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The Miracle of Chekhov

Chekhov: The Early Stories, 1883–1888

chosen and translated by Patrick Miles, by Harvey Pitcher
Macmillan, 203 pp., $14.95

Our view of Chekhov as a fiction writer has been a matter of luck—haphazard glimpses proffered at the whim of this or that translator and publisher. Chekhov wrote 588 stories; the mature work—some sixty pieces—appeared between 1888 and 1904. That leaves “528 items” (according to the introduction to this book) not quite accounted for, and the vagueness of that statement is typical of our relationship to Chekhov in English.

No complete chronological edition of the stories is available. Ronald Hingley’s Oxford Chekhov, for which there were such high hopes, turned out to be a disappointment.1 Hingley confined himself to the plays and the later fiction, and though he has provided the reader with the most extensive apparatus on Chekhov in English—revisions, alternate versions, the publication history of each story, and considerable background on the writing—his translation steers a rocky course between the colloquial and the academic. The truth is, Hingley, invaluable as a Chekhov commentator, has a tin ear. Though we are heavily in debt to him we pay a high price for the loan. Chekhov’s early stories come to us piecemeal—some in the Constance Garnett versions (all thirteen volumes about to be reissued by Ecco Press), and in sundry collections over the years.2

And so we have more reasons than usual to be grateful to Patrick Miles and Harvey Pitcher for these thirty-five early stories, known and unknown, arranged chronologically over a period of six years. They are smoothly readable for the most part, but the phrasing is sometimes relentlessly British or merely odd. Would anyone, even in England, say “Read it out” when they meant “Read it aloud”? Or “sneaking on people” when the sense conveys either “snitching on people,” in colloquial American, or “sneaking up on people,” in plain English?

The reprinting of any early work by Chekhov can be justified as representing the kind of thing he was grinding out as a medical student to make money. It is hard, though, to admire so fragmentary and lifeless a caricature as “Rapture,” the opening story of the book, where a young officer wakes his parents to share his newfound notoriety in the press—he has merely been apprehended for being drunk. In fact, it takes ten stories before we arrive at “The Huntsman,” of 1885, and are steeped in the special mixture that is ultimately to become the Chekhovian potion.

In it, a handsome young huntsman meets the peasant wife he deserted and has been avoiding ever since he married her in an alcoholic stupor years before. Now he belongs to the manor house, a favorite of the owner. He and his wife have been mismatched from the beginning—woods are not fields nor forests farms. Though the story consists mainly of dialogue, we feel the impact of the woods; they are the huntsman’s world and allow for sudden appearances and disappearances, for silences and murders. The huntsman is as much a part of the woods as the game he stalks. Yet inspite of his commitment to something larger than himself—the skill of the hunt—he is incapable, in his ignorance, of devoting himself to anything else. In him, something of the poetry of civilization and the savagery of the barbarian are imperfectly mixed. An animal barely awakened to a moral sense, he finally hands his wife a ruble and vanishes, slowly but conclusively, into the woods.

By the time we finish the story, our moral judgment is shaded. It is a Chekhovian subtlety to suggest that the huntsman lives by a set of values we might just possibly not be aware of. Like all of Chekhov’s best stories, this one leaves us uneasy. Taken for granted assumptions are subtly undermined. No matter how many realities there are, none can be generalized without risking the truth. Deep down in the well, complication flavors the drinking water with an oddly different taste.

Chekhov’s tales vary widely in quality as they do in the kind of character they take up—an immense mix of people surprising in their diversity as well as in the authority with which Chekhov handles them—English governesses, Russian boys, fishermen, bass fiddlers, lawyers, government officials, painters, ferry-men, actors, merchants, cab drivers, writers, chorus girls, shepherds, monks, railway officers, priests, peasants, landed gentry, self-made men—nothing fazes him. What fazes us is the extraordinary leap from the hardly worth reprinting “Rapture” to something as extraordinary as “The Kiss” four years later. And in Chekhov’s case, development was more complicated than usual.

