I tend to be chary of the idea of comfort reading. To me it suggests complacency, a hankering for reassurance, or the restoration of an earlier period – typically childhood – through the enveloping power of what Proust called involuntary memory. These aren't things I look for from books. One thing in its favour, however, is that comfort reading is an act of rereading, and many seasoned readers insist that that is the most rewarding kind of reading there is.
According to Vladimir Nabokov, "A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader". Sean O'Faolain, discussing Anton Chekhov's short story Verotchka, writes, "Having reread it I feel … that nobody should read more than he can in 10 years reread; that first reading is a pleasure for youth, second reading an instruction for manhood, and third reading, no doubt, the consolation and despair of old age. For Verotchka reread is simply another thing altogether." What O'Faolain identifies here is an altogether higher form of comfort: that provided by an inexhaustible work of art.
In 1898, Chekhov wrote a trilogy of stories describing a summer hunting trip taken by the vet Ivan Ivanych and the schoolteacher Burkin. Each features a story within a story recounted by the men in natural breaks from hunting. In the first story, The Man in a Case, Burkin describes a fellow teacher who shuts himself off from life. About Love describes a love that was professed too late. In the central story, Gooseberries, Ivan Ivanych tells a story about happiness, self-deception and cruelty.
I find myself returning to Gooseberries again and again. On the surface it is a simple story. Ivan and Burkin walk contentedly through the Russian countryside. When a hard rain begins to fall they seek shelter at the nearby estate of their friend Alekhin. They are welcomed, given refreshments by a beautiful servant, and they bathe. Later that evening, Ivan tells his friends a story about his brother.
The story's opening section offers much straightforward pleasure. I like to read it in the warm, where I can best enjoy the men trudging wetly through the heavy rain, and Chekhov's description of their feet "weighed down with mud". I want to be given hot tea by beautiful Pelageya, go out to the bathing house and afterwards, clean again, throw myself into the pond and swim in the rain, as Ivan does. In her book-length study, Reading Chekhov, Janet Malcolm writes that he "liked to contrast the harsh weather of God's world with the kindlier climate of man's shelters from it. He liked to bring characters out of blizzards and rain storms into warm, snug interiors", and he does so here with the evocative simplicity that is one of the principal pleasures of his prose.
But when the men return inside and settle down to their refreshments, the mood begins to alter. Ivan returns to a story about his brother Nikolai that he had first begun telling Burkin just before the rain began. It is a bitter story about a "kind, meek man", a civil servant, who nurtured a dream to retire to a modest plot in the country where he would live a simple life and grow gooseberries. But as he saves money his avarice grows, his dream becomes less modest. He marries for money, and forces his wife to live so frugally that Ivan suggests Nikolai was responsible for her death. Eventually Nikolai retires and buys a scrappy farm with "a brick factory on one side … and a bone-burning factory on the other". Nikolai orders and plants 20 gooseberry bushes.
When Ivan visits he finds his brother pompous, insufferable. The gooseberries – the first harvest – are "tough and sour", but Nikolai, "with tears in his eyes", pronounces them delicious. Ivan then embarks on a passionate tirade against the inequality of a society where "'the happy man feels good only because the unhappy bear their burden silently, and without that silence happiness would be impossible'":
We see those who go to the market to buy food, eat during the day, sleep during the night, who talk their nonsense, get married, grow old, complacently drag their dead to the cemetery; but we don't see or hear those who suffer, and the horrors of life go on somewhere behind the scenes.
Ivan's speech drags injustice and misery into Alekhin's snug drawing room. It is, to borrow Jack Kerouac's description of Naked Lunch: "a frozen moment when everybody sees what is on the end of every fork". As Malcolm writes of Gooseberries and its fellow stories, they "do not celebrate the hearth but, on the contrary, constitute a three-part parable about the perils of staying warm and safe, and thereby missing what is worthwhile in life, if not life itself". The meaning and purpose of life, Ivan exhorts his friends, does not reside in happiness and comfort, "but in something more intelligent and great", in kindness to one's fellow humans.
Ivan's behaviour irritates Burkin and Alekhin, who find it "boring to hear a story about a wretched official who ate gooseberries". They understandably don't want to hear about inequality and hardship, cosily swaddled as they are. But there is another, more enigmatic layer to Chekhov's story, one that perhaps only rereading unearths. Ivan calls happiness, just like the perceived succulence his brother's gooseberries, an illusion; and yet a suspicion grows that it is Nikolai's happiness, pure and simple, that angers Ivan, and that perhaps his impassioned argument has been constructed retrospectively in order to justify his position. We then consider that earlier, when the men were bathing, only Ivan swam in the pond, which when the men first entered the farmyard was described as "cold, malevolent". As Ivan splashes about his two friends stand moodily at the pond's edge, urging him to hurry up so they can go inside. Is the pond, then, a symbol intended to rhyme with the gooseberries? Are Nikolai's happiness on his farm and, in a smaller way, Ivan's happiness in the pond related? As is so often the case in Chekhov, the story poses questions but supplies no definite answers; in a letter of 1888 to his publisher Suvorin he writes:
Anyone who says the artist's field is all answers and no questions has never done any writing or had any dealings with imagery. The artist observes, selects, guesses and synthesizes … You are right to demand that an author take conscious stock of what he is doing, but you are confusing two concepts: answering the questions and formulating them correctly. Only the latter is required of an author.
At the story's end, as rain beats against the windows, Burkin lies in bed. He is bothered by a strong smell that he can't place (it is the smell of stale tobacco from his friend's pipe). Here, in miniature or like a fading melody, Chekhov repeats the blend of contentment and unease that have intertwined throughout the story. And so we too are left like Burkin with something nagging at us, taking pleasure in Chekhov's artistry but haunted by the questions it asks.
Quotations are taken from Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky's translation of Gooseberries.