Wednesday, April 17, 2013

There was no point to it; but out he went, into the cold

I am reading Chekhov stories again. Once he is established as a writer, once he's moved away from the juvenile comic episodes that began his career, Chekhov almost never writes about the city. Mature Chekhov is by and large the writer of rural Russia. He give us not the parks, stone facades, bridges and canals of Peterburg, but instead writes almost obsessively of muddy roads, the steppe, immense sweeping storms, crews of peasants and crowded, dirty zemstvo hospitals; he writes of illiteracy and brigandry. Chekhov is not the writer of urban Russia. Even Chekhov's plays about wealthy people are set in the country, at remote estates where people are dull and useless and trapped in their wealthy useless dullness. Chekhov is muddy boots and bad food and vodka, riding in trains with cattle, sleeping on the floor in taverns, assaulted by the complaints of schoolteachers, mayors and retired officers.

Chekhov sits in a hotel room in Italy, dressed in a new summer suit. Shakespeare plays in Russian translations and a beginner's English textbook are spread over his writing desk. The view from his hotel window is all marble and terracotta light; the sounds of carriages and theater-goers drift up to him from the street below. Chekhov dips his pen in ink and begins to write a story about a widow and her dead husband's many dogs, all living together in a one-room shack fifty miles from the nearest railway station, some distance from the rutted, snowpiled road through the small forest which surrounds the shack. Chekhov sips a glass of wine, ashes an expensive cigarette his own doctor has forbidden, and considers how the widow has never been happy, has nothing to live for now and hardly any means to feed herself (let alone all the damned dogs), and he writes "There was a knock at the door of the shack." The widow must have someone to complain to, so Chekhov throws another unhappy soul into the storm, out there, far far out there on the remote Russian steppe, in a little forest near a trickling icy stream. The stranger's wagon has lost a wheel and he has no tools; he must borrow a hammer. He was driving out to look at hectares of fallow wheat fields lying beneath new-fallen snow. Why was he doing this? His employer had ordered him to. There was no point to it; but out he went, into the cold, and it began to snow and the road is bad and the wagon is old and now a wheel has come off the axle and does the widow have a hammer? The stranger has sausage, and vodka, and he eats them before the widow, not offering her anything. Her poverty, her misery, is invisible to him. He is deaf to her complaints.

Chekhov walks to the window, looks out at the late afternoon sky over Milan. He will have to move soon, before the weather becomes too hot and humid; it's bad for his lungs to be in Milan in late summer. Perhaps tonight he'll go to the opera. He is not fond of opera, but some Russians he knows from Moscow will be in attendance. The widow, he knows, will have no hammer. The stranger might strike her in anger; Chekhov has not decided. Either way, he will go back into the storm and repair his wagon wheel, there in the little forest, on the rutted road, on the lonely cold steppe, far from anywhere, deep in the imagination of Chekhov.

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