‘Who do you think you are?’ an eminent paediatrician once thundered at me across a child’s cot during his weekly grand ward round. ‘Anton Chekhov?’
I was a lowly medical student; my white student-smock had a small front pocket meant for my doctoring tools; mine contained, a little ostentatiously, a book of poems instead. I had failed to answer a question correctly. His Eminence plucked out the highly visible book, asked a few polite literary questions to lull me, then proceeded to humiliate me in front of the entire ward team, at length. This was before medical schools became more touchy-feely, caring-sharing places; the old-school teaching principle of ‘thalamic learning’ meant that a public humiliation in front of your peers left such an indelible trace that you never made a fatal mistake again.
I suspect that Chekhov would have liked this story, given his own sense that the sciences and medicine were, finally, more crucial than the world of the arts. He writes about this in one of his best short stories, ‘The Grasshopper’, in which the beautiful wife of a dull medical researcher lives a wild and adulterous life in artistic circles until her husband dies of typhus, and she realises too late that he was a far more significant figure than her artist lover. There are echoes of Emma Bovary in this story, but also of artists from Chekhov’s circle, plus one of his lovers (who, incidentally, never forgave him).
I never forgave the paediatrician, but I also never made that diagnostic mistake again. I also went straight home and looked up the name Chekhov in the Oxford Great Lives Encyclopaedia. Of course, I had heard the name before. It was one of those, like (speaking of Russians) Dostoevsky and Turgenev, that were part of the cultural wallpaper and that were absorbed osmotically, and about whom I even formed opinions before reading their books. But I knew nothing specific. I had not even known he was a doctor.
I liked what I read in Great Lives. Who Did I Think I Was? I hadn’t quite sorted that out at nineteen, but yes, if I had to be someone, why not this six-foot beanpole scholarship boy from the warmer southern provinces who put himself through medical school by writing funny stories? I met the height requirements with ease, and I came from the Northern Territory. I had published one small poem in On Dit – unpaid, but still. Anton had written a comic magazine at school; a friend and I had put out a Mad-type satirical magazine with the highly original title of Insane. Anton undertook a famous investigative journey to the Siberian prison island of Sakhalin; I applied to be the sole medical officer on Norfolk Island. Yes, it was a tourist resort by my time, but it had been a prison island.
Of course, I was doing what every reader, biographer, and especially theatre director of Chekhov has always done: carving out my own preferred Chekhov from the life and works and biograffiti of the complex private man. I took especial note of the fact that despite his theoretical adherence to the stoic philosophy of Marcus Aurelius (whose Meditations also sometimes occupied the pocket in my student doctor’s smock), he enjoyed enormous success with women, and later married the foremost actress of his time. Being Anton Chekhov seemed a promising career path to pursue, especially for that self-indulgent stoic, the teenage moi.
That mid-career trip to Sakhalin was an astonishing acting out of the central split in Chekhov’s life. ‘Medicine is my wife, literature my mistress,’ he famously said – and periodically the guilt that accrued over the time spent with his mistress seemed to drive him back into the arms of his wife. There were various reasons behind the trip to Sakhalin – to escape several literal mistresses, to escape critics and publishers who wanted too many pounds of flesh, to escape the financial leeches of his family – but there is no doubting that his central impetus came from outrage over the treatment and conditions of the prisoners, and especially their children, in the hellhole of Siberia. Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago felt that this expedition was rather dilettantish, which seems severe given that the journey was horrifically arduous, and stoic by any definition. Chekhov was already suffering from tuberculosis, and the thousands of miles he travelled in bad weather, in an open cart, certainly hastened his death from the disease at age forty-four.
In fact, the puritanical Solzhenitsyn is just one of innumerable writers who owe an unpayable debt to Chekhov – in terms of plain-speaking, and as a model of economical storytelling. Cancer Ward would not have been possible without the example of Chekhov’s famous long story ‘Ward Six’, nor the interconnected storytellings which form the bulk of Solzhenitsyn’s other writings.
Both before and after Sakhalin, Chekhov continued to practise medicine – often, in his later life, pro bono to the less privileged. He even founded a provincial mental hospital, his own ‘Ward Six’ – in between his busy writing and theatrical career, his numerous love affairs, the setting up of libraries and public schools, the administering of all kinds of boards, the incessant travelling, and the supporting of a vast extended family and a crew of hangers-on and ex-lovers, who would come and stay, sometimes for years. Consumptives burn more fiercely, perhaps – but all this relentless living provided grist for his superproductive fictional mill. His life, family, and friends are everywhere in Chekhov’s stories and plays.
