Chekhov’s Beautiful Nonfiction

Anton Chekhov’s “Sakhalin Island,” his long investigation of prison conditions in Siberia, is the best work of journalism written in the nineteenth century. The fact that so few people know of the book, and that among Western critics (not necessarily Russian ones) it is considered a minor masterpiece instead of a major one—inferior to Alexander Herzen’s journals, for example—has something to do with how journalism is rarely considered literature. But it has even more to do with the lies that Chekhov told to get access to the prison colony.

Chekhov began preparing to go to Siberia in 1889. This was soon after his brother’s death from tuberculosis and not so long after learning that he, too, had the disease, and was likely to die. Getting permission to make the three-month journey to visit the prison colony required Chekhov to tell many different lies to many different people. He told some that he was doing an academic thesis to complete medical-degree requirements. To others, he said that he was taking a simple survey of the size of household groups. This second lie, combined with the first, is why “Sakhalin Island” is often mistakenly seen as medical anthropology instead of what it always was: investigative journalism. As Chekhov explains of the island:
In order as far as possible to visit all the inhabited spots, and to become somewhat closer acquainted with the life of the majority of the exiles, I resorted to a device which, in my position, seemed the only way. I carried out a census. In the settlements that I visited I went round all the cabins and noted down the heads of the households, members of their families, tenants and workmen. To make my work easier, and to cut down on time, I was very obligingly offered assistants, but as my main aim in conducting the census was not its results but the impressions received during the making of it, I used somebody else’s help only on rare occasions.
“Sakhalin Island” was published as a series of nine articles in the journal New Times. In its own time, it was seen as investigative journalism. Now—owing to the way certain things get misremembered, as well as to the fact that there is nothing else like “Sakhalin Island” in Chekhov’s bibliography—critics don’t know how to handle the work, and the book is often viewed through the lies that Chekhov told.

The reason “Sakhalin Island” is the greatest work of journalism from the nineteenth century is that, unlike other major journalistic works from that period (for example, journalism from the Crimean War), the book has not aged. There are two causes for this. One is technical, and the other is a matter of sensibility. The nine articles that became “Sakhalin Island” are each so long that they give Chekhov the space to build up characters and narrative arcs. Second, Chekhov’s articles are mostly about closely observed humanity. His sentences deliver news, but they are primarily concerned with how human beings live their lives. In Chekhov’s case, unlike that of his contemporaries, this observation of human behavior is lacking in self-censorship. He is willing to write about anything, and he is willing to see everything with compassion. Here is a typical detail that Chekhov developed, and the stance that he took towards it:
I was told that at one time there had been benches standing on the path to the lighthouse, but they had been forced to take them away because, while out strolling, the convicts and settled exiles had written on them and had carved with their knives filthy lampoons and all sorts of obscenities. There are a lot of free lovers of this so-called “wall literature” too, but, in penal servitude, the cynicism surpasses all limits and absolutely no comparison may be made with it. Here, not only benches and the walls of backyards, but even the love letters, are revolting. It is remarkable that a man will write and carve various abominations on a bench while at the same time he is feeling lost, abandoned and profoundly unhappy.
When I read something like this, I swoon. Because human beings are the same and have always been the same and will always be the same, it is possible to read “Sakhalin Island” and feel like you are reading something that is occurring right now. Every time I read the book, I am captivated by moments such as this:
Then follows Vtoraya Pad (Second Chasm), in which there are six farm holdings. Here the old woman called Miss Ulyana cohabits with a prosperous old peasant in exile. Once, a very long time ago, she had killed her baby and buried it in the ground; at the trial, she said that she had not killed the child but buried it alive—she thought that she would stand a better chance of being acquitted that way. The court sentenced her to twenty years. Telling me about this, Ulyana wept bitterly, but then she wiped her eyes and asked, “Fancy buyin a nice little bit o’ pickled cabbage?”
Reading this, I feel that Miss Ulyana is still alive—that Chekhov is still in her hut, bent over and listening to her. There is the sensation that great literature generates, of bearing witness.

Mostly, when critics read “Sakhalin Island,” they read it as a source text for later works by Chekhov, in particular the stories dealing with prison and exile. This obscures the fact that the book is a unique work in its own right. When I read it, what I am most amazed by is how different in style Chekhov the fiction writer is from Chekhov the nonfiction one. We all know that his fiction is described as “impressionistic.” What this means, exactly, is often left undeveloped. Here is his impressionistic technique from the opening of “A Medical Case”:
A professor received a telegram from the Lialikovs’ factory asking him to come quickly. The daughter of a certain Mrs. Lialikov, apparently the owner of the factory, was sick—nothing more could be understood from the long, witlessly composed telegram. The professor did not go himself, but sent his intern Korolev in his place.
He had to go two stations away from Moscow and then some three miles by carriage. A troika was sent to the station to pick Korolev up; the driver wore a hat with a peacock feather, and to all the questions responded with a loud military “No, sir!” or “Yes, sir!”

The “he” at the start of the second paragraph is confusing. Who is “he” referring to? Is “he” the professor who received the telegram? This is one of the grammatical ways that Chekhov pushes the reader onto the surface of the story, and so the story remains mysterious, only periodically flashing into clarity.

Here’s another example of a similar grammatical confusion. This is from “Gusev,” a story about an ill sailor and one of the first post-Siberia stories:
He sleeps for two days, and on the third day two sailors come from topside and carry him out of the sick bay. He is sewn up in canvas and, to weigh him down, two iron bars are put in with him. Sewn up in canvas, he comes to resemble a carrot or a black radish, wide at the head, narrow towards the foot…. Before sunset he is taken out on deck and laid on a plank; one end of the plank rests on the rail, the other on a box placed on a stool. Discharged soldiers and the ship’s crew stand around him with their hats off.
It is near the end of the second paragraph that we begin to realize that the “he” that sleeps is dead.

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