William Lyon Phelps: Chekhov

ANTON PAVLOVICH CHEKHOV, like Pushkin, Lermontov, Bielinski, and Garshin, died young, and although he wrote a goodly number of plays and stories which gave him a high reputation in Russia, he did not live to enjoy international fame. This is partly owing to the nature of his work, but more perhaps to the total eclipse of other contemporary writers by Gorki. There are signs now that his delicate and unpretentious art will outlast the sensational flare of the other's reputation. Gorki himself has generously tried to help in the perpetuation of Chekhov's name, by publishing a volume of personal reminiscences of his dead friend.

Like Gogol and Artsybashev, Chekhov was a man of the South, being born at Taganrog, a seaport on a gulf of the Black Sea, near the mouth of the river Don. The date of his birth is the 17 January 1860. His father was a clever serf, who, by good business foresight, bought his freedom early in life. Although the father never had much education himself, he gave his four children every possible advantage. Anton studied in the Greek school in his native city, and then entered the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Moscow. "I don't well remember why I chose the medical faculty," he remarked later, "but I never regretted that choice." He took his degree, but entered upon no regular practice. For a year he worked in a hospital in a small town near Moscow, and in 1892 he freely offered his medical services during an epidemic of cholera. His professional experiences were of immense service to him in analysing the characters of various patients whom he treated, and his scientific training he always believed helped him greatly in the writing of his stories and plays, which are all psychological studies.

He knew that he had not very long to live, for before he had really begun his literary career signs of tuberculosis had plainly become manifest. He died in Germany, the 2 July 1904, and his funeral at Moscow was a national event.

Chekhov was a fine conversationalist, and fond of society; despite the terrible gloom of his stories, he had distinct gifts as a wit, and was a great favourite at dinner-parties and social gatherings. He joked freely on his death-bed. He was warmhearted and generous, and gave money gladly to poor students and overworked school-teachers. His innate modesty and lack of self-assertion made him very slow at personal advertisement, and his dislike of Tolstoi's views prevented at first an acquaintance with the old sage. Later, however, Tolstoi, being deeply interested in him, sought him out, and the two writers became friends. At this time many Russians believed that Chekhov was the legitimate heir to Tolstoi's fame.

In 1879, while still in the University of Moscow, Chekhov began to write short stories, of a more or less humorous nature, which were published in reviews. His first book appeared in 1887. Some critics sounded a note of warning, which he heeded. They said "it was too bad that such a talented young man should spend all his time making people laugh." This indirect advice, coupled with maturity of years and incipient disease, changed the writer's point of view, and his best known work is typically Russian in its tragic intensity.

In Russia he enjoyed an enormous vogue. Kropotkin says that his works ran through ten to fourteen editions, and that his publications, appearing as a supplement to a weekly magazine, had a circulation of two hundred thousand copies in one year. Toward the end of his life his stories captivated Germany, and one of the Berlin journalists cried out, as the Germans have so often of Oscar Wilde, "Chekhov und kein Ende!"

Chekhov, like Gorki and Andreev, was a dramatist as well as a novelist, though his plays are only beginning to be known outside of his native land. They resemble the dramatic work of Gorki, Andreev, and for that matter of practically all Russian playwrights, in being formless and having no true movement; but they contain some of his best Russian portraits, and some of his most subtle interpretations of Russian national life. Russian drama does not compare for an instant with Russian fiction : I have never read a single well-constructed Russian play except Revizor. Most of them are dull to a foreign reader, and leave him cold and weary. Mr. Baring, in his book Landmarks in Russian Literature, has an excellent chapter on the plays of Chekhov, which partially explains the difficulties an outsider has in studying Russian drama. But this chapter, like the other parts of his book, is marred by exaggeration. He says, "Chekhov's plays are as interesting to read as the work of any first-rate novelist." And a few sentences farther in the same paragraph, he adds, "Chekhov's plays are a thousand times more interesting to see on the stage than they are to read." Any one who believes Mr. Baring's statement, and starts to read Chekhov's dramas with the faith that they are as interesting as Anna Karenina, will be sadly disappointed. And if on the stage they are a thousand times more interesting to see than Anna Karenina is to read, they must indeed be thrilling. It is, however, perfectly true that a foreigner cannot judge the real value of Russian plays by reading them. We ought to hear them performed by a Russian company. That wonderful actress, Madame Komisarzhevskaya, who was lately followed to her grave by an immense concourse of weeping Russians, gave a performance of The Cherry Garden which stirred the whole nation. Madame Nazimova has said that Chekhov is her favourite writer, but that his plays could not possibly succeed in America, unless every part, even the minor ones, could be interpreted by a brilliant actor.

