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The Pleasure and Wisdom of Chekhov

<i> Michael Henry Heim has translated Chekhov's major plays, a collection of his letters ("Anton Chekhov's Life and Thought"), and Henri Troyat's biography, "Chekhov." He teaches in the department of Slavic languages and literatures at UCLA</i>

“Chekhovian” may not roll off the tongue as easily as “Kafkaesque,” yet in its way it is every bit as evocative of how we construe the 20th century. (Ironically, Chekhov and Kafka died of the quintessentially 19th century illness, consumption; they were both in their early 40s.) If Kafka presaged the growing alienation of the individual vis-a-vis the state and its apparatus and hinted at its cosmic, entropic dimensions, Chekhov saw that it began at home, among family and friends, in everyday life. When his characters complain in their weak moments of life’s tedium, they are anticipating his readers’ complaints in their weak moments that “nothing ever happens” in Chekhov. In Chekhov everything happens. And now we have four newly published compendiums of his stories to prove it.

Chekhov died in 1904. What makes him the first writer of the 20th century rather than the last of the 19th? In literary terms, he set the tone for the new century by moving beyond the tenets of Realism characteristic of its predecessor. The 19th century believed in a combination of history and science: History plus science would inevitably equal progress. Realism, the 19th century literary school par excellence, responded with a belief in the accumulation of detail, the writer’s equivalent of the scientist’s arsenal of empirical data, and in the ability of logic, the writer’s equivalent of the scientist’s method, to make sense of the data. The detective story, a 19th century invention, illustrates these guiding principles most paradigmatically, or think of any novel by Austen, Dickens or Balzac--in the Russian tradition, Turgenev--and you will find them at work there as well: By the narrative’s end, all the pieces fit together. What matters more than a happy ending (given the 19th century’s faith in progress, endings are often happy) is that there be an ending, period. Life is logical, that ending tells us; life has a meaning. We come away from a Realist work secure in the coherence of the world.

Chekhov robs us of that security. He lays out all the details, the pieces, the empirical data, but resists bringing them together. The fact that at the end of a Chekhov story things peter out or go on as they have before does not mean that nothing has happened; it means that nothing--or, rather, less than the characters may have hoped for--has changed. And as in life, the pieces do not all fit together. We might, therefore, say that while proceeding from Realism with a capital R--that is, the literary school of Realism--Chekhov winds up closer to realism with a small r, that is, life.

Not that Chekhov gives us life rather than art; he simply alters the conventions, brings them into phase with the spirit of our time. True, it might be argued that the reason his stories lack closure, as literary critics put it, is that they are just that--stories rather than novels--and that their artistic form, their genre, requires a different kind of ending. But although editors then as now deemed story collections unprofitable and constantly entreated Chekhov to produce novels, he proved constitutionally incapable of doing so. The reason lies in his distaste for the pat endings that Realist novels foisted on Realist novelists. Even his longest works, represented in the Modern Library edition by two masterpieces, “The Steppe” and “A Dreary Story” (100 pages and 60 pages, respectively), convey more spiritual states--a young boy’s and an elderly man’s, respectively--than conventional, logic-bound plots. His endings are open.

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Why should Chekhov have been the one to challenge the convention? Much has been made of Chekhov’s other career: He never stopped practicing medicine and, in an often-cited dictum, called literature his mistress and medicine his lawfully wedded wife. As a doctor, Chekhov had acquired scientific training, but he also knew the limits of science--on a day-to-day basis. He respected empirical data, the facts, but was painfully aware that we cannot know them all and that even the most rigorous method can’t make them come out every time.

Another possible element involves something even more personal: Chekhov was an innately modest man. Over and over, in the letters he wrote to writers requesting comments on their works, he pointed out that artists are mortals and cannot have all the answers. The most that writers can do, therefore, is to formulate issues that need formulation, to make them clear and compelling. For that, they need the data. But they must take care not to force a definitive interpretation on them; they must trust to their readers to think things through. The conclusions are ours to make, not theirs.

Perhaps it is his modesty or again his daily contact with the sick that accounts for another of his steps away from 19th century convention: Chekhov eschewed heroes. His policy of creating all characters equal, a kind of literary democracy, makes itself felt especially clearly in the plays, which flew in the face of the star system prevalent at the time. (Not surprisingly, the young Chekhov wrote a scathing review of Sarah Bernhardt.) The entirely new approach to acting it called for was developed by Stanislavsky at the Moscow Art Theater and based on finely tuned ensemble work.

