Chekhov’s story mirrors Russia’s own

“Chekhov,” V.S. Pritchett’s now-classic biography of the 19th century Russian story writer, physician, and playwright, is newly available in an audiobook edition beautifully narrated by Antony Ferguson.

This is a cause for celebration, because Anton Chekhov has in many ways become an abstraction useful for describing the work of other writers. There is no higher superlative, in some quarters, than to say a writer is “the American Chekhov” or “our Chekhov” or “Chekhovian.” What this seems to mean is that the writer is attuned to the subtleties of human behavior, that the writer does not proclaim loudly upon everything all the time, that the writer is restrained in the use of language, that the writer is civil and just, that the writer is measured, that the writer is in some way indescribable, that there is a magic somewhere in the flat surface that is best left unexamined, because to describe it mechanically would be to diminish it.

Sometimes, though, when a writer’s prose is described as Chekhovian, it seems to be shorthand for: It’s boring, but it’s good for you. In their worst and laziest iterations, these ways of characterizing the Chekhovian—and, therefore, of characterizing Chekhov—seem rooted mostly in a small handful of his best-known short stories, among them “The Lady with the Dog,” a coy story of adultery which is often held up alongside James Joyce’s “The Dead” as the founding document of the contemporary literary short story. (The story famously ends without the lovers having resolved much except to continue in the misery of their secret love. In Constance Garnett’s translation: And it seemed as though in a little while the solution would be found, and then a new and splendid life would begin; and it was clear to both of them that they had still a long, long road before them, and that the most complicated and difficult part of it was only just beginning.” It is a glorious ending, and a true one, and it has launched—and continues to launch—thousands of imitations which are neither glorious nor true, but which are infuriatingly unwilling to offer the reader a reckoning by the story’s end.)

V.S. Pritchett—a British writer best known for his own celebrated short stories, and who died in 1997—offers a welcome corrective to this pervasive idea of Chekhov-as-symbol. He writes not as a biographer from the literary-historical wing, and not as a hagiographer out to make a saint of his subject, but rather as a fellow laborer in the trenches of story-making. It’s clear from the tone of “Chekhov” that Pritchett is not engaged in an act of discovery. Instead, he is writing from the vista old age can achieve (he was eighty-eight the year the book was published.) He has lived for most of his life with Chekhov’s stories and plays (he sees the plays, even the great ones such as “The Cherry Orchard” or “Uncle Vanya,” as mere spinoffs of the stories, which he prefers and spends most of his time addressing), and he is increasingly interested in the breadth of Chekhov’s achievement. The stories that interest him most are the longer, more formally daring experiments and successes of Chekhov’s middle- and late- career, among them “The Peasants,” “In the Ravine,” and “Ward Six.”

He reserves highest praise for what I believe might be Chekhov’s greatest and most idiosyncratic story, a tale of death at sea titled “Gusev.” The story grew out of Chekhov’s strenuous 1890 journey, by train, horse-drawn carriage, and steamship, to the Russian penal colony of Sakhalin Island, just north of Japan, where he spent three months interviewing convicts for a census, and which became the subject of his only work of nonfiction, the grim “Sakhalin Island,” which is full of tales of neglect, deprivation, beatings, and forced prostitution. On his sea voyage home (he took the scenic route, stopping in Hong Kong and Singapore, and, he claimed in a letter, in Ceylon, where he “made love to a dark girl under the palm trees” and acquired three mongooses), Chekhov witnessed the burial of two men at sea. At the time he was himself ill enough to experience some delirium, as does the character he invents as the story’s object, a young soldier named Gusev who dies silently while playing cards with two other soldiers, and whose death goes mostly unnoted, perhaps because, in Pritchett’s accounting, “At sea one simply exists, outside society.” What makes the story so special is its ending, in which Chekhov jumps around among points of view one never sees in a story—the dead body as it hits the sea, the shark that chomps down upon the body, the harbor pilots that watch the shark, the evening sky at the setting of the sun, three evening clouds which take the shapes of a lion, a triumphal arch, and a pair of scissors. The most beautiful moment in the story follows, and Pritchett’s description of it is also the most beautiful moment in the audiobook. “More strangely,” Pritchett writes, “there is a moment when a cold green light shoots across the sky at the day’s beginning and again at its end—an earthly yet strangely unearthly message of birth and death, a signal: Nature is ‘other.’” It is an ending that is simultaneously cold in its description of what must simply be true, but also beautiful and warm in its embrace of the unidealized world.

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