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Hearing from Chekhov

The Letters of Anton Chekhov

edited and translated by Avrahm Yarmolinsky, with the assistance of Babette Deutsch
Viking, 512 pp., $15.00

The Letters of Anton Chekhov

selected and edited by Simon Karlinsky, translated by Michael Henry Heim, in collaboration with Simon Karlinsky
Harper & Row, 494 pp., $17.50

The mark of genius is an incessant activity of mind. Genius is a greed for more. By the time of his death from tuberculosis when he was in his early forties, Chekhov had spent himself in every breathless minute, not only in the writing of his hundreds of stories, his plays, and his research on the convict island of Sakhalin—where he even took a census—but in exhausting work as a doctor, a founder of clinics and hospitals, schools and libraries, as the practical manager for many years of a small estate, as an indefatigable traveler in Russia, Europe, and Asia.

From the age of nineteen he supported his family—a bankrupt despotic father, his fretful mother, a string of bickering relatives and hangers-on—mainly by his writing, under knock-about domestic conditions which were farcically at variance with what a serious artist is supposed to need. He appointed himself—even at nineteen—head of this tribe, who were “depressed by the abnormality of living together” and who were people (he said in one of his letters) “pasted together artificially.” They were touchy, lazy, talkative, noisy, pretentious, and incurably hard up. Simply to listen to the noise they made drove him to despair and made him dizzy. (He could lose his temper too.) They hung on to the precocious son like leeches—and by mixing his pride with his comic sense, he hectored and coughed them into order. Although he was broad and strong as a young man, he was soon in bad health; he is the classic case of the doctor and consumptive who refuses to admit his case and neglects it.

On top of all this, Chekhov found time to write over 4,000 vivid letters, many of them merry, many of great literary importance, to critics, editors, novelists, friends, and to women who were in love with him and whom he was evading. The notion of the melancholy, passive, defeated Chekhov vanishes when one considers these letters alone, and especially when one meets the candor, spontaneity, the humor sharp as horse radish, and the intimacy of his correspondence. The man is alive to the tips of his fingernails and has the knack all good letter writers have of springing in person before the reader’s eyes. In letters a writer projects a large number of impromptu disguises, and, since he was often secretive in a self-preserving way, we do not get the whole of Chekhov—whatever that was—but we always see him in the hour he is living through.

A few of Chekhov’s letters were published soon after his death. They were followed by a six-volume edition edited by his sister, who adored him though she did make decorous cuts. There followed some of his letters to his wife, the actress Olga Knipper, whom he married in the last years of his life. In 1948-1951 an official Soviet collection appeared and was revised and expanded in 1963-1964 to the number of 4,200 items. From this edition Avrahm Yarmolinsky has extracted some 500 of the “most telling,” and Michael Henry Heim and Simon Karlinsky 185. Heim is the translator, and Karlinsky gives a thorough critical commentary in their edition. These books undoubtedly replace the selections made in the Twenties by Constance Garnett and in the Fifties by Lillian Hellman.

The editors of the two new volumes speak gratefully of the work of the Soviet scholars but cannot conceal their amusement or irritation with the well-known vagaries of Soviet censorship. The Russians have long been prudish about sex and the bodily functions, and in these matters Chekhov was often outspoken and sportive: after Pushkin (Simon Karlinsky points out), Russia became as genteel as did the West: Queen Victoria seems morally to have ruled the middle class earth. But the censorship in the Soviet Union has, uniquely, held on to nineteenth-century prudery. In a passage like:

There is no outdoor privy here. You have to answer the call in nature’s very presence, in ravines and under bushes. My entire backside is covered with mosquito bites,

the word “backside” has been deleted.

In matters of ideology, Chekhov’s admiration of certain things in the West to the detriment of Russian efforts has been cut—yet not always in every edition. But here, when one considers how subversive Chekhov’s ideas on artistic and personal freedom are, and how generally opposed to the tenets of official ideology in the Soviet Union, the tolerance of the editors surprises. They pay their tribute to Caesar by cutting out what Chekhov said about the superiority of European actors to Russian actors, and other matters that offend Russian chauvinism, but the rest suffers little. The American editors have not found it difficult to put back much of what may have been tampered with.

