If the institution of Russian literature as a cultural force in the English-speaking world has survived and thrived against all odds in the culturally disparate 21st century, it is due mainly to the efforts of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. It was these humble scholars who liberated Anna Karenina from the straitjacket of Constance Garnett’s Edwardian syntax, and whose edition of said classic subsequently made a run at the bestseller lists (albeit, it must be said, with the aide of a certain Oprah Winfrey). I hasten to add that most people who have read any of the Russians in English — Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Gogol, Turgenev and the whole rogues’ gallery — will probably have perceived them through the prism of Garnett’s language. The invention of the Pevear and Volokhonsky team already threatens to overwhelm Garnett’s primacy as Russian interpreter for the ages, and considering the quality and attention to detail with which they attack their craft, this can only be considered a positive development.
They spent over a decade translating all of Dostoevsky’s major works, with a stopover in Gogol’s comparatively thin catalog. Their bestselling Anna Karenina was released in 2003, and they are currently hard at work on the granddaddy of all impossible novels, War and Peace. (As an aside, I should note that while I am excited by the prospect of a more lively translation of War and Peace than Garnett’s industry standard, the idea of taking another month or two out of my life to reread it fills me with a slightly more ambiguous sensation.) In between, they somehow managed to tackle these five short novels, lesser-known works by the odd-man-out of Russian literature. Disinclined to work in the novel format, primarily famous for his plays and short stories, having lived for such a relatively brief span (only 44 years), and having died — in 1904, one year before the first spasms of revolution — on the cusp of the terrible ordeals that would come to define later generations of Russian writers, Chekhov is something of an anomaly. Stuck between the generation of literary titans that defined the mid-19th century and the post-Revolution samizdat of the 20th, he is the bridge between these two worlds, the naturalist missing link between Tolstoy and Solzhenitsyn.
Because of his short life, it is difficult to speak in terms of “early” or “late” Chekhov. The five novels herein were written in a span of eight years, beginning with “The Steppe”, in 1888 (when Chekhov was a precocious 28), and ending with “My Life” in 1896 (just eight years before his untimely death from tuberculosis). The literary metamorphosis in the space of these five works is nothing short of extraordinary. Beginning with “The Steppe”, it is possible to see Chekhov’s talent evolving and advancing through the most time-honored fashion possible, by adapting the methods and ideas of his elders and influences, and working towards his own individuality by exerting his personality against these established forces.
As such, it is impossible to discuss “The Steppe” without discussing Gogol. The book carries both the stylistic and structural imprimatur of Dead Souls, and — thanks to the expert translation — it is possible even to see the influence of Gogol’s lackadaisical, passive prose on the young writer. As in Dead Souls, the story is a travelogue of sorts through the rural countryside of southern Russia. But whereas Gogol was a satirist of the most bitter pedigree, Chekhov’s goal is a more melancholy reminiscence. Accordingly, his protagonist is a small child who sees a wide cross-section of Russian peasant life and geography with wonder and awe, not bemusement and ill humor. Although the story is filled with memorable images, in particular the famous thunderstorm that serves as the piece’s ostensible climax, it lacks the necessary cohesion to maintain an extended narrative. It’s easy to see the seams in young Chekhov’s technique, with a surfeit of ideas but not yet the control to lash them effectively together.
Arriving at 1891’s “The Duel”, we see Chekhov in a more familiar milieu — the petty aristocracy at the dissipated frontier. Chekhov here steps away from Gogol and references the urbane, ruthlessly ironic Turgenev of Fathers and Sons. The subject of the story — a duel between a callow, romantic doctor and a hardened, unsympathetic scientist — mirrors the conflict of the latter Turgenev novel, even to the point of having the main characters comment on the parallels at repeated points throughout the story. But Chekhov can already be seen to bristle under the limitations of pastiche, as we see in the story’s unexpectedly somber and contemplative climax. He’s already taken an interest not in setting dialectic opposites into each other for the purposes of destruction, but in using philosophical conflict as a window into a more humane understanding of character. In the ending we begin to see the mechanism of grace at work, of human forgiveness through rapprochement.
And this theme is accentuated in 1892’s “Story of an Unknown Man”. Picking up where Dostoevsky leaves off, with shades of both the anonymous nihilism of Notes From Underground and the political ferocity of Demons, Chekhov examines the career of a would-be political assassin set loose in the house of a nobleman while masquerading as a butler. But again, Chekhov references the ideas of his elders only with the ultimate goal of commenting upon them in the context of his own philosophy. Dostoevsky was indefatigable in his desire for ideological synthesis — his characters are the living embodiments of ideas and their conflicts are, therefore, greater than the scope of their limited context. But in short order Chekhov refutes any such ideological baggage by showing up the political context as comically subordinate to the personal. The assassin of the story, the titular “Unknown Man”, is less a firebrand than a pipsqueak. As he finds himself caught up in the pathetic romantic duplicities of his master and his mistress, he moves further away from any abstract political context and towards a more understated understanding of human frailty. Again — the story leaves with the protagonist having concluded his conflicts not through any hard-fought ideological combat, but through the act of surpassing conflict altogether.
“Three Years”, published in 1895, is a more challenging story, and the collection’s first truly mature statement. Taking a step down from any political or philosophical intimations, the story instead concerns itself with the circumstances and immediate aftermath of a hasty and regrettable marriage. Here we see Chekhov’s firm grasp of the intricacies of character as elaborated through the passage of time. It is to his credit that he is able to illustrate such a complex and compelling portrait of marital regret and eventual reconciliation. These are the most subtle and inexplicable processes of the human mind, and the masterful way in which he is able to draw out the gradual evolution of a hidden spiritual nature begins to place recognizable definitions on his style, as he entered the final decade of his life and the period in which he would write his masterpieces.
Appropriately enough, given the scope of the previous stories, the final book — “My Life” — rounds out the tour of Russian landmarks with Tolstoy. The great cause of Tolstoy’s later life, to which he almost abandoned writing altogether and devoted most of his energies, was pacifism, humanism and non-materialism in the mode of the early Christians. The protagonist of “My Life” is a stubborn and intelligent son of the aristocracy who turns his back on his family’s legacy in order to live an honest peasant’s life. But it’s not that simple — the peasantry are stubborn, ignorant, corrupt and selfish, and his attempt at living a life free of artifice and hypocrisy ultimately results in injury to those he loves. It is not so much a refutation of Tolstoy’s ideals as an attempt to come to grips with the practical consequences of such an all-encompassing humanism. Here we see Chekhov’s particular genius in full blossom, with the understanding that opposing ideas are not always perfectly symmetrical constructs, which can be resolved through conflict and synthesis. Sometimes, separate ideas can simply be contradictory and true, and it is a man’s responsibility to make their own individual way through these paradoxes as best they can.
In the space of these five short works the conscientious reader can chart the gradual awakening of a major talent, from the early, callow voice of grasping homage to the full scope of a humanistic understanding that would eventually give birth to something as sublime as The Cherry Orchard. Although not all five books were conceived equally, they each contribute to a more nuanced understanding of the unique character of Russian letters, in the same manner as Nabakov’s famous gloss of Eugene Onegin — by allowing the work of proceeding generations to explicitly comment on their predecessors. For fans of Chekhov in specific and Russian literature in general, these previously obscured works represent an incredible bounty.