Posted by: zhiv | March 26, 2012

Chekhov, The Steppe

It seems that I like to make apologies (to myself I suppose, as much as anyone else) for my sloppy reading habits. Perhaps I should just accept that the ebb and flow is a more pronounced tide than I might like it to be. The problem is that I can go for weeks and months glancing around and flitting about from book to book, and “latching on” is a highly suggestive figure of speech with regards to reading.

I’ll even go a little bit deeper–why not, especially since my blogging binge is a displacement from the little book I’ve been writing, which has hit a snag. There was a lot going on towards the latter part of the fall, a ridiculous, overwhelming tumult at the end of a ridiculous, overwhelming year. A surprising window suddenly opened up and I had the opportunity to move my horribly isolated, depressed and drunken Aged Female Parent out of her house and into detox and assisted living. It has always been a bit of a schlep getting to my mom’s house, and going out there wasn’t exactly fun, to say the least. But the small consolation was that it’s around the corner from what now clearly seems to be the best (remaining) used bookstore in the city, and I would regularly decompress by looking over shelves stuffed with good books. An unread set of Chekhov’s complete “Tales” (13 vols., Ecco Press 1985, reprint of the Constance Garnett translation) showed up there one day, a handsome treat that I snapped up as a reward for my increasing filial ministrations and solace for my months of struggle. Having troubles–read Chekhov, right?

I never had The Steppe in my hodgepodge of different editions and collections, and I knew of it as Chekhov’s first major extended story and something of a breakthrough. So it was the lowest hanging fruit in my new complete Tales. Hodgepodge extends to translators and titles, so part of the trick will be trying to figure out and remember what I’ve read and what I haven’t, and getting better organized about everything, which I’ve been planning to do for two or three years now. The fun will be to discover good, substantial stories that I haven’t read (explaining all of this to myself now is an early step in the process). That will take some work, but I knew that The Steppe was, like I said, an obvious first stop.

I also knew it was beefy, and the problem is that I was at low ebb and unprepared. One of the things that’s remarkable about The Steppe is that it’s different from concise, evocative Chekhov. It’s literally “the story of a journey,” as it is subtitled, and it has the languid pacing of 19th century rural travel. This was not good for my own bad reading habits, but it was very good for helping me to fall asleep for a while there.

The story is 141 pages in this edition, virtually endless for Chekhov, and it’s divided into 8 sections or chapters. My starting and stopping was in the first 3 sections, which are the first 46 pages, and there’s a significant break in the narrative there, as the main character, the young boy Yegorushka, switches from traveling with his uncle Kuzmitchov in a coach, to joining a train of hay wagons driven by a set of peasants. This last half (or slightly more) I read like a real person, not a zombie, more responsibly, and it was engaging and enjoyable. Without breaking down this novella completely or attentively, more or less unable to do so, I’ll still allow myself a few observations.

The genius here–and I like to think that Chekhov is pretty much always a genius–is the choice of a young boy on the cusp of consciousness as a primary character. I know there are other Chekhov stories with children as focal points, but I don’t remember them in the plays at all, and this is the only extended reflection on childhood that I’m aware of. The most simple and powerful way of viewing the story is as a “journey” of a young boy into consciousness. Yegorushka is sleepy and confused as he gets into the coach with his uncle and the priest, who are taking him from his rural home to a provincial town to go to school. The idea is that Yegorushka is leaving behind his early childhood and his mother, and education is going to change him forever; he’ll never go back, and he’ll become something that is barely comprehensible to the old world. The characters that he meets on the journey are basic types, somehow given the spark of life by Chekhov, figures out of the past, and they’re like memories silhouetted against the empty expanse of the landscape, of the Steppe.

One can’t help but think that there’s an autobiographical element here, Chekhov’s view of the impact of his own schooling, and perhaps this story might be seen (and it could easily be a standard note) as his critique of the 19th c. bildungsroman. What more is needed for a portrait of the artist as a young man, and what is the essence of the formation of consciousness? A single, simple journey, going from home to town for schooling, and the initial encounter with worldly characters and the simple, child’s view of social organization, is all that is necessary. Chekhov himself came from a distant province, and an early childhood that his studies and entry into the larger world left far behind.

The other gigantically impressive thing here, not surprising and prefiguring an important part of chekhov’s dynamic method, is the role and power of the landscape, and the sense of scale that it gives to the narrative. Chekhov plays out an environmental and sensual fugue in broad and bold strokes, the tiny sleepy figure of Yegorushka dreaming and struggling to awaken as he slowly moves across a land that seems as infinite as the ocean, and once he has joined the peasant wagon train we smell the hay as he burrows into it, and feel the power of nature as a storm lashes down.

As I said, I did a bad job of getting into this story, and there are all sorts of riches in it that I’m missing and ignoring, but Chekhov is forgiving and makes it easy for anybody who wants to comment, however lamely, on his work. It’s all so readily enjoyable, and the simple power and grace here couldn’t be a better invitation for me to keep going and do a better job on my Chekhov studies. Like Yegorushka arriving at the home of the welcoming woman he will be living with, I know those trips out to my mom’s had a meaning I simply had to experience, and could never fully understand.


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