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No other blessedness

At a certain moment in the year, towards the end of summer, something falls through the letter box with a weighty thump. It is something that opens up wide horizons and infinite colourful possibilities -- not a travel brochure of the accepted sort but one of travels within the mind. It is the prospectus for courses in Adult Education.

There is a list of classes at all times of day, in music, archaeology, drama, languages, Bible study, the problem of evil, vulcanology and the origins of life. There is practically nothing one cannot learn. One could become like Chekhov's Trofimov, the eternal student, with his admission, "I expect that I shall be a student to the end of my days."

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For a long time I have followed these classes, taking, among others, modern Greek, Italian, current affairs, law, but for over 10 years one class has drawn me more powerfully than any other -- the evening one in Russian. It is not only that we set out on a voyage of discovery of the marvels of Russian language, but that there is an attitude behind it that seems to lead us to the very core of things.

We meet inside the university to which many of us once belonged. We are now termed extramural students but feel ourselves intensely intramural, part of the walls themselves and of the conception of what a university should be -- a place that inspires love of learning for learning's sake.

We begin work in early October and finish at the end of May. Our classroom looks out on the university quadrangle and our gatherings are marked by the changing seasons. In autumn, lime leaves of burnished gold flutter past our window, in November we grope our way to the door through swaths of yellow fog. In the swirling snows of December and January the trees in the quadrangle take on the ethereal whiteness of blossoming cherry trees. Throughout spring blackbirds, perched on branches overshadowing our window, sing into the darkness as a background to the poems we read inside. Cherry blossoms cast petals as if we had in reality been transported to Gayev and Madame Ranyevskaya's estate, to "that row of poplars where the cherry orchard begins" -- to the setting where Chekhov unfolds his tale.

The spell of his unique and extraordinary world creates part of the magic of our class. Night after night, year after year, our own extraordinary fraternity meets. We are of all sorts and conditions: an Armenian lawyer, brought up in prewar Vienna, exclaims, "The marvel of all the music then! It entered by every pore." A mining engineer, parachuted into Yugoslavia during the last war, had endless escapes and adventures. "I had to learn Russian as well as Serbo- Croat in a hurry then," he says. "My life depended on it."

An ancient lady, in her youth governess to a family at the court of the czar, looks back on the elegance of St. Petersburg. "How beautiful it was then! Don't talk to me of Leningrad!m " she declares. She remembers skating with her pupils, dancing with the czar's officers at court balls, unaware of gathering clouds. An exiled Estonian dreams of her own country, of those white nights when she sped along on a horse- drawn sledge, countless little bells tinkling on the harness. Each one of them might have stepped out of the pages of chekhov in the joys and sorrows, sometimes in what Thoreau calls the "quiet desperation," of their lives.

We took the class initially to read Russian poetry, plays and novels, to come to grips with the enormous difficulties of the language; then gradually, we sensed that something wider and far more important was taking place, the nightly we were coming on truths about life itself. Steeped as we were in the world of the peasant's son from Taganrog, Anton Chekhov, it was not strange that one of the main themes of his work should turn out to be ours too.

The thread that is woven through his plays, recurring over and over again, is that of salvation through work. "Man must work by the sweat of his brow whatever his class, and that should make the meaning and purpose of his life, . . . " says Irena in The Three Sisters.m " All this longing for work!" sighs Tuzenbach as he listens to her, knowing that he has never worked enough. Trofimov, turning to the peasant, Lopakhin, who in the end will chop down the cherry orchard, repeats, "We've got to work with all our might, to help those who are seeking after the truth. . . ."

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All those characters react to loss and despair with the same words -- Irena at the end of The Three Sisters,m Sonia in Uncle Vanya,m "I'll go on working. . . . We must work!" The eternal student, Trofimov, sums it up for Anya, "To live in the present we must atone for the past . . . by extraordinary, unceasing exertion. . . ."

We came to realize the our classroom window was a window on the world and that in all the years we have worked under it we have found out more and still more about the wonderful interweaving of literature and life, how the one helps to interpret the other.

If we wanted a device written above our door we might choose that phrase of the stonemason's son from Ecclefechan, the Scot who has his centenary this year, Thomas Carlyle: "Blessed is he who has found his work. Let him ask no other blessedness." As for a title, describing those of us who open up that prospectus of extramural courses and choose the Russian one, what could be more appropriate than the Chekhov Circle!

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