Sunday 30 July 2023

100 latest films and plays I've watched

From January 2023 to July 2023

In bold: films and plays I think are good 

1/ 海街 diary (Our Little Sister - Japan - 2015) 

2/ 女が階段を上る時 (When a Woman Ascends the Stairs - Japan - 1960) 

3/ Jeffrey Dahmer: Mind Of A Monster (2020) 

4/ Tár (2022) 

4/ The Green River Killer: Mind Of A Monster (2020) 

5/ A Murder in the Family: Cheryl Hooper (2023) 

6/ The Whale (2022) 

7/ Mary Kay Letourneau: Notes On A Scandal (2022) 

8/ CODA (2021) 

9/ The Butcher Baker: Mind of a Monster (2020) 

10/ The Fabelmans (2022) 

11/ Clarkson's Farm - Season 2 (2023) - 8 episodes 

12/ My Insta Scammer Friend (2022) 

13/ Dirty Dancing (1987) 

14/ Old Boys (2018) 

15/ The Breakfast Club (1985) 

16/ Emily Atack: Asking for It (2023) 

17/ 東方三俠 (The Heroic Trio - Hong Kong - 1993) 

18/ 警察故事3超級警察 (Police Story 3: Supercop - Hong Kong - 1992) 

19/ 警察故事 (Police Story - Hong Kong - 1985) 

20/ Война и мир: Андрей Болконский (War and Peace, Part 1: Andrei Bolkonsky - Soviet Union - 1966) 

21/ Война и мир: Наташа Ростова (War and Peace, Part 2: Natasha Rostova - Soviet Union - 1966)

22/ Война и мир: 1812 год (War and Peace, Part 3: The Year 1812 - Soviet Union - 1967) 

23/ Война и мир: Пьер Безухов (War and Peace, Part 4: Pierre Bezukhov - Soviet Union - 1967) 

24/ Ma nuit chez Maud (My Night at Maud's - France - 1969) 

25/ King Lear (1983, ft. Laurence Olivier) 

26/ Buying a British Dad (2023) 

27/ Much Ado About Nothing (1984 BBC) 

28/ The Lost Weekend (1945) 

29/ Le Genou de Claire (Claire's Knee - France - 1970) 

30/ Hamlet (1990 New York Shakespeare Festival, ft. Kevin Kline) 

31/ Catching a Pervert: Sexual Assault for Sale (2023) 

32/ A Midsummer Night's Dream (1968) 

33/ Hamlet (2018, ft. Andrew Scott) 

34/ The Monkey Haters (2023) 

35/ Panorama: Is China Watching You? (2023)

36/ The Mentalist: Bloodshot (2009) 

37/ The Mentalist: Carnelian Inc. (2009) 

38/ The Mentalist: Russet Potatoes (2009) 

39/ The Mentalist: A Dozen Red Roses (2009) 

40/ The Mentalist: Red Sauce (2009)  

41/ The Mentalist: Miss Red (2009) 

42/ The Mentalist: Blood Brothers (2009) 

43/ The Mentalist: Red John's Footsteps (2009) 

44/ The Mentalist: Redemption (2009) 

45/ The Mentalist: The Scarlet Letter (2009) 

46/ The Mentalist: Red Badge (2009) 

47/ The Mentalist: Red Menace (2009) 

48/ The Mentalist: Red Scare (2009) 

49/ The Mentalist: Pilot (2008)

50/ The Mentalist: Red Hair and Silver Tape (2008)

51/ The Mentalist: Red Scare (2009)

52/ The Mentalist: Black Gold and Red Blood (2009) 

53/ The Mentalist: Red Bulls (2009) 

54/ The Mentalist: His Red Right Hand (2009) 

55/ The Mentalist: A Price Above Rubies (2009) 

56/ The Mentalist: Throwing Fire (2009)

57/ The Mentalist: Rose-Colored Glasses (2010) 

58/ The Mentalist: Red Tide (2008) 

59/ The Mentalist: Ladies in Red (2008) 

