Thursday, May 19, 2016

this unknown land in the company of terrible peasants - Chekhov crosses the steppe

You cannot go over the road past the fence
Without trampling the universe.  (Boris Pasternak, “Steppe,” 1917, tr. Jon Stallworthy and Peter France)

Or at least seeing the universe, which is a possible summary of Anton Chekhov’s 1888 novella The Steppe.  Yegorushka, “a boy of nine with a sunburnt face, wet with tears,” is crossing the steppe with his uncle and an elderly priest.

It is a one-way trip for Yegorushka, thus the tears.  The men, including the priest, are selling wool, but the boy is going to a new school, far from home.  In the middle of the story, the uncle, for obscure reasons, hands the boy over to the wool-carters, who are traveling in the same direction, allowing Chekhov to mix the boy with characters of a different social class and some different incidents.

Not that there is much in the way of drama in The Steppe.  Yegorushka sees, feels, thinks.  He comes down with a fever near the end, but recovers.  When his uncle and the priest leave him at the end of the story (“something whispered in his heart that he would never see the old man again”) the boy

felt that with these people all that he had known till then had vanished from him for ever.  He sank helplessly on to the little bench, and with bitter tears greeted the new unknown life that was beginning for him now….

What would that life be like?  (302, ellipses Garnett’s)

The implication is that the events of the trip across the steppe are somehow significant, not symbolic but rather part of a web of associations or memories with either the boy’s past life or new life.  Or they are just a series of experiences, which I experience along with Yegorushka.

The travelers go past a prison, and memories stir.  Then a cemetery:

… white crosses and tombstones, nestling among green cherry-tree and looking in the distance like patches of white, peeped out gaily from behind the wall.  Yegorushka remembered that when the cherries were in blossom those white patches melted with the flowers into a sea of white; and that when the cherries were ripe the white tombstones were dotted with splashes like bloodstains.  (163)

Yegorushka’s grandmother is buried there.  He is still in familiar territory – old experiences, old memories.  But he is in a heightened, receptive emotional state.  Everything potentially means something, the distant windmill that is for hours the only interruption of the prairie, the marmots and birds, the storm, the peasants working or traveling, many of whom have their own little stories inset into the larger story, stories that could be independent Chekhov stories if the point of view were swiveled away from the boy.  But this way, these stories become Yegorushka’s stories.  Or not.  Maybe he forgets them.  Who knows?

And these men and the shadows round the camp fire, and the dark bales and the far-away lightning, which was flashing every minute in the distance – all struck him now as terrible and unfriendly.  He was overcome with terror and asked himself in despair why and how he had come into this unknown land in the company of terrible peasants? (270)

I’m not sure I have given a hint about what kind of masterpiece The Steppe is.  Tomorrow, a different approach.  Just ignore this post.

I read and quoted the Constance Garnett version found in The Bishop & Other Stories.


  1. "The Steppe" is an impressionistic tone poem, like La Mer. Absolutely a masterpiece.

  2. It's a bit like the old meaning of "masterpiece" - to achieve the title of master, the journeyman creates one piece that shows off everything he can do.

    "Tone poem" is good, too. What a range of effects.

    1. "The Steppe" earned Chekhov the Pushkin Prize, of course. When you read the letters he wrote after the story was published, you can see how proud of it he was: "I will never write anything as good." He was also aware that the work lacks the usual drama and the typical sort of unity found in fiction, and he worried that readers wouldn't see that it was deliberate. A lot of the scenes retain the compression of Chekhov's short fiction; he was still working on how he should stretch out and relax into all that length.

      I like that comparison with a craftsman; I think it's spot on.

    2. It would seem highly likely that Chekhov would never write anything as good. I can see why he would think that, why that would not have been false modesty.

  3. I read this seven and then about five years ago. At the time I felt it conveyed the vast emptiness of the Russian steppes. It brought to my mind storied of the American prairie and the gothic like characters encountered in passage

  4. The shortgrass prairie of the Great Plains, Willa Cather country, is a steppe. Different species filling the various ecological niches is all. Prairie chickens instead of corn crakes.

  5. My next stop in this satisfying tour of your posts and your reading. Very selfish, using it as prompts to review my own old posts. This one-- half-okay, but I always like yours better. Four years ago I wanted to read more Chekhov, and I still want to.

  6. Yes, more Chekhov, more, more. I have been reading Chekhov every day for a while now. I will get tired of him eventually. Gonna finish those Garnetts.