Irreducible Lives: Chekhov, Osipov, and Morshen

In recent weeks, my collaborators and I have been rewarded with a number of brief but excellent reviews. Lev Ozerov’s Portraits Without Frames was lauded by Paddy Kehoe at RTÉ and by Peter France in the latest issue of The Scotland-Russian Forum (no. 40, Winter 2019). In that same issue, which is full of interesting material, Margaret Tejerizo also reviews Slav Sisters: The Dedalus Book of Russian Women’s Literature. And today I was delighted to see a starred review of Maxim Osipov’s Rock, Paper, Scissors, and Other Stories in Kirkus!

Reviewing a collection as varied and nuanced as Maxim’s in a couple hundred words is an exacting challenge. Because Maxim is a Russian writer-physician, comparisons to Mikhail Bulgakov and, especially, to Anton Chekhov are inevitable. There are, of course, many stylistic differences between Osipov’s and Chekhov’s stories, and there are just as many differences between the authors’ worldviews; after all, they live in different worlds. But it occurs to me that there is one key similarity.

In Chekhov’s The Seagull, the successful but mediocre writer Boris Trigorin famously sees the life of the young Nina Zarechnaya as “the subject for a short story.” But Nina is obviously more than that — she is a human being, not a plotline or symbol. Magically, Chekhov himself manages to convince us of Nina’s reality, although she is, in fact, a work of fiction — his fiction. Unlike Tirgorin, Chekhov is always aware that human lives, even fictional lives, are more than subjects for short stories. This is why his people live on after their “stories” are over. And that is a characteristic they share with Maxim’s people.

Reflecting on the irreducible intricacy and vitality of these fictional characters, I remembered a poem by Nikolay Morshen (né Marchenko, 1917-2001), who was born in Ukraine, spent the war years in occupied Kyiv and Hamburg, and immigrated to the United States in 1950, where he taught Russian at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, for twenty-six years.

Nikolay Morshen.jpg

That brief outline of his life, like the brief outline of any life, conceals a great wealth of experience, a great deal of complexity. Morshen understood this better than anyone, and he expressed it in the untitled opening poem of his first collection, The Seal (Tyulen’, 1959) — a poem that reads like an epitaph for all the émigrés of his generation, living and dead:

He lived just forty years: too short a life.
These words do not contain a word of truth.
He lived through two world wars, a revolution,
Three famines and four changes in regime,
Six governments and two wholehearted passions.
Add up the years — half a millennium.

Он прожил мало: только сорок лет.
В таких словах ни слова правды нет.
Он прожил две войны, переворот,
Три голода, четыре смены власти,
Шесть государств, две настоящих страсти.
Считать на годы — будет лет пятьсот.


4 thoughts on “Irreducible Lives: Chekhov, Osipov, and Morshen

  1. Beautiful poem! Can’t wait to read the Ozerov. I’m 3/4 the way through the stories in Rock, Paper, Scissors, they’re really miraculous, can’t even figure out how he does it. Incredible. Congratulations on the Kirkus!


    Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s funny this thing about Russian writing doctors! Bulgakov and Chekhov are huge favourites and I’m looking forward to Osipov. The poem is marvellous too – encapsulates so much in so few lines. And the best fictional lives can often be more real than some of the actual ones around us – well, at least to this reader they are! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Dear Kaggsy, as usual, we agree on all counts! That’s one of the major contributions writers make, wouldn’t you say? They remind us that the actual lives around us are deeper and richer than we sometimes choose to believe.

      Liked by 1 person

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