Georgie

Karl Miller

  • The Oxford Chekov. Vol. IV: Stories 1888-1889 edited by Ronald Hingley
    Oxford, 287 pp, £14.00, July 1980, ISBN 0 19 211389 5

Volume IV of the ‘Oxford Chekhov’ has all the fiction published between March 1888 and 1 January 1889, and it brings to an end Ronald Hingley’s nine-volume annotated translation of the plays and of a proportion, six volumes’ worth, of the stories. Mr Hingley has been taxed with the ‘layman’s’ question as to whether all the stories of this great writer were to be made available in English: he points out that most of the copious early fiction was written ‘for money’ and to suit the ‘numerous humorous magazines of the period’, and that the early work, from 1880, for all that it contains ‘not a few minor masterpieces’, has therefore been excluded. The case for treating Chekhov as one of the few acknowledged masters whose minor masterpieces, not to speak of his potboilers and shavings, laundry lists and every last word, need not be bothered with is hardly unanswerable: but it would probably carry weight even at the best of times for publishers, and it is unlikely to curtail the welcome extended to the ‘Oxford Chekhov’. The lay reader is bound to take pleasure in the present translations, though there are occasional infelicities, and the usual yokel difficulties with peasant vernacular. The editor explains how he has been helped by the Soviet Complete Collection of the Works and Letters in 30 Volumes, in which we can take for granted plenty of stomach for the numerous humorous early pieces. This edition started to appear in 1974 – too late for use in relation to previous instalments of the ‘Oxford Chekhov’, which were able, however, to draw on the 20-volume Moscow edition of 1944–51. Debts to these editions are not specified in the notes and appendices, both of which are brief; the latter largely consist of Chekhov’s own comments, as a rule disparaging, on particular stories.

Literary figures among his friends were of the opinion that he should cease to be rapid and copious and commercial, and at the age of 28, in 1888, he began a long story destined for the ‘Thick Journals’ read by the intelligentsia, and wrote it ‘slowly, as gourmets eat snipe’, fearing that ‘my first pancake’ might prove a ‘dumpling’. ‘The pancake’ in question is the first story in Volume IV, ‘The Steppe’. Mr Hingley believes, though not wholeheartedly and not wholly convincingly either, that Chekhov’s ‘notable promotion’ to the Thick Journals meant that this year was ‘the most important turning-point in his life’. He was a lightweight no longer. One might object that important turning-points lay ahead, such as his visit to the penal colony of Sakhalin, and that he had already turned into a playwright. But it is certainly true that the best three stories in the present volume – the best in my judgment, but not in that of the editor – were all published in Thick Journals, while the least successful – two tales which deal with lust for gold and with fantastic wagers, and which were put out to St Petersburg newspapers – have the air of potboilers from the past, and of a reliance on the folk repertoire. The three outstanding stories are the first and the last, entitled ‘Lights’, and ‘The Party’.

‘The Party’ is about a pregnant country gentlewoman, Olga, an heiress and university graduate who, in the course of a hard day’s entertainment of the local worthies, grows sensitive about her dowry and feels a mounting aversion towards her handsome husband, whose failings are vividly evoked: his anti-feminism and other reactionary views, covering a crisis of confidence, his philanderings, his magistrate’s posturings, the awful back of his neck. A wise old husband I know used to say: ‘Never have things out.’ Olga takes a different view:

    She decided to find her husband at once and have it out with him. It was downright disgusting, the way he attracted strange women, seeking their admiration as if it were the elixir of life. It was unfair and dishonourable of him to bestow on others what rightly belonged to her, his wife, and to hide his heart and conscience from her only to reveal them to the first pretty face. What harm had she done him? What had she done wrong?

As the day wears on and the hospitality wears thin, a feverish, phantasmagoric darkness falls. Anxiety and hostility deepen, before we know it, into the drama of a miscarriage. The story ends with a stillborn child, and an awareness of her love for her husband. There is a tension in the story between the sense that Olga’s grievances, which eventually grate on the (male) reader, may owe something to her physical condition and the sense that she could well, though ill, have her husband’s number. Not many would finish the story thinking that its author was against higher education for women on the grounds that it turned them into viragos. At the same time, the story offers no opinion one way or the other on any of the vexed questions to which it refers, and which had come to the fore in the more liberal Russia of Alexander II. In the manner that we call Chekhovian, it floats. And it may appear that its buoyancy owes a good deal to the handling of the illness which it recounts.

