Chekhov: A Writer for Grown Ups
Richard Ford on the Perfect Truths of the Russian Master
Until I began the long and happy passage of reading all of Anton Chekhov’s short stories for the purpose of selecting the twenty for inclusion in The Essential Tales of Chekhov, I had read very little of Chekhov. It seems a terrible thing for a story writer to admit, and doubly worse for one whose own stories have been so thoroughly influenced by Chekhov through my relations with other writers who had been influenced by him directly: Sherwood Anderson. Isaac Babel. Hemingway. Cheever. Welty. Carver.
As is true of many American readers who encountered Chekhov first in college, my experience with his stories was both abrupt and brief, and came too early. When I read him at age twenty, I had no idea of his prestige and importance or why I should be reading him—one of those gaps of ignorance for which a liberal education tries to be a bridge. But typical of my attentiveness then, I remember no one telling me anything more than that Chekhov was great, and that he was Russian.
And for all of their surface plainness, their apparent accessibility and clarity, Chekhov’s stories—especially the greatest ones—still do not seem so easily penetrable by the unexceptional young. Rather, Chekhov seems to me a writer for adults, his work becoming useful and also beautiful by attracting attention to mature feelings, to complicated human responses and small issues of moral choice within large, overarching dilemmas, any part of which, were we to encounter them in our complex, headlong life with others, might evade even sophisticated notice. Chekhov’s wish is to complicate and compromise our view of characters we might mistakenly suppose we could understand with only a glance. He almost always approaches us with a great deal of focussed seriousness which he means to make irreducible and accessible, and by this concentration to insist that we take life to heart. Such instruction, of course, is not always easy to comply with when one is young.
My own college experience was to read the great anthology standard, “The Lady with the Dog” (published in 1899), and basically to be baffled by it, although the story’s fundamental directness and authority made me highly respectful of something I can only describe as a profound-feeling gray light emanating from the story’s austere interior.
“The Lady with the Dog” concerns the chance amorous meeting of two people married to two other people. One lover is a bored, middle-aged businessman from Moscow, and the other an idle young bride in her twenties—both on marital furlough in the Black Sea Spa of Yalta. The two engage in a brief, fervid tryst that seems—at least to the story’s principal character Dmitri Gurov, the Muscovite businessman—not very different from other trysts in his life. And after their short, breathless time together, their holiday predictably ends. The young wife, Anna Sergeyevna, departs for her home and husband in the provincial town of S_ _ _, while Gurov, with no specific plans for Anna, travels back to his coolly intellectual wife and the tiresome business connections of Moscow.
But the effect of his affair and of Anna (the very lady with the dog—a Pomeranian) soon begin to infect and devil Gurov’s daily life and torment him with desire, so that eventually he thinks up a lie, leaves home and travels to S_ _ _ where he reunites (more or less) with the pining Anna, whom he encounters between the acts of a play expressively titled The Geisha. In the weeks following this passionate lovers’ meeting, Anna begins a routine of visiting Gurov in Moscow where, the omniscient narrator observes, they “loved each other like people very close and akin, like husband and wife, like tender friends; it seemed to them that fate itself had meant them for one another, and they could not understand why he had a wife and she a husband; and it was as though they were a pair of birds of passage, caught and forced to live in different cages.”
Their union, while hot-burning, soon seems to them destined to stay furtive and intermittent. And in their secret lovers’ room in the Slaviansky Bazaar, Anna cries bitterly over the predicament, while Gurov troubles himself in a slightly imperious manner to console her. The story ends with the narrator concluding with something of a knowing poker face, that… “it seemed as though in a little while the solution would be found, and then a new and splendid life would begin; and it was clear to both of them that they had still a long, long road before them, and that the most complicated and difficult part of it was only just beginning.”
What I didn’t understand back in 1964, when I was twenty, was: what made this drab set of non-events a great short story—reputedly one of the greatest ever written. It was, I knew, a story about passion, and that passion was a capital subject; and that although Chekhov didn’t describe any of it, sex took place, adulterous sex no less. I could also see that the effect of passion was calculated to be loss, loneliness and indeterminacy, and that the institution of marriage came in for a beating. Clearly these were important matters.
