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Vol. LXIV, No. 46
Wednesday, November 17, 2010
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Book Review

On His 150th Birthday: Chekhov Holds Out His Hand and Pulls You Aboard

Stuart Mitchner

I am not a liberal, not a conservative, not a believer in gradual progress, not a monk, not an indifferentist. I should like to be a free artist and nothing more …. I regard trademarks and labels as a superstition. My holy of holies is the human body, health, intelligence, talent, inspiration, love, and the most absolute freedom —f reedom from violence and lying, whatever forms they may take.

Anton Chekhov, Sept. 30, 1889

I had the strangest dream the other night. The great Russian writer and M.D., Anton Pavlovich Chekhov, was hosting a wildly popular cable TV talk show that had charmed the nation thanks to the host’s ability to turn fire-breathing political dragons into sensible creatures sharing a constructive, balanced view of life. Every broadcast was a ratings triumph as Chekhov employed his abundant grace, wit, and humanity to create miracles of bonding that sent the quarrelsome rogues and knaves on their way so intellectually and emotionally fine-tuned that they wanted to do nothing but immerse themselves in the good doctor’s fiction before joining forces to save the sinking ship of state.

Waking Up

Back in the real world, the celebration of Chekhov’s 150th began on his birth date, January 29, which coincidentally and appropriately took place two days after the death of his great admirer, J.D. Salinger, who once signed a letter to a female corresondent, “I love love love Chekhov!”

Meanwhile Russian President Dmitry Medvedev was traveling to Chekhov’s birthplace, the seaport of Taganrog, to lay a bouquet of white roses at the Chekhov monument while, according to the English People’s Daily Online, World War II veterans were coming to an exhibition in Nizhni Novgorod “dedicated to the author that they hold in high esteem,” recalling “that they had Chekhov’s works in their pockets during the war. The books were passed on from one soldier to another, bringing them joy and comfort in the war-ridden years.”

Joy and comfort were the qualities Chekhov brought to the cable show in my dream. People came on vibrating with the tensions of the time and left glowing with wellbeing, as if they had dined on a three-course meal of celestial comfort food. In her introduction to an edition of Chekhov’s letters, Lillian Hellman mentions playing a childhood game called what-famous-writer-would-you-like-to-have-dinner-with. After ruling out several great authors for various reasons (too tiresome, too complex, too special), she explains why Anton Pavlovich was the hands-down choice: “Chekhov was a pleasant man, witty and wise and tolerant and kind, with nothing wishy-washy in his kindness, nor self-righteous in his tolerance, and his wit was not ill-humored. He would have seen right through you, of course, as he did through everybody, but being seen through doesn’t hurt too much if it’s done with affection.” She goes on to mention that though he complained a lot about his ailments and his lack of money, “if you had laughed at him he would have laughed with you.”

There you have it. A man born to heal our wounded psyches and charm us back to our senses. Not for nothing was Chekhov a doctor. “Medicine is my lawful wife,” he once said. “Literature is my mistress.”


The other night when things were looking gloomy and Novemberish I went to the bookcase where 13 volumes of Chekhov’s stories and two different collections of his letters are lined up like emergency provisions on a pantry shelf. Taking down the older, near-terminally tattered volume of Chekhov’s letters published in 1920, I open it at random, and there’s Chekhov in 1890, age 30, in total denial about the tuberculosis that would kill him 14 years later, slogging across the Fatherland on his way to Siberia, so deeply in need of comfort food (“I have been as hungry as a dog the whole way”) that he seems on the verge of coining the term, writing from Tomsk: “I even dreamed of buckwheat porridge. I have dreamed of it for hours at a time.”

