Chekhov: A Writer For Grown Ups

Until I began the long and happy passage of reading all of Anton Chekhov’s short stories for the purpose of selecting the twenty for inclusion in The Essential Tales of Chekhov, I had read very little of Chekhov. It seems a terrible thing for a story writer to admit, and doubly worse for one whose own stories have been so thoroughly influenced by Chekhov through my relations with other writers who had been influenced by him directly: Sherwood Anderson. Isaac Babel. Hemingway. Cheever. Welty. Carver.

As is true of many American readers who encountered Chekhov first in college, my experience with his stories was both abrupt and brief, and came too early. When I read him at age twenty, I had no idea of his prestige and importance or why I should be reading him—one of those gaps of ignorance for which a liberal education tries to be a bridge. But typical of my attentiveness then, I remember no one telling me anything more than that Chekhov was great, and that he was Russian.

And for all of their surface plainness, their apparent accessibility and clarity, Chekhov’s stories—especially the greatest ones—still do not seem so easily penetrable by the unexceptional young. Rather, Chekhov seems to me a writer for adults, his work becoming useful and also beautiful by attracting attention to mature feelings, to complicated human responses and small issues of moral choice within large, overarching dilemmas, any part of which, were we to encounter them in our complex, headlong life with others, might evade even sophisticated notice. Chekhov’s wish is to complicate and compromise our view of characters we might mistakenly suppose we could understand with only a glance. He almost always approaches us with a great deal of focussed seriousness which he means to make irreducible and accessible, and by this concentration to insist that we take life to heart. Such instruction, of course, is not always easy to comply with when one is young.

My own college experience was to read the great anthology standard, “The Lady with the Dog” (published in 1899), and basically to be baffled by it, although the story’s fundamental directness and authority made me highly respectful of something I can only describe as a profound-feeling gray light emanating from the story’s austere interior.

“The Lady with the Dog” concerns the chance amorous meeting of two people married to two other people. One lover is a bored, middle-aged businessman from Moscow, and the other an idle young bride in her twenties—both on marital furlough in the Black Sea Spa of Yalta. The two engage in a brief, fervid tryst that seems—at least to the story’s principal character Dmitri Gurov, the Muscovite businessman—not very different from other trysts in his life. And after their short, breathless time together, their holiday predictably ends. The young wife, Anna Sergeyevna, departs for her home and husband in the provincial town of S_ _ _, while Gurov, with no specific plans for Anna, travels back to his coolly intellectual wife and the tiresome business connections of Moscow.

But the effect of his affair and of Anna (the very lady with the dog—a Pomeranian) soon begin to infect and devil Gurov’s daily life and torment him with desire, so that eventually he thinks up a lie, leaves home and travels to S_ _ _ where he reunites (more or less) with the pining Anna, whom he encounters between the acts of a play expressively titled The Geisha. In the weeks following this passionate lovers’ meeting, Anna begins a routine of visiting Gurov in Moscow where, the omniscient narrator observes, they “loved each other like people very close and akin, like husband and wife, like tender friends; it seemed to them that fate itself had meant them for one another, and they could not understand why he had a wife and she a husband; and it was as though they were a pair of birds of passage, caught and forced to live in different cages.”

Their union, while hot-burning, soon seems to them destined to stay furtive and intermittent. And in their secret lovers’ room in the Slaviansky Bazaar, Anna cries bitterly over the predicament, while Gurov troubles himself in a slightly imperious manner to console her. The story ends with the narrator concluding with something of a knowing poker face, that… “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.”

What I didn’t understand back in 1964, when I was twenty, was: what made this drab set of non-events a great short story—reputedly one of the greatest ever written. It was, I knew, a story about passion, and that passion was a capital subject; and that although Chekhov didn’t describe any of it, sex took place, adulterous sex no less. I could also see that the effect of passion was calculated to be loss, loneliness and indeterminacy, and that the institution of marriage came in for a beating. Clearly these were important matters.

But it seemed to me at the story’s end, when Gurov and Anna meet in the hotel, away from spousal eyes, that far too little happened, or at least too little that I could detect. They make love (albeit offstage); Anna weeps; Gurov fussily says, “Don’t cry, my darling… that’s enough… Let us talk now, let us think of some plan.” And then the story is over, with Gurov and Anna wandering off to who knows where—probably, I thought, no place very exciting were we to accompany them. Which we don’t.

Back in 1964, I didn’t dare to say, “I don’t like this,” because in truth I didn’t not like “The Lady with the Dog.” I merely didn’t sense what in it was so to be liked. In class, much was made of its opening paragraph, containing the famously brief, complex, yet direct setting out of significant information, issues and strategies of telling which the story would eventually develop. For this reason—economy—it was deemed good. The ending was also said to be admirable because it wasn’t very dramatic and wasn’t conclusive. But beyond that, if anybody said something more specific about how the story made itself excellent I don’t remember it. Although I distinctly remember thinking the story was over my head, and that Gurov and Anna were adults (read: enigmatic, impenetrable) in a way I wasn’t, and what they did and said to each other must reveal heretofore unheard of truths about love and passion, only I wasn’t a good enough reader or mature enough human to recognize these truths. I’m certain that I eventually advertised actually liking the story, though only because I thought I should. And not long afterward I began maintaining the position that Chekhov was a story writer of near mystical—and certainly mysterious—importance, one who seemed to tell rather ordinary stories but who was really unearthing the most subtle, and for that reason, unobvious and important truth. (It is of course still a useful habit of inquiry to wonder, when the surface of reputedly great literature—and life—seems plain and equable, if something important might not be revealed upon closer notice; and also to realize that a story’s ending may not always be the place to locate that something.)

Now, what I would say is good about “The Lady with the Dog” (and maybe you should stop here, read the story, then come back and compare notes) and indeed why I like it is primarily that it concentrates its narrative attentions not on the conventional hot spots—sex, deceit and what happens at the end—but rather, by its precision, pacing and decisions about what to tell, it directs our interest toward those flatter terrains of a love affair where we, being conventional souls, might overlook something important. “The Lady with the Dog” demonstrates by its scrupulous notice and detail that ordinary goings-on contain moments of significant moral choice—willed human acts judgeable as good or bad—and as such they have consequences in life which we need to pay heed to, whereas before reading the story we might’ve supposed they didn’t. I’m referring specifically to Gurov’s rather prosaic feelings of “torment” at home in Moscow, followed by his decision to visit Anna; his wife’s reasonable dismissal of his suffering, the repetitiveness of trysts, the relative brevity of desire’s satiation, and the necessity for self-deception to keep a small passion inflamed. These are matters the story wants us not to skip over, but to believe are important and that paying attention to them is good.

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