But it seemed to me at the story’s end, when Gurov and Anna meet in the hotel, away from spousal eyes, that far too little happened, or at least too little that I could detect. They make love (albeit offstage); Anna weeps; Gurov fussily says, “Don’t cry, my darling… that’s enough… Let us talk now, let us think of some plan.” And then the story is over, with Gurov and Anna wandering off to who knows where—probably, I thought, no place very exciting were we to accompany them. Which we don’t.
Back in 1964, I didn’t dare to say, “I don’t like this,” because in truth I didn’t not like “The Lady with the Dog.” I merely didn’t sense what in it was so to be liked. In class, much was made of its opening paragraph, containing the famously brief, complex, yet direct setting out of significant information, issues and strategies of telling which the story would eventually develop. For this reason—economy—it was deemed good. The ending was also said to be admirable because it wasn’t very dramatic and wasn’t conclusive. But beyond that, if anybody said something more specific about how the story made itself excellent I don’t remember it. Although I distinctly remember thinking the story was over my head, and that Gurov and Anna were adults (read: enigmatic, impenetrable) in a way I wasn’t, and what they did and said to each other must reveal heretofore unheard of truths about love and passion, only I wasn’t a good enough reader or mature enough human to recognize these truths. I’m certain that I eventually advertised actually liking the story, though only because I thought I should. And not long afterward I began maintaining the position that Chekhov was a story writer of near mystical—and certainly mysterious—importance, one who seemed to tell rather ordinary stories but who was really unearthing the most subtle, and for that reason, unobvious and important truth. (It is of course still a useful habit of inquiry to wonder, when the surface of reputedly great literature—and life—seems plain and equable, if something important might not be revealed upon closer notice; and also to realize that a story’s ending may not always be the place to locate that something.)
Now, what I would say is good about “The Lady with the Dog” (and maybe you should stop here, read the story, then come back and compare notes) and indeed why I like it is primarily that it concentrates its narrative attentions not on the conventional hot spots—sex, deceit and what happens at the end—but rather, by its precision, pacing and decisions about what to tell, it directs our interest toward those flatter terrains of a love affair where we, being conventional souls, might overlook something important. “The Lady with the Dog” demonstrates by its scrupulous notice and detail that ordinary goings-on contain moments of significant moral choice—willed human acts judgeable as good or bad—and as such they have consequences in life which we need to pay heed to, whereas before reading the story we might’ve supposed they didn’t. I’m referring specifically to Gurov’s rather prosaic feelings of “torment” at home in Moscow, followed by his decision to visit Anna; his wife’s reasonable dismissal of his suffering, the repetitiveness of trysts, the relative brevity of desire’s satiation, and the necessity for self-deception to keep a small passion inflamed. These are matters the story wants us not to skip over, but to believe are important and that paying attention to them is good.
In a purely writerly way, I also find interest and take pleasure in Chekhov’s choosing these characters and this seemingly unspectacular liaison upon which to stake a claim of significance and to treat with intelligence, amusement and some compassion. And superintending all there is Chekhov’s surgical deployment of his probing narrator as inventor and mediator of Gurov’s bland but still provocative interior life with women: “It seemed to him,” the narrator says of the stolid Dmitri, “that he had been so schooled by bitter experience that he might call them [women, of course] what he liked, and yet he could not get on for two days together without ‘the lower race.’ In the society of men he was bored and not himself, with them he was cool and uncommunicative; but when he was in the company of women he felt free…”
Finally, in “The Lady with the Dog,” what seems good is Chekhov the fastidious and amused ironist who finds the right exalted language to accompany staid Gurov and pliant Anna’s most unexalted amours, and in so doing discloses their love’s frothy mundaneness. High on a hill overlooking Yalta and the sea, the two lovers sit and moon off, while the narrator archly muses over the landscape.
The leaves did not stir on the trees, grasshoppers chirruped, and the monotonous hollow sound of the sea rising up from below, spoke of peace, of the eternal sleep awaiting us. So it must have sounded when there was no Yalta, no Oreanda here; so it sounds now, and it will sound as indifferently and monotonously when we are all no more. And in this constancy, in this complete indifference to the life and death of each of us, there lies hid, perhaps, a pledge of our eternal salvation, of the unceasing movement of life upon earth, of unceasing progress towards perfection.