It could have taken a hundred years or never to get from “Rapture” to “The Kiss,” and the signposts on the way aren’t helpful. They range from the hackneyed to the sublime, and in no particular order. The tiny frisson, the easy irony typical of the early stories, dooms many of them to the academic cupboard. And yet there are a hundred charms along the way. (There are early stories like “Late-Blooming Flowers,” from 1883, that seem to me more worth reprinting than “Rapture.”) But another piece from 1883, “The Death of a Civil Servant,” can stand for a whole category of early Chekhov stories that depend on the stupidities of class and rank: a civil servant sneezes at the theater, spraying the man in front of him, who turns around. The civil servant realizes his fellow theatergoer is a general, a “Number 2 in the Ministry of Communications.” His guilt becomes obsessive, and he pursues the general for days to apologize further, to explain, to qualify, to make certain the general understands no insult was intended. Finally, the enraged general rebuffs him decisively and the civil servant goes home and dies. Funny, limited, a small, extended joke, the story is a farcical comment on toadying. Like so many of its counterparts, it leans heavily on the obvious and is meant to titillate the coarsest of palates. As distinguished from a superb story like “Easter Night,” it is a potboiler serving up its single grain of truth.

The largest sampling of these stories were written in 1886, and here they begin to be remarkable, to have that special originality we now think of as Chekhovian. What does it consist of? In part, a deceptive simplicity. We are lured onto the field before we realize what peculiarly dangerous territory it is. The poetry of everyday life reaches its exact level; it is never falsified by naturalism or mannered by heightening. There is almost a rule of thumb by which we can judge the excellence and profundity of Chekhov’s stories: the less drama the more revelation. And that is true even of the plays. The firing of a gun, so necessary to the muted but highly dramatic ending of The Seagull, to the farcical but lethal confrontation scene in Uncle Vanya, and to the ultimate sentence passed on Irena, Olga, and Masha in The Three Sisters, can be dispensed with in The Cherry Orchard. One needs to bring to the stories and the plays, in spite of their seeming simplicity, a knowledge of life rarely demanded of either audiences or readers. The plays do not resound for the inexperienced; they do not pander or preach. Devoid of easy sentiment, even the so-called comedies end up being pessimistic. Chekhov’s lightness can be acidly satirical; his darkness is a darkness never seen before, and the one that haunts everyone—the darkness of what is not being said.

Chekhov’s characters commonly reveal themselves without appearing to, and they speak in a new language, a language somewhat analogous to the one Mozart made up for the characters in his operas—where the words and their sounds are allied to a convention while at the same time freeing themselves from it. There is nothing “advanced” about Mozart or Chekhov; they are the least self-conscious of innovators. They used conservative vocabularies, and, because they did, their true originality escaped immediate detection. Chekhov’s depth, reaching through a seeming convention, is what is new. Chekhov’s plays, for instance, fit nicely into a realistic tradition. But when one tries to pin down the “poetry” of his theater—often mentioned but rarely discussed—words become blurred and meaningless. Chekhov at his best, which is most often, evokes emotional effects not easily explained. There is an alchemy at work that cannot be traced to subject, style, or profundity of thought. We are being talked to in the most natural way imaginable by the most natural of writers, whose ultimate triumph of style was to seem to have none.

Chekhov’s genius was something like a darkroom chemical that could develop even the chanciest of negatives. The quality of his work doesn’t depend on syntax and rarely on metaphor. His natural descriptions, often extremely beautiful, are brief. In that way, he is like a poet; compression is the heart of the matter. One image describes a sunset in a winter woodland, not two. Chekhov is after character—what people are really like. And he knew them amazingly well.