Though I’ve got my eyes on a volume of Chekhov’s Tales (The Cook’s Wedding and Other Stories), I’m finding it hard to stop reading the letters. Given the online wonderland most of us have at our fingertips, you can access enough Chekhov to feed you for months, no problem (try, but it can’t compare with the tactile pleasures of a volume whose binding is in tatters, the pages worn soft and smooth from the touch of generations of unknown fellow readers. This is a book you can imagine being stowed in Chekhov’s knapsack on that wild Siberian adventure. As he fights through wind and rain and mud, blizzard and flood, at one point nearly being crushed in a collision of wagons, you’re cozily, vicariously there with him, safe and sound, your feet dry, your belly full, everything warm and centered, and you can enjoy his company without having to share the sausage he bought at Tyumen (“When you take a bit in your mouth there’s a sniff as though you had gone into a stable at the very moment when the coachmen were taking off their leg-wrappers; when you begin chewing it, you feel as though you had fastened your teeth into a dog’s tail defiled with pitch. Tfoo! I ate some once or twice and threw the rest away”).

That’s the soundness and solace of Chekhov. Earthy, funny, no nonsense, no pretensions, he holds out his hand and pulls you aboard (with some help from his translator, Constance Garnett), and by the time you open The Cook’s Wedding at random to “A Day in the Country,” you’re right there with Fyokla, a 6-year-old orphaned beggar-girl running through the village looking for a homeless old cobbler named Terenty as a storm moves in, “a dark, leaden-colored mass creeping towards the sun.” The girl’s eight-yearold brother, Danilka, has got his arm pinned under something inside a tree trunk in the count’s copse (he was reaching in to get a cuckoo’s egg for his sister) and she needs Terenty to help free him. When the rangy cobbler, with “his long, crane-like legs,” bends down to listen to Fyokla, “his grim, drunken face is overspread with a smile, such as come into people’s faces when they look at something little, foolish, and absurd, but warmly loved.” With those last few words, Chekhov seems to be bending closer to all of us to share what he feels for both the old man and the child.

As they rush to Danilka’s rescue, the storm closes in and the rain starts, which prompts Terenty to calm Fyokla with encouraging words about how “the grass and the trees are fed by the rain as we are by bread.” When the thunder frightens her, he says, “Why should it kill a little thing like you?” After he frees Danilka and the storm passes, the three go walking. Terenty shows the children a nightingale’s nest, points out an ant-hill burst open by the rain (“They’ve been flooded, the rogues!”), a swarm of bees huddled on a branch, and a “woolly-looking” herb (“given when your nose bleeds”). Danilka is fascinated as he and the cobbler “walk about the fields and talk unceasingly,” forgetting the fragile little girl “tripping after them,” exhausted, “tears in her eyes.” But Chekhov hasn’t forgotten her, telling us “she would be glad to stop these inexhaustible wanderers, but to whom and where can she go? She has no home or people of her own,” no choice but to keep up with them “and listen to their talk.”

Later, the orphans spend the night in a deserted barn while Terenty goes to the tavern. Too excited to sleep, Danilka “gazes into the darkness, and it seems to him that he is seeing all that he has seen in the day: the storm-clouds, the bright sunshine, the birds, the fish, lanky Terenty. The number of his impressions, together with exhaustion and hunger, are too much for him; he is as hot as though he were on fire, and tosses from side to side. He longs to tell someone all that is haunting him now in the darkness and agitating his soul, but there is no one to tell.”

In the story’s last paragraph, Chekhov bends closer to us, as in that earlier moment:

“The children fall asleep thinking of the homeless cobbler, and, in the night, Terenty comes to them, makes the sign of the cross over them, and puts bread under their heads. And no one sees his love. It is seen only by the moon which floats in the sky and peeps caressingly through the holes in the wall of the deserted barn.”

The translator’s “peeps caressingly” may seem a bit precious, but the idea of a sentient, benign, even loving moon reflects the dimensions of Chekhov’s compassion. Within a decade he’ll be producing dark, complex creations like The Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard, both of which demanded a year’s work from an author who admitted that he “once wrote serenely, the way I eat pancakes now.”

Like the writer of the letter at the top with its call for freedom “from violence and lying,” the talk-show Chekhov in my dream has a message for his contentious guests, by way of old Terenty, which is that if they don’t stop tearing the country and each other apart and get to higher ground, the ant-hill will “burst open” and they’ll be flooded, “the rogues!”

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