The wonder of Chekhov

The canonised writers of the past have a tendency to assume a fixed expression in their readers' imaginations. Dostoevsky always appears in the same aura of morbidly enthralling hysteria; Proust in the same velvety atmosphere of hyper-attuned sensory receptiveness. To think of Tolstoy is to conjure, at once, the note of impassive grandeur, as of creation being set out in glittering ranks for inspection.

Anton Chekhov, whose short career was as momentous as any of these, has his own distinct tone and manner, but the impression it leaves is curiously elusive, offering reticence and hesitation in place of "personality", and a series of moods rather than a discernible attitude to life, even the attitude of uncertainty.

This elusiveness – a feature of both the life and the work – is a large part of what gives him his enduring fascination, as well as his striking modernity. In Chekhov literature seems to break its wand like Prospero, renouncing the magic of artifice, ceremony and idealisation, and facing us, for the first time, with a reflection of ourselves in our unadorned ordinariness as well as our unfathomable strangeness.

Ordinariness – the social fabric at its most drably functional – was to some extent his birthright. He was born in 1860, in Taganrog, a provincial town on the Sea of Azov. Said to be the shallowest sea on the planet, this minor appendage to the Black Sea shows up a muddy grey on satellite pictures, in contrast to the deep azure of the Black Sea itself. Whether this influenced the muted shading of Chekhov's prose – described by Nabokov as "a tint between the colour of an old fence and that of a low cloud" – history doesn't relate, but the city itself clearly became a key element in his imagination, forming the template for the stultifying provincial backdrops against which so many of his characters act out their dramas of ill-fated defiance or sullen resignation.

His grandfather was a serf who bought his family's freedom. His father, Paul, ran a grocery-cum-general store where Taganrog society congregated to purchase rice, coffee, paraffin, mousetraps, ammonia, penknives and vodka, and were duly cheated by the proprietor. Family lore records an occasion where a drowned rat was found in a cask of cooking oil. Instead of throwing out the oil, Paul had it "sanctified" by a priest, and continued selling it – an ur-Chekhovian episode, complete with a climax that is at once a non-event (business going on as usual), and a pitiless illumination of the father's character. A bullying, fanatically religious man as well as a total failure (he went bankrupt in 1876 and fled to Moscow with the rest of the family, leaving the 16-year-old Anton to fend for himself in Taganrog), the father too becomes a major generative element in his son's imagination. His presence can be felt in Chekhov's stories in the tyrannical father figures of "My Life" and "Three Years" as well as Jacob, the benighted zealot in "The Murder". In a more general sense, his spirit becomes absorbed into what might be called the negative pole in Chekhov's vision of reality: the force of oppression, petty-mindedness and outright cruelty that periodically discharges itself into the stories, sweeping over the characters as a sudden mood of melancholy or pure blackness (like the hallucinated Black Monk in the story of that title), or an impulse of vicious brutality, as in the notorious baby-killing episode of "In the Hollow".

As a human being – a doctor who went out of his way to help the poor and needy – Chekhov was unambiguously repelled by this aspect of life, and many of his better known remarks are either denunciations of it or defences of its opposite, which he identified chiefly as culture, rationality and scientific progress. There is the famous retort to Tolstoy, whom he revered as a novelist but rejected as a teacher: "Reason and justice tell me there's more love for humanity in electricity and steam than in chastity or vegetarianism," while the much-quoted lines from his letter to the poet Alexey Plescheyev are perhaps the clearest articulation of his "beliefs" such as they were: "My holy of holies is the human body, health, intelligence, talent, inspiration, love and absolute freedom – freedom from violence and falsehood, no matter how the last two manifest themselves."

But as an artist, Chekhov is more complicated than these apparently crystalline convictions suggest. Certainly his stories are full of people who espouse views very similar to the above – enlightened misfits, philanthropic gentry, civilised professionals (often doctors like himself) holding a candle for reason, justice and all the rest. But the stories themselves invariably subject this posture to challenges that cast doubt over its relevance, even its basic validity, so that to pin down an authorial point of view becomes impossible. Decency and rationality lead to failure, self-disgust and madness in pieces such as "A Dreary Story" or "Ward Number Six". In "The Princess", as in several other stories that feature do-gooding types, the philanthropic attitude is revealed as a rather nasty form of vanity. Even where it is sincere, it arouses baffling forces of resistance. Consider the well-intentioned couple in "New Villa", an engineer and his wife who settle in a rural spot after the engineer has built a bridge there. As if to extend the physical bridge into a social one, they attempt to befriend their peasant neighbours, only to find themselves opposed by malice and incomprehension at every turn. The bewildering irrationality of their treatment is brought home with gently comic poignancy by the story's ending, where the couple flee, selling their villa to a pompous government clerk who disdains the peasants, and is treated in return with paradoxical civility.

Comedy is of course another key element in Chekhov's imaginative armoury, and a further destabilising factor in the handling of his own "views". However tragic or despicable or exasperating the moralist in him found the world, the writer in him was constantly drawn to its comic variousness and oddity. No other writer has evoked boredom, dreariness, ennui with such richly entertaining specificity. Who but Chekhov could have conceived a story such as "A Hard Case", built around a living embodiment of stifling conventionality in the person of Belikov, who reduces a whole town to his own state of cowering joylessness before the inhabitants finally turn against him? The exorcising of such baleful spirits seems to have been one of the primal drives underlying the production of the 800-odd stories Chekhov left behind: happiness, in his work, almost always occurs against an encroaching darkness that requires constant warding off. In life he was known as an aficionado of jokes, pranks, festivities, the burlesque spirit in general. And his writing career, which he embarked on to make money for his family after his father's bankruptcy (as well as to pay for his own medical studies), began strictly as a comic enterprise: skits, spoofs, ­"humour pieces" full of daft names and slapstick come­uppances, churned out for sale to popular ­journals.

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