With Chekhov, we are in the era where the word ‘nerves’ can mean something, can mean everything. Illness – with its viragos, vertigos, hallucinations and hysterias, its grievances, insights and intense perceptions – is both a theme and a precondition, not only of this story, but of half of the eight in the volume. ‘A Nervous Breakdown’ and ‘An Awkward Affair’ have the kind of interest in illness which assigns them to the ‘clinical’ vein traditionally distinguished in his work – what you might expect a doctor like Chekhov to supply, as it were. But his interest in the perceptions of the ill is more than medical. In these eight stories we discover that their perceptions are like those of the drowsy, the lonely, the young, the distressed, that feeling and suffering, strength of feeling and bodily weakness, are potently related. In other words, we discover that Chekhov is a romantic writer.

No one could mistake ‘The Steppe’ for an example of Chekhov’s ‘clinical’ vein. It is an example of his romantic vein. Its ‘illness’ is that of weakness, inexperience, innocence, which presently, to be sure, fall ill. A nine-year-old boy, Yegorushka – Georgie, as he might be called – has lost his father, and is further orphaned by being packed off to school. On his way there, accompanied by an uncle and a priest (you need to consult the notes to be quite sure that Chekhov thought Father Christopher silly), Yegorushka travels the prairies of Southern Russia, as Chekhov had lately done and as he had done before in his youth. He transfers for a while to a caravan of carters, perched on the loads. The birds and plants of the steppe are observed. A windmill looms. A thunderstorm inspires a purple passage. The steppe is a wild world where people are keenly conscious of one another, as the sailors of different ships used to be, though kept apart by long voyages and absences. The cowboy capitalist Varlamov is a ship that passes in the night. He knocks about this oceanic landscape: for ever over the horizon, asked about, reported – but at last the boy catches a glimpse of him at his masterful ploys. Yegorushka goes in for glimpses, for strange sights. He then catches a fever, catches the strange sights of its delirium, but gets to his destination in the city, where Chekhov, his mind on a projected sequel, reckoned he would go to the bad. The story is not plotless, as Mr Hingley supposes, but it is certainly an occasion for odes, set-pieces, star turns, sub-stories. The gourmet remarked: ‘I’m writing a story for a Thick Journal. It describes the steppe – a romantic subject.’ And it has a plot to match. This ‘steppe story’ follows in the footsteps of Gogol in Dead Souls – a matter Mr Hingley does not discuss. ‘I realise,’ said Chekhov, ‘that Gogol will turn in his grave, being Russian literature’s King of the Steppe. I’ve well-meaningly trespassed on his preserves, but I haven’t half botched things.’

Yegorushka’s journey reaches a high point at the country inn run by two Jewish brothers: Moses, a pantomime of servility, and proud and derisive Solomon, whose judgments on the society of the steppe are enough to darken the reader’s impressions of the journey, whatever they may do – we are not told – for Yegorushka’s. This is what his innocent eye sees:

   In came Moses. He looked anxiously at Solomon and his guests, and again the loose skin on his face twitched nervously. Yegorushka shook his head and looked around him, catching a glimpse of Solomon’s face just when it was turned three-quarters towards him and when the shadow of his long nose bisected his whole left check. The scornful smile half in shadow, the glittering, sneering eyes, the arrogant expression and the whole plucked hen’s figure – doubling and dancing before Yegorushka’s eyes, they made Solomon look less like a clown than some nightmare fantasy or evil spirit.

   ‘What a devil of a fellow he is, Moses, God help him.’ Father Christopher smiled. ‘You’d better get him a job, find him a wife or something. He’s not human.’

There are two of Solomon in the boy’s bewildered vision, and Moses and Solomon are two faces of the Russian Jew, seen by a Russian writer for whom Jews were disturbingly exotic, and could be portrayed in medieval, demonic colours, but for whom they also possessed a vision of their own which had to be recorded, whose peritonitis had been treated with mustard plasters by just such a semi-repugnant ‘Hebrew gentleman’ as Moses. Moses apologises to his guests for his brother’s offensiveness, saying that Varlamov had whipped them both for it in the past, and recalling how Solomon had burned his share in their father’s legacy. He orders his brother out of the room, and adds some words in Yiddish. These strange words speak louder than his apologetic actions. Suddenly, just as the guests are about to leave:

Holding his broad-brimmed top hat, Father Christopher was bowing to someone and smiling – not softly and tenderly as was his wont, but in a respectful, strained fashion that ill suited him. Meanwhile Moses was doing a sort of balancing act as if his body had been broken in three parts and he was trying his best not to disintegrate. Only Solomon seemed unaffected, and stood in a corner, his grin as disdainful as ever.

