Chekhov and His Prose
Chekhov: A Biographical and Critical Study
The four-act play, Platonov, was found among Chekhov’s papers after his death in a heavily corrected manuscript of which the title page was missing. It was first published in the USSR as “A Play Without a Title,” and was translated into English in 1964 by David Magarshack and broadcast on the BBC in a shortened version. (The present edition indicates in brackets the parts that were omitted in this production.) Written at the very beginning of Chekhov’s career, when he was a student at the University of Moscow, twenty or twenty-one years old, it is a very long and awkward play, “almost as long,” Mr. Magarshack remarks, “as his last three plays put together,” We know from a letter of his brother Michael that Chekhov had hoped to have it staged, and that “he even took it to the well-known actress M. N. Ermolova.” But Mr. Hingley is doubtless right is saying that “Chekhov left it among his papers and probably forgot about it; its defects are so obvious that he would certainly have been horrified to know that it has been published posthumously.” Nevertheless, a great author’s early attempts, however unsuccessful, are always interesting and usually, as in this case, by no means without intrinsic merit.
Platonov is a tragi-comedy centering about a personage who is something like a mixture of Don Juan, Hamlet, and Tartuffe, a handsome, vain, egotistic, indecisive, shallow individual with whom women are always falling in love and whom men respect for what they suppose to be his intelligence and idealism. He wins people over by eloquence and a show of passion, in a way that reminds one of Turgenev’s Rudin, that outstanding example of the so-called “superfluous man” of Russian literature, a type defined by Mr. Winner as “a sensitive individual, alienated from, and bored by society and incapable of decisive action,” who is much in evidence in Chekhov’s later stories and plays. Platonov seems to me, however, to be a parody of the prototypes of the Superfluous Man, of Turgenev’s Rudin, Lermontov’s Pechorin, or the earliest of them, Griboyedov’s Chatsky, who is mentioned in this play. For though, like these, Platonov is bored and incapable of action (and they are all bored and incapable of action for different reasons), he lacks the moral qualities that make the others tragic figures and remarkable men. Platonov is not sensitive, nor “alienated” except in his own, unwarranted feeling of superiority. He is totally uninspired by the kind of interest in humanity or in human beings as individuals that had animated his unfortunate predecessors, so that against the background of Russian thought and literature, Chekhov’s play looks like an intellectual farce, a parody of popular and traditional concepts. This is all the more likely since Chekhov was much given to parody, as Mr. Winner has admirably shown, and, especially in this early period, was amusing himself with it quite openly.
BUT PLANTANOV MAY NOT have been actually intended as a parody and only became one, unconsciously, through Chekhov’s habit of comparing the life he knew with the way it was presented in books. It was a habit he formed early and he cultivated it and developed it into those ironic effects, both tragic and comic, that are a distinguishing quality of his writing. For in Chekhov’s work, human beings are somehow cut down to size, never so grandiose, neither so lofty nor so grotesque, as they usually appear in art. This, to my mind, is the most interesting aspect of this earliest of Chekhov’s plays, in which the playwright seems not yet certain of the impression he is after, whether he wants to rouse laugher or tears, provoke ridicule or sympathy, but is quite sure that his people and his world, undistorted by literary convention, shall be unlike those commonly seen on the stage, closer to ordinary life.
Platonov, who once gave promise of becoming “a second Byron” and thought of himself as “a future Cabinet Minister and a Christopher Columbus,” is now a village schoolteacher, married to a naive, good-hearted homebody. He has been too lazy to finish the university course, considers himself a failure, but likes to harangue people on their spiritual and moral shortcoming. In the dull, provincial community in which he leads his life of quiet boredom, he inspires love and even passion. His simple wife, Sasha, is genuinely devoted to him; Maria Grekov, a twenty-year-old girl, is infatuated; Anna Petrovna, a general’s young widow, the sophisticated and beautiful lady of the manor, in whose house most of the action takes place, pursues him with declarations of love and offers of herself; and her stepson’s wife, Sophia, an intelligent, strongminded girl, becomes his mistress. Platonov plays fast and loose with all of them. Sasha, upon discovering his unfaithfulness, attempts on two occasions to kill herself, once by lying down in the path of an oncoming train and another time by eating matches; Maria Grekov, whom he insults and ridicules in public, brings a lawsuit against him on a charge of assault, but forgives him completely as soon as he scribbles her an affectionate note; and Sophia, who has broken up her marriage on his account and has persuaded him to run away with her, kills him when he refuses to go through with their plan. Anna Petrovna, having discovered, just before the fatal shooting, that Platonov has preferred her daughter-in-law to herself, is nevertheless afraid of hurting his feelings, tries to send him home in the kindest possible way, and promises to come to see him And all this on top of the news she has just received that her estate has been sold at auction and that soon neither she nor her stepson will have any house to live in nor any money to live on.
AND PLATONOV?. Platonov calls himself “fool, donkey, scoundrel, blackguard” “I’ve been rotting away for such a long time,” he says, “that my soul has wasted away and there’s no way of bringing me back to life. All you can do is to bury me as far away as possible so that I do not infect the air.” Such are the speeches he makes to women he wants to rid himself of, but where those he has wronged accuse him, in a moment of anger, of being “despicable” and ask him to leave their house, he reproaches them for being ununderstanding and inhuman, calls them “stupid, cruel, heartless,” and announces that he will not move: “Any one who objects to my being here can leave the room.” He intends to kill himself, he says, and once left alone, actually lifts a revolver to his temple, murmuring “Hamlet was afraid of dreams, I’m afraid of—life,” but puts it down again—“No, I haven’t the strength. I want to live.” It is hard to think that Chekhov, even in his twenties, could take this man seriously. He was ridiculing the Superfluous Man in the incarnation of a petty, Hamlet-like Don Juan, whose loves amount either to a desire for comfort or the titillation of short-lived, innocuous little affairs.