Over the years, “The Lady with the Dog” has come to stand high in my esteem as the story by whose subtleties I not only began to know how and why to like Chekhov, but also by its exemplary fullness I came to experience literature as F. R. Leavis portrays it in his famous essay on Lawrence, as the supreme means by which we “undergo a renewal of sensuous and emotional life, and learn a new awareness.” Chekhov’s representation of this minor-key love affair committed by respectable nonentities more than renewed, it helped give early form to my awareness of what the words “emotional life” might entail, but also conceal and importantly leave out.
Yet this one small masterpiece aside, what sort of awareness do we typically achieve when we read Chekhov’s stories? (As though story writing were not a matter of beauty, felicity, restraint and implicitness but was an art harnessed only to Walter Benjamin’s utilitarian injunction that “every real story… contains, openly and covertly something useful…” and that “the storyteller is a man who has counsel for his readers.”)
There is, of course, no typical Chekhov story, a fact that by itself should please us, and makes the pseudo-critical shorthand of “Chekhovian” essentially pointless. For if there are plenty of stories in which the surface of everyday life seems unremarkable and dramatically unyielding except that Chekhov makes it the object of intense narrative inquiry the result of which is, say, the exposure of unexpected emotional cowardice or painful moral indecision (the famous “Gooseberries” is such a story), there are also stories of unquestionably high, even fulminant surface drama that rattle the windows, alarm or enrage us, move us to tears, and then roar off to their appointed endings like freight trains. In “Enemies,” a distraught young husband bursts into a physician’s home late at night pleading that the doctor honor his oath by coming at once to the young man’s expiring wife. (The doctor’s own child has only moments before, and startlingly, breathed his last!) At pains, the doctor sets aside his private grief and complies. Yet when he arrives at the man’s house, the wife, again startlingly, proves absent having gone off with another man. The story’s title offers a sufficient hint of the furious night’s outcome.
Likewise, if the standard Chekhov ending is thought to leave readers clutching at air for answers to the story’s profound but ambiguous scruplings—answers the author may have been unwilling or found too intellectually reductive to provide—there is conversely the unqualifiedly direct Chekhov who routinely tells us exactly what he wishes us to know. In “The Kiss,” another anthology regular, a young Cossack officer has his life turned topsy-turvy by the misplaced kiss of a mysterious woman he quickly becomes obsessed by. Later, alone, at the story’s end, the young officer realizes bitterly that his own sensuous and emotional hopes will not be renewed because the mysterious woman will never be found nor the kiss repeated. “And the whole world, the whole of life,” the narrator tells us, “seemed to Ryabovitch an unintelligible, aimless jest… And turning his eyes from the water and looking at the sky, he remembered again how fate in the person of an unknown woman had by chance caressed him, he remembered his summer dreams and fancies, and his life struck him as extraordinarily meagre, poverty-stricken, and colourless…”
And finally, if all of Chekhov’s stories are thought to radiate importance and severity like the gray light that momentarily shines on poor, unkissed Ryabovitch, there is yet the burlesquing Chekhov of “A Blunder.” There, the eager parents of an overly marriageable daughter eavesdrop through the wall as she is wooed by the district school teacher and minor poet, Shchupkin. The parents’ plan is, at some compromising moment, to burst into the room like police, holding an ikon (the father, old Poplov, believes, “A blessing with an ikon is sacred and binding”). But just as the daughter’s hand is finally, hungrily kissed by the unsuspecting Shchupkin, and the parents spring across the threshold burbling their would-be contractual blessings, Poplov discovers his wife (the too-eager Kleopatra) has brought with her not an ikon but an absurd portrait of an author—Lazhetchnikov—thereby scuttling the longed-for marriage. As the story’s envoi, the narrator modestly informs us that in the catastrophe’s excitement, “the writing master took advantage of the general confusion and slipped away.”
Indeed, one regularly finds humor in Chekhov, often in surprising though never really mistakable moments. As in Shakespeare as in Faulkner as in Flannery O’Connor, the comic turn not only counterweighs and intensifies a serious story’s gravity, it also humanizes our own fated intimacy with what’s grave by permitting life’s fullest, most actual context to be brought into view, even as it points us toward an approved method of acceptance: laughter. (Acceptance and life’s dogged continuance being ever Chekhov’s concerns.)