‘Your Ladyship must forgive the untidiness,’ groaned Moses with an excruciatingly sweet smile ...’

A newcomer has entered the room, entered the boy’s fantasy, in the lustrous image of a poplar he once saw, and in the image of the mother he must be missing. ‘Was Varlamov here today?’ a woman’s voice asks – that of a fine, but kind lady. What scenes these are. Splendour and misery. Servitude and its transfiguration. Yegorushka is engaged upon an entry into captivity which is also an escape.

Many people like to think that great artists must be great innovators – even Chekhov, who refused to be categorised, as a theorist, or a modernist, or as practically anything else, and who belonged to a time in the history of ideas when the requirement that they be tested in experience had been overtaken by sceptical doubts about their relevance to experience. His plays still seem to be regarded as having been, in their day and in their way, advanced. Their message is equivocal, floating. Each reveals a community, a choir of talkers, a marsh of frogs, a steppe of larks and curlews, a chorus of undifferentiated voices, as it sometimes strikes one, rehearsing their dying fall, but with the solos, the solipsism, of individuals essential to the music they make. These talkers do not much converse, and soon Ford Madox Ford was to break the news that modern art should show how in conversations the speakers do not listen to one another. Of the art of Ford’s friend and collaborator, Conrad, Ian Watt writes in his recent book on that writer’s 19th-century texts: ‘The need to derive moral meaning from physical sensation partly arises from the fact that both the impressionists and the symbolists ... proscribed any analysis, prejudgment, or conceptual commentary – the images, events, and feelings were to be left to speak for themselves.’ But if there are reasons to think of Chekhov’s art as agreeable to what the great innovators of the time, the impressionists and symbolists, believed they were doing, we also have to think of it as resuming the outlook and practice of the past. In the Volume IV stories, the consciousness of Gogol forms part of a ranging consciousness of the international Romanticism of the previous age.

Yegorushka is a romantic imbecile or ingénu whose plight, and whose sense of it, are not remote from those of Scott’s Edward Waverley, floating about the wild Scotland of the second Jacobite rebellion, and proving on his feverish, feminine pulses – with swoons, delirium, and all the rich rewards of physical impairment – the experience of a barbaric host and a divided nation. Yegorushka is likewise present in Chekhov’s story for the sake of the susceptibility which literature had learnt to associate with suffering and limitation. He has little or no personality – barely enough for the reader to keep in mind, as I feel he has to, that the boy is in a predicament. He is the people he meets, the sights he sees. We can trace here the impact of a belief in romantic duality, according to which, for a variety of literary purposes, personality may be divided or dispersed, and which is signalled in the boy’s double vision of Solomon as clown and demon. The competence of his perceptions is ascribed to a powerless and characterless state – all Danaë to the steppe. He is more characterless than the story is plotless. The story has a plot, and it is one that is appropriate to a fecund absence of character, to a state of dispersal. Both of Scott’s novel and of Chekhov’s story it can be said that a young man is put to bed with a case of negative capability.

One of the first professors of negative capability crosses the reader’s mind when Yegorushka quits the inn, bemused by the sight of his motherly countess (she, too, is presently to fall on evil days). There aren’t any nightingales on the steppe at this time of year, but this bird is mentioned nevertheless, and the boy’s ‘drowsy brain’ – which ‘utterly rejected mundane thoughts and became fuddled, retaining only such magical and fantastic images as have the advantage of somehow springing into the mind without taxing the thinker’ – is like that of Keats at the start of the ‘Nightingale’ Ode, Keats who could utterly reject all ‘irritable reaching after fact and reason’. In the ensuing passage, as in Keats’s poem, a flight from the world is half-created; and in the course of this creation the passage turns into an ode. ‘On July evenings and nights quails and corncrakes no longer call, nightingales do not sing in wooded gullies, and there is no scent of flowers. But the steppe is still picturesque and full of life.’ The scent of hay, dry grass and late flowers is ‘dense, sickly-sweet, voluptuous’. When the sun goes down, the prairie sighs, and its choir of sounds blends into a single boom. The sky is ‘languorous and magnetic, but its embraces make you dizzy’. Chekhov’s ode then declares: ‘You long to fly above the steppe with the night bird.’

