Sunday, January 25, 2009

`A Landscape Painter -- in Prose'

Nabokov almost had it right when he described Chekhov’s prose in Lectures on Russian Literature:

“His dictionary is poor, his combination of words almost trivial – the purple patch, the juicy verb, the hothouse adjective, the crème-de-menthe epithet, brought in on a silver tray, these were foreign to him. He was not a verbal innovator in the sense that Gogol was; his literary style goes to parties clad in its everyday suit.”

When Chekhov takes on the comedy of human failings, the ephemeral nature of happiness – and he writes of little else -- his language is economical and modest. The only occasions when it soars, when he indulges his lyrical gifts, comes when his attention turns to landscape. The marvelous “Difficult People” (1886) might almost be a play. Dialogue carries it and physical description is sparse. The story of a weak but tyrannical father and his family is claustrophobic until the son flees yet another argument:

“Going out of the house, the student walked along the muddy road towards the open country. The air was full of a penetrating autumn dampness. The road was muddy [this is the Constance Garnett translation – one wonders if the repetition of “muddy road” is present in the Russian], puddles gleamed here and there, and in the yellow fields autumn itself seemed looking out from the grass, dismal, decaying, dark. On the right-hand side of the road was a vegetable-garden cleared of its crops and gloomy-looking, with here and there sunflowers standing up in it with hanging heads already black.”

At least through the scrim of translation the language is almost fulsome, and once you’re aware of it you see Chekhov’s landscape lyricism everywhere. Here it is in “The Black Monk” (1894), in the Richard Pevear/Larissa Volokhonsky translation:

“Following the path that ran down the steep bank past the bared roots, he descended to the water, disturbing some snipe and scaring away two ducks. The last rays of the setting sun still glowed on the gloomy pines, but there was already real evening on the surface of the river. Kovrin crossed the river on some planks. Before him now lay a wide field covered with young, not yet flowering rye. No human dwelling, no living soul in the distance, and it seemed that the path, if one followed it, would lead you to that unknown, mysterious place where the sun had just gone down, and where the sunset flamed so vastly and majestically.”

In Chekhov: Scenes from a Life (2004), Rosamund Bartlett looks at the writer through the lens of geography, visiting his birth place in Taganrog, on the steppes of southern Russia; Moscow, where he moved at age 17; St. Petersburg; Siberia, where he visited the penal colony on Sakhalin Island; his country estate of Melikhovo; and so on. I’ve read only the first 80 pages, but Bartlett states her theme early: “…Chekhov was a landscape painter – in prose.” She writes:

“Chekhov hid his lyrical persona carefully, but it is there to find in his letters [Bartlett translated Anton Chekhov: A Life in Letters with Anthony Phillips], and particularly in his short stories. It was the landscape which occasionally provoked him to utter the word `poetic,’ the highest accolade in his vocabulary [as in Nabokov’s], and it was the landscape which was responsible for some of the happiest moments in his life.”

Bartlett is excellent on the significance of the steppes for both Chekhov – who was the first Russian writer to treat them at length since Gogol - and Russia:

“The old Russian word steppe, meaning `lowland,’ has no equivalent in other languages, but the word combination used by the Japanese, `ocean of land,’ conveys well the fundamental features of the vast treeless plain that extends all the way from the Danube in the west, through Central Asia to Mongolia and China.”

The story Chekhov considered his first “serious” work is “The Steppe” (1888), an account of a nine-year-old boy’s journey across the emptiness. On the evening of the second day, the narrator briefly leaves Egorushka to survey his surroundings (from the Pevear/Volokhonsky version):

“On the way you come upon a silent old barrow or a stone idol set up God knows when or by whom, a night bird noiselessly flies over the ground, and steppe legends gradually come to your mind, stories of passing strangers, tales of some old nanny of the steppes, and all that you yourself have managed to see and grasp with your soul. And then, in the chirring of the insects, in the suspicious figures and barrows, in the blue sky, in the moonlight, in the plight of a night bird, in everything you see and hear, you begin to perceive the triumph of beauty, youth, flourishing strength, and a passionate search for life…”

Bartlett speculates that in such passages we hear Chekhov’s voice. Only in such surroundings, so reminiscent of his childhood, does he sing. I’m reminded occasionally of Willa Cather’s Nebraska novels, Conrad Richter’s The Sea of Grass and of Melville’s little-known “John Marr” (1888). The last is a story about a retired sailor who has settled on the prairies at the heart of the United States. The Indians and buffalo are gone, leaving “the plain a desert, green or blossoming indeed, but almost as forsaken as the Siberian Obi.”

The Obi is a river surrounded by marshes. Odd that Melville would turn to Russia, the easternmost end of the steppe, farthest from Chekhov’s, for his metaphor.

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