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Fresh Oysters

Before the smoking ban it might have happened that a lively young instructor running a creative writing course and picking up an ashtray from his or her desk could have said, “Well, class, for our next assignment I want you to write me a story about this ashtray.” The class would then be doing what Chekhov as a needy young medical student had nearly done a hundred years before. In Chekhov’s case the assignment was an imaginary one: his friend and fellow writer Vladimir Korolenko recorded in his memoirs that Anton Pavlovich had once picked up an ashtray when they were discussing together how stories should be written, and joked that if Korolenko had happened to be an editor, and would like a tale called “The Ashtray,” he could have it by next morning at the latest.

In practice the young Chekhov was a faster worker even than that. He could dash off a little sketch, a joke, a street scene, while hanging around the printer’s or the newspaper office and let them have it on the spot. At the age of twenty, in 1880, he was studying in Moscow to take his medical degree and writing quickies of all kinds for the magazines and newspapers in order to earn money both to pay for his own education and to subsidize his feckless family, as he would continue to do for the rest of his life. His patron and friend at this period was Nicholas Leikin, owner and publisher of the popular St. Petersburg journal Oskolki (“Splinters”), for which during the next few years Chekhov was to write more than a hundred and sixty pieces. Well translated by Peter Sekirin into a simple colloquial prose which adequately matches the Russian original, these brief stories and sketches—“A Letter to an Educated Neighbor,” “A Rotten Case,” or the wryly haunting “He and She”—often exhibit a zany charm which in the mature Chekhov has sobered into an assured although often no less inconclusive simplicity.

Chekhov’s early and late manner have in common the absence, in the ordinary literary sense, of “point.” Both these instant sketches and the quiet unfathomable masterpieces of Chekhov’s maturity are about as far as they could be from the brilliant fables of Guy de Maupassant or Somerset Maugham, which plan their timing and denouement with extreme care, keeping an encouraging eye on the reader as they do so, and making quite sure he doesn’t miss the point. Chekhov’s stories, whether late or early, are never the kind that can be told by a good raconteur to an appreciative audience; there is nothing anecdotal about them. However accustomed by now to absurdist and experimental literature, a modern audience might well find itself baffled by the young Chekhov’s little jeux d’esprit. They give us the sense, which we certainly do not have in Chekhov’s later work, that not only in our own countries but in Russia too the past is a country where they do all things differently. And that goes for humor as well. Would Russians still laugh outright today at these jokes and sketches which once, as fresh-cut “splinters,” may have seemed sharp and droll? Would they have laughed at this one, for instance? A young man about town calls at a house to pay his respects and to leave his card, and is greeted by a girl wearing an apron. Asking if her mistress is at home he takes a minor liberty or two with her person. Then he sits and chats politely with the lady of the house (not, surely, “the landlady,” as the translator has it). The girl appears again, and is introduced by his hostess as her eldest daughter. End of tableau vivant, as Chekhov calls it.

Hardly an original idea, in Russia or anywhere else. Pushkin himself—as Chekhov could not fail to have been aware—had exploited it in his story “Mistress into Maid” and in his narrative poem “The Little House at Kolomna,” where the young lady of the house disguises her lover as a female cook, whom she then persuades her mother to employ. The idea must by now have been a well-worn cliché, one that even Chekhov could not hope to reanimate; nor, one may feel, did he even try to do so. Instead he seems to be paying his reader a kind of invisible compliment, as if he were saying, I know you find this a bit silly, because you, in particular, can see how silly it is.

The tone, in short, is one both of modesty and of intimacy. Chekhov’s modesty, both in his youth and when he was a mature writer, draws his reader toward him in this way, as if it produced a kind of unspoken bond between them. Thomas Mann, a writer by no means remarkable for this virtue, observed that true modesty was the rarest gift a great writer could have, and that Chekhov not only possessed it but, like Shakespeare, gave no indication that he was even aware of the fact.

In several of his stories Chekhov gives some oblique indication of the attitude his youthful self adopted to girls. Was it out of natural inclination, or because they got in the way of his family duties, his medical studies, and his writing above all? All three perhaps. Chekhov was shy with women throughout his life, even after his late marriage with the actress Olga Knipper, but he was very much drawn to their society, and they to his. In these early pieces it is often difficult to say whether Chekhov is taking his own line about the general silliness and tiresomeness of young girls, or whether, as he certainly does in the case of Germans, doctors, and other traditional figures of fun on the Russian scene, he is merely making use of a stock response. In one version of the sketch “A Letter,” the girl has nothing but contempt for the writer because he is always writing, whereas she wants to do something worthwhile, like fishing or going to a dance; her opinion of the young man is unfortunately confirmed by an editor who firmly advises the writer to stop wasting stamps by sending him such drivel.

