Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Steppe


Don't know quite what to make of this early short novel by Chekhov.  He seems to be presenting young Egor as the future of Russia as the boy finds himself thrust into a journey across the limitless Steppe with his uncle and a bishop in a mad race to catch up with the mysterious Varlamov.  While this action propels the first half of the story, it seems little more than a way to hold the reader's attention as Chekhov seems more interested in describing the vast prairie land of his mother country and Egorushka's impressions, as he is being taken to a boarding school in a distant town.

Along the way we are treated to some rather odd characters sketches such as two Jewish brothers where the  shabby covered chaise stops briefly as the boy's uncle, Ivan Kuzmitchov, tries to gauge how distant Varlamov remains on the road.  The description of the Jewish brothers would make many readers today cringe, as they are cast as gross caricatures.  Forced to sit for a cup of tea,  Kuzmitchov can barely hold himself, so anxious to continue the journey despite night having fallen.  He wants desperately to complete his transaction with Varlamov before others get to him first.  When Father Christopher wants to do his blessings, Kuzmitchov can contain himself no longer, but the elderly Bishop does so just the same.

In time, we learn that Varlamov is a wealthy landowner.  One of the wealthiest in the broad region.  Meanwhile, Egorushka tries to absorb all these new impressions and make sense of them, especially when he finds himself passed over to a wagon train so that Kuzmitchov and Father Christopher can continue their chase unfettered by Egorushka's questions and complaints.

The wagon train dominates the second half of the story with the young boy forced to deal with a whole new set of circumstances.  We are treated to a variety of character sketches of persons barely removed from serfdom and one story after another of the dangers that befall merchants like Kuzmitchov on this seemingly desolate road.  The stories are told at night with everyone sitting around the campfire, leaving  Egorushka with fitful dreams.  Eventually, a storm overtakes the caravan and the young boy is left chilled to the bone.

Without much drama, Egorushka is eventually reunited with his Uncle and Father Christopher in an unnamed provincial city.  He finds out that his Uncle has competed his deal with Varlamov, but finds himself too sick to share in his Uncle's pleasure.  Father Christopher takes care of the boy, rubbing oil and vinegar into his body that night to take out the chill. The next morning the young boy awakes reinvigorated and ready for the next stage of his journey.  His Uncle pawns him off on a distant relation and this is where Chekhov chooses to leave the reader, as if the first act in a much broader play.

It seemed to me that Chekhov projected Young Egor as the future of Russia, and that those he fell into association with on this journey the past and the turbulent present.  The Steppe encompasses and comes to hang over this story in the form of a massive thunderstorm that shakes the boy to the bone.  He describes the landscape in detail, noting a couple of villages along the way, and reveling in the streams in which the boy gets to swim.  It is a pleasant story but one that doesn't have much meat to it, like his other more character driven stories.

I see that Sergei Bondarchuk adapted The Steppe to film in 1977, but I haven't seen it.
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The painting is Vladimirka Road (1892) by Isaac Levitan

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