By now, for the time being, Yegorushka has been forgotten. Chekhov imagines that he hears from the steppe an anguished cry ‘for a bard, a poet of her own’. He also seems to have forgotten that she already has one in Gogol, ‘King of the Steppe’, but the passage itself has now furnished another, who knows as much about the philomelic mode in 19th-century verse as he does about Dead Souls.

At the time of writing, Chekhov considered ‘The Steppe’ to be ‘my masterpiece, I can’t do better.’ (Mr Hingley may be thought to translate this into Latin when he says of his nine volumes: ‘feci quod potui, faciant meliora potentes.’ But perhaps that is rather more the Latin for ‘Sod off the lot of you.’) As for the story ‘Lights’, that has been praised neither by its author, who omitted it from his collected works, nor by his present editor, who is reminded by its ‘moralistic thrust’ of ‘earlier, still clumsier – but mercifully shorter – Tolstoy-inspired tales by Chekhov published in 1886–7’. This story, which also appeared in a Thick Journal, induces Mr Hingley to talk of ‘untypically “wet” characterisation, the excess of hedgerow philosophy, and the lugubrious angle of vision from which some of the narrative suffers’. It has to do with the seduction, by the engineer Ananyev, of a young woman, a former school friend of his now trapped in an unhappy marriage. Ananyev tells the narrator about it on a construction site, while imparting sententious reflections on how young heads may be turned by unearned ideas concerning the futility and uncertainty of life. After learning how Ananyev spent the night with Kitty in a hotel, deserted her, but then went back to the town to say he was sorry, the narrator rides off in gloom. The horizon seems to speak to him: ‘No, indeed, nothing in this world makes sense.’ Then the sun begins to rise, and with it, perhaps, the narrator’s spirits.

Mr Hingley’s lives of Chekhov often address the question of his didacticism and of his tendency to disclaim it, and even to suggest that nothing in this world makes sense. And Mr Hingley reflects here on the didactic content of this story: ‘To “do good”, or at least to refrain from doing harm, to abstain from seduction (except possibly in its most discriminating form) must always be laudable in life. But to make art the vehicle for advocating these admirable practices ... may prove downright calamitous.’ It is weird to make an exception of the discriminating seducer (even in the context of an Oxford Chekhov), and to make such a lesson out of a disapproval of didacticism. But it is weirder still to pay no attention to the compassionate tenderness directed at the fallen woman, which must be among the chief attractions of the story.

Mr Hingley has spoken sceptically in the past about this writer’s famous compassion. If it is mostly admirable to refrain from seduction, it is also the case, he wrote once, that ‘Virginia Llewellyn Smith is admirably unimpressed by the various myths and legends about Chekhov the compassionate, gentle, suffering soul.’ He said this in an introduction to her book, Anton Chekhov and the Lady with the Dog, which defines for itself a serious and interesting subject and is surely right to convey that it is open to us to investigate the opinions held by this disclaimer of opinions. But it can appear tendentious in its insistence that he held a low and fearful view of women, which inspired romantic fantasies about the unreachable heroine. It is a pity that these two writers, who have done much for the understanding of Chekhov, should find it so easy to run him down, to use words like ‘mawkish’ and ‘maudlin’, and at times to miss the point that if his compassion is legendary, it is also evident in his life and work, and to a degree which marks him off from the majority of famous writers.

If there is anything wrong with ‘Lights’, it is not that Ananyev’s philosophisings constitute a didactic crudity on Chekhov’s part. These must in some degree be meant as a characterisation of Ananyev, a fairly simple soul: as such, indeed, they can be accounted a feature of Russian literature. The trouble is that they are overdone, disproportionate, and neither fit nor even engage with what we are brought to feel by the internal story of the seduction, which raises no points of philosophical principle and is no help with the problem of adolescent Pyrrhonism. At the same time, it has something to say about the futility of human life and about whether or not it makes sense.