Doctors usually get a good press – or a less harsh press – in Chekhov’s work, which is unsparing and often clinically cruel about characters from every other walk of life, from peasant to aristocrat. He was the first great Russian writer to come from outside the aristocracy (his father, astonishingly, was an emancipated serf), but his unsentimental treatment of peasants (in especially, the ultra-long story, ‘The Peasants’) angered many. Tolstoy was shocked, but he was a sentimental aristocrat, and liked to romanticise the ‘noble’ serfs.
This is not to say that doctors escape scot-free. One of his first stories that I read was ‘Anyuta’, an account of the relationship between a medical student and the young, impoverished seamstress who shares his room and his bed, sews his garments, prepares his frugal meals, and, in her bony, undernourished state, acts as an anatomy ‘skeleton’ for purposes of study. (She also moonlights as an artist’s model.) Slowly, we become aware that the relationship is approaching its end; that she had been passed on to him by a previous student, just like a set of bones, and will be passed on to another when he graduates and moves on into a more affluent professional life. It is an extraordinary and affecting story, told, as usual, without any editorialising – but is clearly written out of Chekhov’s own experiences, and out of a profound guilt.
It has been said that Chekhov invented the epiphany, as against the well-plotted story of, say, a Maupassant, but he can work both ends of the storytelling spectrum. And those epiphanies change nothing in a Chekhov story: illumination is temporary, and soon undercut, usually by humour. For all his darkness, Chekhov is above all a comic writer, and often laugh-out-loud funny, even when he is in his blackest mortuary-humour mode, as in this side-anecdote from ‘Gooseberries’:
While I was inspecting cattle at a railway-station, a cattle-dealer fell under an engine and had his leg cut off. We carried him into the waiting-room, the blood was flowing – it was a horrible thing – and he kept asking them to look for his leg and was very much worried about it; there were twenty roubles in the boot on the leg that had been cut off, and he was afraid they would be lost.
I generally prefer the shorter stories such as ‘Anyuta’, which stab the heart swiftly, even when at their most comical. Like all comedians Chekhov is often cruel; the physical descriptions of his characters can be devastating. But those characters more often condemn themselves out of their own mouths; dialogue, or interior monologue, does the heavy lifting in a Chekhov story. Those stories ask questions, but rarely offer answers; he is never a stern prophet-preacher in the Tolstoy or Dostoevsky – or indeed Solzhenitsyn – mode. Some of his shorter pieces are almost case studies; even longer, later stories such as ‘The Man in a Case’, an account of an obsessive-compulsive, read now like precursors to the clinical essays of Oliver Sacks. This brief story contains another line that could serve as a signature Chekhovian metaphor for the predicaments of many of his characters: ‘People look happiest in their coffins.’ The longer stories, even those celebrated as masterpieces such as ‘A Boring Story’ or ‘Ward Six’, can at times be slowed down by too much long-winded Tolstoyan philosophical dialogue between the characters, of a kind that people never actually speak, even would-be philosophers in the nineteenth century. Yes, Chekhov is usually being ironic or satirical in these situations, including those characters who mouth his own preferred opinions (when Chekhov hides himself in a character, there will always be a self-mocking edge to his words), but in these longer pieces, the satire can seem tiresome at times, becoming the thing it mocks.
The cast of characters we get to know in the stories we will meet again in the quartet of late great plays – the ineffectual idealists, the narcissists, the helpless adulterers, the disappointed teachers and doctors and clerks with their aimless philosophising, the melancholics, the apathetic peasants, the paralysed would-be lovers – these people can change no more than the provincial towns they live in can change. Chekhov is probably the greatest dramatist since Shakespeare, but there are no Hamlets or Lady Macbeths – no tragic stars – in Chekhov plays. His casts are democratic ensembles; he is an equal-opportunity misanthrope.
His prose style was unspectacular, but almost always to the point. To an admirer who referred to him as a poet, he responded with a laugh: ‘A poet, dear sir, is someone who uses the words “chord” and “silvery horizons”.’ The lyric poet Mayakovsky may or may not have used these words in his own verse, but of Chekhov he wrote that his language was ‘as precise as “Hello”; and as simple as “Give me a glass of tea”. In his method of expressing the idea of a compact little story, the urgent cry of the future is felt: “Economy!”’