In the masterful long story “An Anonymous Story,” a saga of revenge, moral deception, outrage, absurdity and flight, Chekhov almost at the story’s opening movement sets out one of his signature—and in this case astoundingly acid—character summaries (partly of course calculated to delight us). And with it, he observes the nearly unplummable complexity and baseness of the human species, even as he strengthens our resilience to depravities in life we cannot control. So, it is Kukushkin, the classic Petersburger, civil councillor, cowardly cohort of the unscrupulous and reluctant husband Orlov, who becomes the special target of the author’s venom:
He [Kukushkin] was a man with the manners of a lizard. He did not walk, but, as it were, crept along with tiny steps, squirming and sniggering, and when he laughed he showed his teeth. He was a clerk on special commissions… [and a] man of personal ambition, not only to the marrow of his bones, but more fundamentally—to the last drop of his blood; but even in his ambitions he was petty and did not rely on himself, but was building his career on the chance favour flung him by his superiors. For the sake of obtaining some foreign decoration, or for the sake of having his name mentioned in the newspapers as having been present at some special service in the company of other great personages, he was ready to submit to any kind of humiliation, to beg, to flatter, to promise.
In dismantling the wretched Kukushkin’s impoverished character, it is as if Chekhov were subscribing to the ancient and comic maxim governing life’s basic duality: if nothing’s funny, nothing’s really ever serious.
Far from his stories’ ever sinking to typicality or being knowable by a scheme, Chekhov seems so committed to life’s multifariousness that the stories provoke in us the sensation Ford Madox Ford must have had in mind when he observed that the general effect of fiction “must be the effect life has on mankind”—by which I’ve always thought he meant that it be persuasively important, profuse, irreducible in its ambiguities, full of diverse pleasures, and always on the brink of being unknowable except that our ordering intelligence ardently urges us toward clarity. In Chekhov, there are no potted or predictable attitudes about anything: women, children, dogs, cats, the clergy, teachers, peasants, the military, businessmen, government officials, marriage, all Russia itself. And if anything can be termed “typical” it is that he insists we keep our notice close to life’s nuance, its intimate gestures and small moral annotations. “To be unloved and unhappy—how interesting that was,” sixteen-year-old Nadya Zelenin in “After the Theatre” thinks after seeing a performance of Eugene Onegin. “There is something beautiful, touching, and poetical about it when one loves and the other is indifferent.”
The entirety of Chekhov’s stories, in fact, often seem—but for their formal, sturdy existence in language—not even artful (although that would be wrong) but rather to be assiduous in mapping out degree by precise degree an accurate, ground-level constellation of ordinary existence—each story representing a subtly-distinguished movement in a single sustained gesture of life confirmed.
It is worth noticing now what precisely strikes us about Chekhov’s subtlety—since surely the apprehension of great subtlety is what most of us emerge with after reading “Gooseberries” or “The Kiss,” stories in which the surfaces of life seem routine and continuous while Chekhov goes about illuminating its benighted other terrains as a way of inventing what’s new, sustaining or calamitous in human existence.
One exemplary subtlety is that what we readers finally learn about humankind—one of our new awareness—is often quite similar to what we might acknowledge about a person we know intimately. Indeed, our typical response to some signal moment of moral discovery in a Chekhov story—that whatever this character did is good, whatever that one thought is wrong—is almost always, consolingly enough, recognition rather than shock, as though we really knew in our hearts that people were like that, but until now hadn’t needed to disclose it. Such is the case in “Peasants.” There, a tubercular waiter Nikolay Tchikildyeev journeys home to his poor village perhaps to die, but also unfortunately to reexperience the grinding, battering, drunken poverty and debasement of his familial past. Tchikildyeev does indeed die, near the story’s end, barely noticed by his preoccupied, disorderly kin. But before this can happen the narrator pronounces a sobering verdict we readers know to be true almost before we read it, although we might never have pronounced it for fear of what it might mean about us. (Chekhov, of course, means us to admit it, and makes that admission one of the story’s shrewd ethical snares):
Sasha and Motka and all the little girls in the hut huddled on the stove in the corner behind Nikolay’s back, and from that refuge listened in silent terror, and the beating of their little hearts could be distinctly heard. Whenever there is someone in a family who has long been ill, and hopelessly ill, there come painful moments when all timidly, secretly, at the bottom of their hearts long for his death…
Can we say, when we read this, that it’s a complete surprise that life and long relation should culminate with such woeful news? But also can we say we have ever specifically thought that?
