Anton Chekhov was born in 1860, just a year before the emancipation of the serfs in Russia. Many of the peasants in his stories are still laboring for the old masters on the old acres and others are land-workers, hiring out for the day. The country is a vast landmass with nine months of winter which in some of Chekhov’s fictions were thought to account for the sloth and the passivity of the fortunate classes, and for the god-forsaken numbness of the hordes of the poor.
So often in Chekhov’s stories there is an opening on a magnificent day; vast clear skies, the smell of new-mown hay, “languid, transparent woods.” And in an ending on the water—in the story “Gusev,” for example—after a sick man has been sewn in canvas and thrown to the sharks: “A broad green shaft comes from behind the clouds and stretches to the very middle of the sky. ... The sky turns a soft lilac. Seeing this magnificent, enchanting sky; the ocean frowns at first, but soon itself takes on such tender, joyful, passionate colors as human tongue can hardly name.”
The snow falls like a shroud; the holes in the road could almost swallow an old horse; there is mud everywhere; and inside screaming for the serving girl to light the stove so that the mistress can arise. Chekhov is only in passing a landscape painter, but the reader notes that the landscape is always there, in a few sentences, a paragraph, perhaps serving as authorial craft, or as a memory, a vision set apart from the human dramas to make a suffering life more bearable: the warm May wind before a real storm gathers.
The storm in the human heart, if such a phrase is acceptable, is what the magical stories by Chekhov seem to know with an almost ghostly intimacy. Thirty of his stories are presented in a brisk new translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky with an interesting introduction. Chekhov wrote a great many stories—there are thirteen volumes in the Ecco Press edition—and others might have been chosen by Pevear and Volokhonsky. But here is their fine book, a useful and challenging revelation to meet a wanderer in a bookstore.
“Sleepy”: a bedtime story. It is night, the baby is howling without pause, and Varka, a thirteen year old girl, her eyes drooping, is rocking the cradle. The mother comes to nurse the baby, and hands it back to the nodding girl, saying: “Sleeping, you slut!” Next door the master and his apprentice are snoring. Outside the big house, Varka’s family, peasants on the place, are also howling, because the father is dying, and the night passes with the sleepless Varka called to bring the firewood, to set up the samovar, to clean the master’s galoshes, to wash the steps, to peel potatoes. “Her head droops on the table ... the knife keeps falling from her hand.” Guests arrive and it is: Varka, fetch the vodka, Varka, clean the herring. The guests leave, the lights are put out, and the last call is: “Varka, rock the baby.” Varka, in her daze, ponders the problem of her life and decides that “the enemy is the baby.” She strangles the baby in his crib and “quickly lies down on the floor, laughing with joy that she can sleep, and a moment later is already fast asleep, like the dead. ...”
This tender, terrible story is all of five pages long. The baby, Varka, the master, the mistress, the guests, Varka’s dying father, two days and nights passing. That is all. Chekhov does not offer a moral; his summation is to be found in the words “like the dead.” Like the dead baby, or like the death that will come to Varka?
Chekhov’s grandfather was a serf who bought his freedom before the emancipation; his father was a tradesman who did not prosper. The family in which he grew up was a close family, which no doubt created an atmosphere of kindness that caused the writer to notice the absence of humility and understanding in so many of the embattled families portrayed in his fictions. Chekhov received a good education, and also a deep experience of the Orthodox church, which illuminates the stories even though the writer lost his faith.
“Easter Night”: a strange setting for the words of the ferryman, a novice in a religious order who is mourning the death of an old monk who wrote beautiful, original canticles in honor of Christ, the Virgin Mother, and the saints. The ferryman remembers the words: “Tree of bright fruit, tree of good-shading leaves ... Besides smoothness and eloquence, sir, it is necessary that every little line be adorned in all ways, to have flowers in it, and lightning, and wind, and sun, all the things of the visible world.” Even though it is Easter, the faithful novice-ferryman is not relieved of his duties on the boat. The narrator grieves for him: “There would be no happier man in the whole church. But now he is going back and forth across the dark river and pining for his dead brother and friend.”
“The Bishop”: Death, which concludes so many of Chekhov’s tales, often with great suddenness, will bring a moment of transformation. The Bishop is ill. He will die before Easter. The story begins: “On the eve of Palm Sunday the vigil was going on in the old Petrovsky Convent.” Although he is in great distress, the Bishop will perform his duties: “The first Gospel, the longest, the most beautiful, he read himself.” He is a modest man who regretted the fear that his exalted position aroused even in his old mother. On his deathbed, “he imagined he was now a simple, ordinary man, and he was free as a bird and could go wherever he liked.”