There is another reason for Chekhov’s position in modern letters: the accuracy of his psychological insights. He explored the unconscious without formulating it as a concept. And then, both as a man and as a writer, he has come to represent objectively—the observer above the battle, the recorder free of partisanship. This view of him is only partly true. He was, by every standard we can think of, an extraordinarily moral man, but he was also a man who could spot humbug a mile away and was as sensitive to the fake philanthropy of the do-gooder as he was to the evil of the landlord, the military leader, or the estate owner who made doing good necessary in the first place. He had a cool eye, a large brain, and a heart that went out toward individual people, not movements.

He saw how contaminated dedication could be, both on the left and on the right, and yet was troubled at the same time by the notion that, without commitment, nothing important might be accomplished at all. In short, he was of particular interest because, in him, we actually see a great writer wrestling with the problem of how art and politics should or should not be joined. He was forced to wrestle with the problem, rather, because he was so often accused of not having a philosophical or political point of view. His conclusion is Chekhovian—inconclusive, which is not at all the same as being evasive. He seemed to distrust political commitment, detested moral preaching, and suspected the grand overall view of man that was considered the mark of a great nineteenth-century Russian writer.

Chekhov’s early stories often turn on misunderstood circumstances as well as the absurdities of status. The later stories take up more complicated relationships and larger issues on wider canvases. The immoderate and the fantastic have yet to raise their heads (though “The Witch” is a precursor to “Ward Six”), partly because these early stories have less to do with middle-class neurotics, professional people, and the gentry, and partly because the editors are overly insistent on our seeing the comic side of Chekhov’s talent, as if to redress a false emphasis. (It is not reassuring to discover that Mr. Pitcher coauthored a book called “Chuckle with Chekhov” in 1975.)

Miles and Pitcher retranslate “The Kiss,” from 1887. And here, eleven years before what is generally considered the period of Chekhov’s major work, we have a story that will never be surpassed. What might have been a novel in other hands is condensed into a few miraculous pages, in which the execution is as remarkable as the conception.

The story is simple enough: a battery officer, Staff-Captain Ryabovich, arriving in an unfamiliar town, is invited with other members of his company to the district manor for dinner. Once arrived, the officers are treated with exemplary politeness but transperent falseness—the kind of superficial good manners one might find on a more extended level at one of Proust’s marathon dinners. The ballroom provides the setting for a dance. Ryabovich, “a short round-shouldered officer in spectacles and with whiskers like a lynx’s,” ashamed of his ugliness and painfully shy, wanders off with a group to the billiard room. To get there, they pass through many strange, dimly lit rooms. The officers playing billiards ignore him. And so he decides, eventually, to wander back. On the way, he gets lost in a vast labyrinth of rooms. Opening doors, trying to find his way, he stumbles into a room completely dark; a chink of light through a distant door illuminates the room beyond. Suddenly, he hears a rustle, and a woman says, “At last!” and kisses him on the cheek. Then she cries out in horror, realizing her error; they are both terrified. She runs out. He wanders back and eventually regains the ballroom where he finds himself talkative, genial, even possibly charming. He tries to figure out which of the women present could have kissed him—none seems likely.

The evening ends; the battery leaves the next morning. But the kiss has utterly transformed Ryabovich. Some composite version of the women present begins to haunt him. He has fallen in love. He thinks of nothing else and begins to dream of a new life; the woman who kissed him becomes his wife; they have a family. He has been awakened to the notion of the ideal.

That awakening destroys him in time because, like so many illusions, it is based on absolutely nothing. “The Kiss” is a story of how the imagination engages hope, how fantasy nourishes desire, how romance is fostered by less than the merest suggestion. If, as Eliot said, “human kind cannot bear very much reality,” it is also true that man can invent perverse and delusive versions of it. Romantic and terrible, “The Kiss” is a kind of Frankenstein story that requires no electric apparatus or sputtering wires. A mistake brings a man to life; the resurrection makes life impossible to bear. “The Kiss” explores an enlargement of the self, touched into being by accident, and becomes a total revelation for the reader. The borderline between ordinariness and fantasy suggests another, never broached in the story: the borderline between fantasy and madness. The first is to be crossed, time and time again, in the plays; the second to become a country of its own in “The Black Monk” and “Ward Six.”

