Chekhov (1860-1904)

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I read my first Chekhov short story after hearing Stephen Grosz (author of ‘The Examined Life’) discuss it as his recommended book on BBC4’s ‘A Good Read’  This was the start of my Chekhov inferiority complex.  I realise that really clever, sensible people love these short stories and I’m perfectly willing to acknowledge the fact that they leave me cold is more about me than them.

Let me explain my problem.  The radio show mentioned above aired over a year ago.  I read the titular short story then, and then again in February as I was starting this project.  I still can’t remember what happens in it.  I’ve really tried with this, and I do enjoy the stories while I’m reading them, but a few weeks later they’re gone again.  For me, Chekhov simply lacks the wow-factor and high hit rate of the other prolific writers I’ve read for this project.  Still, in a way it makes this page easier to write because I can focus on the few stories that have genuinely stuck in my mind:

The Duel
You’ve got to love the way Russians in this period felt about duelling. The closest equivalent I can think of for the 21st century is divorce.  It’s not around in every culture and not everyone thinks it’s a good solution to a problematic relationship, but essentially enough people think it’s sensible for it to be acceptable.  It certainly isn’t someone’s fault if they get divorced and it would be odd for someone to think less of them for this.  I’m really not saying that a duel is anything like divorce (necessarily), but this is the best way I can think of to explain contemporary Russian society’s response to it.  Anyway, from Onegin onwards, duels have been an essential ingredient to Russian literature and this novella fits well into this tradition.  Of course, by now everyone knows duels in books are passé,  and no one more so than the wonderfully annoying hero of this novella.  Poor Laevsky, everything is dull in his life and he can’t help feeling that Tolstoy’s heroes had a better time of it than him.  I do enjoy Laevsky, mostly because he’s so irritating; when faced with the sublime Caucus landscape, he tells his overwhelmed travelling companion ‘To be in continual ecstasies over nature shows poverty of imagination. In comparison with what my imagination can give me, all these streams and rocks are trash, and nothing else.’  There follows a beautiful piece of descriptive writing after which there’s another interjection ‘Ach, the damned mountains!” sighed Laevsky. “How sick I am of them!‘  Laevsky of course is a remnant of an earlier generation of superfluous men, a man of the 40s, not the 60s, as his enemy describes him. In fact, this modern man of the 1860s hates Laevsky with a passion, suggesting that things have moved on considerably since ‘Fathers and Sons’ and you don’t need to look across generations in order to find conflict.

Peasants
Life for peasants in this period was horrible, no matter what Tolstoy writes (sorry, I love Anna Karenina, but I find Levin and his hospitable harvesters insufferable).  Well done Chekhov for writing a story about a peasant family that doesn’t try to enoble the protagonists.  Apparently Chekhov’s best prose is his reportage; this short story is realist, brutal and genuinely does stick in the mind.  It bravely sets out to describe Peasant life, rather than to define it or draw major conclusions.  The result is powerful and depressing.  It’s not a story I plan on re-reading in a hurry, but I’m very pleased to have it on my bookshelf.

Ward no. 6
I’ve got to honest, the main reason for including this story is that, a couple of weeks after reading it, I still remember the plot!  Ward no. 6 is the lunatic’s ward of a minor hospital.  I may not deserve much credit for keeping the story in mind, because it’s hardly a cliff hanger to guess what might happen to a doctor who finds himself enjoying conversations with the patients within.  Somewhat unfairly, the question of ‘who’s really mad?’ doesn’t seem the most original given my familiarity with Ken Kesay’s ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’, but there are still some great moments and characters in Chekhov’s version.  My favourite part is when the doctor realises that his theory of ‘mind over matter’ for physical pain only works when it’s not actually him who’s been hurt.  It did fee like a welcome relief from the knowing, or not-so-knowing abstact philosophy or so many of Chekhov’s peers.

There we are, several great short stories and a whole lot that are probably wonderful but that I don’t remember.  I comfort myself with the knowledge that Chekhov’s not going anywhere and at some point my literary tastes will be sufficiently sophisticated to enjoy everything he’s written.  For now, I’ll stick with the stories above and his plays, because I do love his plays.

This is how Chekhov should make you feel!  A still from the Young Vic production (2012)

This is how Chekhov should make you feel! A still from the Young Vic production (2012)

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