“A life is a secret,” Guy Davenport writes in “Journal II” (The Hunter Gracchus, 1996). That’s one of the chief reasons we read fiction (and some write it). Our knowledge of others, regardless of intimacy, is imperfect, often a projection of one’s own wishes on a blank screen. And how well do we even know ourselves? Not very, judging by the way we blunder about, looking for what we think is happiness. All of us hide things, often out of shame. That doesn’t necessarily make us liars. A secret need not be melodramatic, a murder or infidelity. It could be mundane or mistaken. From fiction, attentively read, we learn the primacy of secrets and the defenses we erect to preserve them. We learn a secret can deform a life. Remove the secrets from his stories and Henry James would be reduced to a handful of one-dimensional sketches. On this date, Jan. 9, in 1888, Chekhov was in Moscow and wrote to his friend Vladimir Korolenko:
“On your friendly advice I have begun a short novelette for the Northern Herald. For a start I have undertaken to describe the steppe, the people of the steppe and the things I experienced in the steppe. It’s a good theme, and I’m enjoying writing about it, but unfortunately, since I’m not used to writing anything long and am afraid of writing to excess, I’ve gone to the other extreme: every page comes out as compact as a little story, and the scenes keep piling up, crowding each other, getting in each other’s way, and ruining the general impression.”
Chekhov is twenty-seven. “The Steppe” will announce his arrival in the literary world. He has already published hundreds of sketches and comic stories in newspapers, but the Northern Herald was a prestigious journal with an influential readership. “The Steppe,” in Constance Garnett’s translation is 140 pages long. It’s the story of a journey, three people in a covered chaise: a priest, a merchant and the merchant’s nephew, nine-year-old Yegorushka, away from home for the first time, on his way to school. At one point, Yegorushka sees a lone poplar tree:
“. . . it was hard to take one’s eyes off the graceful trunk and green attire. Was that beautiful tree happy? Scorching heat in the summer, biting frosts and blizzards in the winter, terrifying nights in autumn when you see only pitch darkness and hear nothing but the wayward, angrily, howling wind. But worst of all, you are alone, alone all your life.”
In his first and final appearances, the boy is crying – softly, out of homesickness, fear and shame; secretly, he hopes. He wishes to appear brave and grownup. At the story’s conclusion, Yegorushka, left by his uncle and the priest, cries uncontrollably:
“He sank helplessly on to the little bench, and with bitter tears greeted the new unknown life that was beginning for his now . . .
“What would that life be like now?”
Chekhov resumes his letter to Korolenko (Anton Chekhov's Life and Thought: Selected Letters and Commentary, trans. Simon Karlinsky and Michael Heim, 1973):
“Instead of a scene in which all the particulars merge into the whole like stars in the sky, I end up with an outline, a dry list of impressions. A writer, you for instance, will understand me, but the reader will get bored and drop the whole things.”
In fact, Chekhov was writing his first inarguable masterpiece.