. I do not now nor have I ever owned a Tears for Fears Album, but I had this strange memory of a song about mothers and weather I heard on the radio as a youth. Both probably more influential on our moods than we’d like to admit. I think this might be it:
This is a cake I’ve made before. You can pretty much put anything you like between the layers. I like raspberries I like almond and I like dark chocolate. So this worked out quite well. If you use regular roasted almonds obvs, it will be a darker frangipane. If you want it to be closer to the marzipan you remember from your youth, you’d use blanched slivered or sliced almonds, but you’re combining it with dark chocolate, so….
1 1/2 sticks butter (3/4 cup) softened
1 cup sugar
2 eggs beaten, 1 T reservered
1 t vanilla
1 t almond extract
2 cups flour
1 t baking powder
3/4 cups roasted almonds
1/3 cup sugar
1 T flour
3 1/2 T softened butter
1/2 t Almond Extract
1 T amaretto
!/2 cup raspberry jam
1 cup dark chocolate chips
Combine almonds, sugar, salt, and flour in a food processor and process till fairly finely ground. Add the remaining ingredients and process till smooth.
Preheat the oven to 350 and butter and flour an 8 or 9 inch cake pan.
Cream the butter with the sugar, beat in the eggs and essences. Add the dry ingredients and mix till you have a smooth dough. Chill for 1/2 hour or longer. Divide the dough into 2/3 and 1/3 balls. On a very floury surface, roll the 2/3 portion into a thick tablet, then press this into the pan and slightly up the sides. It doesn’t have to be extremely thin like a pie. you want it about an inch high on the edges, and maybe half an inch or less in the middle.
Spread the raspberry jam over the bottom of the pie, leaving about 1/3 inch on the edge all around. Scatter chocolate chips in an even layer over the jam. Spoon the frangipane over and smooth it out.
On the very floury surface roll the 1/3 ball of dough to be about the size of the cake pan. It will be quite soft and breakable, so don’t try this if you’re in a bad mood. Place it on top of the fillings and seal the edges with your fingers or a fork, then make a pretty pattern in the top. Brush the reserved egg over.
Bake for 30- 35 minutes until the cake is golden on top and firm to the touch. Let cool, slice, and eat.