My (Temporarily) Russian Soul

Soulful Russian folk songs would not have been out of place on our drive last week across the unending frozen landscape of the Midwest. My friend Mike Finke, a Slavic scholar, and I were headed for the 2010 International Chekhov Conference at The Ohio State University, after all.


December 11, 2010

Soulful Russian folk songs would not have been out of place on our drive last week across the unending frozen landscape of the Midwest. My friend Mike Finke, a Slavic scholar, and I were headed for the 2010 International Chekhov Conference at The Ohio State University, after all. But his Toyota sedan, slung low as a troika and faded to the color of an old fence or a low-hanging cloud, has only four forward gears and runs at high rpm, and I’d been sick for five weeks with an elementary-school virus and was coughing as badly as poor Chekhov himself. I doubt we could have heard lovely, low music. Instead we amused ourselves by shouting anecdotes at each other and looking up at the lug nuts of passing semis.

The conference celebrated the 150th anniversary of Anton Chekhov’s birth, and some of the world’s best Chekhov scholars attended, including the “dean of Russian Chekhov scholars,” in from Moscow; a Jesse and George Siegel Professor in the Humanities at Columbia, who’s putting together the new Norton edition of his stories; the heads of Slavic at Brown and elsewhere; Penguin’s translator of choice of Dostoevsky; and many other fine scholars, translators, and teachers, brought together by the Slavic Department at the Ohio State University, in collaboration with its English/Creative Writing and Theater Departments and Center for Slavic and East European Studies, and the North American Chekhov Society.

I wanted to ask Mike the pronunciation of Russian words I would use in my talk. You know as a reader the danger of saying things aloud that you’ve only ever seen in print. I once had a good and intelligent friend tell me about a string of islands, which he pronounced “artch-uh-puh-LAH-go.” I laughed heartily and he moved to Austin, Texas.

I hoped to explain why and how I used Chekhov’s stories in my undergraduate creative writing workshops but intended to start by saying it was a great honor to be among the chekhovedy. The word looks to me like “beloved,” given how I feel about Chekhov’s work, but it's pronounced, Mike instructed, more like “ch-khuh-VYED-ee."

I think. Because when I started to do my bit on the first day of the conference, I opened my mouth and out came…well, I don’t know what I said. I ran at it again and it was worse. Mike, who was moderating that session, laughed and said I’d had five hours in the car to practice. I said that even if I couldn’t say it I’d pretend to be one for the next 10 minutes. The scholars had never seen a Churm before, but I hit them with my best serio-comic modality, and by their warmth and graciousness I finished honorably.

Then I was free to relax and listen. Vladimir Kataev of Moscow State University gave a talk on “Circuses and Cemeteries” that contained perfect metaphors for trying to get the writing right, and which I hope will be published in English soon. Others talked about Chekhov’s use of the double; his poetics and metapoetics; philosophy, geography, empire, sex; Dostoevsky, Nabokov, and Stoppard in light of Chekhov; and staging and screening him.

Check out the interesting documentary Chekhov for Children, screened at the conference by filmmaker Sasha Waters Freyer. It’s based on Phillip Lopate's 1979 essay of the same name and uses "rare amateur video and films to tell the story of Lopate's staging on Broadway of Uncle Vanya with public-school 5th and 6th graders." (Freyer was his 12-year old “assistant director.”)

Conventions in one’s own field can be interesting and stimulating, and with very big conventions, such as the MLA, there are often cross-pollinations. But I found something special in this somewhat intimate collaboration of scholars, creative writers, and film people. Attendees were collegial and the sessions often brilliant but free of jargon and therefore understandable and applicable. We ate well, drank well, and late at night the smart Russian girls reclined on couches and spoke of Goncharov. One of my fondest memories is going to dinner in the tiny Toyota, packed with so many scholars (and me) that it bottomed out on its springs. At the end of the conference Russian effusion made for a rather emotional leaving.

I first met Mike Finke (Metapoesis: The Russian Tradition from Pushkin to Chekhov [Duke UP, 1995] and Seeing Chekhov: Life And Art [Cornell UP, 2005]) a couple of years ago at a school picnic. He’d recently co-edited, with Julie de Sherbinin, a particularly useful collection of essays and interviews on Chekhov’s work that helps explain why so many creative writers have valued Chekhov’s stories so highly. When he asked more recently if I’d like to take part in the OSU conference, I gladly accepted.

On the ride home we discussed all manner of things including problems of translation, highlighted at the conference during a roundtable with creative writers from OSU talking about "Toska," the Chekhov story about a cab driver whose son has just died, and who can only find a sympathetic listener in his horse. "Toska" is generally translated as "Grief," but it's one of those untranslatable Russian words that should be admitted to the bar in English for its utility.

In an endnote in Volume II of his translation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin (Princeton UP, 1991), Vladimir Nabokov writes:

No single word in English renders all the shades of toska. At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning. In particular cases it may be the desire for somebody or something specific, nostalgia, lovesickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom, skuka.

I don’t think I’m a toska personality, but I can empathize. In Vietnam once, a van I was riding in passed through a defunct rubber plantation. I saw a cemetery there with a solitary French Catholic grave among scores of Vietnamese Buddhist tombs and had the lonely vision of a French ghost watching Vietnamese ghosts play cards at a distance and talk together by the sea, forever.

Toska often seems to be tied to the vast Russian landscape, and Mike remembered a conversation with Russian friends who played at creating verbal images of the Russian soul infused with toska: A forest of spruce and birch, far from any city; an aerial view of a small clearing in which sits a hut, hard to tell if anyone's in it or not, but probably yes, since smoke rises from the chimney; then, the door opens, a bearded man comes out, bares his chest, and howls "Mama-a-a-a!" A few hours later, the same....

Melancholy or not, it’s fun to play the game. My acquaintance Larry says the American soul is overweight, wears a foam cowboy hat at a tailgate party, clutches a charred bratwurst and a beer made with rice, and is hitting on the ex-wife of his former business partner. Also, the American soul doesn’t have tickets to the game but will watch it on a Japanese TV plugged into his Korean car’s cigarette lighter while his bored wife drinks Australian wine imported on a Chinese freighter and pores over a romance novel published by a German media conglomerate.

Mike and I shouted our stories at each other happily as we rolled over the glare ice at Dayton, where jackknifed trailers blocked oncoming lanes and cars had spun out into the frozen grass. We were still at it several hours later, talking and laughing and sipping cold coffee when, one mile from the exit for home, we hit a deer at 70. I was sorry for the venison but happy and somewhat surprised to be alive and unhurt, and Mike dropped me safely at home after our adventures. My children were still awake, much too late, and awaiting my return. You want an image of my soul, that’s it.


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