The two selections of the letters now offered overlap, particularly in the important ones. Both volumes are well annotated. After a short and pleasant introduction the Yarmolinsky edition leaves Chekhov to speak for himself. There are more of his letters to his wife, Olga Knipper, than in the Heim and Karlinsky edition; they bring out more variously the passion of the one powerful love of Chekhov’s life; and the letters written during the Sakhalin journey convince one of the revival of Chekhov’s vigor. (Both editors dismiss the notion that the journey to Sakhalin was undertaken because of a love affair with Lydia Avilov: they think the lady imagined the affair. Chekhov would be the last man wholly to gratify the lady, or indeed our curiosity, on the point.)

The smaller Heim and Karlinsky selection is critical and informative and is framed in a general thesis. They group the letters in periods, each section preceded by an account of Chekhov’s changing literary situation, so that the background is set out in some detail. This is invaluable. They are particularly concerned with his hostility to the long socio-political tradition of Russian criticism and the misapprehension this has caused. Where Yarmolinsky calls Chekhov “the incomparable witness,” they go deeper into the nature of his witness. They show that the precocious success of Chekhov at the age of twenty-eight annoyed because he was held to be a man “without principles”—which infuriated him: his belief in the freedom of the artist was a principle. They also show why, in the later years of fame, his opponents adroitly denigrated him by defining him as the moody, twilit poet of futility and despair. They were too stolid to see his truthfulness and grace.

Since then many Soviet critics have seen him as an incipient revolutionary and have even distorted his language to demonstrate this. Either through blindness or disingenuousness, they mistake the nature of the one or two apparently directly political stories—“The Anonymous Man,” or “The Bride,” for example—which are not dogmatic assertions. In a well-known letter Chekhov said that it was not the artist’s business to solve questions, but to pose them correctly. Marxists do not allow the posing of the question: they state the answer first and then create the question. Chekhov wrote when he was twenty-eight:

I am neither liberal nor conservative, nor monk, nor indifferentist. I would like to be a free artist and nothing else, and I regret God has not given me the strength to be one…. Pharisaism, dull-wittedness, and tyranny reign not only in merchant’s houses and police stations…. I see them in science and literature among the younger generation. I look upon tags and labels as prejudices. My holy of holies is the human body, health, intelligence, talent, inspiration, and the most absolute freedom imaginable, freedom from violence and lies, no matter what form the latter two take.

Or in a letter to Pleshcheyev about “The Name-Day Story,”

It’s not conservatism I’m balancing off with liberalism—they are not at the heart of the matter as far as I am concerned—it’s the lies of my heroes with their truths…. You told me once my stories lack an element of protest, and that they have neither sympathies or antipathies. But doesn’t the story protest against lying from start to finish? Isn’t that ideology?

And in defense of “Mire,”

A writer is a man bound by contract to his duty and his conscience.

These replies are a defense against the accusations of the orthodox liberals who accused Chekhov of selling himself to the reactionary millionaire Suvorin and his paper. He was at once critical of Suvorin and his grateful friend.

Here we come to the continuous argument of the Heim and Karlinsky book: Chekhov was a subversive writer in the Russia of the Eighties and Nineties. He was exceptional in not belonging to the gentry class: he was one of the few writers—Leskov was another—whose elders had come from below. He did not inherit that concern for the radical literary ideology of the opposition, though he was opposed to Tsarism; that is to say the tradition which, starting with the great Belinsky, demanded a didactic social content in literature and which was continued by Chernyshevsky, Pisarev, and Dobrolyubov, and exists today. (Lenin admired the last of these for turning a discussion into a “battle cry, into a call for activism and revolutionary struggle.”) Chekhov believed that the radical utilitarians, with the exception of Belinsky, neither liked nor understood literature, and he was “as subversive of the sociological presuppositions of a Russian Populist such as Mikhailovsky as of the Christian mysticism of Lev Shestov.” He was accordingly attacked for “lack of social relevance,” Karlinsky says, and the letters confirm him, that

…politically the most subversive aspect of Chekhov’s thinking is his systematic demonstration of the illusory nature of all labels, categories and divisions of human beings into social groups and social classes, which are the starting point of all political theories of his time and ours.

