On gooseberries, Chekhov, still life painting and a bullying fatherby Theodore Dalrymple / January 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
Children do not much care for gooseberries. As a child I thought them an inferior fruit. In part this was because of their colour: pale green; I thought that a berry ought to be red. Also they were extremely sour: so sour, indeed, that-as the Germans say-they draw the holes in your socks together. For some reason I cannot recall, I conceived the idea early in my life that it was weak and ignoble to sweeten fruit with sugar. Even now I experience a vague feeling of guilt on doing so. If God created gooseberries sour, it was because He wanted them eaten sour.
Gooseberries were always served, in the England of my childhood, with custard, a yellow concoction with lumps in it and a skin that sent shivers down your spine. Meals in England in those days were treated as an ordeal which had to be gone through; now, thanks to greater awareness of the health implications of nutrition, they are more like medical procedures.
I spent a surprising amount of energy in my childhood evading not just gooseberries but gooseberry bushes. Our garden was terraced, with luxuriant bushes on one of its levels. My brother and I pushed each other into them; he was older and stronger, so he was more successful. I came to associate gooseberries with scratches and indignity.
During my adolescence and early adulthood, I forgot about gooseberries until I read the short story of that name by Chekhov. Written in 1898, it is not one of his great works, but it had a deep effect on me because it resonated so strongly with my own life. Gooseberries is the story of a minor civil servant, Nikolai Ivanich, who spends his bureaucratic career dreaming of a country estate where he will live the life of a landowner and drink soup made from home-grown cabbages. Essential to his dream are gooseberry bushes: “He could picture no manor house, no country idyll, without gooseberry bushes.”
His salary is small, and he becomes a miser. To save money for the estate, he dresses in rags and deprives himself of proper food. He marries an old and unattractive widow for her money, which he transfers to his own account, and he allows her none of the comforts to which she is accustomed. Before long, she dies, and eventually he accumulates enough cash to buy his estate. There is…