Chekhov’s family left their village and moved to Moscow, where he joined them to enter medical school. Along the way, he began to write stories, and when they brought him critical recognition he devoted his short life to writing fiction and the exquisite plays. Medical school, hospitals, disease, doctors’ visits in the stories—all of this inflamed his imagination as he sat at his desk creating the swarm of Russian life at the end of the nineteenth century.
“Ward No. 6”: a complex, celebrated story that takes place in a provincial hospital. One wing is set aside for the mad; and although it is seldom visited by the staff, the doctor in the story becomes fascinated by an inmate who is suffering from persecution mania. The development of the affliction is described with sharp, glancing detail. The appearance of a policeman in the street makes the poor man believe he is to be accused of a crime and so “he smiled and began to whistle in order to appear indifferent.” He feared that a bribe would be put into his pocket to frame him for malfeasance. “His thoughts had never been so supple and inventive as now.” The plot of the story is that the doctor becomes so enthralled by the madman that he “began visiting the annex everyday... He went in the morning and after dinner, and often in the evening darkness...” The staff could not understand “why he sat there for hours at a time, what he talked about, why he did not make any prescriptions.” The ending of the story is that the doctor is himself locked up in Ward No. 6.
The hospital itself is a hive of cockroaches, bedbugs, and mice; there are only two scalpels and not a single thermometer; potatoes are stored in the bath. To complain, or to suggest that the place is torn down, would not go over well with the town officials. “Everyday filth and muck are necessary because in time they turn into something useful as dung turns into black earth.” Edmund Wilson tells us that the young Lenin, already a revolutionist but for a time trapped in his native village, wrote in a letter to his sister that “I absolutely had the feeling that I was shut up in Ward 6 myself.”
“Beating”: The doleful word “beating” appears in many of Chekhov’s stories. A large population that had to work or starve excited this privilege: in Chekhov’s universe, knocking an inferior about was as automatic as bowing to a superior on the street. (Turgenev’s mother, a rich landowner, was an infamous brute, strong as an athlete, given to marathon thrashings until she fainted.) Shopkeepers, factory- managers, petty officials, and their insolent women back home beat a peasant child for taking a cookie, and a housemaid for slowness; husbands beat their wives for impudence, for complaining, and for just being there when they come home drunk, which is how they come home in this landscape where a flood of alcohol marks the evening as cups of tea mark the day.
“The Huntsman”: He is a strong, handsome man of the people whose skill has led the local squire to take him into his house as a cherished companion on the hunt. One day the huntsman is alone in the field and hears a plaintive voice calling for him. It is his wife, a poor landworker, begging him to come home. The huntsman feels free and happy, spoiled and footloose. He is known as the best shot in the whole district, and he is enjoying his reputation. His marriage was a drunken joke. But the forlorn wife, making a sort of claim, pleads with him: “You stopped by our cottage for a drink of water on Easter day ... You swore at me, beat me, and left ... If only you’d come one little time.”
“Vanka”: The nine year old boy is writing to his grandfather on Christmas Eve. “Have pity on me, a wretched orphan, because everyone beats me ... And the other day the master hit me on the head with a last, so that I fell down and barely recovered ... I remain your grandson, Ivan Zhukov. dear grandpa, come.”
There is much weeping in Chekhov’s stories: eyes brimming with tears; weeping for sadness when the son leaves, weeping for joy when he returns. Weeping for the beauty of the moon beyond the window. As in “The Bishop”: “Tears glistened on his face, his beard. Then someone else began to weep near him, then someone else further away, then another and another, and the church was gradually filled with quiet weeping.”
The poor in the stories have an innocent ignorance as they try to make their headscratching way through the convoluted, abrupt commands of officials, documents, bureaucratic encounters, or commonsense. In “The Malefactor,” a peasant in a “calico shirt and patched trousers” is brought before the magistrate because he has been taking nuts from the railway ties to use as sinkers for his fishing rod. The official inquires about the nuts that they found in searching the peasant’s place, and the confused man replies: “You mean the one that was under the little red trunk?” Explanations that the nut ties the rail to the track are answered by: “We don’t unscrew all of them. ... We leave some.” When he is told he must go to prison, the poor man says: “Your Honor! I haven’t got time. I have to go to the fair, and also get three roubles from Yegor for the lard. ...”
