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Anton Chekhov: The Tsar of Russian Literature

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During my school days in the eighties there was a lot of Russian literature that I had easy access to courtesy Progress Publishers and one of my uncles. My uncle is an avid reader and those days his library was flush with Pushkin, Gogol, Tolstoy, Chekhov and also innumerable folk tales from Russia. Some 5-odd first cousins and I grew up in a small hill town surrounded by Russian folk tales. Aldar Kose and Shigai-Bai were household names and we were all too familiar with the laziness and the charm of the youngest son Ivan.

The first time I read ‘Misery’ by Anton Chekhov it was a Hindi translation called Vyatha Ka Bhar. The story of Iona Potapov, a sledge-driver in Petersburg, takes just over 2000 words to capture crushing grief. Chekhov is brilliant in using the settings of Russian rural life; lived under the weight and silence of snow. The primary purpose of this post is just to provide a link to the story for an interested reader. In ‘Misery’ death ‘came for the father’ but took the son instead; and Chekhov, in the most beautiful manner, captured the stone deafness of the living.

Author J.D. Salinger referred to Chekhov in his book Franny and Zooey. ‘At ten-thirty on a Monday morning in November of 1955, Zooey Glass, a young man of twenty-five, was seated in a very full bath, reading a four-year-old letter. It was an almost endless-looking letter, typewritten on several pages of second-sheet yellow paper, and he was having some little trouble keeping it propped up against the two dry islands of his knees.’

The letter is addressed to Zooey and written by his eldest alive brother Buddy Glass and it deals with, among other things, the acting career of the recipient.

“And if you go into the theatre, will you have any illusions about that? Have you ever seen a really beautiful production of, say, The Cherry Orchard? Don’t say you have. Nobody has. You may have seen ‘inspired’ productions, ‘competent’ productions, but never anything beautiful. Never one where Chekhov’s talent is matched, nuance for nuance, idiosyncrasy for idiosyncrasy, by every soul on-stage. You worry hell out of me, Zooey. Forgive the pessimism, if not the sonority. But I know how much you demand from a thing, you little bastard. And I’ve had the hellish experience of sitting next to you at the theatre. I can so clearly see you demanding something from the performing arts that just isn’t residual there. For heaven’s sake, be careful.”

Salinger gets it so right; it is near impossible to match Chekhov’s talent nuance for nuance, idiosyncrasy for idiosyncrasy. The Wordsworth Classics edition of selected stories of Anton Chekhov carries an introduction by Joe Andrew, Professor of Russian Literature, Keele University, and some information in this piece is distilled from it. From being a writer partly to earn money to train to be a doctor and partly to amuse himself Chekhov drifted into literature seriously in the mid-1880s when he moved to St. Petersburg and met a number of famous writers who praised the great talent they saw semi-submerged beneath the hackwork. In his work Chekhov combined the dispassionate attitude of a scientist and doctor with the sensitivity and psychological understanding of an artist.

One of the works, The Robbers, appeared in Suvorin’s New Times in 1890 and the publisher reproached Chekhov for his ‘objectivity’ (that is, lack of ‘message’), and Chekhov responded with a tired irony: ‘You tell me off for my objectivity, calling it indifference to good and evil … When I depict horse thieves, you want me to say that stealing horses is wrong. But surely this has been long known without me saying so. Let the jury condemn them, but it is my job simply to show them as they are.’

Yet there was a shift in Chekhov’s own approach as shown in a few of his last works and just two years later he wrote to the same correspondent that the best writers ‘are realistic and describe life as it is, but because each line is saturated with consciousness of its goal, you feel life as it should be in addition to life as it is, and you are captivated by it.’

The twentieth-century Russian writer Ilya Ehrenburg sums this up well: ‘Chekhov’s sympathies and antagonisms are clear, but he does not touch up the people he likes and he finds human traits in those he dislikes or even hates. As a result of these tendencies, it would be no exaggeration to say that Chekhov was perhaps the most human, liberal, and basically decent man in Russian literature.’

This understanding of what the artist needed to do at the end of the nineteenth century in Russia arose in part from his deepening consciousness as an artist, but also because, as a man who had risen from very humble origins, and who continued to work (for free) as a doctor well into the 1890s, Chekhov knew life ‘in the lower depths’ better than any of his predecessors. Perhaps that is the reason why this profound line came from him: “Any idiot can face a crisis — it’s day to day living that wears you out.”

Notes: Misery and Grief by Anton Chekhov; Wordsworth Classics, Selected Stories, Anton Chekhov, 1996. Franny and Zooey, J.D. Salinger.


Written by Deepan Joshi

May 28, 2010 at 10:29 pm

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