After a personal meeting with Leo Tolstoy at Yasnaya Polyana, Constance Garnett resolved that translating the great works of Russian literature into English would be her life’s labor. The year was 1893. Today, the fruit of that labor is found on bookshelves throughout the English-speaking world. But while Garnett’s translations of Dostoyevsky and others are sometimes maligned as paraphrastic Victorian ‘retellings,’ her detractors often concede that Garnett’s translations of Chekhov, at least, are pitch-perfect. Not that I’m in a position to tell, being ignorant of Russian. But much as I prefer the Pevear/Volokhonsky translations of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, I can imagine no greater pleasure reading Chekhov than when Garnett delivers him to me.
Some time ago I bought an old Chatto & Windus hardcover edition of Garnett’s ‘Tchehov’ (as the publishers rendered his name) and found inside a story titled ‘The Beauties.’ The narrator of the story describes a summer journey he made through the countryside as an adolescent with his grandfather. The two stop for a rest from the midday heat at the home of an Armenian. The Armenian and the grandfather talk while the young narrator sits and waits, impatient to continue the journey. But the dull, stifled atmosphere of the room is suddenly electrified by the entrance of the Armenian’s beautiful young daughter. The older men fall silent as she serves them tea. The young man is transfixed; the perfection of the girl’s face is all that he sees. He tries to explain:
I am ready to swear that Masha –or, as her father called her, Mashya- was a real beauty, but I don’t know how to prove it. It sometimes happens that clouds are huddled together in disorder on the horizon, and the sun hiding behind them colours them and the sky with tints of every possible shade – crimson, orange, lilac, muddy pink; one cloud is like a monk, another like a fish, a third like a Turk in a turban. The glow of sunset enveloping a third of the sky gleams on the cross on the church, flashes on the windows of the manor house, is reflected in the river and the puddles, quivers on the trees; far, far away against the background of the sunset, a flock of wild ducks is flying homewards… And the boy herding the cows, and the surveyor driving in his chaise over the dam, and the gentleman out for a walk, all gaze at the sunset, and every one of them thinks it terribly beautiful, but no one knows or can say in what its beauty lies.
In typical fashion, Chekhov refuses us what we might sentimentally prefer. There is no timid exchange of glances, no breathless meeting behind the stable, no words passed between the young narrator and the Armenian girl at all. In fact, Chekhov gives us no narrative resolution of any kind whatsoever. In place of the shy or impassioned encounter of a young man and a young woman, we are presented instead with the encounter of Man and Beauty, and a subtle meditation on their relation to one another.
Note how in the quote above Chekhov shifts us immediately from the loveliness of Masha to the sublime illumined grandeur of the skies at sunset and the infinitely diversified world below that glows and blooms in the caress of that celestial light. There is a kinship, Chekhov suggests, between the beauty of the girl and the beauty of the skies. They are one and the same. The light that shines through the clouds is the light that shines through Masha’s face. The beauty that manifests itself in Masha is the same beauty that arises everywhere, unexpectedly, gratuitously, now here and now there, through all of nature. The heavenly and the terrestrial, incomprehensible to each other, are invisibly knit together in a single symphonic moment – a moment neither transcendent nor alien to us but near us, involving us, and which, when it finds us, requires something in return:
You gaze, and little by little the desire comes over you to say to Masha something extraordinary, pleasant, sincere, beautiful, as beautiful as she herself was.
And yet, what beauty evokes in us in elusive; whatever it requires we seem incapable of giving. Like the cowherd, the surveyor and the gentleman, the young narrator stands in the presence of beauty and is dumb: he says nothing to Masha. And if properly responding to beauty is difficult, simply to beholding it is a struggle and a strange sort of burden:
[L]ittle by little I forgot myself and gave myself up entirely to the consciousness of beauty… I felt this beauty rather strangely. It was not desire, nor ecstasy, nor enjoyment that Masha excited in me, but a painful though pleasant sadness. It was a sadness vague and undefined as a dream. For some reason I felt sorry for myself, for my grandfather and for the Armenian, even for the girl herself, and I had a feeling as though we all four had lost something important and essential to life which we should never find again.
Here is Chekhov’s cosmic tragedy, the imprint, if you will, of an irrevocable primordial loss: this “painful though pleasant sadness” in the presence of the Beautiful. Though she is its own manifestation in that moment, Masha too suffers under the weight of beauty. No one escapes the nameless universal longing. Precisely what is this “something important and essential to life” which we have lost? As a physician (which he was) Chekhov may owe us a diagnosis, but he is too good a writer to give us one.