Chekhov (1 of 5)

November 2, 2009

Each day over this work week I hope to put up a run through of one of the stories in Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s translation of Anton Chekhov’s Short Novels. Today it’s The Steppe.

The story concerns a young boy traveling across the countryside of the Russian Empire to meet his new caregivers. His father has died, and his uncle, a merchant, has arranged for the young man, Egorushka, to get schooling a ways away. The uncle, Ivan Kuzmichov, and a rector, Father Khristofor, are accompanying the boy; or rather, the boy is accompanying them, as they’ve shoehorned Egorushka’s trip to his new home into a business trip. That’s really just about all you need to know about the plot, because I think Chekhov is more concerned with describing Russians, the psychology of a young boy, and the steppe. And he’s great at it.

Take this passage:

Mowed rye, tall weeds, milkwort, wild hemp– all of it brown from the heat, reddish and half dead, how washed by the dew and caressed by the sun– were reviving to flower again. Martins skimmed over the road with merry cries, gophers called to each other in the grass, somewhere far to the left peewits wept. A covey of partidges, frightened by the britzka fluttered up and, with its soft “trrr,” flew off towards the hills. Grasshoppers, crickets, capricorn beetles, mole crickets struck up their monotonous chirring music in the grass.

But a little time passed, the dew evaporated, the air congealed, and the deceived steppe assumed its dismal July look. The grass wilted, life stood still. The sunburnt hills, grown-green, purple in the distance, with their peaceful, shadowy tones, the plain with its distant mistiness, and above them overturned the sky, which, in the steppe, where there are no forests or high mountains, seems terribly deep and transparent, now looked endless, transfixed with anguish…

How stifling and dismal!

Maybe that doesn’t do anything for you, but having lived in Iowa, this is one of the most evocative descriptions of plains and agricultural area I’ve ever read. Later, Chekhov gets in an absolutely dazzling description of a summer storm and Egorushka’s terror at nature’s fury.

… He reasssumed his former position, stuck his knees out into the rain, and began thinking what to do, how to straighten the invisible bast mat in the dark. But his arms were already wet, water ran down his sleeves and behind his collar, his shoulder blades were cold. And he decided to do nothing but sit motionless and wait till it all ended.

“Holy, holy, holy…” he whispered.

Suddenly, just above his head, the sky broke up with a frightful, deafening crash; he bent over and held his breathe, waiting for the pieces to fall on his neck and back. His eyes opened inadvertently, and he saw a blinding, cutting light flash and blink some five times on his fingers, on his wet sleeves, on the streams running off the bast may, on the bale, and on the ground below. Another clap resounded, just as strong and terrible. The sky no longer rumbled or crashed, but produced dry, crackling noises, like the creaking of dry wood.

Later in the same scene, in his terror, Egorushka imagines some approaching travelers to be giants wielding spears. Throughout the story Chekhov demonstrates an incredible sensitivity to Egorushka’s psyche; maybe this is because he relates to the young protagonist. It may be a bit of a stretch, but Chekhov’s father was unpleasant to say the least. By making Egorushka fatherless and abandoning him to a savage wilderness maybe Chekhov is approximating his own youth.

About half-way through the journey Egorushka’s uncle and Father Khristofor leave to seal the business deal and let little Egor continue on with a caravan of peasants. This is simultaneously some of the warmest and coldest prose in the story, as Chekhov uses the opportunity to paint a portrait of the life of poor Russians. A former choir-boy who’s lost his voice, a malicious prankster, and an old man with a pious saying always on his lips make up the crew Egorushka finishes his journey with.

“When God grants, then we’ll go… We can’t go now, it’s hot… Oh, Lord, as Thou wilt, Holy Mother… Lie down, lad!”

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