Chekhov is durch und durch echt russisch: no one but a Russian would ever have conceived such characters, or reported such conversations. We often wonder that physical exercise and bodily recreation are so conspicuously absent from Russian books. But we should remember that a Russian conversation is one of the most violent forms of physical exercise, as it is among the French and Italians. Although Chekhov belongs to our day, and represents contemporary Russia, he stands in the middle of the highway of Russian fiction, and in his method of art harks back to the great masters. He perhaps resembles Turgenev more than any other of his predecessors, but he is only a faint echo. He is like Turgenev in the delicacy and in the aloofness of his art. He has at times that combination of the absolutely real with the absolutely fantastic that is so characteristic of Gogol: one of his best stories, The Black Monk, might have been written by the author of The Cloak and The Portrait. He is like Dostoevski in his uncompromising depiction of utter degradation ; but he has little of Dostoevski's glowing sympathy and heartpower. He resembles Tolstoi least of all. The two chief features of Tolstoi's work—self-revelation and moral teaching—must have been abhorrent to Chekhov, for his stories tell us almost nothing about himself and his own opinions, and they teach nothing. His art is impersonal, and he is content with mere diagnosis . His only point of contact with Tolstoi is his grim fidelity to detail, the peculiar Russian realism common to every Russian novelist. Tolstoi said that Chekhov resembled Guy de Maupassant. This is entirely wide of the mark. He resembles Guy de Maupassant merely in the fact that, like the Frenchman, he wrote short stories.

Among recent writers Chekhov is at the farthest remove from his friend Gorki, and most akin to Andreev. It is probable that Andreev learned something from him. Unlike Turgenev, both Chekhov and Andreev study mental disease. Their best characters are abnormal ; they have some fatal taint in the mind which turns this goodly frame, the earth, into a sterile promontory; this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, into a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours. Neither Chekhov nor Andreev have attempted to lift that black pall of despair that hangs over Russian fiction.

Just as the austere, intellectual beauty of Greek drama forms striking evidence of the extraordinarily high average of culture in Athenian life, so the success of an author like Chekhov is abundant proof of the immense number of readers of truly cultivated taste that are scattered over Holy Russia. For Chekhov's stories are exclusively intellectual and subtle. They appeal only to the mind, not to the passions nor to any love of sensation. In many of them he deliberately avoids climaxes and all varieties of artificial effect. He would be simply incomprehensible to the millions of Americans who delight in musical comedy and in pseudo-historical romance. He wrote only for the elect, for those who have behind them years of culture and habits of consecutive thought. That such a man should have a vogue in Russia such as a cheap romancer enjoys in America, is in itself a significant and painful fact.

Chekhov's position in the main line of Russian literature and his likeness to Turgenev are both evident when we study his analysis of the Russian temperament. His verdict is exactly the same as that given by Turgenev and Sienkiewicz—slave improductivite. A majority of his chief characters are Rudins. They suffer from internal injuries, caused by a diseased will. In his story called On the Way the hero remarks, Nature has set in every Russian an enquiring mind, a tendency to speculation, and extraordinary capacity for belief; but all these are broken into dust against our improvidence, indolence, and fantastic triviality"[1]

The novelist who wrote that sentence was a physician as well as a man of letters. It is a professional diagnosis of the national sickness of mind, which produces sickness of heart.

Essays on Russian Novelists


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