Chekhov produced some extremely brief stories, and they have an uncanny feeling of evanescence, as if caught in the air one day, born from a “hat with a feather in it” or “a yard with no grass,” “a black silk dress with fashionable sleeves.” At evening parties the unhappy land arouses moments of conversational idealism, before the guests leave to find a homeless wanderer who will be crying, “God bless you! Give alms!” What is to be done? Guilt and despair and then to bed. Beautiful young women carry baskets to the hungry or set up a school in the village; ideas float in the cigar smoke. “Blue blood, my dear fellow, has an historical justification, and to refuse to recognize it is, to my thinking, as strange as to refuse to recognize the antlers on a stag.”
In a long story called “My Life” (which is not included in Pevear and Volokhonsky’s volume) a young man has decided he will not work in a government office. Instead he will seek manual labor and the honor of it, even if this will mean disgrace to his family; especially to his boorish, violent father of minor noble ancestry. The young man gets a job painting houses, tiling the roofs. “I was living now among people to whom labor was obligatory ... and who worked like cart-horses, often with no idea of the moral significance of labor, and, indeed, never using the world ‘labor” in conversation at all” (Constance Garnett translation).
Status, posturing, bad faith, and the insecurity of position: all corrupt the newly risen. The workmen steal, and scorn the idealistic son of the boorish father. Many layers of society wander about in this elaborate tale. Later, when he is married to a well-born girl, who is herself troubled by the inequity and the falseness of complacent surroundings, they go to work on her farm in the countryside, to build a school for the peasants, who “steal the new wheels off our carts ... stole by night boards, bricks, tiles, pieces of iron.” The mortified hopes of the young wife seize her in a fury: “Is it possible these reptiles will go on living another year and a half in our yard? It’s awful! Awful!” The wife takes off for America, leaving the young man, now older, to mourn the loss of her presence. He is confused, saddened by what his preference for the dignity of labor has brought him. And yet he remains drawn to the peasants: “However uncouth a wild animal the peasant following a plough seemed, and however he might stupefy himself with vodka, still ... one felt there was in him what was needed, something very important.”
Evanescent; caught in the dusty air, the masterful brevity of a sigh; the shape of this great writer’s art was often described by his contemporaries as impressionistic. But put the tale aside, pause under the lamplight, and the memory is suddenly of a mysterious weight, an amplitude, a dazzling clarity—a memory of a dramatic emotional and spiritual magnitude. Even Chekhov’s most humble figure, trapped in blinding repetition, is not a type, but a singular being, as self-defined as the fated tics and caprices of a czar.
In this world of vagrant legitimacy, the rich overspend, and waste, and borrow; and their acres, their days of pleasant lunches and naps, pass into the dirty hands of a plebian, ill-mannered, shrewdly fawning man making his way into a life of flunkies, overdressed daughters, and servants always lazy and thieving. The licentious man-about-town says ta-ta to the pretty flirt and she makes her way back to her village to moan throughout the day and to eat turnips in the kitchen of her indigent folks, from whom she had fled by way of blue eyes, blonde curls and a neat, dancing foot.
The observation of Russian life found the liar, the grossly presumptuous, and the infidel cruel; but it was the winged span of Chekhov’s imagination that created the ever astonishing humanity of his pages. Violence, greed and carelessness are not forgiven; instead you often feel that the unholy are, unknown to themselves, battling against a dark, threatening emptiness. The benighted and the numb have seizures of dreaminess, flights of fancy in which they rush to greet a flimsy thread of hope. In “The Wife,” an unappetizing couple mistakenly believe for a few hours that the wife has won the lottery. The husband dreams of travel, of buying an estate, “eating an ice in the leafy summer heat” ... bathing in the water where “little fish flit to and fro and green water-weeds nod their head.” And then he remembers that his wife is ugly, stingy, and complaining, that the only thing they share is a snuffling hatred of each other.
The disabused Chekhov, without illusion about the triumph of virtue or personal ennoblement by dinner-table idealism, did in his active life what he could on behalf of honesty and justice. He helped in the cholera and famine epidemics of 1891 and 1892; he made a punishing trip to the penal colony on Sakhalin Island and wrote an important book exposing the degrading conditions. By remaining faithful to the misery of life as he saw it, Chekhov was (one wants to say) a happy man. In Moscow he was known and his literary genius was acknowledged, if in the fitful manner so often experienced by a living artist. In the introduction to the present selection of his stories, Pevear writes that he was “less faithful to the women who fell in love with him—and many did.” “There was Lika Mizinova, with whom he was ‘nearly’ in love, but then failed to keep a rendezvous while traveling abroad in 1894.” Five years before his death he married Olga Knipper, an actress in the Moscow Art Theater. He was only forty-four years old when he died in Germany of tuberculosis.
