Frame from the film The Lady With the Little Dog (1960), directed by Iosif Kheifits.
Nadya Zelenina returned from theatre where she saw Eugene Onegin with her mother. She went straight to her room. Once there, she quickly undid her hair and took off her dress. With nothing more on than her white underwear, she settled down at the desk and started writing a letter, just like Tatyana.
I love you, she wrote. But you don’t love me. You don’t love me!
She laughed as she was writing these words.
She was only sixteen and had never loved anyone yet. She knew that Gorny, a military officer, and Gruzdev, a student, both loved her. But now, after the show, she was inclined to doubt their love. How interesting it is to be unloved and unhappy! There’s something beautiful, sad and poetic about being in love when the other person doesn’t feel the same way. What makes Onegin interesting is that he doesn’t love anyone at all, and Tatyana is interesting because her love is so strong. But if they happened to love each other on equal measure and they were happy, it would make them very dull indeed.
Don’t try to tell me you love me, Nadya wrote on as she thought of Gorny. I can’t believe you. You’re an educated, serious, clever man. You have great talent and a big future ahead of you. I’m just a tedious girl of no significance. You know very well I would only be a burden for you. Yes, I have caught your attention, somehow. You even thought you have found your ideal in me. But it was a mistake, and now you’re asking yourself, greatly disappointed: “Why did I ever meet this girl?” It’s only your kindness that keeps you from admitting it to yourself.
Nadya felt sorry for herself for a moment. She started crying as she went on: If I didn’t feel bad for my mother and my brother, I would put on a nun’s robe and go away. You would be free, then, and you would fall in love with someone else. Oh, I wish I was dead!
She couldn’t see anything she had written through the tears. Little rainbows were dancing in front of her eyes on the desk, the floor and the ceiling. It was like Nadya was looking at everything through a prism of glass. It was impossible to write. She leaned back in her chair, thinking about Gorny.
Men are ever so interesting and delightful! Nadya remembered how appealing Gorny’s face becomes whenever he speaks about music. There’s something fawning, soft and slightly guilty in his expression, and he tries hard not to let passion show in his voice. In a society where being cold and aloof are considered to be the signs of a good upbringing and noble disposition, you have to learn to conceal your passion. He does, but without much success. Everyone knows how passionate he gets about music. Hearing endless disputes and brash opinions of ignorant people makes him tense, timid and silent. He plays the piano so well, like a real pianist, and if he wasn’t a military man, he would probably become a famous
Her tears dried. Nadya remembered how Gorny told her he loved her in a symphonic concert, and he told her again downstairs, next to the cloakroom, the wind coming in from every direction.
I’m so glad you have finally met Gruzdev, she wrote on. He’s such a brilliant man, and I’m sure you’re going to love him. He sat in our living room until two in the morning the other day. We were all so taken with him, and I felt sorry you weren’t there with us. He said all those fascinating things.
Nadya put her hands on the desk for a minute and rested her head on them. Her hair covered the letter. She remembered that Gruzdev loved her too and that he had just as much right to receive her letter as Gorny. Wouldn’t it be better to write to Gruzdev? With no apparent reason, a sense of joy stirred in her heart. At first, it felt like a small rubber ball rolling around in her chest, and then it grew larger and wider, escalating like a wave. Nadya had already forgotten all about Gorny and Gruzdev. Her thoughts were distorted. Her joy kept growing, spreading from her chest into her arms and legs, and a light gush of wind seemed to caress her head and gently stroke her hair. Her shoulders trembled from a quiet laughter, making the desk and the glass table lamp tremble in succession. Tears began to fall on the letter. She couldn’t stop laughing, whatever she did. In an attempt to convince herself that she wasn’t laughing without a good reason, she tried, hurriedly, to remember something
“What a funny poodle”, she told herself, feeling quite breathless from the laughter. “What a funny poodle!”
She remembered how Gruzdev was playing with a poodle called Maxim after tea yesterday. He then told her a story about a very clever poodle who chased a crow in the garden once, and the crow told him “Be off, you dirty scoundrel”. The poodle, who had no idea he was dealing with an educated crow, was terribly embarrassed and retreated, in hesitation, before starting to bark again.
“No, I’d better love Gruzdev,” decided Nadya and tore the letter to pieces.
She started thinking about Gruzdev and his love, and her love, but the thoughts were struggling in her head, and she was thinking of everything at once now: her mother, the street, the pencil, and the piano… Her thoughts were filled with joy, and it seemed to her that everything was a fine, lovely thing. The presence of joy suggested that it wouldn’t end there, that in time, things were going to be even better. The spring was coming, then the summer, and she shall go to the country with her mother. Gorny will pay her a visit during his leave. They will walk around the garden, and he will be all over her. Gruzdev will be there, too. He will play croquet and skittles with her, telling jokes and engaging stories. Suddenly, she felt a passionate longing to be outside, in the darkness of the garden, and to see the clear skies and the stars. Her shoulders trembled with laughter again. She thought she heard a branch strike against the windowpane. There was a faint scent of wormwood in the room.