60/ The Mentalist: Red Wood (2008) 

61/ The Mentalist: Red Handed (2008) 

62/ Oppenheimer (2023)

63/ The Mentalist: Bleeding Heart (2010) 

64/ The Mentalist: Redline (2010) 

65/ The Mentalist: Blood In, Blood Out (2010) 

66/ The Mentalist: Red Herring (2010) 

67/ The Mentalist: Seeing Red (2008) 

68/ The Mentalist: The Thin Red Line (2008) 

69/ The Mentalist: Flame Red (2008) 

70/ The Mentalist: Red Brick and Ivy (2008) 

71/ The Mentalist: Red John's Friends (2009) 

72/ The Mentalist: Red Rum (2009) 

73/ The Mentalist: Paint It Red (2009) 

74/ The Mentalist: Crimson Casanova (2009) 

75/ The Mentalist: Red Letter (2010) 

76/ The Mentalist: Red Sky in the Morning (2010) 

77/ The Mentalist: Red Sky at Night (2010) 

78/ The Mentalist: Code Red (2010) 

79/ The Mentalist: Red Box (2010) 

80/ The Mentalist: Aingavite Baa (2010) 

81/ The Mentalist: Cackle-Bladder Blood (2010) 

82/ The Mentalist: The Blood on His Hands (2010) 

83/ The Mentalist: Red Carpet Treatment (2010)  

84/ The Mentalist: The Red Ponies (2010)

85/ The Mentalist: Pink Chanel Suit (2010) 

86/ The Mentalist: Red Hot (2010) 

87/ The Mentalist: Ball of Fire (2010) 

88/ The Mentalist: Red Moon (2010) 

89/ The Mentalist: Jolly Red Elf (2010) 

90/ The Mentalist: Bloodsport (2010) 

91/ The Mentalist: Bloodhounds (2010) 

92/ The Mentalist: Red Alert (2010) 

93/ The Mentalist: Blood for Blood (2010) 

94/ The Mentalist: Red Gold (2010) 

95/ The Mentalist: Red Queen (2010) 

96/ The Mentalist: Bloodstream (2010) 

97/ The Mentalist: The Red Mile (2011) 

98/ The Mentalist: Every Rose Has Its Thorn (2011) 

99/ The Mentalist: Redacted (2011) 

100/ The Mentalist: Like a Redheaded Stepchild (2011) 

A Good Man Is Hard to Find: Flannery O’Connor’s similes

Let other pens dwell on plot, I’d like to focus on the writing—for now. 

Flannery O’Connor is very different from Alice Munro. Intense. Bang. In-your-face. There’s something cold and pitiless, perhaps even cruel, in Flannery O’Connor.

But if Alice Munro’s prose doesn’t draw attention to itself, Flannery O’Connor’s does, and it is interesting. 

For example, look at this image from “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”: 

“Bailey didn’t look up from his reading so she wheeled around then and faced the children’s mother, a young woman in slacks, whose face was as broad and innocent as a cabbage and was tied around with a green headkerchief that had two points on the top like rabbit’s ears.”

Her similes are odd: 

“Bailey was looking straight ahead. His jaw was as rigid as a horseshoe.”

Very odd. 

“Behind them the line of woods gaped like a dark open mouth.” 

I don’t know what I expected, reading “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”, but it went in a direction I didn’t anticipate: the author follows a family going on a little trip and builds it up and lets us get to know the characters, and bang, gives us a shocking, brutal ending. It is even more shocking because of the way she depicts it. 

““You wouldn’t shoot a lady, would you?” the grandmother said and removed a clean handkerchief from her cuff and began to slap at her eyes with it.” 

This is what I mean when I say Flannery O’Connor is cold and pitiless.

“There were two more pistol reports and the grandmother raised her head like a parched old turkey hen crying for water and called, “Bailey Boy, Bailey Boy!” as if her heart would break.” 

Who else would describe an old woman—a grandmother—in such a situation as “a parched old turkey hen”? 

“The River” is another story that goes in a direction I didn’t expect. 