In attempting to determine what that elusive something may be, it is worth moving on ten years, to a story written in the last months of the 19th century. In ‘The Lady with the Little Dog’ a seduction occurs, but no desertion: the seducer enters into an illicit liaison with the woman he has seduced, in which the futility of this particular life, well-attested in the story, may be overcome. Virginia Llewellyn Smith sees the story as autobiographical, in the sense that she takes it to yield the most meaningful comment in Chekhov’s fiction on his attitude to, and ‘limited’ knowledge of, women. Anna, the lady with the dog, is ‘symbolic of the ideal love that Chekhov could envisage but not embrace’. This is linked to a reading of Chekhov’s own situation which has it that, with Olga Knipper, he stood then on ‘the threshold of love’ but did not live long enough to cross it. Another interpretation, equally but differently romantic, might make the very reasonable claim that Gurov does in fact embrace Anna. He reaches her. But in reaching her, he withdraws from the ordinary life of banks and clubs and marriages. In reaching her, he effects an escape into secrecy.

This is a story about a married man and his mistress, who are ‘very near and dear’ to one another and who are also ‘like thieves’. The man comes to think that secrecy is truth, that secrecy is sense, and that civilisation depends on it. Far-fetched though it may sound in summary, this is an opinion which has been shared by many Europeans, for whom the most compelling of the solitudes of 19th-century Romanticism must often have been the solitude made for two. The story makes dynamic use of the language of romantic secrecy. A cost to others is implied: but society, the community, common life, are valued by the hero only so far as they are able to sustain the true self in the secrecy it needs. To the extent that we decide that Chekhov and his hero resemble each other, we can be sure biographers will never reach the truth about his relations with women.

As Yegorushka’s double vision of Solomon indicates, romance in Chekhov embodies a taste for the dualistic theories and devices of 19th-century literature. The double life, such as Gurov’s, is one aspect of romantic duality. Another, of course, is the double, and this, too, Chekhov cultivates (the highly traditional double in his story ‘The Black Monk’, collected in Volume VII of the ‘Oxford Chekhov’, eggs on an ailing intellectual to delusions of grandeur). Yet another is the negative capability of a Yegorushka, in which fresh-eyed youth, together with its swoons and fever, signifies a suspension of personality, and of ideas, in submission to the sensory magic of the steppe. Yegorushka passes over at intervals into the condition of an ode-making poet, ceasing to be any kind of limited little boy on his reluctant way to school. He is nervously alert to the steppe, and to its human occasions and inhabitants, while also luxuriating in them. He wishes for a mother. And he wishes – in the manner to which 19th-century literature is our most familiar witness – to fly up on the wings of a bird and away from the senseless world. There is a double life of sorts in his behaving in this way.

Then again, there is a double life of sorts, there is romantic duality, in Chekhov’s shyness of ideas and messages, in his ambiguities. If it is possible to come at ideas that he held, it is a great deal harder to do so than it is with Tolstoy, and this difference can be treated in terms of intellectual history, which can eventually be seen to include the big idea that ideas are a violence and should be avoided. His own avoidance of them was explained by Chekhov in a discussion of ‘The Party’:

    I fear those who read between my lines looking for messages, and are determined to see me as a liberal or conservative. I am not a liberal. I am not a conservative. I am not an advocate of moderate reform. I am not a monk. Nor am I committed to non-commitment. I should like to be a free artist, that’s all ... My Holy of Holies is the human body, health, intelligence, talent, inspiration and the most absolute freedom – freedom from violence and falsehood, wherever these two ingredients may be found. That is the programme I should follow, were I a great artist.

Whatever else this is or may look like – an escape? – it can be recognised as romance, as romantic duality, and as negative capability. It is the art of the past as it took to preparing the freedoms of the Modern and the art of the future.

Nobody would call ‘The Steppe’ a Modern work, but it seems that nearly everybody would be willing to apply the word to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which was written in the same year as ‘The Lady with the Little Dog’. There is much that separates Conrad’s tale from ‘The Steppe’. What they have in common is an outcast’s outlandish journey. There are readers who would not accept this description of Marlow the sovereign sailor and clubman, and his activities in Heart of Darkness. But Marlow himself recalls that at the outset of his adventure his sense of identity was shaken; he was all nerves and pulses; he was ill. And he proceeds to unfold a fantasy which renders the literal plot preposterous. Some readers perceive in Conrad’s story a Freudian ‘family romance’, which portrays the repossession of a mother. They would not be put out by the further suggestion that, like Chekhov’s, it belongs to the species of romance in which the orphan and his flight or journey, the orphan and his double, continually meet.