by anton chekhov
translated by richard pevear and larissa volokhonsky
knopf, 528 pages, $35
No writer understood loneliness better than Chekhov. People long for understanding, and try to confide their feelings, but more often than not, others are too self-absorbed to care. In Chekhov’s plays, unlike those of his predecessors, characters speak past each other. Often enough, they talk in turn, but do not converse. Dunyasha, the maid in The Cherry Orchard, is eager to tell Anya, who has just arrived from abroad, that the clerk Yepikhodov proposed to her. Anya is too absorbed in her own memories to listen.
Dunyasha: I’ve waited for you, my joy, my precious . . . I must tell you at once, I can’t wait another minute . . .
Anya: [listlessly] What?
Dunyasha: The clerk, Yepikhodov, proposed to me just after Easter.
Anya: You always talk about the same thing. . . . [Straightening her hair]. I’ve lost all my hairpins . . .
Dunyasha: I really don’t know what to think. He loves me—he loves me so!
Anya: [looking through the door into her room, tenderly] My, room, my windows. . . . I am home!
Chekhov’s audience cannot help thinking: If only we would enter into the feelings of others, life would be so much better.
In one early story, written before Chekhov imagined he could ever be a serious author, a cabman, Iona, tries time and time again to tell each of his fares about the death of his son, but everyone is in a hurry and no one pays any attention. He longs to share his grief, but he returns his horse to the stable as lonely as before. As the story ends, he at last addresses someone who appears to listen: his horse. “That’s how it is old girl,” he explains. “He went and died for no reason. . . .
Now suppose, you had a little colt, and you were own mother to that little colt. . . . And all at once that same little colt went and died. . . . You’d be sorry, wouldn’t you?” The story ends: “The little mare munches, listens, and breathes on her master’s hands. Iona is carried away and tells her all about it.”
The title of this story—the Russian word toska—has no exact English equivalent, but it is the emotion that characterizes much of human life as Chekhov saw it. The story itself could stand as an extended definition of the word. Constance Garnett translates it as “misery,” Pevear and Volokhonsky turn up the volume to “anguish,” but the sense is closer to “longing.” In Russian, when you miss someone, you toska (toskovat’) for him. We live missing something, longing for something, though we do not always know what.
Chekhov’s remarkable descriptions of nature almost always reflect a particular character’s mood, and in “The Steppe,” a long story about travelers crossing Russia’s endless, almost desolate plain, nature itself seems to call out its loneliness. The steppe goes on and on, always the same, “and the sky, which seems deep and transparent in the steppe, where there are no woods or high hills, seemed now endless, petrified with dreariness.” No matter how long one journeys, one seems to make no progress and cannot help wondering whether time itself might congeal and stop.
Unexpectedly, the travelers descry a solitary poplar that someone had planted:
God only knows why. . . . It was hard to tear the eyes away from its graceful figure and green drapery. Was that lonely creature happy? Sultry heat in summer, in winter frost and snowstorms, terrible nights in autumn when nothing is to be seen but darkness and nothing is to be heard but the senseless howling of the wind, and worst of all, alone, alone, for the whole of life.
A strange beauty resides in such lonely scenes, the beauty of human sadness and unanswerable questions. Looking at nature, it sometimes seems that this beauty expresses
the passionate thirst for life . . . the soul responds to the call of her lovely austere fatherland. . . . And in the triumph of beauty, in the exuberance of happiness you are conscious of yearning and grief, as though the steppe knew she was solitary, knew that her wealth and her inspiration were wasted in the world, not glorified in song, not wanted by anyone; and through the joyful clamor one hears her mournful, hopeless call for singers, singers!
Chekhov himself was that singer, and his story about the steppe its song. It is the song of an emotion we all feel but that no one else has expressed so poignantly. And that is one purpose of great literature: to help us recognize, and so be conscious of, what we experience but do not really notice.
In “The Pipe,” a bailiff hears a shepherd playing a rustic pipe. His five or six notes with no tune are unaccountably moving. The shepherd tells the bailiff that nature is suffering: Every year there are fewer birds and the forests keep thinning. Evidently, “The time has come for God’s world to perish,” and that is infinitely sad. “My goodness, what a pity!” says the shepherd.
The earth, the forest, the sky, the beasts of all sorts—all this has been created, you know, adapted; they all have their intelligence. It is all going to ruin. And most of all I am sorry for people.
