23 May 2013

Chekhov, Our Contemporary

Sonya: "....it's incredibly interesting.  He (Astrov) plants new trees every year; he's already gotten a bronze medal and a certificate.   And he's a leader in the campaign to preserve the old-growth forests.  He says that trees are earth's most precious ornament, they teach us to recognize beauty!  Forests help to temper a severe climate, and in regions with temperate climates, people spend less energy trying to combat nature, so the people themselves are kinder and gentler.  And they're better looking, and taller, and more at ease with their emotions; even their speech and their motions have a natural grace.  Wherever there are trees, the arts and sciences flourish, and a positive attitude to life, and they treat women with respect - "

Vanya: "Bravo, bravo! That's a very lovely speech, dear, but it doesn't convince me.  So...(to Astrov) please don't hate me if I keep on cutting wood for the stove and timber to build a new barn."

Astrov: "You can burn turf in your stove and use bricks for your barn.  Look, I'm not against cutting wood, but why destroy the forests?"

Vanya: "Why not? To listen to you you'd think the only thing forests were good for is shade for picnics."

Astrov:  "I never said that.  But all our great woodlands are being leveled, millions of trees already gone, bird and animal habitats destroyed, rivers dammed up and polluted - and all for what?  Because we're too lazy to look for other sources of energy..."
          - excerpted from Act I of Uncle Vanya, translated from the Russian by Paul Schmidt in The Plays Of Anton Chekhov, New York, Harper Collins: 1997 (1897).

Vanya is Sonya's uncle, which points to the importance of her character to her creator, in a play that points to her by indirection.   Idealistic, dedicated, struggling to reconcile the narrow confines of the estate where she lives with her large spirit, Sonya speaks for Chekhov's aspirations,  as Astrov, a doctor  (like his creator) whose experience speaks to their inadequacy.

In the background there was Russian  agriculture, using the most primitive means to the least productive ends in Europe during the late 19th century. Two thirds of the population worked the land that was owned by the wealthy few.  Living outside the cities, the landed gentry of Chekhov's play felt themselves marooned in a sea of dependents with whom they shared the land but little else.  The need for croplands and pastures was contributing to the destruction of forests, leaving ugly scars on what had appeared primeval.  With blinders on, we may think concern about the stewardship of nature is our  own enlightened invention.  Against that presumption of superiority, Chekhov created characters haunted at once by a sense of the insignificance of their actions and the calamitous consequences.  Chekhov, the poet of that which remains unresolved, is our contemporary.

Paul Schmidt (1934-1999) was the great Chekhov translator of his time, balancing the melancholy with humor,  giving a more fully rounded view of what it means to be a Chekhovian character.
His last published work was an anthology The Stray Dog Cabaret: A Book of Russian Poems  (New York Review Books:2007), discussed  here dated 29 September 2011 (Scream When You Leave).

1. Grigoriy Myasoyedov- Forest Creek. Spring, 1890, courtesy of Wikipedia.
2. Ivan Shishkin  - Near the Dacha, 1894, Tatarstan State Museum of Fine Art, Kazan.
     Shishkin (1832-1898) was a Russian painter who studied in St. Petersburg and also abroad in Switzerland and Germany.  He belonged to a group called The Itinerants and was a painter, in oils and watercolors, of the forests of his native country.
3. Ivan Shishkin - Lumbering, 1867, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.


Gerrie said...

frightning, such a foresight !

Jane said...

Gerrie, I was so struck by this that I wondered how I had missed it before when we studied "Uncle Vanya" in college. Prescient is a good term, I think.