The Beauties by Anton Chekhov, 1888
The magic trick:
Displaying a genius for understanding the human condition
It’s Chekhov Week Pt. 2 here on the Magic Tricks. Last year I didn’t know what I was getting into and the stories blew my mind. This year I had a pretty good idea of what I was getting into and guess what? The stories blew my mind. Let’s go.
I think you could learn every rule and every bit of craft there is about writing fiction. You could master every single magic trick on this blog. And you know what? You still have to be really, pretty much genius-level smart to be able to write a great short story. I really think sometimes that’s what it comes down to. The two authors, after you strip away all the writing process and storytelling gifts, who shine simply as extraordinarily wise human beings are Alice Munro and, yes, Mr. Chekhov.
So many of his stories aren’t really stories at all. Or at least they’re not much concerned with plot. They exist to present an idea, impart wisdom, capture a mood. It’s crazy how hard it is to do that. And even crazier how often he succeeds at pulling it off.
“The Beauties” shares two memories of beautiful women. The narrator doesn’t befriend these women or explore their character. He only remembers seeing them, how it felt, how the people around him reacted, and most importantly, the tremendous melancholy left in the aftermath of these meetings. And there it is. Beauty equals melancholy. Your genius nugget of the day from Chekhov.
It’ll take you 15 minutes to read, and you get an essential truth about the temporary nature of life that you can ruminate over forever. And that’s quite a trick on Chekhov’s part.
But little by little I forgot myself, and gave myself up entirely to the consciousness of beauty. I thought no more now of the dreary steppe, of the dust, no longer heard the buzzing of the flies, no longer tasted the tea, and felt nothing except that a beautiful girl was standing only the other side of the table.
I felt this beauty rather strangely. It was not desire, nor ecstacy, nor enjoyment that Masha excited in me, but a painful though pleasant sadness. It was a sadness vague and undefined as a dream. For some reason I felt sorry for myself, for my grandfather and for the Armenian, even for the girl herself, and I had a feeling as though we all four had lost something important and essential to life which we should never find again. My grandfather, too, grew melancholy; he talked no more about manure or about oats, but sat silent, looking pensively at Masha.