Sunday, 10 October 2021

The Steppe and Other Stories

This is a Penguin edition, translated by Ronald Wilks. 

1/ Writing about Chekhov is difficult, as nothing seems to happen in his stories, and yet… 

Take “Verochka” for example. The story is about the last evening of Ognyov in a town, having stayed there for some time to gather statistics, before he returns to St Petersburg. Having said goodbye to his old friend Kuznetsov, he leaves, and on the way, meets Kuznetsov’s daughter Vera, or Verochka. Verochka asks whether they can walk together; he thinks to himself “Why has she come with me? Now I’ll have to see her back”, but it’s a lovely night and he is filled with feeling for both Kuznetsov and Verochka because they’re such kind and wonderful people and he may never see them again.

Nothing seems to happen as they walk and he reminisces about the past, his first day in the town. But something takes over Verochka as he talks about meeting again perhaps in ten years’ time—she seems agitated, and all of a sudden (as it appears to Ognyov), she confesses her love for him. 

“The wood, the wisps of mist and the dark ditches on the sides of the path seemed hushed as they listened to her. But in Ognyov’s heart something strange and unpleasant was happening. When she declared her love Verochka had been enchantingly appealing, had spoken nobly and passionately; but now, instead of the pleasure and rejoicing in life that he would have liked to have felt, he experienced nothing but pity for her, pain, and regret that such a fine person should be suffering because of him. […]

And to compound his embarrassment he had absolutely no idea what to say – yet speak he must. To tell her bluntly, ‘I don’t love you’ was beyond him, nor could he bring himself to say ‘Yes’, since for all his soul-searching he could not find one spark of feeling within him…” 

The passage for some reason makes me think of “The Kiss”, another great story by Chekhov:

“Ryabovich stood by the door with guests who were not dancing and watched. Not once in his life had he danced, not once had he put his arm round an attractive young woman’s waist. He would usually be absolutely delighted when, with everyone looking on, a man took a young girl he hadn’t met before by the waist and offered his shoulders for her to rest her hands on, but he could never imagine himself in that situation. There had been times when he envied his fellow-officers’ daring and dashing ways and it made him very depressed. […] But over the years this realization had become something of a habit and as he watched his friends dance or talk out loud he no longer envied them but was filled with sadness.”

At the party, Ryabovich wanders and gets lost, and in the dark he is kissed by an unknown girl who mistakes him for someone else. Ryabovich, who has never danced and never put his arm around a young woman’s waist, receives a kiss. The trivial incident is to him significant—he sees the world differently, he daydreams—and yet nothing happens, he can never know who the girl was, his life doesn’t change.

Ognyov seems to be similar. He perhaps doesn’t feel the same kind of loneliness or sadness, but like Ryabovich, he seems not to have had a relationship or experienced love. But when a fine girl does fall in love with him and lets him know, he feels none of the pleasure he would have liked to feel.   

“His conscience troubled him and when Verochka disappeared from view it began to dawn on him that he had lost something very precious and close that he would never find again. He felt that with Verochka part of his youth had slipped away and that those moments he had lived through so fruitlessly would never be repeated.

When he reached the bridge he stopped and reflected. He wanted to find the reason for his strange coldness. It did not lie outside, but within him – that was clear. […] 

From the bridge he walked slowly, reluctantly as it were, into the wood. Here, where in places sharply outlined patches of moonlight appeared against the impenetrable darkness and where he was aware of nothing but his own thoughts, he longed passionately to recapture what he had lost.”

Nothing changes, his life would go on as before. Ognyov cannot behave otherwise, he cannot force himself to return Verochka’s feelings. And yet he knows he has “lost something very precious and close that he would never find again”.

2/ “The Name-Day Party”, together with “Three Years”, makes me think Chekhov is one of the greatest writers about marriage.  

In “The Name-Day Party”, Chekhov focuses on Olga’s perspective at the name-day party for her husband Pyotr. They have become distant—he’s occupied with his personal problems without sharing with her as he once did, and she, heavily pregnant and exhausted, has to be a good hostess and talks to guests she doesn’t care for. The couple can hardly talk, and she bottles up her jealousy and anger and resentment all day only to let it all out when the guests are gone. 

“… Expecting her to say more horrible things, he leant hard on the back of the couch, and his whole body looked just as helpless and childish as his smile.

‘Olga, how could you say a thing like that?’ he whispered.

Olga came to her senses. Suddenly she was aware of her mad love for that man, remembering that he was Pyotr, her husband, without whom she could not live one day, and who loved her madly too. She burst into loud sobs, in a voice that did not sound like hers at all, clasped her head and ran back into the bedroom.”

As Chekhov chose to focus on Olga’s perspective, he led us to think that Pyotr’s a terrible, unloving husband—but he isn’t. It’s a poignant moment.

“The Name-Day Party” is one of my favourite Chekhov stories. The childbirth scene from the woman’s perspective is remarkable. 

3/ “A Dreary Story”, “Gusev”, and “The Bishop” handle the same theme of dying—death. Others have compared Chekhov and Tolstoy, talking about the lack of epiphany and the rejection of Big Ideas in Chekhov’s stories, so I won’t talk more about it.

But look at this passage from the ending of “A Dreary Story”: 

“‘There’s nothing I can tell you, Katya,’ I say.

‘Help me!’ she sobs, seizing my hand and kissing it. ‘You’re my father, my only friend! You’re clever, educated, you’ve lived a long life! You were a teacher once! Tell me what to do!’