“She lay her head back and as he watched, gradually her eyes closed and her mouth fell open to show a few long scattered teeth, some gold and some darker than her face; she began to whistle and blow like a musical skeleton.” 

“She” is Mrs Connin, a babysitter. She takes a little boy of 4 or 5, who is named Harry Ashfield but who lies to her that he’s called Bevel, to spend the day at her house and then at the river, to see a preacher and healer called Bevel Summers. 

“There were two round photographs of an old man and woman with collapsed mouths and another picture of a man whose eyebrows dashed out of two bushes of hair and clashed in a heap on the bridge of his nose; the rest of his face stuck out like a bare cliff to fall from.” 

Flannery O’Connor has a strange way of looking at things. Writers such as Flaubert or Proust or Mishima also come up with unusual metaphors, but there’s something freakish, something grotesque in the way she looks at people.  

“The air was so quiet he could hear the broken pieces of the sun knocking in the water.”

The story for the most part feels like an innocent story about a little boy spending a day away from home—what did I think was going to happen?—then at the end, it grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go. And when it’s over, I needed a little break. 

The third story in the collection is “The Life You Save May Be Your Own”—it is less shocking, but also dark.

“The tramp stood looking at her and didn’t answer. He turned his back and faced the sunset. He swung both his whole and his short arm up slowly so that they indicated an expanse of sky and his figure formed a crooked cross. The old woman watched him with her arms folded across her chest as if she were the owner of the sun, and the daughter watched, her head thrust forward and her fat helpless hands hanging at the wrists. She had long pink-gold hair and eyes as blue as a peacock’s neck.” 

Her writing is good. 

“A fat yellow moon appeared in the branches of the fig tree as if it were going to roost there with the chickens.” 

“The Life You Save May Be Your Own” is not shocking because the author has prepared us.  

“The ugly words settled in Mr. Shiftlet’s head like a group of buzzards in the top of a tree.”


“In the darkness, Mr. Shiftlet’s smile stretched like a weary snake waking up by a fire.”

“A Stroke of Good Fortune” is, I think most people would agree, not a very strong or memorable story. But there are some striking similes in it: 

“She was too tired to take her arms from around it or to straighten up and she hung there collapsed from the hips, her head balanced like a big florid vegetable at the top of the sack.”

That is the main character, Ruby. 

“Standing up straight, she was a short woman, shaped nearly like a funeral urn. She had mulberry-colored hair stacked in sausage rolls around her head but some of these had come loose with the heat and the long walk from the grocery store and pointed frantically in various directions.”

I can’t help thinking that Flannery O’Connor doesn’t like people very much.

“Madam Zoleeda […] had sat back grinning, a stout woman with green eyes that moved in their sockets as if they had been oiled.” 


“She remembered her mother at thirty-four—she had looked like a puckered-up old yellow apple, sour, she had always looked sour, she had always looked like she wasn’t satisfied with anything.”

The apple imagery later reappears:

“She felt her face drawn puckered: two born dead one died the first year and one run under like a dried yellow apple…” 

Fascinating writer. 

Wednesday 26 July 2023

Alice Munro’s “Walker Brothers Cowboy” and “Dance of the Happy Shades”

As a short story writer, Alice Munro is in the line of Chekhov. I like that she has great control and writes enough, suggesting much more underneath the surface. I like that she writes stories in which nothing happens, and yet at the end, something seems to happen to us. 

“Walker Brothers Cowboy” (in Selected Stories) is the first Alice Munro story I’ve ever read, and I like it a lot. It’s narrated by a young girl. Her father once had a fox farm but lost everything and now works for the Walker Brothers. 

“He sells cough medicine, iron tonic, corn plasters, laxatives, pills for female disorders, mouthwash, shampoo, liniment, salves, lemon and orange and raspberry concentrate for making refreshing drinks, vanilla, food coloring, black and green tea, ginger, cloves, and other spices, rat poison.”