The bailiff now reflects on his own ruined life. He must support eight children on a pitiful salary, and he is out wandering because his wife “has become a Satan from poverty. . . . If the world is going to end, I wish it would make haste about it. There’s no need to drag it out and make folks miserable for nothing.” But, like the steppe, time does drag on. As the bailiff goes on his way, one can feel
the approach of that miserable, utterly inevitable season, when the fields grow dark . . . when the weeping willow seems still more mournful and tears trickle down its stem, and only the cranes fly away from the general misery, and even they, as though afraid of insulting dispirited nature by the expression of their happiness, fill the air with their mournful, dreary notes.
The bailiff feels that in confiding his domestic hell to the shepherd he has barely touched on his sorrow: “He still wanted to complain. . . . [H]e felt insufferably sorry for the sky and the earth and the sun and the woods.” As he hears “the highest drawn out note of the pipe . . . quivering in the air, like a voice weeping, he felt extremely bitter and resentful of the impropriety in the conduct of nature.” The story ends: “The high note quivered, broke off, and the pipe was silent.” But that silence, too, is part of the song.
This story’s apocalypse is distinctly Chekhovian. There is no rending of the heavens, no sudden destruction of the earth, no Armageddon. Desolation is slow, uneventful, and moody. In this apocalypse of small things, the predominant feeling is that of pointless waste. Life’s real tragedy is prosaic, and Chekhov describes how individual lives are wasted prosaically. Critics often quote his comment on his plays:
Let the things that happen on stage be just as complex and yet just as simple as they are in life. For instance, people are having a meal, just having a meal, but at the same time their happiness is being created or their lives are being smashed up.
Plays traditionally featured uninterrupted action, but Chekhov created dramas of inaction, where the most common stage direction—his own trademark—is “a pause.” The only thing that happens in Chekhov’s play Three Sisters, one critic remarked, is that three sisters do not go to Moscow. Dramas misrepresent the world precisely because they are dramatic, but the really significant events are the small ones we barely notice, the kindnesses we forget to extend, the attention we do not pay, the opportunities we miss, and the inevitable waste that our omissions entail.
Chekhov specialized in the absent climax. In The Cherry Orchard, the saddest event is a marriage proposal that is not made. The play’s concluding stage direction—“a distant sound . . . that seems to come from the sky, the sound of a snapped string mournfully dying away”—is often regarded as surrealistic, but it is no more so than the notes of that shepherd’s pipe. The world is replete with unexplained sounds and moods as it is with questions we cannot answer. Olga’s lamentation at the very end of Three Sisters—“If we only knew, if we only knew!”—expresses an essential aspect of the human condition as Chekhov understood it.
Chekhov wrote a number of spectacular stories about religious faith, which he describes in a way few, if any, have matched. Those looking for faith would do well to read them. Faith contends with toska, and so even these stories describe the tragedy of failed communication. In one of his last tales, “The Bishop,” we follow the devout Bishop Pyotr from Palm Sunday to his death from typhus just before Easter. “As though in a dream or delirium,” he imagines he sees his old mother in church, and it turns out that she and her granddaughter have indeed come to visit. Pyotr desperately wants to unburden his soul to her, but she is so overawed by being in the presence of a bishop that she can only speak formally and is always looking for a reason not to sit down in his presence. Pyotr is distressed to overhear her talk unconstrainedly with the wandering monk Father Sisoy when she cannot talk with him. Only when the bishop is dying from typhus does she forget his rank and call out to him as her poor son. But he is already unconscious and cannot hear.
Still worse, within a month, when a new bishop is appointed, no one ever thinks of Pyotr again. As the story ends, his mother, now living with her poor son-in-law, a deacon, tells other women that she had a son who was a bishop, “and this she says timidly, afraid that she may not be believed. . . . And, indeed, there are some who do not believe her.”
The failure of characters to empathize causes incalculable harm. In “Enemies,” two sorrows clash. In Russia, doctors had low social status, as if they were just plumbers of the body, and the hero of “Enemies,” Doctor Kirilov, is poor, overworked, badly dressed, with thinning hair and hands scalded with carbolic acid. As the story opens, his only son has just died, and when Abogin, a wealthy visitor, comes to summon him to the bedside of his dying wife, Kirillov cannot at first take it in, “as though he did not understand Russian.” The usual literary ways of depicting grief will not do: “That repellent horror which is thought of when we speak of death was absent from the room. In the numbness of everything, in the mother’s attitude, in the indifference on the doctor’s face there was something that attracted and touched the heart, that subtle, almost elusive beauty of human sorrow which men will not for a long time learn to understand and describe, and which it seems only music can convey.” Kirilov’s sorrow has gone beyond any expression we imagine or find in lesser writers. Too overwhelming for complaint and wailing, it has passed into sheer abstraction from the present that distances him from unbearable pain. As the doctor leaves the room, apparently to get his things, “he raised his foot higher than necessary, and felt for the doorposts with his hands,” as if he did not know where he was. When he returns he cannot remember why Abogin is there.
