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An Artist’s Artist

Chekhov: A Spirit Set Free

by V.S. Pritchett
Random House, 235 pp., $17.95

The quality of V.S. Pritchett’s new book is plain from its opening pages. He tells there the story of Chekhov’s wretched childhood, by now almost as familiar as that of the boy Dickens and the blacking factory (which indeed Pritchett glances at). Here is his portrait of Chekhov’s father, the shrewd (but unluckily not shrewd enough) keeper of a general store in the dreary seaside town of Taganrog:

Pavel had much in common with the classic self-made Victorian puritan. He was a fierce believer in Self-Help and the work ethic, a despot in the family, shouting his wife down, ruling his sons by beating them, saying—when his wife protested—that the same had been done to him and that it had made a man of him. Pavel, the slave turned master, was a tall, almost handsome figure with a grizzled beard and a glare in his eyes, a man not to be argued with. All heads were lowered at mealtimes as he hectored the family on their duties.

The story, as I have said, is becoming a little well worn. Two years ago we could read it in the new English translation of Henri Troyat’s Chekhov, in a somewhat bravura rendering. But the current account is in all respects the finest, and only a man of letters like Pritchett could have written it. He is steeped in the literature of England, Russia, and France, and his insights as a critic are sustained by the power of his own performance in the short story and novel.

The character of Pavel Yegorovich fascinates Pritchett, who delights in him as if he were his own invention. And (one guesses with Ernest Pontifex somewhere at the back of his mind) he reports on the tyrant’s religious life, in which, “if not quite a sign of grace, a more affecting aspect of his character appears.” He liked, to fill any idle moment, “the common peasant hobby or craft of painting ikons” (so one of his sons became a talented painter, only to waste that talent), and he had a “fanatical addiction to choir singing.” The children were drilled for hours on end practicing their canticles, after which they “appeared like a band of frightened little saints before the congregation.” Pavel had a belief in education, which like his piety was not free from self-interest, and miscalculated by sending the boys to a school for the children of Greek merchants where not surprisingly, dealing with a strange language, they made no headway.

Pritchett does not let this character run away with him. Most literary biographers tend to be surrogate novelists, but here a skilled writer of fiction is working over the material, and Chekhov: A Spirit Set Free is not one more biography of the man. Pritchett refuses to follow into the psychological maze that teases Chekhov’s biographers no less than Tolstoy’s. He defines his purpose in the introduction: it was to concentrate on the stories (where he considers Chekhov’s creative gifts to lie above all, and not in the plays as is widely held), and to make the attempt “to show the growth of his astonishingly various art.”

Pritchett, “an elated reader of all the great Russian novelists and short-story writers” since his early twenties, has neither learned Russian nor ever gone to Chekhov’s native land. We might fear that an elated reader would be unwittingly out of touch with some essential truth about Russian literature. Not many critics younger than Pritchett (now nearing his tenth decade) would venture on this path, or confess to elation, a dangerous state of mind for the unwary. Such concerns don’t apply to Pritchett.

He has, moreover, written his book at a favorable time. Chekhov scholarship has gained some important ground. He chooses to read the stories in the translations of Constance Garnett, while being aware of their inaccuracies, because “her voice is close to Chekhov’s period.” He has also turned in the first place to her translation of the letters (which he rates among the best letters of any writer, though in Russian literature they are surpassed at least by Pushkin’s, where Russian colloquial prose springs to new life before the reader’s eyes). Pritchett has consulted the work of critics (D.S. Mirsky and Donald Rayfield, whom he finds illuminating on the Symbolists and on Chekhov’s last plays, particularly The Three Sisters, which is among the plays Pritchett admires most), the biographies of Ernest Simmons and David Magarshack, and “the well-informed commentary of Ronald Hingley, translator and editor of The Oxford Chekhov.” He is attracted by William Gerhardie’s “lively study written in the twenties” because “Gerhardi, himself a novelist, had the advantage of having spent his childhood in Russia.” He draws on various well-known memoirs, and the editions of the plays by Hingley and Elisaveta Fen. This reading of scholars to whom he confesses “a great debt” enables Pritchett to proceed with boldness and confidence. He knows what he is looking for: hence the firmness of his procedure, the tautness and economy of the book’s design.

