A window opens… and the window closes. There are prairies and rolling grasslands, orchards and dense woods, a pier down on the esplanade where the ferry comes in. Love grows, love is professed, love is refused, love sometimes fades. Families debate their holdings. Parents worry about their children. Migrants travel for days in steerage. Serfs ponder their newfound liberty. The lone horsed groundskeeper in the distance… sits in the saddle and watches the wind. A tree bends. The woods go on forever, the steppe keeps rolling, and we keep falling in love with Chekhov.
a book review by Gregory
Monday, March 12, 2018
Anton Chekhov (Анто́н Че́хов) (1860-1904) died in the summer of 1904 at the age of 44. In May and June that year, his tuberculosis had gotten worse, so he and his wife, Olga Knipper, had traveled to Badenweiler in the Black Forest for treatment. Alas, he died on Friday, July 15, 1904.
His wife described it as follows.
Anton sat up unusually straight and said loudly and clearly (although he knew almost no German): Ich sterbe! (“I’m dying!”). The doctor calmed him, took a syringe, gave him an injection of camphor, and ordered champagne. Anton took a full glass, examined it, smiled at me and said: “It’s a long time since I drank champagne.” He drained it and lay quietly on his left side, and I just had time to run to him and lean across the bed and call to him, but he had stopped breathing and was sleeping peacefully as a child.
— Olga Knipper, as quoted in “Dear Writer, Dear Actress” (1997) by Benedetti (ed.), p. 284.
Chekhov’s death thusly described is beautiful, touching, economical and sad… almost like a Chekhov short story itself… except it’s lacking humor. Chekhov’s own real-life death scene needs a dash of humor to make it truly Chekhovian… and here it is: his body was shipped by train back to Moscow in the oyster car, the only train car with enough ice.
Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) wrote over 500 stories, 10 or so plays and around 4’000 letters.
Chekhov wrote over 500 stories, 10 or so plays — the last four of which are great — and around 4’000 letters. Many of the letters are between him in Yalta and his late-in-life wife in Moscow, but his correspondences also include critics, editors, novelists, friends and, in his earlier years, various other women, both lovers and potential lovers. “There is a great crocodile ensconced within you, Lika,” he said once to one of his almost-wives, a Lydia Mizinova, a friend of his younger sister.
He lived with constant energy, surrounded by a cacophonous family. By the age of 19, he was head-of-house for his family of degenerates. He earned money as a penny-a-page rogue, spitting out copy for the low-brow magazines and newspapers. As his writing got better in his 20s (the 1880s) and 30s (1890s), and as his fame grew, the higher-brow literary publications began to put out his stories. No matter where he lived, he would invite over whole bunches of friends, and then sneak out alone to go write. In the 1880s, he started to write successful plays. Olga Knipper was one of his star actresses, and they were married in 1901. When he died in 1904, he was famous.
As the train carrying his iced body arrived in Moscow, thousands of mourners came to watch the funeral procession, and today he’s buried in Novodevichy Cemetery in Moscow. Interestingly, also in that cemetery are Nikolai Gogol (d. 1852), Mikhail Bulgakov (d. 1940), Sergei Prokofiev (d. 1953) and Boris Yeltsin (d. 2007), of all people.
Chekhov, a life
As a teenager, he lived by himself in Taganrog (Таганрог), way down south at the mouth of the Don. Just as James Joyce would always write about Dublin, so, too, did Chekhov always write about Taganrog. It was his childhood hometown, and he stayed there to finish high school when his parents and two older brothers fled to Moscow in 1876 to help dad escape debtor’s prison.
He still had to send money every month to his destitute family, though. Along with the money, he regularly sent a humorous note to help cheer his mother and siblings. For money, he sold various old family heirlooms, did some tutoring, and caught birds for re-sale. He also sold short sketches to local newspapers. Once when Chekhov was 15-years-old he had to repeat a grade at school because he failed an Ancient Greek exam.
