Reading Chekhov – “The Steppe”

Maybe you’ve wondered (or maybe you haven’t) why I haven’t been posting about reading short stories by Chekhov this month.  I have been reading.  Really.  Here’s a picture of the book:  A. P. Chekhov:  Stories and Tales. 
 

The title doesn’t translate well:  if you look up the words “povest'” and “rasskaz” in Smirnitsky, both of them mean “stories” AND “tales.”  The difference is one of degree, or perhaps connotation.  “Povesti” comes from the verb “povestovat’,” which means “to narrate about,” while the root of “rasskaz” — “skaz” — is a root word for speech.  The verb “rasskazat'” means to tell or recount.  Native Russian speakers and Russian majors who managed to stay awake in the critical theory class probably have different expectations of reading a “povest'” than they do of reading a “rasskaz.”  My vague sense is that a povest’ is a longer narrative; and a rasskaz is shorter, perhaps more anecdotal, almost certainly less formal.

I picked “The Steppe” for my first foray back into Russian literature because (a) it was the first story in the book; (b) I found a few references to it in the books of Chekhov’s letters and Nabokov’s essays on Russian literature; (c) I hadn’t read it before; and (d) everybody has read “A Woman with a Little Dog,” including me, so where’s the fun in starting with that one?  Oh, and perhaps most importantly:  the subtitle of “The Steppe” is “The Story of a Journey.”  I’m on a journey, too.  The subtitle seemed propitious.

What wasn’t immediately clear is that “The Steppe” is definitely a povest’, not a rasskaz.  Darn thing is eighty pages long.  Call me stubborn:  I was a whole page into it by the time that I realized it wasn’t your typical short story, and at that point I wasn’t about to just drop it and start a different one.

When I started reading Russian stories in college, I had to look up forty or fifty words a page.  I got much better, though.  Ten years ago, I lived in Russia.  For three years I spoke Russian daily, sometimes for hours at a stretch.  I could even think about simple things in Russian, without having to translate them to English first.  For example, our housekeeper/nanny would say “Synok prikleyevalsya k stenye,” and I had an immediate mental picture of my toddler gluing himself to the wall. 

First page of "The Steppe," with vocabulary annotations

Here’s a picture of my first page of “The Steppe” — guess I’ve shelved a lot of my vocabulary!  On the first full page of the story, I had to look up thirty-one words.  By page ten I was down to twelve words, and that has been a fairly consistent average since.

Why do this?  Why torture myself? 

First, I do it because it forces me to read everything at least three times.  The first time, I read to find out what words I don’t know, so I can highlight them.  With luck, I get a general idea of what’s happening during this read.  The second time is for looking up the highlighted vocabulary.  Right now, that’s going at about four pages per hour, even with only 10 – 15 words highlighted on a page.  The third reading is for meaning and pleasure. 
 
The second reason for reading Chekhov in Russian is that it slows me down.  I have to think about all those words, all those sentences, individually.  I notice more.  I see how Chekhov is drawing the characters.  I can appreciate his portrayal of Father Christopher: the septuagenarian’s good nature, his rambling monologues on the value of education, his use of “church words” (long words derived from Greek and Old Church Slavonic; I usually have to look those up!), his interest in the peripherals of the journey.  I can snicker at his foil, the merchant Kuzmichov:  a man who thinks of almost nothing but business, who has no use for schooling because he could “set his nephew up for life” in just a year’s apprenticeship, who is impatient and curt with the coachman, who is obsessively seeking the mysterious man of business Varlamov.  And I can really enjoy the perspective of the protagonist, Kuzmichov’s young nephew Yegorushka, who is unwilllingly accompanying his uncle on the journey to be enrolled in school in a distant town, so that he can be educated and mingle with polite society. 
 

