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.
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?
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.