• Natalie Nider

The Bet by Anton Chekhov - Book Review

"To prove to you in action how I despise all that you live by, I renounce the two million of which I once dreamed as of paradise and which now I despise."

A long time favorite of mine and possibly the piece of fiction that popped my transgressive fiction cherry, The Bet by Anton Chekhov. A short story, this is one that really captures the sentiment of existentialism and is the embodiment of what transgressive fiction essentially aspires to do: mind fuck you into a cynical but realistic outlook on life.

Is capital punishment more humane than life imprisonment? That's the topic of discussion for a party full of reasonably intelligent men in The Bet.

What starts out as a bet between an old wealthy banker and a young lawyer becomes something else entirely, an existential breakthrough. The bet between these two men is that if the lawyer can spend fifteen years in one of the lodges of the banker's garden with nothing but books, a musical instrument, food, and wine then the banker would pay the man two million. The lawyer is not allowed any newspapers, human contact of any kind, or to receive letters.

I don't know about you ... but personally, if I wasn't a parent and had several responsibilities to keep up with -- that sounds like a damn good time. I am already anti-social and only leave the house for errands. Give me an endless supply of the books that I want, nicotine of some sort, alcohol, some way to listen to music ... I might forget all about the bet. Might just have to drag me out of that room.

Anyway ...

Shortly after the bet is made, while the lawyer is confined, the banker is broke and has his money tied up in several things. He doesn't have the two million to give to the lawyer. Would have been nice to tell the lawyer that sooner but digress ... Just a day before the end of the fifteen years the banker panics at the thought of going bankrupt over this bet.

The lawyer does something next that is just the epitome of the transgressive fiction attitude. It's not enough to refuse this banker's money, the lawyer also takes the time in a letter to explain exactly why he doesn't want a single cent from the man.

It's poetic.

... And I despise your books, I despise wisdom and the blessings of this world. It is all worthless, fleeting, illusory, and deceptive, like a mirage. You may be proud, wise, and fine, but death will wipe you off the face of the earth as though you were no more than mice burrowing under the floor, and your posterity, your history, your immortal geniuses will burn or freeze together with the earthly globe. You have lost your reason and taken the wrong path. You have taken lies for truth, and hideousness for beauty. You would marvel if, owing to strange events of some sorts, frogs and lizards suddenly grew on apple and orange trees instead of fruit, or if roses began to smell like a sweating horse; so I marvel at you who exchange heaven for earth. I don't want to understand you. To prove to you in action how I despise all that you live by, I renounce the two million of which I once dreamed as of paradise and which now I despise. (...)

You can read The Bet by Anton Chekhov here to appreciate the magnitude of exactly how great this short story is and the talent of Anton Chekhov. And don't hesitate to reach out to me so that we can obsess over it together.

The Bet will remain a top favorite of mine until I kick the bucket.

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