The story flows slowly, naturally—the narrator introduces her father, then the location, then her father’s job, then her mother, then the story of the family—everything flows naturally—then the girl and her younger brother, to give the mother a rest, join the father on his trip to sell things at people’s houses, and we follow them—where is the story going? we wonder—then having done his job, he continues driving beyond his territory and meets a woman he hasn’t seen for a long time. That’s when “Walker Brothers Cowboy” takes a little turn, the way Chekhov’s stories always do. A little turn that gets you to see everything differently.

There are quite a few subtle things I like. For example, we’re not told till that moment in Nora’s house, when it’s necessary, that the father is called Ben Jordan. We’re never told about the relationship between him and Nora. We’re never told about the incompatibility between him and his wife. Everything gradually unfolds, and Alice Munro adds nothing superfluous. 

But the thing I particularly like is that she gets us to see the father differently: 

“She and my father drink and I know what it is. Whisky. One of the things my mother has told me in our talks together is that my father never drinks whisky. But I see he does. He drinks whisky and he talks of people whose names I have never heard before.” 

It’s so “soft” that it doesn’t feel like an epiphany. Shortly after, Nora puts music on and turns towards the girl: 

““A big girl like you and so good-looking and can’t dance!” says Nora. “It’s high time you learned. I bet you’d make a lovely dancer. Here, I’m going to put on a piece I used to dance to and even your daddy did, in his dancing days. You didn’t know your daddy was a dancer, did you? Well, he is a talented man, your daddy!”” 

These little moments make us see the father in a different light, and get us to care about him—about the man he once was, the man he might have been. At the same time, Alice Munro has the young daughter narrate the story and therefore adds the perspective, the relatable feeling when one discovers something new, something unexpected about one’s parents, about who they used to be and what they were like before getting married and becoming parents.  

“So my father drives and my brother watches the road for rabbits and I feel my father’s life flowing back from our car in the last of the afternoon, darkening and turning strange, like a landscape that has an enchantment on it, making it kindly, ordinary and familiar while you are looking at it, but changing it, once your back is turned, into something you will never know, with all kinds of weathers, and distances you cannot imagine.” 

The ending enlarges the story. 

“Dance of the Happy Shades” is a story in which there’s even less happening: it’s about one of the boring “parties”— more like recitals—of an old piano teacher named Miss Marsalles, who “was unable to criticize except in the most delicate and apologetic way and her praises were unforgivably dishonest; it took an unusually conscientious pupil to come through with anything like a creditable performance”. 

I could summarise the plot and write about the story but I’m more interested in the writing. 

“Even the shadow behind her of another Miss Marsalles, slightly older, larger, grimmer, whose existence was always forgotten from one June to the next, was not discomfiting—though it was surely an arresting fact that there should be not one but two faces like that in the world, both long, gravel-colored, kindly, and grotesque, with enormous noses and tiny, red, sweet-tempered and shortsighted eyes. It must finally have come to seem like a piece of luck to them to be so ugly, a protection against life to be marked in so many ways, impossible, for they were gay as invulnerable and childish people are; they appeared sexless, wild, and gentle creatures, bizarre yet domestic, living in their house in Rosedale outside the complications of time.” 

Like Chekhov, Alice Munro doesn’t have an ornate style, a style that draws attention to itself. But the style, or perhaps the voice, of “Dance of the Happy Shades” is more interesting than in “Walker Brothers Cowboy”—probably because it’s narrated by a pupil who doesn’t love Miss Marsalles? 

Like the narrator, most of Miss Marsalles’s pupils now are the children of her old pupils: 

“Here they found themselves year after year—a group of busy, youngish women who had eased their cars impatiently through the archaic streets of Rosedale, who had complained for a week previously about the time lost, the fuss over the children’s dresses, and, above all, the boredom, but who were drawn together by a rather implausible allegiance—not so much to Miss Marsalles as to the ceremonies of their childhood, to a more exacting pattern of life which had been breaking apart even then but which survived, and unaccountably still survived, in Miss Marsalles’ living room. The little girls in dresses with skirts as stiff as bells moved with a natural awareness of ceremony against the dark walls of books, and their mothers’ faces wore the dull, not unpleasant look of acquiescence, the touch of absurd and slightly artificial nostalgia which would carry them through any lengthy family ritual.” 

