January 14, 2014

"The poor wretch sank into silence, merely moving his lips as though whispering to himself..."

Reading Chekhov II: “Dreams”

We’re Reading Chekhov stories again with a crew of actors, school teachers, and friends, learning as we go, sipping wine and nibbling cheese and nuts. The story this time is called “Dreams.” It’s a dense 7-page fantasy of the good life in the far wilds of Eastern Siberia. It’s a dream of freedom that pops full-blown, sharply detailed, from the head and heart of an enfeebled red-nosed tramp, who’s being muscled along by two soldiers. It’s part of the plot – in a story that has no plot, really – that this dream has a reality all its own. When spoken aloud the dream is a life-force that quickly envelops the two soldiers and perhaps the rest of us as we listen. We’ll see. We’re learning also the explicit influence that the great Chekhov has had on story-tellers ever since. Anton Chekov, medical doctor and playwright, born in Russia in 1860, the son of a liberated serf. Died young of tuberculosis in 1904, credited ever after as the father of the modern short story. It’ll be clear, I think, that Samuel Beckett and Ernest Hemingway took a thing or two from this story “Dreams.” I’ll be passing the book along to four other readers; we also have a Greek chorus of friends who are invited to interrupt with a stray thought anytime. It’s part of the fun with Chekhov to digress as the spirit moves any of us.

We’ve been reading from the Norton edition of Chekhov stories. Marion Fell did our translation of “Dreams.” Thanks to Yo-Yo Ma for his version of the Rococo Variations composed by Chekhov’s friend Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Special thanks to the audio pro on so many stages Jim Donahue, who wired us all for sound.

Listeners out there, we’d be delighted to hear your take on the story and on our impressions of it. Next up, if you care to read ahead, will be “Gusev,” the tale from 1890 of a soldier heading home on shipboard from war in the East.


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  • Lovely, enlightening, poignant -a glass half full, delicious and quenching. More, more, more. Waiting, waiting, yes, yes. Cheers, for a new year underneath this new full moon. Thank you Christopher – you keep this lonely poet alive via podcast, its survival, it connects me to the heart in the depths of exile. You destroy the snobbishness from what’s accessible to everyone. I think of the diamond coal of educators; my first grade teacher who taught me to read, my 6th grade science teacher who taught me to have patience. Peace, shaka!

  • Maria Rosa Gainza

    Just wonderful. We need of this kind of reading. More.More.
    Thank you very much, from Buenos Aires.

  • Potter

    I am glad I read this first and then listened catching what I might have missed. I especially loved your guest’s reading of the tramp’s dream of fishing. The discussion again added to my own impressions. Too, the first thing I thought of was Becket. We had seen the Arts Emerson production of it in Boston this past fall- no big name actors ( thank goodness) and that was still fresh. So the description of the landscape, the characters and maybe a “proto-existentialism” (?) is very reminiscent of that play. As well, I thought of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables because of the injustice that this poor fellow suffered. So this was also about Russia for me, the unjustice and then the landscape-the dreary grey brown landscape with it’s textures (puddles, wood, leaf, cloudy sky) passing by as they walked but looking the same as though they were not making any progress at all to where they were headed. It was a painting too, maybe a Vlaminck winter scene- muddy (he did plenty of them). I love Chekhov just for his descriptions.

    It was interesting to hear a different translation that the one I read (which was called ” The Daydream).

    I differ with the interpretation of the conclusion. I think we just don’t know whether this fellow musters his dream up again (his hope, will to live) after the constables puncture it. But it seemed clear to me (again) that this was about Russia too- the Russian psyche as much as anything else: about freedom and the rejection of it, or the difficulty of dealing with such a vision. This is a vision of man free, but connected to nature, feeling joy, simple joy of that state. And it was about the difficulty of achieving that state of bliss or even the will to it. The constables thought it hopeless, they could not bear to hear the poor fellow’s descriptions of Siberia. The dream was was too rich, offered too much, and pointed up their own dreary existence. So they had to destroy the vision. Is this saying something existential about the Russian soul then? (Russia today too)

    The connection to Russian music was very interesting, the strong romantic music of the period which maybe also was about escaping to freedom, and reaffirming of the strength of spirit.

    But again I just don’t know if this unnamed (dehumanized, as someone said) fellow recovers. I wanted to offer him some cheese, nuts and wine at least!

    Thank you!

  • Mark Wilcoxson

    I like how Potter above put the element of vision destroying by the constables. And after he is snapped back to reality I can’t help but wonder if he wished he had never allowed himself to dream in the first place.

  • Kate McShane

    I don’t know, obviously, if he keeps his dream. I know almost nothing about Russian culture. After all, we were all propagandized about Russia for much of our lives. And they’re still at it. At first, I took everything the dreamer said about his life at face value. Maybe it was a fantasy, maybe not. I didn’t see the constables having a big problem with his dreams. They didn’t appear to be hostile. In the end, when they observed his condition and why it would be impossible for him to get to Siberia, I wondered if it was painful for them to hear the dreams, as if they’d become, for a little while, caught up in the story, then snapped back to what is called reality. They had authority over him and people who have work/lives like that tend to be much more negative and don’t hesitate to pronounce on the lives of less powerful people. How do you keep going despite all the obstacles when you live a less powerful life with no authority but your own inner life? You try to ignore those who tell you that you will never be able to have anything better. Your life depends on your dreams.