‘In all honesty, Katya, I don’t know.’

I am bewildered, embarrassed, moved by her sobbing and I can hardly stand.

‘Let’s have some lunch, Katya,’ I say, forcing a smile. ‘Now stop crying!’

And I immediately add in a sinking voice, ‘Soon I shall be dead, Katya…’

‘Just one word, one word!’ she weeps, stretching out her arms. ‘What can I do?’”

Chekhov, like Tolstoy, often writes about the distance, the gulf between human beings, the inability to truly know and understand another person. He also writes about people not listening to each other. But nothing in Chekhov quite strikes me with as much force as this simple exchange.  

4/ “A Dreary Story” is a great story. It hits too close to home, I feel. I see myself in Katya, and Chekhov makes me feel ashamed of my sneering and mockery.

I have always said that Jane Austen has no illusions whatsoever—neither does Chekhov, but his stories can hurt more. 

5/ See this passage from “Gusev”:

“The sea is without meaning, without compassion. Had the ship been smaller, had it not been made of thick iron, the waves would have smashed it without any compunction and devoured all the people, with no distinction between saints and sinners. Like the sea, the ship has a mindless, cruel look too. This beaked monster forges ahead and slices millions of waves in her path. She fears neither the dark nor the wind, nor the vast wastes, nor the solitude. It cares for nothing and had people been living in the ocean this monster would have crushed them too, sinners and saints alike.”

My copy mentions in the notes a few lines Chekhov wrote to Suvorin in 1890:

“On the way from Singapore two corpses were thrown into the sea. When you see a dead man wrapped up in canvas, somersaulting into the water, and when you bear in mind that it’s a few miles to the bottom it’s terrifying, and you begin to think that you yourself will die and be thrown into the sea.” 

6/ See this line from “The Duel”: 

“Ever since [Layevsky] finally made up his mind to go away and abandon Nadezhda she began to arouse pity and guilt in him. He felt rather shamefaced when he was with her, as though she were an old or sick horse that was going to be put down.”

Is that a deliberate allusion to Anna Karenina? Nadezhda has left her husband to live with Layevsky, like Anna leaves Karenin for Vronsky, and Anna Karenina is explicitly referenced twice in Chekhov’s novella. 

Nadezhda isn’t Anna however (she probably has more in common with Emma Bovary), and Layevsky isn’t Vronsky. 

“The Duel” is an interesting story, in its depiction of clashing temperaments and clashing ideologies. As a great writer, Chekhov gives each character strong arguments and at the same time exposes each one’s weaknesses and cruelties. The most memorable character in it is probably von Koren, the zoologist with extreme ideas about the strong and the weak, but Layevsky is also an interesting character, a superfluous man who blames his own weaknesses on the tenor of the times (note that Turgenev’s Rudin and Fathers and Sons were published in 1856 and 1862 respectively, “The Duel” came out in 1891).

Apart from the Anna Karenina references, Chekhov’s story makes me think of Tolstoy in a few ways—the clashing ideologies, the arguments, the idea about the meaning of life (and something like a moral purpose)—I can see Tolstoy’s influence, though Chekhov here is still his own man. And at the core of “The Duel” is the same theme that keeps appearing in Chekhov: a couple so wrapped up in themselves (and their own shame) that they fail to understand each other. 

(Their deceit makes me wonder what it would be like if “The Duel” were instead written by Ibsen—Ibsen’s obsessed with truth and deceit—“The Duel” under his pen would be so different, much colder, I imagine).

I love Chekhov more and more over time. 


  1. Chekhov said (in a letter to someone, I forget who but it might've been Gorky or his publisher Suvorin) that in order to write a story, all one needs is "a man, a woman, and a reason for them to be unhappy." He was only partly joking, I think. I agree that much of his best fiction is about the impossibility of actually connecting with another person, about psychic isolation if you will. I think Chekhov mostly viewed life from the vantage of an outsider, and an unsentimental one at that. I agree about the similarity to Austen!

    I also think that Austen and Chekhov are similar in that they are both fully in command of their materials, absolute masters of technique. Austen doesn't get recognized for her craftsmanship often enough, her careful arrangements full of observation and wit but also weirdly sort of austere, like a museum wing full of sculptures. Or something. The proper metaphor isn't coming, damn it.

    Whenever I am reading Chekhov, I wonder why I ever read anything else. Those are all good stories you mention. "A Dreary Story" is one of my favorites. I increasingly see myself in the narrator as I age, alas. I also really love "The Duel," especially the duel scene, where none of the participants actually knows the forms to be followed, and they end up trying to cobble something together from half-remembered incidents they've read in Lermontov and Pushkin. Nobody in the scene gets the joke. Good stuff.

    1. That sounds like a good idea, "a man, a woman, and a reason for them to be unhappy." Now I must see what I can do with that.
      "Austen doesn't get recognized for her craftsmanship often enough."
      Yeah, I always say that Austen's overhyped but underrated, but people probably think I'm joking, or talking nonsense. I do mean it though.
      I don't think she's always austere though, see Persuasion. That's a passionate one.
      I have a friend (French) who is a huge Chekhov fan, and "A Dreary Story" is his favourite. And yeah, "The Duel" did make me laugh at that scene.
      Right now I'm reading some early stories by Chekhov. They're good, but it's amazing to see how he developed from those early sketches and funny stories to, you know, "Three Years" or "A Dreary Story".


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