Ivan Constantinovich Aivazovskiy, "Windmills in Ukrainian Steppe at Sunset" (1862)

Like Yegorushka, when I read the first section of the story I feel the tedium of the cart-ride across the never-ending steppe and the ferocious heat (I know that it’s ferocious, because I had to pay attention tothe many words that Chekhov uses to describe it).  And because I’m reading so slowly, there’s no chance that I could miss the windmill in that section.  It must be a significant windmill.  For hours, it never seems to grow larger even though the cart is rumbling steadily toward it.  Then it slides to the left, appearing not to allow the cart to get too close.  It always seems to be a little man waving his arms in the distance;  then, when the cart is at its closest point of approach and Yegorushka can see the arms clearly, he notices that one is new and shiny, the other patched and dull.  My suspicion that the windmill is important pays off:  in the final line of the first section, Yegorushka thinks that the windmill must be some kind of sorcerer.  “The Steppe” is about, in some part, perspective, the magic of change, the way that a journey can alter our perspective and change us.  Reading a good story can do that, too.

So now I’m immersed in the magic of the Russian steppe.  I’m willing to stay with Yegorushka for eighty pages and a journey of a thousand miles across the steppe — which, at the rate I’m reading it, is sort of like driving east to west across Texas.  At least I’m now primed to think that this journey will be much more interesting. 
 
At four pages an hour, I may be working on “The Steppe” for the entire month of May.  That’s okay.  The steppe is a good place to be, as long as I’m with Chekhov and his Yegorushka.
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About readersquest

I'm a retired naval officer and writer. I live with my husband, two sons, and several family pets in a house in the woods.
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3 Responses to Reading Chekhov – “The Steppe”

  1. Ellen Rhudy says:

    I love reading about reading in translation. I’m studying up on my Albanian right now, and although I’m not at a level to feel comfortable reading a novel or story originally written in Albanian, I’ve noticed some of the things you mention here as I read works translated into Albanian. Right now I’m on “Gjiganti i madh i mire,” aka Roald Dahl’s “The BFG,” and I find myself laughing out loud and enjoying the book more than I would if I were rereading it in English. I have a tendency to rush through books, especially ones I’ve read before, and as you write, reading in another language forces you to slow down, it encourages multiple reads, and – for me – seeing something in a new language sometimes makes it funny again.

    As a sidenote, I like seeing the Russian you include here. I’ve also learned Macedonian, which occasionally lines up roughly with Russian, and somehow it’s always a surprise & a pleasure when I see that happening, like when I zoom in on the first page of “The Steepe” and try to read. (My attempts are short-lived, I’ll admit – I suspect there are more similar words than I can pick out, because some of the letters are different in Macedonian.)

    • readersquest says:

      There are 2 major differences between the Macedonian and Russian Cyrillic alphabets. The first is that Russian has two sets of vowels — “hard” and “soft” — while in Macedonian, there is one set of vowels but some consonants are doubled (one “hard,” one “soft”). The second is that each language has one or two consonants that have no cognate in the other language.

      Albanian’s a horse of a very different color. I wouldn’t have the courage to tackle it!

      The two languages share many root words (from Old Slavonic origins), but differ greatly in their use of prepositions and prefixes.

      The Department of Defense gave extra language proficiency pay for a certain score on a second/third/etc. language test. Some of the Russian linguists I knew took the Ukrainian test cold and scored high enough to pick up the extra $50/month or whatever it was! Others re-trained for Serbo-Croatian when war broke out in the Balkans in the early 1990s, and found the switch to be very easy. I have a couple of “Yugoslavian” friends (former colleagues, originally from Macedonia but now living in Belgrade) who occasionally post in some Balkan dialect on Facebook. Because they use the Roman alphabet, I can usually get the gist of the posts.

      • Ellen Rhudy says:

        Where I live, we get tv shows subtitled into Albanian, Macedonian, Serbian or Bulgarian. When I first saw the Serbian and Bulgarian I couldn’t follow the shows at all – but now I can handle the Serbian, Bulgarian not so much; it is easier with the Latin alphabet because I can get the sounds without a few Cyrillic letters throwing me off.

        When I took my first looks at Albanian and Macedonian I thought Albanian would be the easier. It’s the language I’m more comfortable with now, but it’s a nightmare compared to Macedonian for pronunciation and grammar. And I didn’t know about those differences between Macedonian and Russian, thanks for that info.

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