Not ornate, but not bland. 

“The plates of sandwiches are set out, as they must have been for several hours now; you can see how the ones on top are beginning to curl very slightly at the edges. Flies buzz over the table, settle on the sandwiches, and crawl comfortably across the plates of little iced cakes brought from the bakery. The cut-glass bowl, sitting as usual in the center of the table, is full of purple punch, without ice apparently and going flat.

[…] My mother seems unable, although she makes a great effort, to take her eyes off the dining-room table and the complacent journeys of the marauding flies. Finally she achieves a dreamy, distant look, with her eyes focussed somewhere above the punch bowl, which makes it possible for her to keep her head turned in that direction and yet does not in any positive sense give her away. Miss Marsalles as well has trouble keeping her eyes on the performers; she keeps looking towards the door. Does she expect that even now some of the unexplained absentees may turn up?” 

I shall not write about the little turn in the later part of the story, nor the ending. But I’d note that throughout the story, the narrator, clearly influenced by her genteel mother, sees and depicts Miss Marsalles as a pathetic, rather absurd old woman, a mediocre piano teacher who foolishly thinks she can see into children’s hearts; Alice Munro builds it up till that little turn near the end of the story, and then gets us to see Miss Marsalles and all the characters in a different light. And she presents her characters as they are, without moralising, in a style that doesn’t draw attention to itself.

It is very good. 

Thursday 13 July 2023

Chekhov’s “The Huntsman”

In Lectures on Russian Literature, Nabokov writes: 

“Russian critics have noted that Chekhov's style, his choice of words and so on, did not reveal any of those special artistic preoccupations that obsessed, for instance, Gogol or Flaubert or Henry James. […] He was not a verbal inventor in the sense that Gogol was; his literary style goes to parties clad in its everyday suit. Thus Chekhov is a good example to give when one tries to explain that a writer may be a perfect artist without being exceptionally vivid in his verbal technique or exceptionally preoccupied with the way his sentences curve. […] The magical part of it is that in spite of his tolerating flaws which a bright beginner would have avoided, in spite of his being quite satisfied with the man-in-the-street among words, the word-in-the-street, so to say, Chekhov managed to convey an impression of artistic beauty far surpassing that of many writers who thought they knew what rich beautiful prose was. He did it by keeping all his words in the same dim light and of the same exact tint of gray, a tint between the color of an old fence and that of a low cloud. The variety of his moods, the flicker of his charming wit, the deeply artistic economy of characterization, the vivid detail, and the fade-out of human life—all the peculiar Chekhovian features—are enhanced by being suffused and surrounded by a faintly iridescent verbal haziness.”

I have just finished Volume 6 of Constance Garnett’s Chekhov, and indeed there’s something magical about his stories.  

For example, “The Huntsman” is a very simple short story—basically a sketch of a meeting between a huntsman and a woman—on the surface, there doesn’t seem to be anything special or remarkable about it. But it is wonderful, and I’m trying to figure out why. 

“There was stillness all round, not a sound... everything living was hiding away from the heat.

“Yegor Vlassitch!” the huntsman suddenly heard a soft voice.

He started and, looking round, scowled. Beside him, as though she had sprung out of the earth, stood a pale-faced woman of thirty with a sickle in her hand. She was trying to look into his face, and was smiling diffidently.

“Oh, it is you, Pelagea!” said the huntsman, stopping and deliberately uncocking the gun. “H’m!... How have you come here?”

“The women from our village are working here, so I have come with them.... As a labourer, Yegor Vlassitch.”

“Oh...” growled Yegor Vlassitch, and slowly walked on.

Pelagea followed him. They walked in silence for twenty paces.

“I have not seen you for a long time, Yegor Vlassitch...” said Pelagea looking tenderly at the huntsman’s moving shoulders.” 

