“In sheer impotency he returned to the house, greeting with bitter tears the new unknown life which was now beginning for him…. What will that life be?” – Anton Chekhov
Sometimes even a great writer runs into the wall.
As I mentioned in my last essay, I’d been working my way through the Everyman Library edition of Chekhov’s stories. The longest story (really a novella) is called “The Steppe” and is, perhaps, something of an autobiographical work. Unlike most Chekhov works, it is a rambling, discursive narrative, episodic, at times slightly incoherent, yet ultimately satisfying a much for its insight into the workings of a great writer’s mind as it is for the work itself.
I’ve explored this topic before with one of my favorite authors, Jane Austen, and to discover this same struggle with a work in another writer whose canon status is inviolate is a pleasurable surprise. Not because I’m looking for feet of clay in a great writer, but because discovering a great writer working to overcome a writing difficulty. In Austen’s case it is that she tries to write her usual comedy of manners with a heroine more suited to a novel by one of the Bronte sisters. In Chekhov’s story, the problems – well, let’s get to them, shall we?
There are two main problems worth discussing. The first of these is that his main story line, the story of a boy named Ergo who is on his way to boarding school to live away from home for the first time, is the stuff of a short story, not a novella length work. In fact, this particular story line serves more as a framing device for a rambling narrative about life on the Russian steppe.
Chekhov wanders off into a second story line concerning moujiks, Russian peasant drovers, who are transporting several wagons of wool to a buyer. The boy, for reasons not entirely made clear, is handed over to the moujiks for part of the journey. This allows Chekhov to offer a series of episodes ranging from a summer swimming and fishing escapade to a visit by a lonely husband wandering the steppe trying to occupy himself while his wife is visiting her family to the caravan being caught in a violent thunder storm. These events provide separate stories in themselves – and they offer Ergo several life lessons. The stories have the feel of episodes from Huckleberry Finn. They have the alternating charm and weight of that work. But the reader finds himself waiting for that moment of connection to the main story line.
That connection never comes. The reader can certainly make the inference that as Ergo begins his new education he has also received an education from his experience traveling with the moujiks. What Chekhov fails to do, however, is relieve for the reader the desire to understand the relationship between Ergo’s ramble across the steppe with the moujiks and the original story of a boy going off to school. There are two stories whose connection is a central character. Both stories are interesting, but Chekhov fails to bring them together.
Ergo rejoins his original traveling companions, his uncle and a local priest, is delivered to his boarding school, and suffers the pangs of loneliness and homesickness that appear in the quote that begins this piece. It’s a haunting and moving closing to the original story line. One wishes, however, that such a poignant ending worked for the entire story.