True, many of the story titles consist simply of character names (“Vanka,” “Volodya,” “Gusev,” “The Darling”), but Chekhov’s characters are not heroes in the conventional sense or, rather, they tend to be marginalized, intentionally unheroic heroes: the young and the old (as in “The Steppe” and “A Dreary Story”), the exploited and the downtrodden. Women figure prominently. “The Darling,” a tongue-in-cheek story chronicling the perils of a woman who takes on the characteristics of her menfolk, is a case in point. It was, interestingly enough, turned topsy-turvy by Tolstoy, who admired Chekhov--"he created absolutely new forms of fiction for the world"--but believed with a vengeance in both endings and his own conclusions; he saw the submissive “darling” as a hero.

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Other writers at the time positively begged for heroes. Gorky, known for having stated, “How proud the word rings--Man!,” wrote to Chekhov, “The time has come” (the letter dates from January 1900 and may be taken as his prognosis for the new century) “when we need something heroic, not like life but more elevated. . . . The literature of today should embellish life, and once it does life will embellish itself.” A revolution and three decades later, this conviction would lead to Socialist Realism, literature’s contribution to the Soviet experiment in human engineering.

One shudders to think what would have become of Chekhov had he lived into the Soviet period. “I am neither literal, nor conservative, nor gradualist, nor monk, nor indifferentist,” he wrote. “I look upon tags and labels as prejudices. My holy of holies is the human body, health, intelligence, talent, inspiration, love, and the most absolute freedom imaginable, freedom from violence and lies.” Soviet ideology implicitly required the masses to accept the atrocities of the present in the name of a radiant, utopian future. When a Chekhov character like Vershinin in “Three Sisters” goes on about how wonderful things will be in 200 years, we are meant to balk: Vershinin has seduced and is about to abandon the only married sister; he may be the life of the party, but he is all hot air. Tusenbach, who is about to marry the youngest sister, yearns to toil in the here and now. That he is killed in a duel suggests that (as his intended wife finds out soon enough) the path of hard work is not easy, but Chekhov never says that paths are straight. We must consider the future, he says in the person of the proto-ecologist Astrov in “Uncle Vanya,” who exhorts his fellow Russians to reforest, but we must not consider it a utopia.

That my examples come from the plays reflects the Anglo American preference for Chekhov the playwright. (If Russians think of Chekhov more as a story writer, they still flock to the plays: Once, during a short stay in Moscow, I saw “Nine Sisters,” three wildly different productions of “Three Sisters.”) That preference in turn is reflected in the confusing array of Chekhov play translations available in English and in the relative paucity of available story translations. While the Modern Library edition goes part of the way toward remedying the situation--its two volumes include 112 stories--we could do with yet another volume or two. One short life produced a breathtaking number of short masterpieces.

Yet not until about 1886, when other writers began to take his writing seriously, did Chekhov begin to take it seriously: Until then he had published primarily to finance his medical studies. If you start reading in the middle of that year, you will notice a rapid development. Some of the earlier fluff is amusing, and it is necessary for contrast, though the editor of the Modern Library edition, Shelby Foote, might have curtailed it a bit in favor of the more mature work. Peter Constantine offers an entire volume of the early stories in the deceptively-named but well-translated volume “The Undiscovered Chekhov: 38 New Stories.” The stories have been there all along, forgotten rather than undiscovered: Only occasionally do they reflect the Chekhov to come more than the two-penny humor magazines where they appeared. Richard Ford, who has edited the Ecco Press edition, strikes a nice balance and offers a judicious choice of stories (including the chilling “Enemies,” absent from the larger collection and particularly pertinent here in that its subject matter so resembles Kafka’s “A Country Doctor” that it invites comparison).

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Both the Modern Library and Ecco Press editions use the Constance Garnett translation, but the Modern Library edition inexplicably--and inexcusably--lists no translator whatever, as if the English text had been immaculately conceived. Not only did Garnett produce 13 volumes of Chekhov stories between 1916 and 1922 (all of which the Ecco Press reissued here during the ‘80s), she provided the language in which most of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Turgenev was introduced to the English-speaking audience. In other words, she was instrumental in transforming the Anglo American view of Russian literature and, by extension, the Anglo American view of prose itself. Surely she deserves a mention.

That said, Garnett’s translations now sound a bit dated. Chekhov’s Russian remains amazingly buoyant and contemporary after a hundred years; Garnett’s English has definite Victorian overtones and may lull the linguistically naive into reading the stories as period pieces; they most definitely are not. Like all true classics, they are eternal and eternally vital.

I began reading Chekhov when I was in college and have been rereading him regularly for the last 3 1/2 decades. Teachers joke that the freshmen grow younger every year; I watch Chekhov’s characters grow younger. Each time they enter my life, I see them differently--partly because I am older and my life has changed, partly because Chekhov put so much into them to begin with. They have become friends and, indirectly, counselors, not so much the ones who tell you what to do as the ones who make you think.

In the end, Chekhov and the “Chekhovian” are not tied to any one century just as, Russian though they are, they are not exclusively Russian. Savor his stories, come back to them, grow with them. They have much pleasure and much wisdom to give.

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