Upon graduation, he was accepted into medical school in Moscow, so in 1879 he joined his family there: mother, father, two older brothers, Chekhov himself, one young brother and one younger sister. He was 19-years-old and already the main breadwinner. He still had to support them, so he continued to write short, humorous sketches and vignettes for various publications. By 22-years-old in 1882, his stories were appearing in major newspapers. He then graduated from medical school in 1884. As a doctor-writer, perhaps he set the example for the fictional Yuri Zhivago or for the real-life Michael Crichton.
|In 1883 while in medical school in Moscow and during what he called his “trash” phase, he told his older brother Alexander, an aspiring and unsuccessful writer, how to write a short story.
1. The shorter the better.
2. A bit of ideology and being up to date is most à propos.
3. Caricature is fine, but ignorance of court and service ranks and of the seasons is strictly prohibited.
By 1886, he was being published regularly in the New Times and the “serious Chekhov” had emerged: he was a recognized author. In a letter to the same brother dated May 10, 1886, he set forth six principles that make for a good story. This perfectly sums up the Chekhov we know today.
1. Absence of lengthy verbiage of a political-social-economic nature.
2. Total objectivity.
3. Truthful descriptions of persons and objects.
4. Extreme brevity.
5. Audacity and originality; flee the stereotype.
By the age of 26 in 1886, Chekhov was writing for the New Times (Но́вое вре́мя), owned and edited by the millionaire magnate who would go on to publish Chekhov’s future stories and finance his plays. Just as Chopin was supported by Jane Stirling, so, too, was Chekhov supported by Aleksey Suvorin (1834-1912). Judging by their letters, their friendship blossomed into one of Chekhov’s longest business relationships.
Chekhov wrote about everything and he wrote nonstop. He won the Pushkin Prize in 1887 (27-years-old), newly established by the Russian Academy of Sciences only in 1881, and his play “Ivanov” (1887) (Иванов) was being well-received by 1889. In the spring of 1889, his older brother Nikolai died of tuberculosis. Chekhov himself had been spitting blood for years, but he refused to be examined by doctors and never discussed his health. Nonetheless, he was surrounded with young women willing to marry him, and he loved to flirt with them. Go read some of his letters: they’re more Austen than Austen herself. He was young, successful, intelligent, witty and single. He was surrounded by literary success, deep bereavement for his brother and a plethora of romantic possibility. By 1890 he was ready to give up writing. He was sad and out of sorts. So he left it all behind.
He departed alone to conduct on-the-ground research into colonial practices in the Russian Far East on the convict island of Sakhalin-Karafuto. The three-month journey was over 8’000 km of difficult terrain with no railway and poor roads. Upon arrival, he spent another three months on Sakhalin. He conducted a census of the 10’000 or so convict-colonists, interviewed about 150 or 160 people per day, prepared a short file on each of their cases, and noted that there was forced labor, child prostitution and public floggings. He was shocked by the savagery and poverty of it all. He sailed home to Odessa via Sri Lanka. After Sakhalin, his stories are much fewer and much bleaker.
If first and foremost he was to be a medical doctor, he required patients. With the money that was coming in from the plays and short stories (his younger brother would be sent to collect from publishers), he was now able to buy a rural estate in Melikhovo, just outside of Moscow, in March 1892. He was 32-years-old. This was to be his home until August 1899 (aged 39). During his seven years there he wrote many of his most famous works, but also founded clinics, hospitals, schools and libraries. His clinics led the fight against cholera in the area in 1892 and 1893, and he worked first-hand with the patients. He traveled all over the county and was a dedicated social worker. He would hoist a colored flag atop Melikhovo to let people nearby know he was seeing patients that day. His area of responsibility covered 26 nearby villages, seven factories and one monastery. He never made any money by being a doctor, and treated most of his patients for free.
If that wasn’t enough to occupy his time, also at Melikhovo he worked in the garden, field and orchard, fished regularly and collected mushrooms. He would host dinners and lunches for friends, writers, artists, teachers, actors and anyone else he could invite. He had a small one-room house built on the outskirts of the compound where he could go to write, leaving his guests in the main house. His family was still living with him, and his mother and younger sister got very good at hosting.
