Reading Chekkov I: “Vanka”

“Reading Chekhov” is the name of this game – a podcast experiment and safe indoor sport with, by all accounts, the greatest short-story writer of them all, the medical doctor who was also the “Cherry Orchard” playwright, Anton Chekhov.  It began last summer just for kicks with an Albanian actor and friend, Nijazi Jusufi, who had read Chekhov growing up.  It expanded to a circle of a dozen friends passing a book around in my living room.  Why?  Because Chekhov (1860 – 1904) is ageless and everywhere – “the voice of twilight Russia,” it’s been said, and one of the great pre-revolutionary visionaries – but also a literary influence on Joyce and all the moderns and still a contemporary, almost.  For many readers today he has the rare effect his friend Maxim Gorky observed.  In Chekhov’s presence, Gorky said, “every one involuntarily felt in himself a desire to be simpler, more truthful, more one’s self.”  The several actors in our group keep discovering, and demonstrating, that Chekhov’s phrases, scenes and lines keep expanding when they’re spoken aloud.  For me he has the further peculiar effect of inviting digressions as we go – conversations and asides about all manner of things, philosophical and emotional, and not at all specially Russian.  We begin with a tiny tale that has the feel of Dickens, about a 9-year-old orphan in Moscow, pining for his grandpa in the village, his only vestige of family.

Most of us are reading from the translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volkhonsky.  Listeners out there, we’d be delighted to hear your take on the story and on our impressions of it.  Leave a comment please on our new and improved website,  Next on our list, if you’re inclined to read ahead, is Chekhov’s little drama of a tramp, titled “Dreams.”

Mary McGrath produced and edited this first crack at Reading Chekov.  Special thanks to the audio master Jim Donahue who wired us all for sound.  And thanks to our chorus of friends and commentators in my living room.

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  • Good to see the site and show reborn and rejuvenated.

    2013 was the year a line from Chekhov that I had stumbled upon 25 and more years ago in my father’s copy of Short Stories by him came back to me with overpowering force:

    “It’s not a question of pessimism or optimism,” I said irritably; “its simply that ninety-nine people out of a hundred have no sense.”
    —An Artist’s Story by Anton Chekhov

  • Potter

    This is wonderful. I welcome this gift during what seems now like a Russian winter we are having.I am reminded too of a WGBH radio program we had and lost years ago called “Reading Aloud”.

    Thank you for Chekhov. The story is gem-like, a painter’s sketch or watercolor, made for itself alone perhaps, focussing on a little bit of Russian life.

    I would prefer to read ahead next time and then listen. The story is so short, the details so important, that the change-over from one voice to another disrupted my attention to the story. I naturally focussed on who was reading, the voices, the differences in interpretation, instead of settling down to listen to Chekhov. That said, the different readings and interpretations, including from the “chorus”, especially your Russian guest, did add to my appreciation.

    I loved the characterization of the dogs, as though they were almost people, certainly worthy beings deserving of our compassion too.

    My favorite Chekhov short story ( so far) is “A Dull Story” or “A Boring Story” but I have not read them all.

    Thank you again for this spiritual warmth. ( PS -the audio was excellent!)

  • chris

    I’m thrilled, dear Potter, that you’re in on the Chekhov expedition. Do read our next one on your own: “Dreams,” a transporting fantasy in the troubled head of a vagrant. We’ll get some great voices coming out of it. We’ve read (but not yet recorded) that haunting and utterly unboring “Boring Story.” How it sticks: the late despair of a famous giant of his culture and his profession… with nothing to say at the end to a girl who hungered for the meaning of it all… But the story is long, and we haven’t figured how to sustain the ebbing pulse of it. In any event, it means everything that you find value in the experiment! Tell your friends, and think of coming in and reading with us someday. Would you? Love to you, Chris.

  • Bruce

    Simplicity is the art of Chekkov!
    Remains me of a Time essay by the author Peter Matthiessen

  • Kate McShane

    My first Chekhov short story. Sweet. I know nothing about Chekhov. I imagine he saw these boys, he’d been a boy, himself, he had empathy. He wrote a story to learn what their lives were like, because he had feeling for them. He was interested in what he learned. Maybe someone would read it and have their own feelings for them. Maybe Chekhov’s own feelings would change his life. The story, like everything Chekhov would write, would live inside him and feed his soul.

    • Maura Gallagher

      Absolutely…let’s keep on with the Chekhov – that’s my vote too.

  • Potter

    Thank you Chris. I have gone on to read Dreams and I have something to say on that.

    But also, I have re-read “A Boring Story” which I read years ago as “A Dull Story” (different translation; always interesting in and of itself to compare) and found my way to the same passages I singled out then which I would love to quote, even both translations, especially since it is so relevant to me even today. So I don’t know what to say about it being so long except maybe do it in sections or just assign it and discuss and have your guests read passages. It took me more than one sitting – as I don’t sit so long motionless. And to tell you the truth it was indeed boring at times( which it was supposed to be) but it was also profound and making a point in the process. As for coming in and reading I have this opinion about my voice: it’s too whiney for my taste… or I am shy… or we live so far.. but thanks!! Let’s keep on Chekhov! (as I start “War and Peace”.. look how much time do we have here? and there is so much!!!).

  • Maura Gallagher

    Chris, great idea to do the Chekhov – I love this story. Note too how Vanka at the end isn’t dreaming of an actual rescue, but of the reading of the letter to an audience! Maybe he had his own artistic inclinations. You had a super discussion groupl: I did not know about the Russian idioms that sprung from the story. I agree with the last commentator: More Chekhov please! I have my Norton edition in hand.