Anton Chekhov’s personality cast an extraordinary spell over his English readers in the early part of this century—a spell that provoked D.S. Mirsky to sarcastic protest. The difficulty of writing about his work is that continually there comes before the eye the reserved and modest figure in pince-nez and neat clothes, with his cough and the seal of death on his brow, whom Tolstoy admired for being as demure as a young lady: the unaffected sage venerated by a generation in England who felt him to be, like Turgenev before him, almost an ideal version of their own countrymen. Pritchett prefers to touch on those qualities in Chekhov that bear directly on his work. It is interesting that he should comment on “Chekhov’s dark memories of his childhood” as being “less concerned with himself than with the bad effects their severe upbringing had upon his older brothers.” (The contrast with Dickens is obvious: David Copperfield is charged in its earlier chapters with an exquisite self-pity.)

We need to know—and Pritchett reminds us—of his practical abilities: the decisiveness with which, though only the third son, he took over the management of the family after his father’s personal ruin following the decline of Taganrog as a seaport; the countless activities of his later life, building a school and a clinic, engaging in famine relief, coping with an outbreak of cholera, giving free medical advice at Melikhovo to peasants from all over the neighborhood.

But the real interest must center on the reflection of his character in his writing. Pritchett never forgets that the chronic invalid who steeled himself to visit the penal settlement of Sakhalin at the other end of the Russian empire, and wrote, under great strain, a powerful account of what he found there, is one with the artist of “The Lady with the Little Dog” and “The Duel.” Chekhov’s strength in his fiction is that he keeps a distance, does not obtrude. The control of “A Dreary Story,” for example, never relaxes as the self-centered professor (not the only one to be so depicted by him) is exposed, while Chekhov “sustains a moral diagnosis without losing the natural grace of the artist.” So Pritchett comes to the conclusion: “Under the surface of Chekhov’s impressionism there is firm psychological architecture.”

Chekhov’s route to becoming a mature artist was as difficult as any Russian writer had to pursue. His early sketches, written hastily to support a feckless household while he continued his medical studies, appeared in the world of subliterature. He was taken up by the Petersburg editor Leykin, whose magazine was popular with urban readers of the less demanding sort, as Hingley says, among them the class that Dickens knew so well from his own experience: the petty officials, clerks, shop assistants. Finally with “The Huntsman” in 1885 Chekhov broke through to the recognized world of letters when the story was accepted by The Petersburg Gazette. This led finally to a long and affectionate relationship with Suvorin, owner of New Time, the foremost Russian newspaper. Once a radical, he had steadily become more reactionary, to the scandal of Chekhov’s friends who disapproved of this association.

Suvorin, however, came from a background similar to Chekhov’s own, and he was both enterprising and generous, a great helper and benefactor of Chekhov in his work for the peasants. But their intimacy did not survive the strain of a dispute over the Dreyfus affair, which, like the Spanish Civil War in the Thirties, was a sower of discord between friends and within families. Chekhov did not share Suvorin’s anti-Dreyfusard bias, but their views on literature and other matters were often close. And as a “free spirit,” who in his own way had overcome the same obstacles that Suvorin had faced, Chekhov could well afford to risk criticism of this friendship. Suvorin was the all but ideal supporter for his art over many decades—an earnest (though sometimes obtuse) critic of the work, and magnanimous enough to advise him disinterestedly about the terms he should seek when turning to a new publisher. Pritchett remarks that Suvorin, like other self-made men, had “an element of naïveté” in his character. Chekhov could accept naiveté when it was not self-seeking or pretentious; in the years of friendship with Suvorin he was always “the bright young teacher.”

The first acknowledged masterpiece by Chekhov was “The Steppe” (1888), which gained him the Pushkin Prize. Chekhov’s prose is described accurately by Pritchett as “plain and neutral”—hence the scant interest shown in him by twentieth-century Russian poets before the later Pasternak—and “musical in its architecture.” “The Steppe” he sees as “a sustained prose poem,” and observes: “From the Russian steppe something has passed permanently into the Russian mind and Russian literature: the sensation of endless time, mysterious in its primitive beginnings.” A story that grows out of this one, “Happiness,” reveals the shepherds on the steppe as “the last survivors of a nomadic culture,” inheriting an “earlier precivilized apprehension of human fate.” Pritchett compares the Russian steppe with the tableland of Castile: “Spain and Russia: they echo each other.” That comment could be enlarged upon to striking effect. The affinity goes far beyond the Russian interest in Don Quixote, which Chekhov as a young man had recommended to his brother Mikhail.