We sense immediately their class difference. Like all good progressive, elite Russians, Abogin voices the politically correct sentiments of the day, which to Kirilov seem fake and condescending. When he appeals to the doctor to come “for the love of humanity,” the doctor replies: “Humanity—that cuts both ways.” He does not want to leave his grieving wife, but at last goes, as he must.
When they arrive at Abogin’s impressive home, they at last take each other’s measure. Abogin notices the doctor’s poor clothes, premature greyness, and “careless, uncouth manners . . . suggestive of years of poverty, of ill fortune, of weariness with life and men.” Abogin, by contrast, is elegantly dressed, has large, soft features, and his long hair carries “a suggestion of something generous, leonine.” The luxury of the drawing room makes Kirilov feel out of place, as does the violincello, and the “stuffed wolf, as substantial and sleek-looking as Abogin himself.”
Abogin runs up to his wife, only to discover that she has faked her illness to get him out of the house long enough to run off with her lover. In his distress, Abogin expresses not only horror at her betrayal but also at her insult to his progressive beliefs. A progressive husband was supposed to give his wife complete liberty and, if she fell in love with another, bless their union; and so her subterfuge suggests doubt of his progressive credentials. To the doctor, this display of elitist attitudes is beyond endurance.
They wind up hurling insults at each other. Each has been badly hurt and could help the other by empathizing with his sorrow, but each focuses only on his own injury. Very few emotions license more cruelty than a sense of one’s own victimhood. “The egoism of the unhappy was conspicuous in both,” Chekhov observes.
The unhappy are egoistic, spiteful, unjust, cruel and less capable of understanding each other than fools. Unhappiness does not bring people together but draws them apart, and even where one would fancy people should be united by the similarity of their sorrow, far more injustice and cruelty is generated than in comparatively placid surroundings.
And yet, although both men act cruelly and foolishly, Chekhov makes us empathize even with their failure of empathy.
As so often in Chekhov, just as we think we have grasped the point of the story, it goes a step further. As the doctor is on the way home, his thoughts do not return to his wife and dead son, but remain focused on his hatred for Abogin and for “all who lived in rosy, subdued light amid sweet perfumes, and he . . .
hated and despised them until his head ached. And a firm conviction took shape in his mind.”
That conviction is political. Unexpectedly, the story shows how class hatred arises and how the deepest political beliefs are formed. Most horribly, Kirilov’s new political hatred proves even more powerful than his terrible grief. The story concludes: “Time will pass, and Kirilov’s sorrow will pass, but that conviction, unjust and unworthy of the human heart, will not pass, but will remain in the doctor’s mind until the grave.” The worst evil arises not from wrong philosophy, or from economic exploitation, or from anything we do. No, as often as not, it arises from what we neglect to do, from the failure to put ourselves in another’s place when we might readily do so.
What differentiates Chekhov from other story writers is his fineness of perception, his ability to discern the subtlest emotional shades, and his appreciation of “the elusive beauty” of human experience. In the story “Strong Impressions,” the hero learns “that the same word has thousands of shades of meaning according to the tone in which it is pronounced, and the form which is given to the sentence.” And that is why one should never read any translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. They translate literary masterpieces word by word, with no appreciation of what the author is trying to accomplish or what makes a great work extraordinary. If Pevear and Volokhonsky had done the King James Bible, Cain would have asked whether he was his fraternal sibling’s custodian. With Chekhov, their approach is especially unfortunate. He is all nuance, and they are all bluntness.
Some fifty years ago, Ann Dunnigan did the best versions of Chekhov’s plays and of some of his stories. For the rest, the versions of Constance Garnett, all thirteen volumes of which were reprinted in 1986, remain, despite some lapses, impressive in their sensitivity to tone. I have cited their translations in this essay. Just as there is no point in reading a translation of a comic novel that loses the humor, so Chekhov can be appreciated in English only when a translator can catch the fine shades of his stories’ elusive beauty.
Gary Saul Morson is Lawrence B. Dumas Professor of the Arts and Humanities at Northwestern University.