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Chekhov: Behind the Charm

Granger Collection
Anton Chekhov with members of the Moscow Art Theater, 1898. On his right is the director Konstantin Stanislavsky; on his left is his future bride, the actress Olga Knipper.

Born in 1860, third of five brothers and one sister, in Taganrog, a port on the northeastern tip of the Sea of Azov, Anton Pavlovich Chekhov was left to fend for himself in 1876 when his father, a grocer, fled to Moscow to escape imprisonment for debt. Anton remained alone in Taganrog to complete his schooling, paying for room and board by giving private lessons and rejoining the family in Moscow in 1879, when he found them living in poverty in a damp basement. From then until his early death from tuberculosis in 1904, Chekhov would never be away from them for so long, particularly his mother and younger sister Maria. While his elder brothers, Alexander, a writer, and Nikolai, an artist, moved out and married, Anton stayed at home, rapidly becoming both the breadwinner and the darling of the family. The decision to seek an income writing short stories was part of that transformation: the money would tide the family over until he could complete his degree in medicine and practice a profession.

Chekhov’s grandfather, a serf, had worked hard to buy the family’s freedom from bonded labor, and Chekhov’s father, whose main interest was church choral music, had plunged his family into poverty; now Chekhov would raise its members to genteel society, eventually buying and building country houses where his parents and his young brothers and his sister could live together, while paying for Maria to study to become a teacher. She kept a portrait of Anton in her bedroom and frequently worked as his secretary; he discouraged her from marrying. The youngest brother, Mikhail, was given the task of pestering publishers till they paid up Anton’s royalties. In Memories of Chekhov (a compendium of firsthand accounts of meetings with the author), the future painter Zakhar Pichugin recounts a visit to the family when Anton was just twenty-three:

As I came in, I greeted the father of Anton Pavlovich, and heard in reply the words which he whispered in a mysterious tone.
“Hush, please don’t make noise, Anton is working!”
“Yes, dear, our Anton is working,” Evgenia Yakovlevna the mother added, making a gesture indicating the door of his room. I went further. Maria Pavlovna, his sister, told me in a subdued voice,
“Anton is working now.”
In the next room, in a low voice, Nikolai Pavlovich told me,
“Hello, my dear friend. You know, Anton is working now,” he whispered, trying not to be loud. Everyone was afraid to break the silence….

In 1886 Chekhov published a story, “Hush,” in which a writer demands silence from his family but doesn’t respect their need for sleep; Anton, it seems, used to wake his sister Maria to discuss his ideas. Aside from the fact that in the story the selfish writer is a mediocre journalist, the crucial difference between author and fictional character is that the latter’s family is made up of a wife and small children who are portrayed as defenseless victims. Chekhov avoided such ties and usually described relationships between fathers and sons in negative ways, as if it were impossible to occupy a position of authority without abusing it; throughout his life he never stopped mentioning that he had been beaten by his father.

In view of the reverence that his first literary successes inspired in his family, together with his ease in producing and publishing stories (528 between 1880 and 1888), it was never likely that medicine would become Chekhov’s main profession. But he did practice, first in provincial hospitals and later, out of generosity, when he treated peasants near the 575-acre estate he bought in his early thirties at Melikhovo, some forty miles south of Moscow. Chekhov would raise a flag to let people know he was at home, then find himself overwhelmed with requests for help. In Anton Chekhov: A Brother’s Memoir, Mikhail recounts an anecdote that suggests the tension between involvement and withdrawal characteristic of so much of Chekhov’s life. It was 1884 and he was treating a mother and three daughters for typhoid:

Anton…spent hours and hours with those patients, exhausting himself. Despite his efforts, the women’s condition worsened until one day the mother and one of the sisters died. In agony, the dying sister grabbed Anton’s hand just before she passed away. Her cold handshake instilled such feelings of helplessness and guilt in Anton that he contemplated abandoning medicine altogether. And indeed, after this case he gradually switched the focus of his energies to literature….

Neither Memories of Chekhov nor Mikhail Chekhov’s charming memoir can replace the full-scale biographies of the author by Ronald Hingley and Donald Rayfield, but they offer a strong sense of the milieu in which Chekhov lived and the curious way he positioned himself in relation to friends, family, and reading public. All those who met Chekhov spoke of his accessibility and charm, his willingness to read manuscripts by aspiring authors or to hurry to the bedside of an acquaintance in need. Some, however, noted a reserve behind the charm (“as if he was wearing iron armor,” remarks writer Ignaty Potapenko) and his habit of contributing to conversations only with rare wry remarks or alternatively a constant stream of decidedly unserious jokes.