She walked up to the bed and sat down, looking at a little painting hanging on the wall. At a loss to know what to do with the great joy that had overcome her, all she could do was whisper:
“Oh God! Oh God oh God oh God…”
After the Show is a story about being on the verge of life. Above all, it features a protagonist who occupies a rare position that allows her to take in its stunning entirety.
Despite demonstrating Anton Chekhov’s writing at its finest, the story is little researched and largely overlooked – in many cases, it’s even regarded to be of more simplistic and more frivolous nature than his other works. Does it have anything to do with the fact that its heroine is a female who, despite her best effort, does not suffer? A young girl is sitting in her underwear, writing about love that she can’t seem to make herself feel, and laughing out loud. She’s sort of bound to not be regarded seriously – her age, her seemingly light-hearted laughter, the absence of real feeling and experience makes her appear superficial and frivolous, in turn, making the whole story seem to be easy to grasp. Yet this impression couldn’t be more deceptive. In fact, it is through this particular heroine that Chekhov chooses to reveal some of his most far-reaching and profound insights.
It’s done so subtly and with so much nuance that it becomes very important to match the tone in translation, especially where it’s re-imagined for a contemporary audience.
It all starts with Eugene Onegin – which, in turn, shows us how powerful and allconsuming the role of art can be. It’s precisely the show that Nadya sees that provokes an overpowering emotional turmoil in her, making her cast an alarmingly clear gaze on the world.
Inspired by the show, Nadya feels compelled to possess the kind of feelings depicted on the stage in her own life. She devotes herself to this inspiration very promptly, and very directly. And, ironically, she impersonates Tatyana, even though she might have much more in common with Onegin. Or, rather, she’s an Onegin who wants to be a Tatyana. She longs for a depth of feelings – without this depth, life is famously unengaging, and, quite frankly, doesn’t offer anything worthwhile to write about. Nadya takes the chance to re-interpret her life through an artistic dimension. The effect of art is, in this case, two-fold: on the one hand, it provides inspiration (suggesting what life is capable of and speaking of a depth of reality), on the other hand, it’s illuminating (making her look at her own life as it is now). Above everything else, it’s an attempt to collect information about the world and everything it has to offer, and to get to know herself against its mind-numbingly varied context, where heartbreak and despair are no less desirable than happiness as long as they’re authentic. It is the raw authenticity that Nadya is driven to, the only thing that has actual value.
All she can do at this time is fabricate these feelings artificially. She is digging through the limited material of her own life to match it with the intensity that the Onegin characters go through – without much success. For now, imitation is the only thing she can interpret life through, merely because she lacks the primary impulses that constitutes the stuff that makes art. These impulses might be very true and natural to the fictional opera characters, but she can only get to know them through an indirect source.
What she’s feeling might be strong, but it’s very much unfocused. The interchangeable lovers that wearily replace each other in her mind show this lack of focus more than anything. She begins the letter with fervour, but it soon falls flat as she runs out of ideas. In the same way, her emotion is strong, powerful, and full of potential – full of her own willingness, too – yet it has nothing to revolve itself around, no worthy cause to be directed at. The way she’s dressed, her loose hair and intimacy of the scene she occupies indicate sensuality – it’s traditionally sensual, but not directed at any object. The men she thinks about are merely objects on which she tries to fasten the larger ideas that are yet to be tested.
Truth is, she’s free from love – both its joy and its suffering. She’s able to grasp the stunning variety of what it is, realizing, at the same time, that its experience is the most intense when it focuses on a specific plotline, a specific set of expressions, a particular outlet – such as an unhappy love. Meanwhile, she is unsettled, unfocused, restless. Everything is possible. She is at a stage of exploration and boundless possibilities – not settlement.
She is not your typical heroine – she dares to be un-attached, to be loved but not love, and to admit it. Whatever strong emotions she feels are not yet attached to real-life outlets. She sees her own situation with enviable clarity. At this moment, she’s untouched, untroubled by love or another personal turmoil. Instead, she takes in the whole variety of life – she’s in a rare and privileged position to do that. While a deep, focused romantic attachment brings out one aspect, one piece, or one patch of life; meanwhile, our heroine is presented with its entirety. It’s precisely her unattachment, her being free that allows her to achieve a clarity and intensity. She is faced with the whole spectrum of human emotion, which is too much to contain. They open up for her, vast and mysterious, like the vault of starry sky above the garden outside.
She’s so affected by this stunning variety that her response shows up as laughter. It’s by no means a careless, frivolous laughter. In fact, it only stresses the depth of her realization, and what she goes through. The feelings are so deep and complex, so powerful that she can’t process them without having a strong physical reaction. Laughter is one of them, replaced quickly by tears. She tries to find a reasonable explanation for both, attempting to attach both reactions to something specific – Gruzdev’s poodle joke, the show she has just seen, the idea of a heartbreak, and the idea of love.
