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Anton Chekhov, short story author (book review)

29 April 2012

Chekhov: The Hidden GroundChekhov: The Hidden Ground by Philip Callow

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) is known for his short stories and plays. I have not usuallly been a fan of short stories, except possibly in the science-fiction and horror genres, so I did not come across Chekhov’s works until about ten years ago.

Father Athanasius Akunda had just arrived in South Africa as a young deacon to help with mission work in the Orthodox Church. There were many people who wanted to become Orthodox, and some who might have potential to study at a seminary, but few who actually had the educational requirementss necessary for entering a seminary. So we discussed the possibility of having a bridging course, and Father Athanasius suggested that we have a kind of theology in literature course. He had himself taught English literature in high schools before he was ordained.

We wrote to various people we knew to recommend suitable reading material, which would help to improve people’s reading skills, and also help to introduce them to cultures shaped by Orthodoxy, which was quite unfamiliar to most people in South Africa. Father Thomas Hopko, of St Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in Crestwood, New York, recommended the short stories of Anton Chekhov, and in particular Bishop, Student, Nightmare, Easter Eve (On holy night), Murder, Princess, Letter, Cossack, Panikhida (Requiem), Uprooted, In Exile, On the Road, In Passion Week, Dreams.

So I took a couple of volumes of Chechov’s short stories out of the library, and was hooked.

I didn’t just read the ones that Fr Tom Hopko recommended, but I read them all.

A couple of years later we had the opportunity to put Fr Athanasius’s idea into practice, as a Catechetical School had been started in Yeoville, Johannesburg.

It was something that Father Athanasius and I had been discussing for a long time. He had taught literature in high school classes, but I had never taught such a thing. Would it work? Should we be trying it? Against all the principles of modern education, this had no specific outcomes, no specified assessment criteria. There was no hope that we could get accredited on this, but we were feeling our way. Where to?

The class was supposed to be the previous week, but that was cancelled in mourning for the death of the Pope and Patriarch and the three bishops and others with him. So the students had two weeks to read the two short texts.

The texts were The martyrdom of Polycarp and Chekhov’s short story, The bishop. We told them nothing other than that they were about two bishops, at different times and places, and both were about their deaths and the events immediately leading up to their deaths.

We had four students, for all of whom English was a second or third language. Each had a different home language from the other three. One, from Zimbabwe, spoke Shona; he had attended a Roman Catholic seminary, and was the intellectual of the group. Another was a refugee from Congo; English was his third language, his second language was French. The third, whose home language was North Sotho, really wanted to be a carpenter and was not academically inclined, but perhaps he had a poetic ear. And the fourth spoke Zulu; he was a political organiser, the leader of a youth choir, a go getter.

But the stories left the students in darkness. One said he could not penetrate the meaning. The Chekhov one took place in Holy Week, but that was about it.

So I asked them to read a few paragraphs aloud. The bishop goes home to the monastery where he lives. He is told his mother had called to see him. He is overjoyed to learn this, but it is too late to see her now. He begins to feel ill (the illness that will lead to his death (but we, the readers, and he, do not know this yet). He says his prayers, scrupulously and attentively, and at the same time thinks of his mother and his childhood, which seems happier in retrospect than it did at the time.

How does this compare with Polycarp? Polycarp too has a journey, but unlike Bishop Pyotr in Chekhov’s tale, he is on the run from the police, but eventually decides to give himself up. He too rides in a coach, but it isn’t his, but the police commissioner’s. He barks his shins as he gets down.

But there are other things too — Polycarp feeds the arresting officers, and I was reminded of Beyers Naude, who had died last week. When he was banned, the Security Police often used to watch his house, noting details of any visitors. And his wife, Tannie Ilse, would take them coffee and biscuits out to the car. As St Paul says, when your enemy is hungry, feed him. I’m supposed to be the teacher here, but I’m learning a great deal from reading these stories.

Are the students learning anything, I wonder? And, like Bishop Pyotr, my mind goes back to my youth, to English I tutorials with Christina van Heyningen and Glen Culpepper on the lawn in front of the Arts Block at the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg. Did they too wonder if they were getting anything of their enthusiasm across to these rather dull students? When I was 23 I was remarkably dull and unresponsive to literature and writing. Perhaps I should have done something else, and waited till I was 63 before doing English literature classes at university. I’d certainly have appreciated them better then. As they say, youth is wasted on the young.

And then I remembered that in discussing this Father Athanasius and I did have specific outcomes in mind after all. Ambitious, unrealistic, and certainly not likely to be accepted as a Level 4 unit standard with the South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA). We wanted the students to write literature — in Shona, North Sotho, Zulu, and whatever language the Congolese student spoke at home. Perhaps, who knows, one of them may be the new Chekhov for that language. So we gave them an assignment: write your own story about a bishop. It can be fact or fiction, real or imaginary. How long? How many words? How many pages? As long as it takes to say what you have to say, no more and no less.

They had until the end of the semester to write them. Perhaps some might be worthy of publication. Yes, that’s an outcome. And it’s quite specific.

But the outcome was never achieved. None of the students wrote a story.

So I was glad that I had come to Chekhov’s stories at the age of 63, rather than the age of 23. I’d probably not have appreciated them at the younger age. And I learned from this biography that Chekhov was only halfway between those ages when he died. I learned that The Bishop was one of his mature stories, written at a time when he was looking forward to his own death, from TB. And I learned that it differed a great deal from the stories he wrote in his youth.

I also learned that Chekhov had largely lost his faith when he wrote most of his stories, and he said that the only thing that was left was that he loved the sound of church bells. I was reminded of Fyodor Dostoevsky‘s book The brothers Karamazov, in which there is a dog called Perezvon. which means “peal of bells”. In stories like “The bishop” one can see something of why and how the Orthodox Christian faith had so permeated Russian culture that the Bolsheviks were not able to eradicate it, even after 70 years, and I suspect that in such stories Chekhov passed on the seeds of faith, even though it was a faith he himself had lost.

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