Chekhov’s own experience was happily the opposite. Whether he signed his little pieces “Netochka,” “Chekhonte,” or even sometimes with the bizarre nom de plume “A Man Without a Spleen,” he never had any trouble in getting editors to take what he wrote. He provided what was wanted, after all, however much he was doing it in his own way, even at this early stage; and if girls and Germans were hackneyed but always reliable figures of fun, that was all right with him. It was done without malice, as if the young author already knew better, but was quite conscious that his hand, like the dyer’s in Shakespeare’s sonnet, must necessarily be “subdued” to the materials it worked in.

At the same time the unassumingness of these early tales would always remain with him, and with the manner and art of his mature stories—the plays too. There are trivial little sketches which nonetheless look forward to such a haunting masterpiece of Chekhov’s maturity as “The Lady with the Little Dog.” The sense we all have that “life is absurd but nothing can be done about it” has acquired in that tale the dignity of tragedy but none of the artificiality of tragic denouement. Chekhov remained true to a sense, already implicit and accepted in his earliest mode of discourse, that life is not only a sort of comedy that is solutionless by nature but that art had better accept the fact, while giving us nonetheless its own rewards of insight, and its varied and subtle pleasures.

In her thoughtful and sensitive study Reading Chekhov, which she describes in a subtitle as a “Critical Journey,” Janet Malcolm writes of seeing a dreary production of Carmen in St. Petersburg—just the kind of boring evening that Chekhov might have featured in a story—in the course of which her own boredom was relieved by recalling that moment in “The Lady with the Little Dog” when two schoolboys, illicitly smoking in the cheap seats, see, with their own kind of boredom, Gurov, the “hero” of the tale, kissing the face and hands of Anna, with whom he has fallen deeply in love. Janet Malcolm also notices—has nobody done so before?—that Chekhov’s details are like that, so unemphatic yet so unobtrusively effective, as with the moment when Gurov tells Anna “that he had taken his degree in Arts, but had a post in a bank; that he had trained as an opera singer, but given it up.”

But had given it up”—what a telling phrase! As Janet Malcolm says, the reader assumes, if he notices the point at all, that Gurov gave it up because he wasn’t good enough. Will he eventually have to give up Anna for whatever mysterious reason of inadequacy that life will find out in him—perhaps in Anna too? In Chekhov’s memorable and haunting ending, perhaps the most haunting in any of his tales, the lovers are still sure that some golden solution to their problems may yet present itself; and although the tale ends there the reader can be sure, too, that they will go on hoping this for a long time, perhaps for the rest of their lives. It is the same motif which will haunt the action, or rather the inaction, of Chekhov’s play Three Sisters.

Chekhov, who suffered no rejection from editors or the public throughout his writing life, knew very well nonetheless what failure and disappointment mean, and can mean for those who vainly struggle to realize an artistic gift which they do not possess. His own brother Alexander was a case in point. As Janet Malcolm points out, Alexander’s self-pity and feeling of having been cheated by life “was understandable…even fitting, in the light of his incurable talentlessness.” Many of Chekhov’s characters, like Ekaterina in “Ionitch” and Katya in “A Dreary Story,” are failures who have tried too hard to become an actress or a pianist, and who pay the penalty of having rejected an offer of human love in order to pursue the chimera of their ambitions. Nina in The Seagull is the exception who succeeds, finally becoming an artist because she really does possess the talent for it. Both Nina in The Seagull and Katya in “A Dreary Story” are believed by Janet Malcolm, and she is no doubt right, to be based on Lydia Mizinova, a woman on whom Chekhov practiced his usual policy of mingled affection and evasion, and whose ambitions to become a singer and a great performer never began to be realized.

For these ladies he expresses in print the kind of sympathy and understanding that we would expect: whether or not the real Lydia Mizinova was comforted by such sympathy we have no way of knowing, although we can be fairly sure that Chekhov was as adroit in cheering his ladies up as he was in escaping from any final commitment to them. His most severe portrait of the ambitious but untalented, who usually get sympathy from him rather than censure, occurs in “The Grasshopper,” in which a vain little would-be artist, married to an admirably hard-working and respected doctor, neglects him in her pursuit of celebrities in the art world whom she hopes will help advance her own career. Her husband contracts diphtheria from a patient, of which he dies; and while he is dying his wife, Olga—“a goose rather than a snake,” as Janet Malcolm felicitously terms her—sees at last what her behavior has been like, and how much she should have cared for a good man she has neglected in the selfish pursuit of her own fantasy of fame. She seems horrible to herself, and “she had a dull, despondent feeling and a conviction that her life was spoilt, and that there was no setting it right….” In his own unemphatic way Chekhov is a relentless moralist, though at the same time he writes about the quiet remorseless tragedies of life in the same spirit of neutral and sympathetic inquiry with which, when young, he would have written the tale of an ashtray.