There is another noteworthy aspect to “The Kiss,” a kind of infrastructure supporting its theme—the world of the artillery officers described with exactitude. The requirements of cannon, the male camaraderie of the officers form an opposing current to the feminine strategies of the manor house. The story’s technical details have the authority of the hospital in “Ward Six,” the grocery store in “In the Ravine,” the warehouse in “Three Years,” and the railroad in “My Life.”

The difficulty of seeing Chekhov’s fiction as a whole is not only a matter of chronology; it is also a matter of form and substance. It is clear, now, by hindsight, that Chekhov managed to create an epical canvas made up of large and little masterpieces, the stories, the plays, and several short novels still classified as “stories”—“Three Years,” “The Duel,” “In the Ravine,” “My Life”—filled with event and incident and the recording of changes that over-take a large cast of leading characters over a period of time. In each, a full-scale drama is acted out to its conclusion. They are not “stories” in the sense that “The Kiss” is a story, where a single wave forms offshore and finally breaks on the sand.

As for substance, Edmund Wilson, in his preface to his selection of Chekhov’s stories, called Peasants,3 made some necessary distinctions:

In the later years…Chekhov…was occupied mainly with a series of works, plays as well as stories, that were evidently intended to constitute a kind of analysis of Russian society, a miniature Comédie Humaine. [These stories] tend to be studies of milieux—…the new factory owners in “A Woman’s Kingdom”; the old Moscow merchant class in “Three Years”; in “The Murder,” the half-literate country-men, fundamentalist and independent…the Tolstoyan intelligentsia in “My Life”; the lowest stratum of the peasantry in “Peasants”; the new class of engineers in “The New Villa”; the Kulaks, in “In the Ravine,” on their way to the commercial middle class; the professional churchmen in “The Bishop”; and in “Betrothed,” the old-fashioned provincial household and the revolt against it of the new generation.

Yet “My Life,” to take an example, is more than a study of “the Tolstoyan intelligentsia”; it is a black comedy of exuberant malice, in which a narrator, far more intelligent than he should be, in a series of reversals exposes the whole social fabric of a town, and finally decides to become a house painter. Wilson’s description of the stories is sociologically accurate and illuminating—the conjunction of the stories themselves a brilliant stroke—but, as often in Chekhov, we are, again, left uneasy. If these stories are sociological, we still have to deal with the stories of “ideas”: the conflict between a “superfluous man” and a neo-Darwinian scientist in “The Duel”; the opposition of a paranoid with insight and his passive doctor, who participates in evil, in “Ward Six”; and that harrowing tale of fame and death, posed against a tenuous duality of art and science, “A Boring Story.”

Chekhov was a revolutionary writer, but one without a thesis. In fact, that is exactly what is revolutionary about him. Tangible, precise, real, he remains, nevertheless, elusive. Theory—though he was attracted to it at one point in his life—never meant much to him. He had no panaceas for the human condition. His sympathies lay, obviously, with the oppressed, the underdog, the peasant—he was not very far from being one himself. Of the work as a whole these thirty-five stories, welcome as they are, provide the merest clue. In the end, we are still left in the position of putting Chekhov together.

  1. 1

    The Oxford Chekhov, translated by Ronald Hingley (Oxford University Press, 9 vols., 1968-1980).

  2. 2

    Selected Stories, translated by Ann Dunnigan (New American Library, 1960); The Unknown Chekhov, translated by Avrahm Yarmolinsky (Noon-day Press, 1954); St. Peter’s Day, and Other Tales, translated by Frances H. Jones (Capricorn Books, 1959); The image of Chekhov: Forty Stories, translated by Robert Payne (Knopf, 1963); Late-Blooming Flowers and Other Stories, translated by I.C. Chertok and Jean Gardner (McGraw-Hill,1964); and others.

  3. 3

    Doubleday / Anchor, 1956.

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