Or what of this disquisition on beauty from “The Beauties”:
I felt this beauty [the narrator declares of a young woman] rather strangely. It was not desire, nor ecstasy, nor enjoyment that Masha excited in me, but a painful though pleasant sadness. It was a sadness vague and undefined as a dream. For some reason I felt sorry for myself… even for the girl herself, and I had a feeling as though we all… had lost something important and essential to life which we should never find again.
Exquisite beauty’s perturbing consequence in everyday life: Loss. Pain. Regret. A rather unpromising view. But who hasn’t glimpsed it among beauty’s brighter allures, only to force it brusquely out of sight?
Not that these stories overflow with pithy observation. Chekhov is not famously aphoristic, and seems mostly to prefer stressing the way life struggles unheroically toward normalcy rather than serving up moments in which it is exceptional or by canny observation caused to seem so. And as absolutely full of life’s experience as the stories are, Chekhov also seems to proportion and blend the amount of complexity they contain, as though there were limits to the literary significance we can accommodate. His stories rarely resolve in highly dramatic, epiphanic endings. And by largely eschewing this strategy they seem to refer us back to their own often unsensational, interior details. There, we are to reconsider moments of overlooked decisiveness and issue and possibly see mankind more clearly. Consequently, we are not only moved that poor Nikolay the waiter goes home to die and does die rather undramatically (not at the end), but we are also affected as we re-view the story that Chekhov, master of fine human distinctions, has elected exactly these people, these unlikely peasants to elevate to the condition of human exemplars.
One can say with some assurance that in settling upon the short story as his chosen narrative form, Chekhov elected in essence not to represent all of life, not to make a big splash, but to fashion discrete parts of life and focus our attentions and sharpest sensibilities there as a form of indispensable moral instruction; to not attempt what Walter Benjamin says the novel always attempts: “to carry the incommensurable to extremes in the representation of human life.” Chekhov made his stories precisely commensurate with life and with a view of it we can accept in an almost homely way. He almost never suggests that life isn’t worth living, or makes us feel at a loss or even feel over-indebted to his genius. But rather he measures his genius alongside our own and according to what we can understand as an act of empathy whose message is that life is much as we know it to be in our efforts to accept and go on.
All this may just be a way of saying that the reason we like Chekhov so much, at the beginning of a new century, is because his stories from the turn of the last century feel so modern to us, are so much of our own time and mind. His meticulous anatomies of complicated human impulse and response, his view of what’s funny and poignant, his clear-eyed observance of life as lived—all somehow matches our experience. His stories could, we feel, be written today, appear in The New Yorker, and be read for their insight with avidity and delight—no alterations or footnotes to account for periodicity or foreign provenance. To us, such fresh aptness confirms not only the continuity and saving vitality of the literary impulse, but it also assures us that we ourselves are part of a continuum and are sustainable. How we feel today about a dying wife, our married lover, our unsuitable suitor, our loyalties to our forsaken family, about the overmastering way in which life is too dense with subjectivity and too poor in objectifiable truth—all this was exactly how Russians felt far away in time, and when just as now a story was judged to be a saving response. Chekhov makes us feel corroborated, indemnified inside our human frailty, even smally hopeful of our ability to cope, to order and find clarity.
With Chekhov, we share the frankness of life’s inalienable thereness; we share the conviction of how much we would profit if more of human sensation could be elevated into clear, expressive language; we share a view that life (particularly life with others) is a surface beneath which we must strive to construct a convincing subtext in order that more can be clung to less desperately; and we share a hopeful intuition that more of ourselves—especially those parts we feel only we know about—can be made susceptible to clear, useful exposition.
This last, indeed, is the case with the sad, wounded, forsaken Pyotr Mihalitch Ivashin of “Neighbours,” portrayed by Chekhov in full retreat from his botched effort to “rescue” his sister Zina from the arms of her pompous, married seducer Vlassitch. Here, near the story’s end, is one of the great, full Chekhov moments, when as readers we recognize that although we may not have been exactly here before, we still recognize a situation and a set of emotions which should surrender a lesson—reveal some keener sense of how we actually are as humans, a sense for which conventional language and inquiry offer little help. Thus the need for literary notice.