Chekhov developed the theme of misconceived ambition early, in a tale fairly long by his youthful standards which he published in 1882 in the magazine Light and Shadows. In his excellent collection of Chekhov’s early stories, Peter Sekirin translates it particularly well, bringing out the mastery of detail and the banal which was already Chekhov’s trademark. Chekhov called it simply “Skvernaya Istoria,” “Bad Story,” subtitling it “From a Novel.” It concerns a wholly untalented young painter who hopes to get on in society by dressing appropriately, by being as his dilettante friends say “one of us,” and by making up to a well-off young woman who thinks he is going to propose to her. His idea is only to use her as a model, which he feels will enhance his prestige. Somehow he will produce a great portrait, worthy of “Raffle,” simply by making use of the right sort of person, which in his book is what artistic creation must be all about. Here is the would-be artist at a party:

Mr. Nogtev was about 24, with black hair, passionate Georgian eyes, beautiful small moustache, and pale cheeks. He did not paint anything, but he was known as a painter. He had long hair and a long scarf. He wore a small painter’s palette on a golden chain in his vest, his cuffs were also tiny palettes, and he wore long gloves, and very tall heels. He was a kind man, but a stupid one. He had a noble father, the same kind of mother, and a rich grandmother. He was not married.

Nogtev shook Lelya’s hand in a very humble way, sat down next to her, very humbly, and, as he sat, started devouring Lelya with his huge eyes. He started talking only after some time, also in a very humble manner.

Actually, it was Lelya who did the talking; he just inserted brief remarks like “well,” “yes,” “you know,” “well-well.” He spoke very quietly, hardly breathing, scratching his left eye in embarrassment. Lelya applauded his embarrassment. She decided that the artist had fallen in love with her, and that he was trapped.

By subtitling “Bad Story” “From a Novel” Chekhov raises an interesting question. Could he, might he, have written such a novel, instead of continuing to work at the short story form? In spite of their success he never felt that writing plays was his proper métier, but “Bad Story” could easily have become the sort of novel that talented contemporaries like Garshin and Korolenko were beginning to write. And yet such a possibility would be out of the question in the case of a later masterpiece like “The Lady with the Little Dog,” the perfection of whose form could only have found expression in a story. A great novel need not be “perfect,” in the sense in which a good story has to be.

Chekhov had not reached middle age when he succumbed to a longstanding tuberculosis in a German spa town where he, a doctor himself, had gone to consult a German specialist. His wife, Olga Knipper, was with him. Unkind persons said that like one of his characters she had married him to further her stage career, and get a part in The Cherry Orchard and his other successful plays. She had talent, but like so many of his “artistic” characters rather less than she had hoped. Janet Malcolm tells the story, never really authenticated, of his return to Russia in a refrigerated railway car labeled “Fresh Oysters.” Maxim Gorky, when he heard it, was indignant at this treatment of one of Russia’s great writers, whom Tolstoy himself had so highly praised in his own selection of the stories. But Janet Malcolm is surely right to say that Chekhov himself would have been much amused—it might even have given him a new idea for a story, at least for the idea of one, although the kind of irony involved, an irony that might have appealed to Kipling or Maupassant, is not at all in the Chekhov line.

It is striking how possessive the old Tolstoy was about the younger writer—possessive as well as admiring. His essay on Chekhov’s story “The Darling” has a special interest, because it shows how far apart the two writers were in their aims and in their ideas about art, although we should remember that Tolstoy had become more and more dogmatic about such matters as he grew older. The heroine of “The Darling” is a woman whom today’s feminists would utterly despise. She identifies herself wholly with the interests of the man with whom she is living, and devotes herself to looking after him. When, as a result of accident, desertion, or other misfortune, she loses one man after another she devotes herself no less wholeheartedly to the interests of the next one. She is another goose, though a lovable goose, and the story is both funny and touching in Chekhov’s unemphatic and impersonal way. But Tolstoy will not leave matters there. He will have it that Chekhov sets out to make the Darling a figure of fun, but by directing the attention of “a true artist and poet” upon her he beatifies her, and shows her angelic nature for what it is. In a sense Tolstoy is right, but for quite the wrong reason. He ignores the way in which Chekhov mingles the farcical and the absurd, for the Darling, however kind and good, is nonetheless a ridiculous figure, yet with a certain imponderable, even mysterious, element in her nature that Chekhov’s undogmatic genius brings to every human being who interests him.

