This story, written in 1890, describes a period of days in a stifling sickbay aboard a ship in the Pacific, returning to Russia from the Far East. Gusev, a batman, is baffled by the complaints of his educated companion, Pavel Ivanych, and dreams feverishly of his home village, longing to hurtle into its cold snowdrifts and to see his niece and nephew again. Gusev and Pavel Ivanych, and the soldiers and sailors sharing their cabin, are dying of tuberculosis. They are members of a crop of characters that contracted the disease in the stories Chekhov wrote in this period: a year earlier TB had killed his brother, the artist Nikolai Chekhov, at the age of 31, and in response Chekov had written ‘A Boring Story’ (sometimes translated as ‘A Dreary Story’), a lengthy and depressing account of the illness and death of a scientist. And since 1884 Chekhov had known that he too had TB, and that it would probably be the cause of his death (which it was, in a Black Forest hotel room in 1904, when he was just 44, an event Raymond Carver describes in his 1987 story ‘Errand’).
‘Gusev’ is desolate but also very beautiful, which makes it a notable counterpoint to the unremittingly bleak ‘A Boring Story’. Gusev’s death arrives starkly: “He sleeps for two days, and on the third, at noon, two sailors come down to the sick bay and carry him out”. In plain language Chekhov describes the preparation of the body for burial at sea, with Gusev’s body sewn up in his sailcloth shroud looking “like a carrot or a radish”. Just before the board is lifted and his corpse slides into the water, the soldiers and sailors on deck “look out towards the waves. It is strange to think that a person has been sewn up in a sailcloth and is about to go headlong into the waves. Could that really happen to anyone?”
This question works in tandem with a passage found a couple of pages earlier, when Gusev asks one of his surviving companions to take him up on deck for some air. They stand beside the rail at the bow,
looking silently up above and then down below. Up above is deep sky, clear stars, and silence, exactly like at home in the village, but down below there is darkness and disorder. For no fathomable reason the huge waves are making a lot of noise. Whichever wave you look at, each one tries to go higher than all the others, chasing after and pounding the one before it; a third, just as ferocious and wild, will fall upon it noisily, with its white mane shimmering.
The passage seems to describe the hopelessness of life, its “darkness and disorder”, and reading it makes me think of something similar in Maupassant, when the miserable, abandoned patrons of a temporarily closed bordello in the story ‘Madame Tellier’s Establishment’, stand on a Normandy beach halfway around the world and watch as the “foam on the crest of the waves made bright patches of white in the darkness which disappeared as quickly as they came, and the monotonous sound of the sea breaking on the rocks echoed through the night all along the cliffs” (translated by Roger Colet).
For all the preceding sombreness, the conclusion of ‘Gusev’ is one of the most remarkable and beautiful things in all Chekhov’s work: his focus becomes more expansive as he follows the corpse into the sea, past a shoal of pilot fish and into the path of a shark. Above the water, he continues this movement away from the tight confines of the sickbay, and eventually away from any kind of human concern: the sun is rising and lighting up clouds that resemble “a triumphal arch, another like a lion, and a third like scissors”. The sky takes on rich colours, and the ocean “frowns at first as it looks at this magnificent, mesmerising sky, but it too then takes on those tender, radiant, passionate colours which are difficult to describe in human terms”. It is beautiful, but it is vertiginous, too. It’s a piece of writing I sometimes find consoling and sometimes horrifying. It is a story I find I must return to, but I never do so lightly.
From About Love and Other Stories, Oxford World’s Classics 2004. Read a version from a 1944 collection of Chekhov stories – translator unknown, but it’s not Constance Garnett – here