Vlassitch walked by his right stirrup, and Zina by the left; both seemed to have forgotten that they had to go home. It was damp, and they had almost reached Koltovitch’s copse. Pyotr Mihalitch felt that they were expecting something from him, though they hardly knew what it was, and he felt unbearably sorry for them. Now as they walked by the house with submissive faces, lost in thought, he had a deep conviction that they were unhappy, and could not be happy, and their love seemed to him a melancholy, irreparable mistake. Pity and the sense that he could do nothing to help them reduced him to that state of spiritual softening when he was ready to make any sacrifice to get rid of the painful feeling of sympathy.
Though shortly on and even more trenchantly, as Mihalitch enters the first bitter awareness that he has miscalculated love and passion and that such errors are to be the signature of his life, Chekhov’s narrator notes:
He was heavy at heart. When he got out of the copse he rode at a walk and then stopped his horse near the pond. He wanted to sit and think without moving. The moon was rising and was reflected in a streak of red on the other side of the pond. There were low rumbles of thunder in the distance. Pyotr Mihalitch looked steadily at the water and imagined his sister’s despair, her martyr-like pallor, the tearless eyes with which she would conceal her humiliation from others. He imaged her with child, imagined the death of their mother, her funeral, Zina’s horror… Terrible pictures of the future rose before him on the background of smooth, dark water, and among pale feminine figures he saw himself, a weak, cowardly man with a guilty face… And thinking about his life, he came to the conclusion that he had never said or acted upon what he really thought, and other people had repaid him in the same way. And so the whole of life seemed to him as dark as this water in which the night sky was reflected and waterweeds grew in a tangle. And it seemed to him that nothing could ever set it right.
As readers of imaginative literature, we are always seeking clues, warnings: where in life to search more assiduously; what not to overlook; what’s the origin of this sort of human calamity, that sort of joy and pleasure; how can we live nearer to the latter, further off from the former? And to such seekers as we are, Chekhov is guide, perhaps the guide.
To 2oth-century writers, of course, his presence has affected all of our assumptions about what’s a fit subject for imaginative writing; about which moments in life are too crucial or precious to relegate to conventional language; about how stories should begin, and the variety of ways a writer may choose to end them; and importantly about how final life is, and therefore how tenacious must be our representations of it.
More than anything else, though, it is Chekhov’s great sufficiency that moves us and makes us admire; our reader’s awareness that story to story, degree by degree around the sphere of observable human existence, Chekhov’s measure is perfect. Given the subjects, the characters, the actions he brings into play, we routinely feel that everything of importance is always there in Chekhov. And our imaginations are for that reason ignited to know exactly what that great sufficiency is a reply to; what is the underlying urgency such that almost any story of Chekhov’s can cause us to feel, either joyfully or pitifully, confirmed in life? As adults, we usually like what makes us want to know more, and are flattered by an assertive authority which makes us trust and then provides good counsel. It is indeed as though Chekhov knew us.
Finally, the stories found here are never difficult but often demanding; always dense but never turgid; sometimes dour, but rarely hopeless. Yet occasionally, reading through the great body of Chekhov’s stories (220 plus), I have experienced secret relief when a story, here or there, seemed somehow lesser, was possibly tossed off in a way that allows me to imagine this most humane of writers in a new light—as a man agreeably unburdened by some demonic masterpiece-only obsession, a man I could’ve known, as a writer indeed willing to take us unblinkingly into the musing consciousness of kittens(!) and offer us assurance that nothing very important goes on there: “The kitten lay awake thinking. Of what?… The soul of another is darkness, and a cat’s soul more than most… Fate had destined him to be the terror of cellars, store-rooms and corn bins, and had it not been for education… we will not anticipate, however.” (“Who Was to Blame”)
Just read these wonderful stories for pleasure, first, and do not read them fast. The more you linger, the more you reread, the more you’ll experience and feel addressed by this great genius who, surprisingly, in spite of distance and time, shared a world we know and saw as his great privilege the chance to redeem it with language.
This essay first appeared as the introduction to 1998’s Tales of Chekhov, from Ecco.