It is the mystery of the world – and Chekhov chooses to reveal it through an inexperienced, seemingly careless heroine who doesn’t seem to be capable of love, requited or not. Our prejudice against her might affect how we take her thoughts and words. Yet what she’s saying and the way she sees her own position, and that of others, is true and accurate. She is free to observe love being played out by others, at a safe distance. It doesn’t concern her, which makes her a good observer, and an acute judge of character and human psychology. It’s not personal – she can afford to be a keen but impartial observer.
On the threshold of adulthood, Nadya is perfectly aware of her situation and the specific privilege that comes with it. It’s more than just about herself – she represents the whole idea of youth. Her emotions that replace each other surge after surge, restless, never cooling down, undecided about their expression reflect the unsettled state she’s in. Its temporary nature is stressed – the smell of wormwood creeping into the room, the alarming sound of a branch against the window – the external world and the transience of all things hovering beside, too close for comfort.
She merely imitates art, rather than putting her own feelings in an artistic form. The letter is only an attempt to make more of what she has access to, and to feel more than she’s yet capable of. She’s trying all these emotions and roles on – and the fact that she’s in her underwear makes it even more pronounced. Her room serves as a backstage – somewhere she can outlive her emotions privately, and without judgement or reservation. It seems the only place for that, especially in the society she occupies, where public demonstration of feelings is unacceptable – they are concealed, instead, under the cool and aloof stance, and can only be released in an intimate seclusion. It’s also a place of rehearsal – a preparation for what awaits her as she braces for it by observing others in what seems to be a significant transition between the state of a child towards that of an adult.
It’s incredible how Chekhov manages to release this complex accumulation of ideas in a miniature form – without the heroine ever actually leaving the quiet privacy of her room. This complex composition of ideas is perfectly balanced. His language plays a remarkable role here. He combines vibrant, ethereal imagery with the most casual, quotidian details – just as in the story itself, there’s something indescribable and almost mystical about the language that’s nevertheless contained in a firm grip of realism.
Transferring the text into English comes with its own challenges. Firstly, Chekhov’s Russian is typically vivid and rich here; it also reads very smoothly despite its often elaborate constructions. At times, the right kind of flow can be achieved in English by introducing transformations in the syntax, making the sentences follow each other in a smooth succession, where the beauty of imagery is revealed against the quick, easy pace.
Also, since the heroine (and, in turn, the whole story) represents the transitional phase of youth – and the very idea of youth – I wanted, more than anything, for the language to reflect that. I wanted it to sound modern, to run at a fast pace, without presenting jars or obstacles that would cut in with this impression – and to be understandable without removing the sense of the original.
The title is an early and illustrative example. The original goes После театра, which, in Russian, is a usual way of indicating that something is taking place after the performance in the theatre. Its literal translation is After theatre. However, it’s not that commonly used in English – we’re more used to expressing the same thing as after the performance or after the show, indicating a specific event rather than theatre in general, which is a broader and less specific term. Removing this slight linguistic jar without misplacing the sense of the original results in a different kind of title, which, at the same time, places a slightly different focus on the show itself – Eugene Onegin, which proves to be a character in its own right.
Similarly, particular modifications were needed to provide the language with a contemporary sound and a light feel. I wanted to transfer the common sense and casualty of the heroine’s voice which remains strangely sharp and acute despite being inflicted with a great deal of emotional fervour. Since the story’s topic is so universal, it had to read as though it has just been written, running at the pace of today – again, nothing too jarring or too confusing. Thus, the underskirt and a white blouse that Nadya’s wearing underneath her dress (одной юбке и в белой кофточке) becomes underwear, instead, something that’s more relatable and easier to grasp very quickly – especially since the story starts without hesitation, right away and up to the point. Nadya could be doing this today as much as a hundred years ago. The letter she’s writing is therefore never indicated as ink and paper; it might just as well be a phone or a tablet. There is little to throw the readers off course or leave them questioning, yet Chekhov’s vivid, sparing language remains intact, revealing the story the way it was originally told.
Before settling down to translate this piece, I had a vision of how I wanted the finished version to be like, and I aimed for the language and translatory choices to reflect the insights that came with close reading, and the process of this literary re-discovery. The act of translation offers some rare chances of achieving that, and this has been a re-imagining of a text through translation. You get to communicate your interpretation of the text within the translated version, while the vision of the way you want the translation to be and its creative process suggest their own nuances to the analysis of the text. It’s a fascinating way to engage with literature – and the end result, the translation, reflects the outcomes of the literary analysis as much as a critical essay. By translating, a new creative piece is produced, along with a new interpretation, something that unfolds for the translator as well as the reader, bringing new discoveries as it happens. Translation allows us to find a literary work under a new light, and to show that it hasn’t lost its relevance – that it can, in fact, gain more meaning as time goes by and as we notice additional nuance, re-accentuating it to bring the whole story into a different, sharper focus and to turn the text into an evocative, full and organic part of the contemporary world.