The fact is that Chekhov’s intellect had been formed by the medical and biological sciences; his well-known practical work in the hospital, in building schools, in the new local councils, and in the clinics in the fight against cholera brought him a great deal closer to the people and gave him a deeper knowledge of them than most writers of the time had. This has been awkward for some Soviet critics. In “The House with the Mezzanine” the girl Lida (one of them complains) is doing exactly what Chekhov was doing in real life: dedicated social work. Yet Chekhov exposes her as an authoritarian and political fanatic who brutally wrecks her idle sister’s life and he makes the reader admire the sweeter, weaker girl. In life Chekhov would no doubt have admired Lida’s work. But, as Karlinsky says, he sees that Lida is a fanatic who will not tolerate opposition and indeed wishes to dominate the family. She will use any means to break those who oppose her beliefs. The story is not an attack on social concern but on the inhumanity and tendency of a particular humanitarian.

Chekhov’s independent response to the pressure of the orthodox left-wing establishment is that of the working doctor; he is modestly self-accusing. He is bothered by abstract programs and speculations. He wishes he were a “great writer”: The best writers, he says,

…are realistic and describe life as it is, but because each line is saturated with the consciousness of its goal, you feel life as it should be in addition to life as it is, and you are captivated by it. But what about us? We describe life as it is and stop dead right there. We wouldn’t lift a hoof if you hit us with a whip…there is an emptiness in our souls. We have no politics, we don’t believe in revolution…. No one who wants nothing, hopes for nothing, can be an artist.

That Chekhov was influenced for a time by Tolstoy’s teachings—especially by his ideas on nonresistance to evil—is true; but he soon returned to his own nature. His purpose as a man was practical and he admired the intelligentsia when they went out to the villages and fought the cholera epidemic. One has the impression that the power to believe—in the doctrinal sense—was destroyed in his childhood by the violence and tyranny of his father: “What aristocratic writers take from nature gratis, the less privileged pay for with their youth”—though they have had the triumph of their liberation.

The constant, often rawly humorous lines in his letters about being short of money; the self-accusations of laziness and extravagance; the many references to boredom and a really frightening despair that kept him terrified and awake at night come from a brilliant and energetic character who lived for restlessness and for burning himself out. Medicine, he said, was his wedded wife, and literature his mistress: he is very much the man who chases two hares at once, though medical experience enriched his writing. One also suspects that Chekhov’s worry about “purpose” had a good deal to do with his inability to write a long novel; he could not sustain a philosophic plan. His one serious attempt to write a long novel—it was scrapped after two or three years—collapsed from what he called “fatigue,” and because of the unreasoned overcrowding of events, places, people, motives.

Oh if you knew what a wonderful subject for a novel sits in my noodle. What wonderful women, what weddings, what funerals! If I had money I would make off to the Crimea, seat myself under a cypress and complete a novel in two months…. However I am lying; if I had money in hand I would live it up.

Even in writing his stories he complained that he was a man of splendid beginnings who went flat from exhaustion in the middle and did not know how to go on. This self-criticism is of course absurd when one considers “Ward 6,” the superb “Lady with a Dog,” or “In the Ravine,” in which he is certainly as great an artist as Tolstoy and the rest. Karlinsky quotes the hero of Dr. Zhivago:

Of things Russian, I love now most of all the childlike quality of Pushkin and Chekhov, their shy lack of concern over such momentous matters as the ultimate fate of mankind and their own salvation. They understand all that very well, but they were far too modest and considered such things above their rank and position.

