Chekhov’s contemporaries wondered: What sort of Russian writer was he? He had no solution to the ultimate questions. With no “general idea” to teach, wasn’t he more like a talented Frenchman or Englishman born in the wrong place?
No country ever has valued literature more highly than Russia. When Tolstoy published Anna Karenina, Dostoevsky enthused that at last the existence of the Russian people had been justified! Can anyone imagine an English critic thinking England’s right to exist was in question or discovering it in Bleak House?
Nations, it seemed, live in order to produce great literature, and literature exists to reveal great truths. Science, philosophy, and the other arts are all very well, but nothing rivals poetry and fiction. For Russians, literature played the same role as Scripture did for the ancient Hebrews when it was still possible to add books to the Bible.
Boris Pasternak proclaimed: “a book is a squarish chunk of hot, smoking conscience—and nothing else!” The radical writer Nicholas Chernyshevsky explained that, whereas European countries have developed an intellectual “division of labor,” Russia concentrates its energies on literature:
For that reason . . . literature plays a greater role in our intellectual life than French, German, and English literature play in the intellectual life of their respective countries, and it bears greater responsibilities. . . . Russian literature has the direct duty of taking an interest in the subject matter that has elsewhere passed into the special competence of other fields of intellectual activity.
How many people can name a Russian philosopher, economist, or sociologist? The reason it is hard is that talented Russians with something to say wrote novels or, at least, literary criticism. If you had an idea about psychology, you would write a book on Dostoevsky. Philosophers of sex commented on Tolstoy.
Even today, Russians treat great writers as soothsayers. Historians cite Tolstoy’s rather fanciful portrait of General Kutuzov in War and Peace as if it were truer than any mere document. Above all, writers were expected to offer enlightenment, a word used with great reverence. Its opposite,mrakobesie (obscurantism, but literally “demon-darkness”), suggested pure evil. And then there was Chekhov, who was second only to Tolstoy among contemporaries, but had no special “tendency” or “idea.” Tolstoy preached Tolstoyanism, but there has never been any “Chekhovism.” Chekhov presented himself as a physician who made house calls and wrote hundreds of stories a year to pay the bills.
Chekhov was no aristocrat, as were Pushkin, Turgenev, and Tolstoy. He cultivated neither their refined manners nor the equally meticulous “anti-manners” of the radicals. Unlike Chernyshevsky and Stalin, he was neither a priest’s son nor a seminarian, the most typical origin for a radical. The son of a failed shopkeeper from a remote town, he was always unapologetically concerned with money, down to earth in his manners, and practical.
Chekhov never forgot that his grandfather had been a serf who had saved enough to buy his family’s freedom, but he refused to carry a chip on his shoulder. He spoke of self-pity and the consciousness of victimhood in a tone verging on disgust. Those emotions belonged to the servile consciousness he wanted to rise above. Already a well-known writer in his late twenties, Chekhov confided to his publisher Alexey Suvorin:
What gently born writers have been endowed with by nature, self-made intellectuals buy at the price of their youth. Write me a story about a young man, the son of a serf, a former shopkeeper . . . offering thanks for every morsel of bread, often whipped . . . fond of . . . playing the hypocrite before God and people without any cause, except out of a recognition of his own insignificance—and then tell how that young man squeezes the slave out of himself drop by drop and how he wakes up one fine morning and feels that in his veins flows not the blood of a slave, but of a real human being.
Understandably enough, Chekhov developed an uncompromising work ethic. As his tales and plays illustrate, Russians tended to value carelessness, idleness, and deliberate waste of resources, while regarding thrift as something fit for Germans. Chekhov saw in such attitudes the reason for Russia’s backwardness and self-righteous oppression of others. When he heard some Russians criticize the British exploitation of Hong Kong, he replied: “Yes, the English exploit the Chinese, the Sepoys, and the Hindus, but they do give them roads, aqueducts, museums, and Christianity; you exploit them too, but what do you give them?”
When Chekhov entered medical school, he spent his time studying, not engaging in politics. Believe it or not, the status “former student” was a badge of honor among intellectuals because it implied political expulsion, but Chekhov despised laziness disguised as moral superiority. No one ever had a keener nose for the fake.
What really set Chekhov apart from other intellectuals, including most today, were his openly petit-bourgeois values. I can think of no other great writer who so forthrightly defended middle-class virtues as a prerequisite for human dignity. Medicine suited him, not only because of his acute sensitivity to human suffering but also because of the high value it accorded to proper habits, respect for one’s surroundings, and, most bourgeois of all, good hygiene.
Chekhov wound up supporting not only his parents but also his siblings and their families. He used to reproach his talented brothers for their slovenly habits, for their casual attitude about sex, for wasting their gifts, and then, to top it off, for claiming to be oppressed. His famous letter to his brother Nikolai seems directed to all those advanced people, then and since, who disparage the “bourgeois”:
In my opinion people of culture must fulfill the following conditions:
1. They respect the human personality and are therefore forbearing, gentle, courteous, and compliant.
2. They are sympathetic not only to beggars and cats. Their heart aches for things they don’t see with the naked eye.
3. They respect the property of others, and therefore pay their debts.
4. They are pure of heart and therefore fear lying like fire. They do not lie even in small matters.
5. . . . They don’t play upon the heartstrings in order to excite pity . . . because all this is striving after cheap effect, and is false.
6. They don’t occupy themselves with such imitation diamonds as acquaintances with celebrities.
7. If they have talent, they respect it.
8. They develop an aesthetic taste. They cannot bring themselves to look with unconcern at a crack in the wall with bedbugs in it, breathe foul air, walk across a floor that has been spat on. . . . They try as far as possible to restrain and ennoble the sexual instinct. . . . They don’t swill vodka . . . For they need to have mens sana in corpore sano.
It is not enough to have memorized a monologue from Faust. . . .
What you need is constant work, and will power.
Pay one’s debts? Be courteous? Clean up after oneself? Aren’t great writers supposed to disparage such trivialities?