(translated by Constance Garnett) 

I suppose the story works so well because Chekhov withholds information and sets up some expectations, getting us to make assumptions about the two characters and form our thoughts about them, then slowly reveals the nature of their relationship and forces us to go back and see everything in a different light. And it is poignant. Chekhov presents the characters as they are, withholding judgement, and writes with compassion for both the huntsman and Pelagea. 

I also love Chekhov’s subtlety. 

“A silence followed. Three wild ducks flew over the clearing. Yegor followed them with his eyes till, transformed into three scarcely visible dots, they sank down far beyond the forest.

“How do you live?” he asked, moving his eyes from the ducks to Pelagea.”

That’s a nice touch. One thing I love about Chekhov and also Tolstoy is such subtle details—they capture the way a character’s thoughts wander, the way someone gets distracted by something then gets pulled back into the moment—that’s what we do, and that’s why the stories of Chekhov and Tolstoy feel so natural and seem so artless.

It is no wonder that Dmitry Grigorovich was so impressed with “The Huntsman” that he told Chekhov to move away from comic sketches and focus on more serious writings. It was, from what I understand, a turning point for Chekhov. 

Tuesday 4 July 2023

Some idle thoughts on writers and range

Tolstoy, as you know, is the novelist I love and admire the most. One of the reasons is the vast range of characters, vast range of human experiences in his works: from childbirth scenes to death scenes; from battle scenes to intimate domestic scenes; from hunting to dancing; from farming to dressing; from children to old people to animals; from princes to serfs; from generals to mothers; from saints to madmen; from Russians to Cossacks to Chechens… Anna Karenina and War and Peace are about everything. Other novelists seem more narrow in comparison. 

But sometimes when I compare Tolstoy to Dostoyevsky or Chekhov, both of whom are generally more narrow in range and scope, I can think of things Dostoyevsky can do but Tolstoy can’t do (spite, humiliation, perversity, sadism, masochism), and I can think of things Chekhov can do but Tolstoy can’t do (female sexuality/ desire, goodness without religion). 

But then I think about Shakespeare, and all the things that these supreme writers seem unable to do can be found in Shakespeare. Female desire: Venus and Adonis and many plays. Spite: Iago in Othello, Thersites in Troilus and Cressida, Timon in Timon of Athens, Don John in Much Ado About Nothing, Edmund in King Lear… Humiliation: Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, Malvolio in Twelfth Night… Masochism: Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Viola in Twelfth Night… Perversity and sadism: Goneril and Regan in King Lear, Iago in Othello, a few characters in Titus Andronicus… The range of characters in Shakespeare is unmatched: there are characters of different classes, different backgrounds, different races, different sexualities... Everything can be found in Shakespeare. There’s a Harvey Weinstein (Angelo in Measure for Measure). There’s even a Marxist (Gonzalo in The Tempest). 

Shakespeare really is the “biggest” of writers. All-knowing, to use my friend Tom’s word. But how? How does Shakespeare seem to contain us all?  

Monday 3 July 2023

Chekhov’s “The Witch” and “Peasant Wives”

Lately, I have been reading and enjoying Gary Saul Morson’s Wonder Confronts Certainty (about Russian literature and history). But I’ve put it aside for now, and returned to Chekhov.

I find it hard to write about Chekhov, probably because it’s difficult to pinpoint the moments of greatness in his works—or to steal Woolf’s words about Jane Austen, he is “the most difficult to catch in the act of greatness”. With Proust, I can write about details, metaphors, or methods of characterisation. With Dickens, I can write about imagery, motifs, or the different types of characters in his novels and the way a two-dimensional character becomes three-dimensional, flesh-and-blood. With Chekhov, his stories have the deceptive appearance of simplicity—his greatness lies in his ability to capture the subtlest emotional shades, his ability to have compassion for everyone and to present characters as they are, without judgement—his techniques are subtle and elusive, almost like there are no techniques. 

