Pushkin’s The Undertaker and Chekhov’s Rothschild’s Fiddle
Two very different stories with at least two common themes. I read these stories for the first time in university and they’ve stayed with me ever since, Pushkin’s story (one of the wonderful Belkin Tales) because of the humour and Chekhov’s story because of the melancholy.
If the undertakers that were created by Shakespeare and Walter Scott were jolly characters, the ones created by Pushkin and Chekhov were anything but. Always grumpy, suspicious and waiting for people to die; that sums up the Russian undertaker.
The Undertaker* (1831) is about Adrian, an undertaker who has just moved from one area in Moscow to another with his daughters and his business. In the new area there are apparently a lot of German tradesmen. One of them invites Adrian and his daughters over for a party. The party is very jolly, Adrian drinks and eats, his daughters are above such behaviour, and there is one toast after another. The only Russian official at the party, a Finnish watchman called Yourko, suggests that Adrian make a toast to his clients, the dead. Adrian doesn’t think that’s funny at all and goes home in a bad mood. He vows that instead of inviting his new neighbors to a party as he had intended, he shall indeed invite his dead clients. The next day he gets a lucrative job and when he comes home in the evening, he finds a party going on in his house. All the corpses that were once his clients are there. They reproach Adrian for charging too much for the coffins and for ripping off their next of kin. When he wakes up the next day, he realises that he has been asleep since he came home drunk from the neighbor.
In Rothschild’s Fiddle (1894) there’s a different kind of humour. A melancholic humour. The old undertaker Yakov lives in a small town full of old people who refuse to die. Yakov always counts his losses: people who die elsewhere, holidays when he can’t work, etc. The only thing that makes him happy and comforts him, is his violin. He sometimes gets asked to play in a Jewish wedding orchestra, but only in case of emergency, because he always argues with the Jews, especially with a certain Rothschild. One evening his wife gets ill and she dies the next day. Her sudden death slowly makes Yakov realise that his life has not been about material missed opportunities, but about the immaterial things that he missed out on because of his behaviour. In his own way he makes up with Rothschild and leaves him his violin when he dies.
Greed and prejudice
Both stories deal with misplaced xenophobia and greed. Adrian only seems to befriend his German neighbor because he expects free food and drink. At the party he is quick to make friends with the Finnish watchman, because he can be of use to him. But when they make a joke at his expense, they’re all heathens. While Adrian was sleeping and cursing his new friends, those same friends stop by his house to invite him again. We don’t know if Adrian has learned anything from his nightmare, but judging by the fact that he has tea as if nothing happened when he wakes up, I fear not.
Yakov does realise after the death of his wife and before his own, that he has always been wrong, that it was completely unnecessary to treat his wife and Rothschild badly. His wife is already dead, but he can still make up for it with Rothschild. He leaves Rothschild his most prized possession; his violin and something immaterial: a song. It’s a sad song that makes people cry, but they always ask Rothschild to play it again.
© Elisabeth van der Meer – text and photo (The Fiddler (1913) – by Chagall at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam)
*There’s a scene in the story where “Before the door of the house in which the deceased lay, the police had already taken their stand, and the trades-people were passing backwards and forwards, like ravens that smell a dead body”. Tolstoy apparently borrowed this scene for War and Peace, when Pierre’s father dies: “While he was getting down from the carriage steps two men, who looked like tradespeople, ran hurriedly from the entrance and hid in the shadow of the wall. Pausing for a moment, Pierre noticed several other men of the same kind hiding in the shadow of the house on both sides.”