Friday, May 20, 2016

Chekhov makes the plants dance

This passage of “The Steppe” grabbed me – remember that the story is from the perspective of a boy traveling on the Russian prairie:

But at last, when the sun was beginning to sink into the west, the steppe, the hills and the air could bear the oppression no longer, and, driven out of all patience, exhausted, tried to fling off the yoke.  A fleecy ashen-grey cloud unexpectedly appeared behind the hills.  It exchanged glances with the steppe, as though to say, “Here I am,” and frowned…  [wind comes up]  Prickly uprooted plants ran stumbling and leaping in all directions over the steppe, and one of them got caught in the whirlwind, turned round and round like a bird, flew towards the sky, and turning into a little black speck, vanished from sight.  After it flew another, and then a third, and Yegorushka saw two of them meet in the blue height and clutch at one another as though they were wrestling.  (185-6)

This is not exactly a description of what Yegorushka sees, but a personification.  Is he the one who imagines that the steppe itself has lost patience, or that the cloud frowns, or that those magical plants have limbs and volition?  I love those dancing plants.  They return 90 pages later, when a real storm hits:

The tattered, ragged look of the storm-cloud gave it a drunken, disorderly air…  By now, most likely, the whirlwind eddying round and lifting from the earth dust, dry grass and feathers, was mounting to the very sky; uprooted plants must have been flying by that very black storm-cloud, and how frightened they must have been!  But through the dust that clogged the eyes nothing could be seen but the flash of lightning.  (273-4)

So Yegorushka sees nothing but is remembering the plants from the day before, wondering what had happened to them, where they have gone.  I have a hint here about the significance of the incidents of the story.  It is not just that the boy has a series of experiences, but that he imaginatively acts on them.

Maybe.  In “The Horse-Stealers,” a man is being robbed – his horse stolen – during a blizzard:

White clouds were floating about the yard, their long tails clinging to the rough grass and the bushes, while on the other side of the fence in the open country huge giants in white robes with wide sleeves were whirling round and falling to the ground, and getting up again to wave their arms and fight.  And the wind, the wind!  The bare birches and cherry-trees, unable to endure its rude caresses, bowed low down to the ground and wailed: “God, for what sin hast Thou bound us to the earth and will not let us go free?”  (18, The Horse-Stealers & Other Stories)

This is a little – a lot – too much to credit to a character 1) busy with other things and 2) so distinctly unimaginative.  “The Horse-Stealers” is the most frightening Chekhov story I know.  This fellow stares evil in the face and his only response is to feel ashamed that he does not have the strength of character to be evil himself, because it seems like evil would be fun, more fun than his miserable life, at least.  And this is in a world where the trees are Orthodox believers, at least.

The next step is “Gusev,” right?  So I’ll write about “Gusev” next.  Chekhovian metaphysics.


  1. after reading the excerpts, my brain is kind of whirling around; what's the paraphrase, "which is the glass and which is the hand"? or something like that... i side of C. i for one have never seen. tx...

  2. No, the next step should be "The Beauties," another 1888 tale of the steppe. Sort of Yegorushka as a teenage boy.

  3. I really enjoy Chekov. I read and reviewed a collection of his short stories that NYRB released last year.

  4. Even though I have locked myself in to reading Hemingway these days, you Chekhov postings nearly tempt me to abandon the Michigan bad boy in favor of the sublime Russian. I will hold that temptation at arm's length for a while. In the meantime, I will continue to enjoy your postings. And I'm going to search out whatever connections and influences there might be between EH and AC.

  5. Chekhov’s Horse-Stealers and Gusev are two of the pockets out of which the stories of that even greater artist, Isaac Babel, came out:
    I kneaded my numbed legs and, lying on the ripped-open mattress, fell asleep. And in my sleep the Commander of the VI Division appeared to me; he was pursuing the Brigade Commander on a heavy stallion, fired at him twice between the eyes. The bullets pierced the Brigade Commander’s head, and both his eyes dropped to the ground. ‘Why did you turn back the brigade?’ shouted Savitsky, the Divisional Commander, to the wounded man — and here I woke up, for the pregnant woman was groping over my face with her fingers.
    ‘Good sir,’ she said, ‘you’re calling out in your sleep and you’re tossing to and fro. I’ll make you a bed in another corner, for you’re pushing my father about.’
    She raised her thin legs and rounded belly from the floor and removed the blanket from the sleeper. Lying on his back was an old man, a dead old man. His throat had been torn out and his face cleft in two; in his beard blue blood was clotted like a lump of lead.
    ‘Good sir,’ said the Jewess, shaking up the feather bed, ‘the Poles cut his throat, and he begging them: “Kill me in the yard so that my daughter shan’t see me die.” But they did as suited them. He passed away in this room, thinking of me. — And now I should wish to know,’ cried the woman with sudden and terrible violence, ‘I should wish to know where in the whole world you could find another father like my father?’
    Silence overcame all. Only the moon, clasping in her blue hands her round, bright, carefree face, wandered like a vagrant outside the window.

  6. Having stared into the eyes of a Chekhov portrait today at the NPG, thinking about your quotes above, I'm even more convinced of his genius.


  7. Brain whirling around - me too, me too.

    "The Beauties" is a good direction - a different direction. No dancing plants in that one. Well, just one.

    "Gusev" is the way towards Babel's startling moon. What, her hands, her face!

    Melissa, I will be blunt. The stories form 1888 and on are between 40 and 100 times better than anything in The Prank. 400 to 1,000 times better, as measured with precise literary implements.

    Why is Chekhov in the NPG? Wait, I figured it out - what a treat.

    Tim, I thought Hemingway was a good boy from Oak Park. I am sure I have seen his report cards at his childhood home. A model citizen. This piece of CHekhov I am following is directly related to your "earth abides" post, actually.