Above all, there was his tendency to disappear without warning; Potapenko recalls how Chekhov once cut short a visit to Moscow immediately on arrival because a garrulous acquaintance had grabbed him as he got out of his cab and “promised” to spend the evening with him. Chekhov was too polite to say no, Potapenko observes: “he didn’t have the ability of hurting another person.” Alexander Serebrov-Tikhonov, who went fishing with the author, remembers him explaining his love of the sport with the remark that while fishing “you are not a danger to anyone.”

If in company Chekhov often felt trapped, once alone boredom and feelings of exclusion became equally oppressive: “Despite its unquestionable loveliness, this place is my prison,” he said of his house in Yalta. “Freedom complete and absolute, freedom” was the supreme value, something the author never tired of repeating, but where did it lie? Not satisfied with oscillating between a hectic, hard-drinking social life in Moscow and periods of relative quiet in the country, Chekhov eventually looked for more idiosyncratic arrangements: in Melikhovo he had a small study built away from the main house so that he could invite as many guests as possible, then escape from them to be alone; when he built the house in Yalta he also purchased a secluded cottage on the coast nearby “so that I could have some solitude.”

These solutions depended on the willingness of Chekhov’s family to entertain Anton’s friends while he absconded: his mother and Maria became famous for their abundant cooking. In his memoir, his brother Mikhail takes evident pleasure in naming the famous guests he got to know while they waited for Anton to emerge from his hideout. None of this careful social engineering, however, could resolve the question of what the author was to do about women and marriage.

Published mainly in small and far from prestigious newspapers and reviews, initially written under a pseudonym so as not to compromise his medical career, Chekhov’s early stories are wonderfully light and short. In “A Blunder,” two anxious parents eavesdrop on their daughter and a writing teacher; as soon as the young man makes an amorous move toward the girl, they will rush in with an icon and bless the couple, after which it will be impossible for the teacher to escape marriage. The couple flirt, the girl offers her hand to be kissed, the parents hurry in and shout their blessing. But in her haste the mother has picked up not the icon, but the portrait of a writer. There are shouts and recriminations. Chekhov closes his story with the memorable line: “The writing master took advantage of the general confusion and slipped away.”

In all these stories the decision to love is always an error leading to a prison, whether in marriage or an affair, from which there is no safe escape; yet love is powerfully seductive and life a prison of boredom without it. In “A Misfortune,” a principled wife resists the approaches of a passionate young lawyer and urges her husband to wake up to what is going on; but eventually she succumbs as, “like a boa-constrictor,” desire “gripped her limbs and her soul.” In “Champagne,” a railway station master marooned in a loveless marriage in a remote village argues with his wife as they drink champagne on New Year’s Eve. The wife predicts bad luck because he has dropped the champagne bottle, but rushing out of the house in a rage he reflects, “What further harm can be done to a fish after it has been caught, roasted, and served up with sauce at table?” Returning home, he finds the answer to his question; a train has brought his wife’s very young aunt:

A little woman with large black eyes was sitting at the table…. The grey walls, the rough ottoman, everything down to the least grain of dust seemed to have become younger and gayer in the presence of this fresh young being, exhaling some strange perfume, beautiful and depraved.

The temptation is irresistible. A few lines and months later, such is Chekhov’s dispatch, we discover that our narrator no longer has either wife, job, home, or lover.

At first glance extremely varied, Chekhov’s stories always have at their core a situation in which the object of desire, or the very fact of desiring, turns out to be toxic or imprisoning, and it is this that gives them their characteristic aura of enigma and pessimism. “Grisha” is written from the point of view of an excited two-year-old; taken out in the street by his nurse, he is left so “shattered by the impressions of the new life” that he needs “a spoonful of castor-oil from mamma.” In “Agatha,” the narrator goes fishing at night with Savka, a handsome young man who lives in complete idleness, relying on the gifts of the peasant women who are infatuated with him. The fishing is interrupted by the arrival of Agatha, a wife risking her marriage to come and make love to Savka, who despises women but is unable to resist them, even at the cost of a beating from their husbands. While the two make love the narrator, fascinated and appalled, falls asleep over his fishing rod.

As pressure for social and political reform intensified in Russia through the nineteenth century, the peasants became the focus of much debate. From a peasant background himself, Chekhov was well placed to have his say, especially when, in 1888, his work broke into the more serious journals in St. Petersburg. But declaring himself “neither liberal, or conservative,” the author refused to be tied to any political position, and in his stories peasant life is subsumed into the underlying tension that galvanizes all his narratives: vital, impulsive, and always ready for love and action, Chekhov’s peasants can’t fail to fascinate; at the same time they are ignorant, dirty, inaccessible, and dangerous.

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