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In Dark Winter, Chekhov Brings Comfort and Joy

by Diana Abu-Jaber
Jan 3, 2008 (All Things Considered)

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As a child, I took the winter in central New York personally. By January, the sky over Syracuse turned pewter. Some years it got so cold it felt like someone was trying to kill us.

It seemed that we lived at the end of the Earth. I longed for and dreaded the holiday season, the way it tricked us each year, coaxing us into festivities, only to plunge us back to a season of darkness.

The library, at least, was a warm place. That's where I found a collection of the short stories of Anton Chekhov. I was in my first year of high school; I'd never heard of Chekhov, but something about the steady, scholarly gaze in the author's photograph arrested me. I opened the book and read:

"The day was still, cool, and wearisome, as usual on grey, dull days when the clouds hang low over the fields and it looks like rain, which never comes."

I was drawn into the immeasurable spaces of sky and the open Russian steppes. There was something in those freezing depths that corresponded to my sense of winter. He was talking about bone-chilling places and worn-out people, but somehow the beauty of his language lifted everything up, giving it gravity and importance.

In the story "About Love," Chekhov writes about beautiful Pelagea, who falls for ugly, abusive Nikanor. Love, the narrator says morosely, "is a great mystery." The story "In Exile" takes up the conversation, with a jaded old ferryman telling a young newcomer, "If you want to be happy ... the chief thing is not to want anything."

I was startled yet captivated by these stark cautionary tales. Somewhere between the holiday cheer and the dark winter, this writer created new angles of light.

Chekhov was a doctor as well as an author, and in each of his stories, he turns a strict physician's eye upon hard truths: inhumane factory working conditions, starving children, broken families.

But he also depicts moments of serene, glowing beauty, as in "Gooseberries," describing a man's luxurious swim in a pond: " 'Ah! How delicious!' he shouted in his glee. 'How delicious!' "

As I read the collection, huddled in my warm room, I flipped to the photograph of the frowning author. I imagined him crossing Russia at night in a horse-drawn sleigh, calling on his patients, dispensing glittering insights upon a sea of darkness.

Chekhov said, "People don't notice whether it's winter or summer when they're happy." His stories captured the way people move between their wishes and the cold realities of the world.

"Even in Siberia there is happiness," says the narrator of "In Exile." Those snowy indoor winters of reading would eventually help me become a writer: Even in the coldest, darkest places, there is comfort and joy.

You Must Read This is edited and produced by Ellen Silva.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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