His tuberculosis worsened. One lung hemorrhaged in March 1897. His father died in 1898. He needed a change of scenery, so he sold Melikhovo and bought a villa in Yalta. He moved there with his mother and younger sister in 1899. In Yalta, he wrote his two most famous plays, each taking a full year to finish, and he finally got married in 1901. He had three more years to live.
Amid all this, Chekhov wrote and wrote and wrote, and we still read him today, 114 years after his death.
Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) (right) visits Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) (left) in Yalta in 1900.
Oh, the writing. The writing!
Why do we read Chekhov? There are a lot of authors out there vying for our attention, so why has Chekhov survived? It would seem upon first-glance that nothing happens in Chekhov, neither in his short stories nor his plays. There’s no character arc and no gripping plot. All that happens is that a window opens… and the window closes.
However, that’s the key. When a window opens, it’s the indefinite article “a”. By the time the window of the short story closes, it’s the definite article “the”. The indefinite has become definite. In the few brief pages of a short story, we become familiar with the character, or the orchard, or the forest, or the relationship, or whatever items Chekhov chooses to include in this particular vignette. They go from being simply a window… to becoming the window. This is what makes Chekhov 50 times more interesting than the next author. He changes a window in the opening paragraph… into the window in the final, closing sentence. We sit in silence as we contemplate our own existence, perhaps a tear welling up in our eye.
How does he do this? There are at least four aspects to his writing style, and the first three of them are all very similar. First, Chekhov highlights our inability to communicate and through this highlights our private silences. Second, his characters are always talking to the wrong person at the wrong time. Third, the audience knows stuff that the characters don’t. Fourth, he’s very terse and economical. Together, these all make for tremendously wonderful reading or watching: the art of crafting both compassion and humor, pathos and entertainment.
First, Chekhov creates dramatic value in our human inability to clearly communicate with one another. None of his characters know how to talk to each other. They always skirt around the issue and their lines or conversations are oozing with subtext. When you read Chekhov, you have to know what the lines mean. It’s then that you realize that his characters are hilarious. They truly cannot communicate with each other, and yet they think they can. The lines are for someone who’s off-stage. We see ourselves — our own inability to communicate — in their foibles and faux pas. Chekhov makes fun of his characters, but does so in a humane, caring and understanding manner. This is positive and precious.
This also highlights our private silences. Each of us has a private silence on the inside. When this is exposed, it’s like a bright light shinning from the back, and we can only see the silhouette. We see our private silences through the ways in which we can’t communicate. It’s quite beautiful, when you think of it: delicate… like a tall poppy on the vast steppe, its shadow dancing in the grass.
Second, Chekhov characters are always talking to the wrong person at the wrong time. This is similar to No. 1, above, but more specific and narrow, and also applies more to Chekhov plays than to his short stories. Person A is talking to Person B about the love of their life, Person C. However, as it turns out, Person B is also in love with Person C, but Person A doesn’t know that. Their friend is the one person to whom they should not be speaking about their love. Kind of like “Don Giovanni” (1787), to be honest, or perhaps like an Austen cotillion.
Third, Chekhov uses dramatic irony. As readers or audience members, there’s great pleasure in knowing stuff that the characters don’t. We’re fascinated by Chekhov’s scenes. We sit in tension on the edge of our seat, waiting or hoping that our heroes don’t make any wrong steps. In one conversation, a rich doctor is talking to a servant, a former serf, about how hard life has been, trying to be friendly. The audience knows that the serf’s life has been much harder, but the rich doctor doesn’t realize this. This draws us into the story.
Fourth, and finally, Chekhov is famously economical with his writing. Clearly enunciated in at least three of his extant letters, and visible throughout his prose and plays, he truly shows how every element in the story must be necessary if he’s going to include it. If it’s not needed, expurgate!
This is his famous line about the gun: “Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter, it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”
Alternatively, in another letter, Chekhov similarly wrote that, “One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off. It’s wrong to make promises you don’t mean to keep.”
Chekhov also phrased it as follows: “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise, don’t put it there.”
These are three examples of his terse, economical writing. He is much more Hemingway than Faulkner, Bach than Chopin. Edit, edit, edit. This makes for pleasurable, entertaining reading.
Those four aspects of Chekhov writing all come together to create great, brief prose, and brilliantly economical screenplays. A window opens… and the window closes. We go away moved, with tears in our eyes.
Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) (left) married Olga Knipper (1868-1959) in 1901. She was an actress in Chekhov’s “The Seagull” who he first met in the early 1890s.
Gumby Theater presents:
Chekhov’s writing became clearer and better as his writing developed and grew in the 1890s and 1900s. It was at the end of his career, after hundreds of short stories, that Chekhov wrote for the theater. In Melikhovo, he wrote “The Seagull” (1895) and “Uncle Vanya” (1898), and in Yalta he wrote “Three Sisters” (1900) and “The Cherry Orchard” (1903).
In these plays, the characters are clearly incapable of communicating successfully. The lines always skirt around the issue, and are filled with subtext. In addition to this, the characters are always talking to the wrong person, so the audience knows what’s going on before the characters do. Finally, all four of these plays are tremendously economical, almost terse. They are, in sum, hilarious and quite glorious.
Books upon books, upon books
There are many versions of Chekhov in English. The Oxford University Press put out “About Love and Other Stories” in 2004 translated by Rosamund Bartlett. This is probably the best version: a perfect balance. The Modern Library put out “Selected Stories of Anton Chekhov” in 2000 jointly translated by the husband-wife team of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. This version tries too hard to be hip and colloquial, erring on the side of modernity. It’s not bad, but it feels weird. Then there are the traditionally-translated works of Chekhov that were brought into English by Constance Garnett (1861-1946). These versions feel very “classic”, and it’s these versions of Chekhov that were read by your parents, grandparents and teachers.
How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?
Constance Garnett (1861-1946) was the first wave of Western translators of Russian, with her Victorian energy and her Edwardian prose. Her versions of Dostoyevsky, Turgenev, Chekhov and others are still available at Amazon. When Joseph Conrad (1857-1924) and D.H. Lawrence (1885-1930), a friend of hers, read Russian literature, they were reading translations by Garnett. She translated 70 volumes of Russian prose for commercial publication, including all of Dostoevsky’s novels, hundreds of Chekhov stories and two volumes of his plays, all of Turgenev’s principal works, and nearly all of Tolstoy’s, and selected texts by Herzen, Goncharov and Ostrovsky.
Some writers, notably Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977) and Joseph Brodsky (1940-1996), who could both read Russian, found Garnett’s translations to be flat and demure, or accused her of muddling the individual voices of the original authors and changing their varied voices into her single voice. Garnett worked rapidly, and her rendering can sometimes be wooden, and her verbal motifs aren’t always equal.
On the other hand, other translators praise Garnett for a.) writing in contemporaneous English to Chekhov’s written Russian, b.) her care and research into the original phrase, and c.) her diligence in relaying that clearly in English. Korney Chukovsky (1882-1969), an English translator and the Russian equivalent to Dr. Seuss, said that Garnett’s versions of Turgenev and Chekhov were great, but not her Dostoevsky.
“The Lady with the Dog” (1899) is a short story about love. Here are its opening paragraphs, as translated by three different translators.
|The Lady with the Dog (1899)
Translated by Constance Garnett (early 1900s)
It was said that a new person had appeared on the sea-front: a lady with a little dog. Dmitri Dmitritch Gurov, who had by then been a fortnight at Yalta, and so was fairly at home there, had begun to take an interest in new arrivals. Sitting in Verney’s pavilion, he saw, walking on the sea-front, a fair-haired young lady of medium height, wearing a béret; a white Pomeranian dog was running behind her.
And afterwards he met her in the public gardens and in the square several times a day. She was walking alone, always wearing the same béret, and always with the same white dog; no one knew who she was, and every one called her simply “the lady with the dog.”
“If she is here alone without a husband or friends, it wouldn’t be amiss to make her acquaintance,” Gurov reflected.
|The Lady with the Dog (1899)
Translated by Rosamund Bartlett (2004)
People were saying that someone new had appeared on the seafront: a lady with a little dog. Dmitry Dmitriyevich Gurov had been staying in Yalta for two weeks now, and had settled into its rhythm, so he too had begun to take an interest in new faces. As he was sitting in the pavilion at Vernet’s, he watched the young lady walking along the seafront; she was not very tall, fair-haired, and she was wearing a beret; a white Pomeranian dog scampered after her.