For example, “The Witch” in Volume 6 is a very simple story, almost like a sketch: there is a snowstorm and, as a postman knocks on the door, the sexton, Savely Gykin, accuses his wife Raissa Nilovna of being a witch, of causing snowstorms and luring young men into the house and seducing them. The story is simple, but I love the way the characters unfold. 

“Savely angrily puffed all the air out of his chest and turned abruptly to the wall. Three minutes later he turned over restlessly again, knelt up on the bed, and with his hands on the pillow looked askance at his wife. She was still sitting motionless, staring at the visitor. Her cheeks were pale and her eyes were glowing with a strange fire.”

(translated by Constance Garnett) 

Jealous, Savely places a handkerchief over the postman’s face. 

“And settling herself more comfortably, she stared at the postman again.

It did not matter to her that his face was covered. She was not so much interested in his face as in his whole appearance, in the novelty of this man. His chest was broad and powerful, his hands were slender and well formed, and his graceful, muscular legs were much comelier than Savely’s stumps. There could be no comparison, in fact.”

Chekhov is very good at writing about female desire, and he depicts it without judgement. Throughout the story, he gets us to empathise with Raissa’s loneliness, her having a fool for a husband—it’s reminiscent of “The Chemist’s Wife” and “The Husband”—but the story takes a slight turn near the end, as Chekhov’s stories always do. 

““Witch!” he muttered indignantly. “Tfoo, horrid creature!”

Yet, waiting till she was quiet and began breathing evenly, he touched her head with his finger... held her thick plait in his hand for a minute. She did not feel it. Then he grew bolder and stroked her neck.

“Leave off!” she shouted, and prodded him on the nose with her elbow with such violence that he saw stars before his eyes.

The pain in his nose was soon over, but the torture in his heart remained.”

Thus the story ends—not much happens in it—but the husband, who so far has appeared foolish and rather cruel (for forcing the postman to leave in the middle of the snowstorm), is now pitiful. A little stroke, and Chekhov gets us to see the husband and wife differently. 

Straight after “The Witch”, Constance Garnett aptly places “Peasant Wives”, a longer, more complex story with similar themes. A man named Matvey Savitch stops for the night at the house of a landowner named Dyudya, and tells the family about how he has come to adopt the boy Kuzka: he had an affair with Kuzka’s mother when the husband was in the army.

A large part of the story is Matvey Savitch telling the story, his sanctimonious remarks echoed by Dyudya—Chekhov lets us see that Matvey Savitch is a selfish hypocrite, speaking of sin and Christian charity but having an affair with a married woman, wanting to drop her when he himself wants to get married, and betraying her—then, as Matvey Savitch finishes the story and goes to sleep, Chekhov moves away from them and gives us a glimpse of the unhappy lives of Dyudya’s daughters-in-law, Sofya and Varvara. It’s almost like he begins a new story within the same story. Sofya and Varvara are unhappy married, like Kuzka’s mother Mashenka, like the sexton’s wife in “The Witch”. 

Like Mashenka, Varvara has an affair (or affairs). 

“And she began telling in a whisper of her midnight walks with the priest’s son, and of the stories he had told her, and of his comrades, and of the fun she had with the travellers who stayed in the house. The mournful song stirred a longing for life and freedom. Sofya began to laugh; she thought it sinful and terrible and sweet to hear about, and she felt envious and sorry that she, too, had not been a sinner when she was young and pretty.” 

That last line is what I mean when I say Chekhov captures the subtlest shades of emotions. 

He gives us a glimpse into the women’s unhappy lives and their suffering, then drops a hint of something that might or might not happen, leaving it open. Then the two women fall asleep, and a new day begins, and Chekhov returns to Matvey Savitch and the boy Kuzka. And just before the story ends, there’s a little stroke, a little turn that reveals something about the characters or makes us see them differently: except for a little moment when Kuzka wakes up to find some wrinkled women looking at him and cries out in fright, so far he has been only in the background and we know next to nothing about him, but at the end, in just a few sentences, Chekhov perfectly conveys the relationship between him and Matvey Savitch, and the boy’s torment. 

It is masterful.