In a perfunctory Preface, the translator Mr. Magarshack, who is also the author of two books on Chekhov, speaks of the importance of this play as a social picture of Russian society, “a microcosm of Russia in the ‘eighties of the last century.” This is dragging in meanings by main force. A list of characters drawn from various strata of society—merchants, professionals, landowners, peasants—does not constitute a “microcosm”; and it is not class, but personal relationships with which Chekhov is here concerned, not so much the social as the moral world of the fin de siècle he was living in and writing about, when the great questions that had stirred men in the earlier decades of the century were being demoted from articles of faith to conversational gambits in the drawing rooms of provincial idlers. It was an age of intellectual and spiritual lassitude, a shifting and shiftless age, and Platonov represents it. “In my opinion,” says a man who knows him, a man of the older generation:
Platonov is an admirable representative of our modern uncertainty. He is the hero of the best, though, unfortunately, still unwritten modern novel. (He laughs.) By uncertainty I mean the present condition of our society: the Russian novelist feels this uncertainty. He finds himself in a quandary, he is at a loss, doesn’t know what to concentrate on. He doesn’t understand—you see, it’s so difficult to understand—these people…His novels are abominably bad, everything in them is forced, cheap, and, well, no wonder! Everything is so terribly confused. Everything is in such a hopeless muddle. And our highly intelligent Platonov, in my opinion, expresses this uncertainty admirably.
THE CONDITION OF UNCERTAINTY, confusion, unintelligibility, which is suggested in Platonov may indeed be seen as the core itself of all of Chekhov’s writing. So it appeared to Leon Shestov, who wrote a remarkable essay about it in 1908. It was translated into English in 1916 and is now made available again along with three other of Shestov’s essays and a brilliant Introduction by Sidney Monas, who places the author in his intellectual milieu and explains the nature of his thought and influence. Shestov, an original thinker and an eloquent writer, deserves to be better known. His essay on Chekhov is penetrating, controversial, and very moving. The epigraph he chose for it, Baudelaire’s “Résigne-toi, mon coeur, dors ton sommeil de brute,” and its subtitle “Creation from the Void” indicate the line of his interpretation. He sees Chekhov as “the poet of hopelessness,” not by way of fashionable decadence, but through the sheer force of his independence, of his unwillingness to submit to ready-made theories and solutions, his refusal of “every possible consolation, material or metaphysical.” It at first Chekhov lamented that there was no “higher idea” to which he could “subordinate his thoughts,” he later threw aside “all precautions, and instead of reproaching himself for his inability to submit to the general idea,” rebelled against it and jeered at it. He “had no ‘ideal,’ not even the ideal of ‘everyday life’ which Tolstoy glorified with such inimitable and incomparable mastery in his early works.” Rejecting “high ideals,” irritated by “idealisms” of every kind, Chekhov concentrated on the reality of man alone, of man unsupported by the comfort of false hopes, “stripped…of the last shred, when nothing is left for him but to beat his head against the wall.”
MR. HINGLEY, in his very sound, very sensible biography, first published in 1950 and now brought up to date and reissued, writes purposely to combat such views as Shestov’s, protesting “a widespread misconception [of Chekhov] embodied in such phrases as ‘a gentle, suffering soul,’ and ‘a wise observer with a wistful smile and an aching heart.”’ Shestov, he thinks, has “contributed to the over-emphasis on Chekhov’s pessimism,” as one of those critics who “find in philosophic despair a piquant quality which they enjoy so much that they are resolved to detect it in everything Chekhov wrote and said.” Although it is doubtless a good thing to redress the balance and correct the idea of Chekhov as “a gentle, suffering soul,” Mr. Hingley’s charge against Shestov, who did not pretend to deal with “everything Chekhov wrote and said,” is unfair. Nor is there anything of “the wistful smile and aching heart” in Shestov’s interpretation of Chekhov. On the contrary, the “hopelessness” he sees in him is a mark of strength, honesty, courage, and intellectual severity; there is nothing maudlin in it. “Everything is darkness, not a ray, not a spark, but Chekhov goes forward, slowly, hardly, hardly moving…” It is not about man that Chekhov is pessimistic but about the delusions on which man builds his hopes; and Chekhov’s interest in man is concentrated on the starkest of realities, the necessity to “create out of the void.”
[Man] has nothing, he must create everything for himself. And his “creation out of the void,” or more truly the possibility of this creation, is the only problem which can occupy and inspire Chekhov.
Chekhov’s art, too, is, in a sense, a “creation from the void,” an implicit dialogue with his predecessors and contemporaries, whom he may respect and even revere, as he does Tolstoy, but whose styles, as well as ideas, he rejects. For he has his own vision of life, and to express it exactly, he evolves the unique form that alone can suit it. This evolution is Mr. Winner’s theme in his book on Chekhov’s stories which he analyzes with minute care, showing very sensitively and perceptively how they grow in depth and subtlety, how their themes develop, and how images, sounds, and rhythms convey their meaning. Chekhov is best known abroad as a dramatist, but to Russians he is primarily a short-story writer of genius. Mr. Winner’s study defines with fine precision the terms that are usually attached to Chekhov’s art, explains what constitutes its “delicacy” and “subtlety,” throws light on the peculiar quality of his craftsmanship, and makes clearer than ever that Chekhov’s prose is the prose of poetry.