A prose-poet who might be seen as Chekhov’s complete opposite stylistically, Vladimir Nabokov, also held him in the highest regard, although the lover of high style realised that he could never quite explain that regard, even to himself. Chekhov, he wrote, is a ‘medley of dreadful prosaisms, readymade epithets, repetitions, doctors, unconvincing vamps’, then concluded ‘yet it is his works which I would take on a trip to another planet’.
The conundrum of Chekhov worried at him. Elsewhere he wrote:
His dictionary is poor, his combination of words almost trivial – the purple patch, the juicy verb, the hothouse adjective, the crème-de-menthe epithet, brought in on a silver tray, these were foreign to him. He was not a verbal innovator in the sense that Gogol was; his literary style goes to parties clad in its everyday suit. Thus Chekhov is a good example to give when one tries to explain that a writer may be a perfect artist without being exceptionally vivid in his verbal technique or exceptionally preoccupied with the way his sentences curve.
Nabokov did like Chekhov’s scientific eye: ‘In high art and in pure science – detail is everything.’ I suspect that the butterfly collector Nabokov, who pinned out and displayed his characters much as he did his entomological specimens, mostly admired Chekhov’s clinical and often cruel eye.
Chekhov’s legacy was immense, but went well beyond the literary world. He had no time for revolutionary zeal – he was sceptical of all grand schemes and pieties, and satirised revolutionaries as savagely as he did aristocrats – but Lenin was to claim that reading ‘Ward Six’ ‘made me a revolutionary’. Besides his improbable protégé Nabokov, his literary legacy ranges from Katherine Mansfield to Beckett to the more recent Raymond Carver (or the Gordon Lish rewritings that we now know are largely responsibleforthe writer we call ‘Raymond Carver’.) Mansfield was even subject to a plagiarism scandal in the 1930s, when her early story ‘The Child Who Was Tired’was noted to be a clear copy of Chekhov’s ‘Sleepy-Head’, in which a child is suffocated by an exhausted nursemaid. Her reputation suffered severely, but in her defence we might remember the poet and critic Conrad Aiken’s words about Mansfield: ‘One has not read a page of Miss Mansfield’s book before one has said “Chekhov”: but one has not read two pages before Chekhov is forgotten.’
It seems to me that all these ingredients of his short stories – the plain, even boring style, the pre-eminence of dialogue, the cast of ineffective characters trapped in their coffin-like personalities – reach their natural conclusion in the late plays, as if he had finally realised that it could all be told in dialogue. Everything and everybody we have met in the stories seems to turn up again in those big country houses. Even the famous mysterious sound of a distant broken string, or mine cable, in The Cherry Orchardechoes an early story, ‘Fortune’.
Perhaps the last jigsaw piece that was necessary for the genesis of the plays was the social theatre (or communal coffin) of a big house itself; this fell into place with the purchase of the modest country estate ‘Melikhovo’ in 1892, to which the whole Chekhov circus of extended family, former and current lovers and friends soon decamped.
One celebrated lateish story is perhaps especially worth noting among the four plays, at least from a biographical point of view. In ‘The Lady with a Lapdog’, the ageing married roué Gurov realises, if slowly, and mystifyingly, that he has finally fallen in love with his younger married mistress. It is the story of the confirmed bachelor Chekhov’s late discovery of love for Olga Knipper, and perhaps that self-knowledge was more useful to him than it is to the lovers in his novella. Self-knowledge as the key to the doors of liberation? Entire schools of psychoanalysis and self-help have been built on it. But as the dying Nikolai Stepanovich muses in the much earlier ‘A Boring Story’ (in David Magarshak’s translation): ‘Daybreak finds me sitting on the bed, clasping my knees and trying, having nothing better to do, to know myself. “Know thyself” is most excellent and useful advice; the pity is the ancients did not think it necessary to show us the way to avail ourselves of this advice.’
What happens next is not crucial in a Chekhov story, or play, in a narrow plot sense. We are always waiting for some solution, for something to happen, but it usually doesn’t. Or something happens, then something else happens that cancels it out, and we are back where we began. Which may mean that the true inheritor of Chekhov is Beckett after all. I sometimes think that the best Chekhov line was written not by Anton, but by Samuel: ‘You must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.’
But, with the recent sesquicentenary of Chekhov’s birth, it is his moment, not Beckett’s, and if we are waiting for anything it should be for him to speak, to have the last word. Speech, speech? Those famous words from Godot mutate easily enough into the lines about the migrating cranes from The Three Sisters, which sum up the fate of Chekhovian characters, even when they happen to be birds: ‘Whatever ideas, great or small, stray through their minds, they will still go on flying just the same without knowing where or why.’