A great part of the charm and the skill of Janet Malcolm’s book lies in the very Chekhovian way she mingles personal with critical comment, taking us not only through Chekhov’s stories but through the removals and journeys of his life and her own travels in quest of his Russian haunts. She takes issue obliquely with Tolstoy over “The Lady with the Little Dog,” revealing in the process an important truth both about Chekhov’s art and about the general nature of fiction, and the way in which great fictions teach us to understand life, even to benefit from what Tolstoy came to call fiction’s own essential dishonesty. “The story has a close, hermetic atmosphere,” she says about Chekhov’s account of Gurov and Anna’s love for each other:

No one knows of the affair, or suspects its existence. It is as if it were taking place in a sealed box made of dark glass that the lovers can see out of, but no one can see into…. The beauty of Gurov and Anna’s secret love—and of interior life—is precisely its hiddenness. Chekhov often said that he hated lies more than anything. “The Lady with the Dog” plays with the paradox that a lie—a husband deceiving a wife or a wife deceiving a husband—can be the fulcrum of truth of feeling, a vehicle of authenticity. (Tolstoy would argue that this is the kind of self-deception adulterers classically indulge in, and that a lie is a lie.) But the story’s most interesting and complicated paradox lies in the inversion of the inner-outer formula by which imaginative literature is perforce propelled. Even as Gurov hugs his secret to himself, we know all about it. If privacy is life’s most precious possession, it is fiction’s least considered one. A fictional character is a being who has no privacy, who stands before the reader with his “real, most interesting life” nakedly exposed. We never see people in life as clearly as we see the people in novels, stories, and plays.

Although Chekhov had a mildly sardonic view of critical theory and ideas, as he had of the Tolstoyan brand of literary-moral dogma, he would certainly have enjoyed Janet Malcolm’s book. After traveling and exploring in Russia she is able to mix her experiences with those of Chekhov and his characters, and with her progress in understanding him and his art. She describes her journey, following in Chekhov’s footsteps to Yalta and to Moscow in a way that is moving as well as illuminating and funny. Her guide Nina sounds very like a Chekhov character with a veneer of Soviet priggishness, as shown by the incident of the seat belts:

Driving back to Yalta from Oreanda, I suggest to Nina, sitting beside me in the rear seat—as I had suggested to Sonia in Moscow—that she buckle her seat belt. Sonia’s response had been to inform me icily that only people in front were required to use seat belts. (Vladimir drove without one, buckling up only when he was about to pass a police checkpoint.) I asked Sonia if she thought the rear seat belts were there for decoration. She looked at my strapped-in middle contemptuously. “It is not necessary for you to do that,” she said. The ever-agreeable Nina, however, puts on her seat belt, like a good child consenting to try a new food. She translates my von Korenesque lecture on the foolhardiness of driving without a seat belt to the unbelted Yevgeny, who laughs heartily and tells the following anecdote, which he says came from a doctor at a sanitarium where he once worked: “When there is an automobile accident, the person who wasn’t wearing a seat belt is found with a leg here, an arm there, the head there. The person who was wearing a seat belt is found in his seat completely intact—and dead.

Chekhov’s own journey across Siberia to the convict settlement on the island of Sakhalin, undertaken to report on conditions there and try to improve them, undoubtedly aggravated his TB and hastened his death; but he himself wrote about it with undaunted humor, commenting on how much he detests his fellow travelers and longs for solitude, yet finds himself equally unhappy when traveling alone.

The modesty and amusement with which Chekhov looked at himself undoubtedly impressed Thomas Mann when he praised those qualities—which struck the German writer all the more because he was so far from being an example of them himself. “Life is only given us once,” says the consumptive narrator of “An Anonymous Story,” “and one wants to live it boldly, with full consciousness and beauty.” Chekhov would never have uttered those fine sentiments about himself, but they are profoundly true of him nonetheless. Chekhov was only forty-four when he died, and was well aware that he would never be old. As Janet Malcolm well says at the conclusion of one of her chapters, “Those of us who do not live under such a distinctly stated sentence of death cannot know what it is like. Chekhov’s masterpieces are always obliquely telling us.”

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