I have wanted to read Anton Chekhov’s ‘The Steppe’ for quite sometime. Chekhov has written many short stories and is an acknowledged master of that literary form. Generations of writers have been inspired by him. Chekhov also sneaked in a few long stories among his shorter ones. These were not technically short stories, because they were closer in length to a novella. ‘The Steppe’ is the longest of these long stories. It is around a hundred pages. I read it slowly in a few days time. Here is what I think.
Yegorushka is a young boy. His mother decides one day that he should be sent to a good school in a bigger town. She asks Yegorushka’s uncle to take him and put him up in a friend’s place and get him into a good school. This place is far away. Yegorushka’s uncle is a businessman who makes frequent business trips and decides to take Yegorushka with him during one of these trips. An old priest accompanies them alongwith the coachman. They travel through the Russian steppe, stay in an inn, meet interesting people there, then the uncle has to take a detour and leaves Yegorushka with a group of peasants who are travelling in a group of coaches with bales of wool. During this trip Yegorushka meets an old man called Panteley whom he treats like his grandfather and who tells tales in the night by the campfire while everyone is having dinner, he sees all kinds of strange things in the steppe, meets a stranger who joins the group in the middle of the night and tells his own story over a campfire dinner, encounters a storm, gets unwell and then gets back well and finally ends up in his mother’s friend’s place where his uncle and the priest bade him goodbye and Yegorushka cries and wonders poignantly how his future will pan out.
Though Yegorushka is the main character in the story and we see events through his eyes, the story is really about the Russian Steppe and Yegorushka’s journey through it. The Russian Steppe is one of the main characters in the story and we can feel it breathing, feeling happy and sad and angry and indifferent to the humans who travel through it. Chekhov’s prose glows in those parts in which he writes about the steppe and makes it come alive for us. Those were some of my favourite parts of the story. I also loved the way the different characters were sculpted so beautifully in the story and the way they were distinctive from each other, starting with the uncle and the priest, an inn-worker called Solomon who doesn’t care about money and who is not afraid of anyone and Panteley, the old grandfather-ish man from the coach caravan. Those storytelling nights around the campfire were also some of my favourite moments from the story. Though Chekhov is regarded as a master of the short story form, he equally excels in the longer format. The beautiful descriptions of the steppe and its features, of the characters and their quirks, the graceful pace at which the story runs, the poignant scenes and the beautiful ending – they were all a pleasure to read.
‘The Steppe’ is regarded as marking a turning point in Chekhov’s career. It has been described as a ‘superb and sustained prose poem’. It has also been described as evoking the soul of Russia itself. I loved that last description. I think it is perfect. I think ‘The Steppe’ is a love letter to Mother Russia, to the Russian soul and the soul of Russia, to the Russian way of life of a bygone era which is almost mythical now. It is beautiful to read, it gives goosebumps and one longs to be in the middle of the steppe and listen to Panteley’s tales while sitting next to the campfire while having some hot stew.
I wish Chekhov wrote more novellas. There is only one more story of comparable length to this one – ‘The Duel’ – and there are a few more which can be regarded as short novellas (between 40 and 60 pages), and if I keep at it, I know that I will finish reading them in a week. I wish there were more. Chekhov died in the prime of his life – when he was forty four years old. I wish he had lived for more years. I wish he had written more novellas. I wish he had written a sequel to ‘The Steppe’. I would have loved to read that.
I am glad that I finally read ‘The Steppe’. I want to read Chekhov’s other long stories now. ‘The Steppe’ is one of my favourites of the year and it is a story that I will be definitely reading again.
Here are some of my favourite passages to give you a flavor of the book’s beauty.
The song was subdued, dreary and melancholy, like a dirge, and hardly audible, and seemed to come first from the right, then from the left, then from above, and then from underground, as though an unseen spirit were hovering over the steppe and singing. Yegorushka looked about him, and could not make out where the strange song came from. Then as he listened he began to fancy that the grass was singing; in its song, withered and half-dead, it was without words, but plaintively and passionately, urging that it was not to blame, that the sun was burning it for no fault of its own; it urged that it ardently longed to live, that it was young and might have been beautiful but for the heat and the drought; it was guiltless, but yet it prayed forgiveness and protested that it was in anguish, sad and sorry for itself.
And then in the churring of insects, in the sinister figures, in the ancient barrows, in the blue sky, in the moonlight, in the flight of the nightbird, in everything you see and hear, triumphant beauty, youth, the fullness of power, and the passionate thirst for life begin to be apparent; the soul responds to the call of her lovely austere fatherland, and longs to fly over the steppes with the nightbird. And in the triumph of beauty, in the exuberance of happiness you are conscious of yearning and grief, as though the steppe knew she was solitary, knew that her wealth and her inspiration were wasted for the world, not glorified in song, not wanted by anyone; and through the joyful clamour one hears her mournful, hopeless call for singers, singers!
When you gaze a long while fixedly at the deep sky thoughts and feelings for some reason merge in a sense of loneliness. One begins to feel hopelessly solitary, and everything one used to look upon as near and akin becomes infinitely remote and valueless; the stars that have looked down from the sky thousands of years already, the mists and the incomprehensible sky itself, indifferent to the brief life of man, oppress the soul with their silence when one is left face to face with them and tries to grasp their significance. One is reminded of the solitude awaiting each one of us in the grave, and the reality of life seems awful…full of despair.
Life is terrible and marvellous, and so, however terrible a story you tell in Russia, however you embroider it with nests of robbers, long knives and such marvels, it always finds an echo of reality in the soul of the listener, and only a man who has been a good deal affected by education looks askance distrustfully, and even he will be silent. The cross by the roadside, the dark bales of wool, the wide expanse of the plain, and the lot of the men gathered together by the camp fire – all this was of itself so marvellous and terrible that the fantastic colours of legend and fairy-tale were pale and blended with life.
Have you read Chekhov’s ‘The Steppe’? What do you think about it?