The Steppe” bears out a distinction Pritchett makes between Chekhov and Turgenev: “In Chekhov the sights and sounds of nature are seen and heard by people,” whereas “in Turgenev they are seen and heard by the detached author for their own beautiful sake.” Chekhov eventually tired of Turgenev’s delicate notations of the scene, so much admired in their day. He wrote to Suvorin in 1893, having reread much of Turgenev’s work: “The descriptions of nature are fine, but…I feel we have already outgrown descriptions of that sort, and something else is needed.” This “something else” had already appeared in “The Steppe,” where the sights and sounds are largely recorded as they affect the small boy Yegorushka on his long trundling journey over the plains to Kiev. He rides in a springless carriage with his uncle the wool merchant and a moralizing old priest who looks forward to making a profitable deal in wool on behalf of his son-in-law. Some passages in “The Steppe” do indeed have a romantic ring. However, any observant child—David Copperfield or the Luvers girl in Pasternak’s story—in whom the writer embodies himself at that age might well have seen it that way. And the touchstone of reality is there in Yegorushka’s meeting with an unknown boy in the wilderness. Yegorushka asks his name.

The stranger’s cheeks puffed out more than ever; he pressed his back against the rock, opened his eyes wide, moved his lips and answered in a husky bass: “Tit!”

The boys said not another word to each other; after a brief silence, still keeping his eyes fixed on Yegorushka, the mysterious Tit kicked up one leg, felt with his heel for a niche and clambered up the rock.

This encounter is exactly of the kind between small boys that Dickens understood, and it happens daily.

Anthony Burgess is quoted on the dust jacket as having called Pritchett “our best literary critic,” presumably among those in Great Britain. Between good critics as between good poets “there is,” in Eliot’s phrase, “no competition”—the striving after a just view is what matters. But if we are to discuss primacy among critics, it must be recognized that Pritchett has a range very much his own (almost exclusively prose fiction). Broadly he stands in the same category as Samuel Johnson, or William Empson in our own time—that is to say, among the practitioners who cannot fail to express their energy of invention, their love of the language they use, in whatever they write. Pritchett, like Empson, however different their interests and approaches, knows that if he enlightens he must also entertain, as Johnson insisted the good writer should.

I further invoke Johnson, not losing, I hope, the sense of proportion to be kept even in the most laudatory review, because from Pritchett we get now and again those acute comments on life that make a critic worth reading after most of his contemporaries have gone on to the back shelves. Writing of “The Witch,” a story about sexual temptation in village life, he drops a casual phrase: “Chekhov has created unmistakably the sullenness of desire and the determination of the men to ignore an easy seduction.” Again, in “The Lady with the Little Dog,” when Gurov cuts a slice of watermelon after he has seduced Anna, and eats it, as Chekhov notes, “without haste,” Pritchett is prompted to the aside: “Yes, we think, that is the point so many novelists have missed: a seduction stuns.” Or he will say, in relation to The Three Sisters: “Chekhov understood that a regiment is a disciplined and migrant culture passing through a stationary society,” as Russian provincial life then appeared to be. For this reason, the officers “became uprooted and solitary daydreamers on their monotonous journeys.” Ryabovich, the ungainly captain in “The Kiss,” who receives in a dark corner of the country house he is visiting the passionate kiss of a young girl never to be identified, will most probably, Pritchett thinks, never marry. He cannot break out of the isolation of army life, the routine that alone “makes sense” for him. The story answers a question that interested Chekhov: “What does occupation do to a man’s nature?”

Pritchett contends that the short stories surpass the plays. He cites two of the finest, “Peasants” and “In the Ravine,” which come after the Sakhalin adventure had shown Chekhov the Russian peasant as Dostoevsky had known him when he was writing The House of the Dead. These two stories have, Pritchett says, a “richness of texture and feeling,” a sense of “the contradictions of human experience” beyond the reach of Chekhov as dramatist. “No play matches Ward 6 or the leaping imaginative effects of Gusev or the anthemlike The Bishop.” The point is vigorously asserted. It could be argued that here we encounter the prejudice of one who has written fiction, or written about it, all his life. Pritchett declares: “In the stories his people live under the directing authority of his prose and not at the mercy of producer and actors.” He can refer legitimately to the cruel misunderstandings that arose between Chekhov and the Moscow Art Theater. The “directing authority of prose” cannot be thwarted in this way, except by the censor or a tactless editor. In the light of all his book has revealed, Sir Victor is in a strong position to pronounce this dogma. We tend to forget that dogmas are sometimes valid, as this one might be.

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