Anton Chekhov: The Black Monk aka Чёрный монах (1894) and Peasants aka Мужики (1897) Stories

The Black Monk (Penguin 60s)

Unlike Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky, Chekhov isn’t known for his novels but for his short stories and his theater plays. Some people believe that there has never been a finer short story writer than him. I agree, he is an accomplished writer and reading him is a real joy. I had this little Penguin book containing The Black Monk and Peasants for years now but never got around to reading it.

I have read many of Chekhov’s stories and I’m well aware that he was someone who was interested in the fate of the Russian peasant and the poor, nevertheless I don’t think I have ever read anything by him that was as bleak as these two stories.

They are very different but there is a common topic in those stories which is illness. Mental illness in the first and a neurological illness in the second.

The Black Monk tells the story of the Master of Arts Andrey Kovrin. Kovrin feels exhausted and tired and decides to go and spend the summer with his former mentor, the famous horticulturalist Pesotsky and his daughter. Being an orphan, Korvin grew up with Pesotsky and loves him dearly. The old man has a wonderful estate with beautiful gardens and orchards that produce a lot of fruit and vegetables.

The beginning of the story is very idyllic. Korvin enjoys the beauty of the gardens, the company of his friend and to work on his numerous projects. Nobody seems to be aware at first that he hardly sleeps. He is very nervous and overeager and works like a mad man. Strange thoughts haunt him and he constantly thinks of a tale that he once read about a black monk who is a real person in one place but a sort of mirage in others.

As idyllic as the story starts it soon gets darker when Korvin not only to sees the black monk but speaks to him as well and finally has a nervous breakdown. I found this a highly interesting story as we think at first that it is a ghost story and then realize that Korvin is psychotic. This reminded me a lot of Maupassant’s Le Horla and there could be an influence. The Black Monk is a story of a nervous breakdown that leads to hallucinations and visions that are so intense that Korvin takes them for real. He believes everything the monk tells him and what he tells him flatters him.

The black monk says to Korvin that he is one of the chosen ones, an artist and that artists never see the world like everybody else.

But how do you know that men of genius, in whom the whole world puts its faith, haven’t seen ghosts too? Nowadays scientists say genius is akin to madness. My friend, only the mediocre, the common herd are healthy and normal.

After the breakdown Korvin undergoes a treatment with bromides, gets a lot of rest and becomes extremely depressed. His visions are gone and so is his feeling of grandeur. Being cured is insufferable to him. Chekhov’s psychological insight is really amazing. I’m not sure whether Korvin suffers of schizophrenia but it could be. He could also be bipolar. Both explanations are possible and both illnesses have the trait that during the moments of (megalo)mania the patient is quite happy. Often however they don’t sleep, don’t eat, are highly agitated and a break down mostly puts an end to the high.

Peasants is a completely different story. Nikolay Chikildeyev is a waiter in Moscow when he starts to develop a strange illness. His legs get numb and he cannot work anymore as he falls constantly. It isn’t said what it is but it could have been a neurological affliction or MS. In any case he decides to go back to the country and take his wife and his daughter with him.

What follows is unbelievable and I think it must be one of the bleakest stories I have ever read. Chikildeyev’s family are peasants and so incredibly poor, it would be heartbreaking. I did say “would” on purpose because these people are not only poor, they are dirty and brutal, constantly drunk, they hate each other and life, they are mean and abusive.

During the summer and winter months there were hours and days when these people appeared to live worse than cattle, and life with them was really terrible. They were coarse, dishonest, filthy, drunk, always quarreling and arguing amongst themselves, with no respect for one another and living in mutual fear and suspicion.

On the other hand they are extremely religious but in a very irrational way. No one can read and would really know what is in the Bible but they mix up elements the priests said, with Bible quotes and childish beliefs and wishes and pure superstitions. They believe in heaven and hell and the Virgin Mary but without a clear idea what each of them really means. The holidays are followed religiously as each of them is an opportunity to get drunk.

If they could choose they would rather be dead than alive but on the other hand they are extremely scared of being ill and hate Chikildeyev because he is a mirror of their own frailty.

Far from having any fear of death, Marya was only sorry it was such a long time coming, and she was glad when any of her children died.

What is also amazing is the fact that some of the older peasants wish themselves back to serfdom as they were at least fed regularly.

I have never read anything like it and it felt almost like reading nonfiction as it is written in a very realistic and detailed way. It seems as if  Chikildeyev’s illness was just a pretext to have these outsiders come to that place of desolation and depravity. The story also underlines that when you have lived under such circumstances for a long time you hardly see them any more and certainly do not see that you are part of the problem.

Both stories are amazing and show how talented Chekhov was. I cannot say I “liked” them but I would recommend them because they are very enlightening. They show you the talent of an author and the reality of a society of which we don’t know that much anymore but that has certain traits and elements that can still be found nowadays.