Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 598
“The Beginning of an Idea” is a story about a French woman’s abortive attempt to fulfill her ambition to write an imaginary life of the Russian author Anton Chekhov. It begins with a passage from Eva Lindberg’s notes, repeated throughout the story, about how the word “oysters” was chalked on the side of the wagon that brought Chekhov’s body to Moscow for burial. His body was carried in the oyster wagon to preserve it from the heat.
Also among Eva’s notes is an almost full translation of a very short story by Chekhov entitled “Oysters.” The Chekhov story is about a starving father and son on the streets of Moscow; the father is trying to decide whether to beg for food. The boy, who Eva imagines to be Chekhov, sees a sign in a restaurant window with the word “Oysters” and asks the father what it means. When the father says an oyster is an animal that lives in the sea that people eat, the boy begs some people going into the restaurant for oysters; when they give him some, he mistakenly eats the shells while the men laugh. Eva wants to write an imaginary life of Chekhov, beginning with the day outside the restaurant and ending when the body reaches Moscow in the oyster wagon.
After this prologue, the story’s action begins with the wife of Arvo Meri, with whom Eva has been having an affair, phoning Eva and calling her a whore after finding out about their affair. Later Arvo arrives with flowers to apologize for his wife’s behavior. Eva wants them to have a life together and reminds him that once before when she got pregnant, he told her it was not the right time, so she had an abortion. Now when he tells her he cannot leave his wife, she says she does not want to see him again.
Eva, a theater director, decides to make a change she has long wanted: to leave the theater and try to write. She contacts some rich friends who have a vacation house in Spain and asks if she can use it. After having dinner with a poet she knows, who warns her about living in Spain alone with hordes of randy Spaniards, she takes the train to Barcelona and a bus to the house. On the bus she meets a Swedish homosexual who asks if he can stay in a room at the house, but she says she wants to be alone.
After arriving at the house, she tries to write, but although she has a beginning and an end to her story of Chekhov, she can write nothing. The only person she sees is a local police officer named Manolo who brings her a telegram from her old theater asking her to translate a Russian play, a task that she gladly undertakes.
When Manolo asks her to order contraceptives for him because his wife already has had two children in two years and they cannot afford any more, she agrees, even though it is a crime in Spain to have contraceptives. Manolo and his chief then come to her house drunk and threaten her with jail if she refuses to have sex with them. She does so and afterward cries with rage at being so stupid, packing up her things and taking a train to Barcelona. She thinks she tastes oysters and has the sudden desire to look out the train window to see if the word “oysters” is chalked on a wagon, but there is no wagon there.
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