We’re in my living room again with a group of friends drinking wine and reading Chekhov, the great short story writer of Russia and the reading world. We love him for so many reasons, including the fact that he invites us to digress. We’re reading a famous story called “The Student.” It’s a late winter, early spring night in the 1890s, Easter weekend. A student is coming home from shooting, and he pauses to share a Gospel story — Peter’s denial of Jesus — with peasant women. Chekhov liked to say this was his favorite story; a lot of people disagreed with him, some vehemently. I think he liked to say it because the story ends on an exalted note, as if to answer those who thought he was desperately gloomy and dark and atheistic. He may have said that he loved it as a sort of sop to his critics. It is for me not only the most perfect, postage-stamp little dose of Chekhov’s moods, alternately bleak and ecstatic; it also sets a complex reflection on betrayal, hardship, history and hope in an unforgettably beautiful scene.
Podcast • January 14, 2014
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.