The Story of a Nobody by Anton Chekhov
My local library has a bookcase of classic novels. When the librarian mentioned that it was nice to have them, but nobody ever borrowed them, I saw it as a challenge! I was familiar with the title The Story of a Nobody by Anton Chekhov so I borrowed it, as much to prove her wrong, as anything else!
The author, Anton Pavlovich Chekhov was born on January 29, 1860, in the small seaport of Taganrog, southern Russia. He was the son of a grocer. Chekhov’s grandfather was a serf, who had bought his own freedom and that of his three sons in 1841. He also taught himself to read and write. Yevgenia Morozova, Chekhov’s mother, was the daughter of a cloth merchant.
In 1879 Chekhov entered the Moscow University Medical School. While at the university, he began to publish hundreds of comic short stories to support himself and his mother, sisters and brothers. Chekhov died on 15 July, 1904.
This novella, The Story of a Nobody was originally published in 1893, and the version I read was a fine translation by Hugh Aplin and deserves to be much better known. The ‘Nobody’ is keen “to make history”. He is a member of a secret terrorist group that infiltrates the household the household of Orlov, son of a government minister whom they judge to be a “serious enemy” to the radical cause. They do this with a view to spying on the father and, ultimately, assassinating him.
However the young man entrusted with the task—an ailing, terminally ill, world-weary “nobody”is seized with the purposelessness of life and a sense of his own impending death. He gradually becomes disillusioned with his mission, and decides to embark on a new path which will lead him to tragedy. By harming the family, the “Nobody” hopes to become somebody. But then all the tugs and tangles of humanity intrude. Sympathy with the clan distracts him and the “hatred” behind his mission wanes in the face of the old man’s frailty: “It is hard to strike a match against crumbling stone”.
The story combines psychological detail with a strong sense of place and time and bears all the hallmarks of Chekhov’s genius. The Story of a Nobody perfectly captures the political and social tensions of its day, in Russia in the late nineteenth century. The Story of a Nobody is a beautifully constructed piece of writing that fully deserves its place in the library’s selections of classics.