Chekhov was the last in the nineteenth century explosion of prose genius in backward Russia, with its illiterate masses, its small educated class, its lack of a major European language (which was shown by the upper-class habit of decorating conversation with bits of French). That a literature of such abundance should have come from Russia was beyond prediction. In this respect, it rather resembled the Marxist revolution of 1917, which was designed for Germany, not for the steppe and the tundra.
For the English reader, this literature came by way of the sacrificial labor of the noble Constance Garnett. Perhaps there should be a statue erected to her in London—maybe in the monumental Soviet style, since she was indeed a Stakhanovite. In his beautiful book on Gogol, Nabokov raged against her translation of DeadSouls. We are bound to honor the spasms of pain that this madly gifted linguist and lexicographer endured while flipping through a transcription of Gogol’s word-drunk masterpiece; but it is otherwise for us, and a banning of Constance Garnett would be like a declaration of war against Schlegel and Tieck’s Hamlet in a German gymnasium.
Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky are scholars of Russian language and literature, and one hopes that it is not too finicky, in ignorance of the original language, to make a scattered comparison of their translation and the version by Constance Garnett. There are insignificant changes of titles: “Easter Eve” here and “Easter Night” there. At times the current workers prefer “snacks” to C.G.’s “sweetmeats”; but more troubling is an occasional bit of hip street talk: “Have a drink, a bite to eat, then hit the sack.” In Garnett it is: “To drink and to have a bit of supper and tumble off to sleep.”
Chekhov’s language is more or less plain, and also wild and unexpected in simple descriptions: “On his bead a whole mop of long-uncombed matted hair, which endowed him with a still greater spider-like sternness.” That is Pevear and Volokhonsky, in “The Malefactor.” Here is Garnett: “On his head there is a perfect mop of tangled, unkempt hair, which gives him an even more spider-like air of moroseness.” Was there a need for a retranslation? Perhaps not; but shall we say that no harm has been done.
One puzzle of a tale entitled “The Fidget” in the new translation does not appear in the Garnett list. Searching her texts, we find it under the title “The Grasshopper.” The interesting thing is that the heroine of this important story is not spoken of as a “fidget” nor compared to a “grasshopper.” Perhaps Chekhov’s word is untranslatable as a description of Olga Ivanova, the restless, pretty young woman whose life is love of the local celebrities in painting, the theater, and the concert hall. She herself tries everything: “She sang, played the piano, painted, sculpted, took part in amateur theatricals.” She marries a serious, hard-working doctor because he spent whole days and nights at her dying father’s bedside. To her friends the doctor seems negligible, unimportant, and carelessly dressed; he has “a salesman’s beard.” “However, if he had been a writer or an artist, they would have said his little beard made him look Emile Zola.”
Dymov, the doctor, is one of Chekhov’s most heartbreaking portraits. “Every day from nine o’clock till noon he received patients and was busy with his ward, and in the afternoon he took a horse-train to the other hospital where he dissected dead patients.” The doctor loves his pretty, vivacious wife, and she is fond of him; but she does not understand his profound dedication to the sick and to science, and the dangers of it. He caught erysipelas in the hospital and had to shave his head. Olga put a scarf around the shorn head and began painting him as a Bedouin.
Olga is unfaithful with a painter, and poor Dymov suspects her infidelity and would forgive her, if only she could share his delight that he had finished his thesis and could be offered a post as assistant professor of pathology. “Olga did not understand what an assistant professor of general pathology was, and besides she was afraid to be late to the theater.” Dymov is taken seriously ill with diphtheria. “On Tuesday he sucked diphtherial membrane from a sick boy’s throat with a tube.” His friend, a doctor, sits through the night as Dymov is dying, and in the end denounces Olga for her escapades, her theatrics, her love of clothes, her ignorance of the great man who loved her.
He’s dying because he sacrificed himself. ... What a loss for science! ... Compared to us all, he was a great, extraordinary man! So gifted! What hopes we all had in him! ... And what moral strength! ... A kind, pure, loving soul, not a man, but crystal! He served science and died from science. And he worked like an ox, day and night, nobody spared him …
The last lines of this pure cry of anguish for a good, modest, valuable man are:
Go to the church caretaker and find out where the almshouse women live. They’ll wash the body and prepare it—they’ll do everything necessary.
The passion and the indignation—Chekhov’s.