Tuesday, December 07, 2010

`It Must Be Scorching in Africa Now'

My friend in Sudan sends his latest dispatch:

“You might recall the tiny library I brought with me here. I've given it all away except for one volume, Chekhov's Stories in the Pevear & Volokhonsky translation of thirty jewels.

“My view is that Chekhov `hit a home run’ about 50% of the time from the moment he became ill in 1889, starting with `A Boring Story.’ It might be argued that he was just as successful from the moment in 1886 when he was `discovered’ and began taking his art seriously.”

Despite the sports metaphor, my friend is correct. Few writers matured so quickly (Chekhov turned twenty-nine in 1889) or maintained so consistently high a level of accomplishment. Even his early newspaper fluff, cranked out to support his family and pay his way through medical school, is amusing and worth reading. Chekhov’s death from tuberculosis at age forty-four makes the accomplishment almost supernatural.

The Pevear/Volokhonsky Stories (Bantam Books, 2000) gathers work from all periods of Chekhov’s writing life and includes some of the gems – “A Boring Story,” “Gusev,” “Ward No. 6,” “Anna on the Neck,” “The Lady with the Little Dog,” “In the Ravine,” “The Bishop.” P/V also translated The Complete Short Novels (Everyman’s Library, 2004), which collects five longer stories including Chekhov’s masterpiece, “My Life.”

The prospect of whittling down an already reduced library is daunting but my friend exercised prudence, especially in so remote and difficult a place as Sudan. He went not for stylistic elegance (Wilbur) or a too-close-to-home parable of Africa (Heart of Darkness) but for the human touch: “To [Chekhov] life is neither horrible nor happy, but unique, strange, fleeting, beautiful and awful.” So writes William Gerhardie in Anton Chehov [sic]: A Critical Study (1923), the first book in English devoted to the great Russian.

In the final act of Uncle Vanya (1896) a map of Africa hangs on the wall, and a stage direction describes it as “obviously out of place here.” Near the play’s end, Astrov pauses to look at the map and says:

“It must be scorching in Africa now.”

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