In Dark Winter, Chekhov Brings Comfort and JoyGrowing up in central New York, writer Diana Abu-Jaber spent many snowstorms curled up indoors with a book. She says Anton Chekhov's short stories reassured her that warmth can be found even in the coldest, darkest places.
After spending her childhood shivering through one lake-effect snowstorm after another, Diana Abu-Jaber left Syracuse and started roaming the country in search of tropical beaches. She is the author of The Language of Baklava and Crescent, and after moving to Miami, she wrote Origin, a literary thriller set in Syracuse during an interminable blizzard.
Courtesy of Diana Abu-Jaber
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.