Most book reviews are about books that are hot off the press—something readers won’t already know about—so it’s your job to tell them. This time I’ve chosen instead to record my discovery of an author most people have heard of, one who has been dead for over a hundred years. I’d seen some of his plays, but, like most Americans, had no idea he was also a prolific and brilliant writer of fiction. He was, in fact, a literary genius whose work I’d missed in my life as a reader. I’m speaking of Anton Chekhov.
Chekhov, born in 1860, was the grandson of a serf; his father beat him. He grew up in a small town in Russia and was left there at sixteen to finish his schooling on his own—his father, a grocer, fled with the rest of the family to Moscow to avoid debtors’ prison. With odd jobs, Chekhov paid his tuition—and sent money to his family—for three years, and then joined them in Moscow, where he’d been admitted to medical school. He paid for that and supported the family by writing comic pieces for the daily papers until, in 1886, his long novella “The Steppe” was published in a literary journal, along with a selection of other short stories. It won the Pushkin Prize, establishing him as a major literary figure. Though Chekhov never stopped practicing medicine, which he often did for free, he supported himself and his large family, handsomely, on the earnings from his short stories and novellas. In his mid-twenties he contracted tuberculosis, but lived in apparent denial for many years. In the 1890s, after an initial flop, he began writing for the Moscow Art Theater to great acclaim. This is the Chekhov most Americans know, the author of The Seagull, Three Sisters, Uncle Vanya, and The Cherry Orchard. He moved to Yalta in the Crimea for his health, and in 1901 married the actress Olga Knipper. He never stopped writing fiction. Three years later, at a health spa in Germany, he died at the age of 44.
At a time when Russian life was stratified by social class, Chekhov wrote about people from all walks of life—aristocrats, academics, merchants, landowners, peasants, soldiers, craftsmen and clerics. His scope was Shakespearean, his attitude that of a realist who, despite his disenchantment with religious and political ideals, never stopped asking the great questions. His characters eloquently debate subjects like love, justice and immortality, but his refusal to draw a moral or make a plot turn out happily changed the short story form forever. Sometimes the stories just stop suddenly, sometimes they trail off inconclusively, and sometimes the main character simply dies. Reading him you get the feeling that, yes, this is the way life is, full of disappointments, wrong turns, lost chances, cruelty and undeserved suffering, and yet, at the same time, beautiful, full of pathos, spring-like and fresh.
If there’s one thing more than another that’s true of Chekhov it’s that he refuses to turn away from those aspects of life that seem the most horrific and inexplicable; his stories seem compelled to come to terms with them. For instance, in “Gusev,” a story about a soldier enroute home after a tour of duty, the protagonist lies in the infirmary of a troop ship, half-delirious, passing in and out of recollections of his childhood home. He thinks repeatedly of his brother and his brother’s two children in a sledge, the boy laughing, the little girl opening her fur coat to show she has new boots on. Gusev is happy having thoughts of his own people. Though he’s a bit dense and no saint, Gusev is a man who fulfills his obligations; he fears that the children and his old parents will have no one to support them if he doesn’t get home because his brother is a drunk and unstable. After a night of wild fantasies of riding in a sledge that overturns and throws him into a snowbank—the heat aboard ship is stifling—Gusev falls asleep for two days. On the third, they take his dead body, sew it into a canvas shroud, read the service over it and consign it to the ocean. Chekhov describes the body, covered by lacy waves, sinking into the deep water, then drifting sideways; it’s met by a school of pilot fish, and then by a shark who, after playing with it a little, rips the shroud open, as the fish watch, delighted. Meanwhile, overhead, “one cloud like a triumphal arch, another like a lion” . . . “a broad green shaft of light pierces through . . . another, violet-coloured . . . one of gold . . . then one rose-coloured. . . . The sky turns a soft lilac. Looking at this gorgeous, enchanted sky, at first the ocean scowls, but soon it, too, takes tender joyous, passionate colours for which it is hard to find a name in human speech.”
The story is over. But what to make of it? A man who served his country faithfully, the sole support of aging parents and two children, almost casually, is fed to the fishes. Meanwhile, sky and ocean become beautiful beyond description. The corollary to the rule that Chekhov doesn’t look away is that he doesn’t try to impose a meaning where none is available; He makes himself and his readers look at suffering straight on, and invites us to see anad acknowledge affect ion and beauty as well, when they appear. He makes us feel it all, and walks away.
If you want to get to know this amazing writer, I recommend the following works for starters: “My Life,” “The Steppe,” “In the Ravine,” “The Party,” “Ward No. 6,” “Gusev,” and “The Kiss.” Constance Garnett’s translations are considered the best–it makes a difference–but in a pinch any translation will do.~