Then he started bumping into her several times a day in the municipal garden and in the tree-lined square. She always walked by herself with the white Pomeranian, wearing the same beret. No one knew who she was and so she was simply called the lady with the little dog.
‘If she is here without her husband and without friends, reasoned Gurov, ‘it would not be a bad thing to get to know her.’
|The Lady with the Dog (1899)
Translated by Larissa Volokhnosky and Richard Pevear (2000)
The talk was that a new face had appeared on the embankment: a lady with a little dog. Dmitri Dmitrich Gurov, who had already spent two weeks in Yalta and was used to it, also began to take an interest in new faces. Sitting in a pavilion at Vernet’s, he saw a young woman, not very tall, blond, in a beret, walking along the embankment; behind her ran a white spitz.
And after that he met her several times a day in the town garden or in the square. She went strolling alone, in the same beret, with the white spitz; nobody knew who she was, and they called her simply “the lady with the little dog.”
“If she’s here with no husband or friends,” Gurov reflected, “it wouldn’t be a bad idea to make her acquaintance.”
“The reason English-speaking readers can barely tell the difference between Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky is that they aren’t reading the prose of either one. They’re reading Constance Garnett.”
— Joseph Brodsky, as read in “The Translation Wars” by David Remnick, in The New Yorker (Nov. 7, 2005)
Rosamund Bartlett is my favorite version of Chekov, and it turns out that she’s a true Chekhovite. Yes, she has dabbled now and then in Tolstoy, with a sprinkling of Dostoevsky for flavor, but she always returns to Chekhov. She even once had a dalliance with Shostakovich, but, in the end and as usual, returned home to Chekhov. The large fruit orchard, whose far-off boundaries are just barely out of sight over the horizon, where you can always see the family’s main dacha from atop any of the trees, seems to be her home.
I’ve also read Larissa Volokhnosky and Richard Pevear. I really liked their versions of “The Three Musketeers” (1844) by Alexandre Dumas (1802-1870) as put out by Penguin Random House. Their prose came alive, and the illustrations by Tom Gauld are hilarious, adding just enough to the brilliant prose. Their Chekhov is OK, but I prefer the Bartlett version. Her version was a little more “classic”. Her prose feels how I think Chekhov “should” feel.
There’s one other Chekhov-related person to mention, if only out of sheer interest.
In 1955, Lillian Hellman (1905-1984) edited a collection of Chekhov letters for publication. She was a famous Broadway dramatist and screenwriter. In her personal life, she had a 30-year romantic relationship with Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961), the author. In the 1940s, they lived together at her farm a couple of hours north of New York. However, in her political life, she was blacklisted by the House Committee on Un-American Activities (1947-1952) for refusing to tattle. This means she must have been doing something right. You can buy her version of “The Selected Letters of Anton Chekhov” at Amazon.
Hammett himself was also blacklisted, and briefly imprisoned, and stayed blacklisted until he died in 1961. According to Hellman, he submitted to prison rather than reveal names because “he had come to the conclusion that a man should keep his word.”
Bravo to both of them for standing up to the HUAC!
One final note, if you can get your hands on a copy of the June 1, 1987, issue of The New Yorker, I highly recommend the Raymond Carver short story titled “Errand”.
Pritchard Score: 5
tl/dr: You could skip Chekhov, but why bother? It’s beautiful writing, and the stories are so short you can read them in an afternoon. Also, if you can, go see one of his plays in the theater.
 Chekhov published 528 short stories between 1880 and 1888.
 The Trans-Siberian Railway wasn’t complete until 1916.
 It was 233 hectares/575 acres and about 64 km/ 40 miles from Moscow.
 Chekhov sold Melikhovo to a Russian baron. It was the baron’s summer house until the Russian Revolution. Only Chekhov’s grand piano and his writing desk remained there. The baron was arrested by the Bolsheviks and the estate was nationalized in October 1918. It became a state collective farm in 1927. From 1940 until today, it has been on-and-off both restored and not restored.