Saturday, 7 July 2012

Review: The Steppe by Anton Chekhov

Anton Chekhov is an author best known for his short stories and his plays, so the fact that he also wrote several longer prose works is often overlooked. 'The Steppe' is the earliest of these, and it describes a young boy's journey across the southern Russian landscape in which Chekhov grew up; there are clear autobiographical elements here. Chekhov's greatest influence, however, appears to be that of the Romantic movement: not the British Romantics like Keats, Wordsworth and Byron, but the more European branch: Goethe, Gogol and Pushkin. Given my usual distaste for Romanticism, I found 'The Steppe' to be surprisingly effective, particularly the description of the thunderstorm that acts as a sort of climax to the novella, which is possibly the only time I have managed to grasp the sublimity of nature that Wordsworth and chums kept discoursing about.

The fact that the climax of the work is a natural and fairly commonplace event conveys the muted tone of 'The Steppe': Chekhov seeks to accurately reflect life in the Russia of his youth. He therefore manages to resist the easy temptation to slip into allegory during the boy's journey, and allows his narrative to peter out into a flat, restrained ending. Chekhov even parodies a desire for melodrama in the campfire stories that occupy the central part of the novella: the boy wonders why one of the men he is travelling with insists on peddling fabrications, when his own life has been so interesting.

That is not to say that Chekhov is scathing or resentful. As with the best of his work, 'The Steppe' contains a blend of light and dark humour and tragedy, seeming to accurately represent the more varied tones of everyday life. Chekhov's treatment of his characters is similarly balanced: while he seems to be generally affectionate, he does not shy away from relating the flaws of his constructs. Few explicit details are given, but the implications become clear; that Chekhov manages to create such depth with so little prompting, and so few narrative events, demonstrates his mastery. 'The Steppe' somehow falls short of the great, intangible, indefinable feeling of profundity that haunts Chekhov's best work, yet its richness and vividness of character, location and life make it compelling.

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