The letters indeed show that Chekhov did “understand all that.” He attacked Suvorin, his friend and editor, on two crucial occasions: his anti-Semitic articles at the time of the Dreyfus affair and the trial of Zola, and Suvorin’s attitude to the student riots of 1899:

No one can pass judgment in print on the disturbances when all mention of the facts is prohibited. The state forbade you to write, it forbids the truth to be told, that is arbitrary rule…. Right and justice are the same for the state as for any juridical person. If the state wrongfully alienates a piece of my land I can bring an action against it and the court will reestablish my right to that land. Shouldn’t the same rules apply when the state beats me with a riding crop?

About anti-Semitism at the time of Dreyfus:

Little by little, a messy kettle of fish began stewing, it was fueled by anti-Semitism, a fuel that reeks of the slaughterhouse. When something is wrong with it we seek the cause from without and before long we find it: it was the French who messed things up, it was the Yids, it was Wilhelm…. Capitalism, the bogeyman, the Masons, the syndicate and the Jesuits are all phantoms, but how they ease our anxieties….

Even if Dreyfus were guilty,

Zola is right, because the writer’s job is not to accuse or persecute but to stand up even for the guilty once they have been condemned and are undergoing punishment. “What about politics and the interests of the state?” people may ask. But major artists and writers should engage in politics only enough to protect themselves from politics.

As Karlinsky says, Chekhov’s greatness does not lie in what he said about the culture of the time, indeed he often contradicts himself. It lies in his invention of “dazzling literary forms” and particularly in finding a way of seizing the dramatic value in our inability or unwillingness to communicate fully with each other. Rather laboriously, Karlinsky elaborates this as “the semantic tragedy,” and “the changes in the texture of time’s fabric which cause every attained goal to be different from what it was at the planning stage and which make a teleological approach to any undertaking or any personal relationship an absurdity.” What Chekhov saw in our failure to communicate was something positive and precious: the private silence in which we live, and which enables us to endure our own solitude. We live, as his characters do, beyond any tale we happen to enact. So, in the saddest as in the most sardonic of Chekhov’s tales, we are conscious of the simple persistence of a person’s power to live out his life; in this there is no futility. What one is most aware of is the glint of courage.

The letters do not say much about the making of this fabric. The most we learn is that his head was packed with people, that his early trash, as he rightly called it, was written by a very bright reporter and for money. Chekhov began by laughing at his stories. In 1883, in his “trash” phase, he told his elder brother 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.

In 1886, when the serious Chekhov first appeared, the instructions were drastic and in fact describe almost any good story he ever wrote:

1) Absence of lengthy verbiage of political-social-economic nature

2) total objectivity

3) truthful descriptions of persons and objects

4) extreme brevity

5) audacity and originality: avoid the stereotype

6) compassion.

He hated publicity and the pushing of his career. He was a self-perfecter and resented that he had to make money. He was an enormously responsible man who liked to pass as a reckless fellow. He was very susceptible to women and indeed said wine and women always set his imagination going. He wrote with more sympathy and understanding of women and was more their liberationist than any other Russian writer. His many love stories are really woman stories in which the women are presented whole. If his own love affairs were generally short, his affection for the women concerned was lasting. Love did not turn into hatred. He was by nature too restless, too hard-working to be either a resounding romantic amorist or a compulsive seducer. He would marry, he often said, if he could be sure that the lady and he could arrange to live apart. Such love letters as survive are a mixture of fantasy, playfulness, and farcical insults—“There is a great crocodile ensconced within you, Lika”—and are really letters of friendship, in which his determination on his own independence is frank but unwounding.

One understands his curious, defensive insistence that the “sad” plays are not only comedies but in fact farces. He is asserting that life is a fish that cannot be netted by mood or doctrine, but continually glides away between sun and shadow. And this feeling, his letters show, is at the bottom of the value he put on his freedom. A man or woman is not the slave even of his or her own tragedy.

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