David's Reviews > Peasants and Other Stories

Peasants and Other Stories by Anton Chekhov
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's review
Nov 21, 2011

it was amazing
bookshelves: nyrb
Read from November 21 to 24, 2011

No matter how much Russian literature I read—in English translation, of course—and no matter who the translator happens to be, I am left with the nagging suspicion that there is something essential about Russian literature and culture that I don't fully 'get.' The reactions and behavior of these characters and the social milieux they inhabit are mostly familiar, I suppose, but they are also haunted around the edges by an irreducible strangeness which no particular translation and no generosity of footnotes will ever make fully intelligible to the non-Russian. And I would be lying if I told you that this elusiveness isn't part of this literature's appeal. Anton Chekhov is no different from his marquee name compatriots Dostoevsky and Tolstoy in this respect. The several short stories and two novellas in this Edmund Wilson-curated collection point to sociocultural questions about Russian life at the end of the 19th century and the very beginning of the 20th century that Chekhov, of course, takes for granted. This, in fact, is the distinction of this collection, as Wilson points out in his brief introduction; these late stories of Chekhov, all relatively bleak, speak of the greater social problems of Russian life at this unique moment of transformation. And make no mistake: Chekhov harbors no illusions about the future; his prognosis for Russian society is hardly optimistic and offers few consolations to its victims. A stubbornly backward, underdeveloped empire has been delivered into the 20th century greatly handicapped by its cultural immensity and diffusion, its recalcitrance in the face of 'progress,' and the tragic collisions between the old and the new. In this collection of stories, translated by Constance Garnett, Chekhov illustrates these 'challenges' (this word feels like a banal euphemism here) with sadness and, occasionally, with bitterness—but never with garish sentimentality. In the story 'In the Ravine,' for example, a vulgar, well-to-do family of the developing merchant class live in a typically wretched Russian village, making money off the peasantry through black market sales, while bribing the powers-that-be; the unscrupulous son of the family takes a poor peasant girl as his wife, simply because of her beauty. The misery that's heaped upon this girl at the hands of this miserable family is nearly unbearable to read, and yet she takes this cruelty almost as a matter of course. Her equanimity is disturbing, in fact, to this reader. This is part of the inscrutability of Russian literature for me. Characters often don't act in ways you'd expect—or, more accurately, in ways you'd want them to. Their resignation to or acquiescence in their fate sometimes seems hopeless—and yet very real. I think it's wrong to assume that stories like these were the norm of Russian life at the time, but they certainly highlight the unique circumstances of fin de siècle Russia—a nation which seems always to be the exception to every known rule.
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Comments (showing 1-7 of 7) (7 new)

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message 1: by Bram (new)

Bram Nice cover. Do you know what the overlap is between this and the Pevear and Volokhonksy translation of stories?

message 2: by Bram (new)

Bram Nevermind, just read the details. Edmund Wilson is the man.

message 3: by David (last edited Nov 25, 2011 02:36AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

David Hi, Wisp! Did you have a good Thanksgiving or have you completely abandoned your Yankee ways?

Anyway. There is an overlap of two stories between this edition and the Pevear/Volokhonsky story collection ('The Bishop' and 'The Betrothed'/'The Fiancée'), and there is an overlap of two novellas between this edition and the Pevear/Volokhonsky The Complete Short Novels collections (Three Years and My Life).

From what I've read, critics believe that Constance Garnett did a better job preserving the style and feeling of Chekhov than she did with either Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. Whether this is true or not I will never know because I don't plan on becoming fluent in Russian--but I can say I enjoyed all of the stories and novellas in this edition, regardless of their fidelity to the original.

message 4: by Bram (new)

Bram Thanksgiving was yesterday? I had a pizza dinner. How was your celebration of the bountiful harvests that provided the white man with the requisite strength to conquer the natives and turn North America into the sputtering, economically and intellectually choked wasteland that it's become today?

I've been meaning to get back to Chekhov's Short Novels, but the first one (The Steppe) kind of bored me to death. So you must have, what, four more NYRB novels to read at this point?

David So you must have, what, four more NYRB novels to read at this point?

Ha! Try thirty-three! No, I'm not joking.

I was thinking of visiting the nearby Indian reservation casino for Thanksgiving to atone for our past misdeeds. But instead I only ate and slept--which is a motto of sorts for this nation, I guess.

David Oh, and...

Wow! The Steppe bored you to death? That's saying a lot from someone who gave A Time of Gifts five stars!

message 7: by Bram (last edited Nov 25, 2011 04:07AM) (new)

Bram My memory of The Steppe is fuzzy, but I think some people just got on a wagon and went somewhere. You started the Short Novels last winter time too, no? Or two winter's ago? Anyway, while not dissimilar from the 'plot' of A Time of Gifts, it lacked all the fascinating (yes, fascinating!) ruminations on language, culture, art, architecture, history, landscape, and literature that Fermor scatters throughout his journey. (Nice review), hater!

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