A Snack before I Die

James Wood

  • Anton Chekhov: A Life by Donald Rayfield
    HarperCollins, 674 pp, £25.00, June 1997, ISBN 0 00 255503 4

We can get a better understanding of Chekhov and his work from the notebook he kept than from any biography – even an important biography, like this one. It is a ledger of enigmas in which nothing adds up, full of strange squints, comic observations and promptings for new stories.

  Instead of sheets – dirty tablecloths.

  The dog walked in the street and was ashamed of its crooked legs.

  They were mineral water bottles with preserved cherries in them.

  In the bill preserved by the hotel-keeper was, among other things: ‘Bugs – fifteen kopecks.’

  He picked his teeth and put the toothpick back into the glass.

  A private room in a restaurant. A rich man, tying his napkin round his neck, touching the sturgeon with his fork: ‘At least I’ll have a snack before I die’ – and he has been saying this for a long time, daily.

  If you wish women to love you, be original; I know a man who used to wear felt boots summer and winter, and women fell in love with him.

What is noticeable, besides the charm and comedy of these entries, is that Chekhov thinks of detail, even visual detail, as a story, and thinks of story as an enigma. He was not interested in noticing that the roofs of a town look like armadillo shells, or that he was confused about God, or that the Russian people represented the world-spirit on a troika. He was drawn neither to the statically poetic nor to the statically philosophical. Detail is hardly ever a stable entity in Chekhov’s work; it is a reticent event. He found the world to be as deeply evasive as he was himself – life as a tree of separate hanging stories, of dangling privacies. For him a story did not merely begin in enigma, but ended in enigma too. He has a character in ‘Concerning Love’ complain that ‘decent Russians like ourselves have a passion for problems that have never been solved.’ Chekhov had such a passion for problems, but only if solution might stay unrequited. The writer, Ivan Bunin, said that Chekhov loved to read out random oddities from the newspapers: ‘Babkin, a Samara merchant, left all his money for a memorial to Hegel!’ (Chebutykin, in Three Sisters, does the same, noting that ‘Balzac got married in Berdichev’.) The attraction of such tales, one suspects, was that a newspaper imagines that it has explained a story when all it has done is told one. Bunin supplied an anecdote about a deacon who ate all the caviar at a funeral party; Chekhov used this at the beginning of ‘In the Ravine’. His writing, strewn with unsolved details, is a kind of newspaper of the intimate fantastic; in this respect, his stories are like tales of crime in which nobody is a criminal.

There is no introspection in Chekhov’s notebook. Everything has the same hard, found, random quality. We can infer as much of Chekhov’s personality from one entry as from all of them together. A friend said that he ‘lacked gaiety, and his fine, intelligent eyes always looked at everything from a distance’. From the various memoirs by relatives and friends, we can imagine a man who always seemed a little older than anyone he met, as if he were living more than one life. He would not make himself transparent: he was approachable but unknowable. He had an arbitrary smile, and a comic’s ability to make strange things seem inevitable. When an actor asked him to explain what kind of writer Trigorin is, in The Seagull, he replied: ‘But he wears chequered trousers.’ He had a horror of being the centre of attention. He delivered his judgments in a tone of weary generosity, as if they were so obvious that he had simply missed someone else saying them earlier. For instance, he told Stanislavsky, with soft surprise: ‘Listen, Ibsen is no playwright ... Ibsen just doesn’t know life. In life it simply isn’t like that.’ He was deeply charming; seasonally, a different woman fell in love with him.

On this picture has been built the English vision of Chekhov, in which the writer resembles the perfect literary Englishman: a writer of the religion of no religion, of instincts rather than convictions, a governor of ordinary provinces whose inhabitants may be unhappy or yearning for change, but who eventually learn to calm down and live by the local laws. D.S. Mirsky, the Anglo-Russian critic, argued that Chekhov was popular in England because of his ‘unusually complete rejection of what we may call the heroic values’. This idea of Chekhov as the nurse of the prosaic is far from the truth, and his writing, which is rebellious, brutal, despairing and unhappily comic, gives no excuse for it.

Donald Rayfield’s biography, the fullest to appear in English, clouds the icon. Rayfield’s Chekhov is still charming, tactful and decent. He is still the man who bought new books for the library of his hometown, who dispensed free medicine and became a hospital inspector near his farm at Melikhovo. But we see more clearly in Rayfield’s account that Chekhov’s life was a long flight into his work. He ran from human connections. There is something cruel, even repulsive in a man so sensitive to pain, about the way Chekhov encouraged women to fall in love with him, and then, month by month, cancelled their ardour. He would reply scantily or not at all to their letters. His most productive writing years, between 1892 and 1900, were spent on his Melikhovo estate, about fifty miles south of Moscow, where he lived with his dutiful sister, Masha, and his parents. Here he tried to ration unnecessary involvement with people. Chekhov had the temperament of a philanderer. Sexually, he preferred brothels or swift liaisons. (This biography overpowers with superior evidence V.S. Pritchett’s benign suggestion that Chekhov lacked sexual appetite.)

His one loyalty was to his family, for whom he became the breadwinner while at medical school in Moscow. Rayfield’s narrative of Chekhov’s early years is fuller than all previous versions, thanks to new, uncensored access to family letters in Russian archives. We see that, in effect, Chekhov wrote again and again about his own family; that the stiflements of his childhood fed his literary interest in control and escape, commitment and evasion, hypocrisy and truth. He was born in Taganrog, in southern Russia, in 1860. His father, Pavel, may be seen as the original of all Chekhov’s great portraits of hypocrites. Pavel was a grocer, but he failed at everything he touched except religious devotion. In between flogging his children – he was exceptionally cruel – he became kapelmeister of the cathedral choir, where his love of the liturgy made services interminable. In church, ‘Pavel never compromised over his favourite quality, splendour.’ He was horribly pious. Rayfield tells the story of Pavel finding a rat in a barrel of olive oil in his shop. ‘He was too honest to say nothing, too mean to pour the oil away, too lazy to boil and re-filter it. He chose consecration: Father Pokrovsky conducted a service in the shop.’

Chekhov would become a writer who did not believe in God, hated physical cruelty, fought every sign of ‘splendour’ on the page, and filled his fiction with hypocrites. The ghost of Pavel can be found everywhere in Chekhov, in the complacent Dr Ragin in ‘Ward 6’, who lectures his abused patients at the local asylum about Marcus Aurelius and the importance of stoicism, and in the fatuous priest in ‘In the Ravine’ who, at dinner, comforts a woman who has lost her baby while pointing at her with ‘a fork with a pickled mushroom on the end of it’. Yet the son did not abandon the father. Once the Chekhovs had moved to Moscow, Anton calmly assumed the support of his whole family. He checked his dissolute elder brothers with that strange, sourceless maturity of his, which sometimes gives him the air of being the sole possessor of a clandestine happiness. There are eight rules by which ‘well-bred people’ live, he told his brother Nikolai in a long letter. You restrain yourself sexually; you do not brag. ‘The truly gifted are always in the shadows, in the crowd, far from exhibitions.’ The last line of this letter has always been soothed into English as ‘You have to relinquish your pride: you are not a little boy anymore.’ Rayfield restores a word: ‘You must drop your fucking conceit.’ He reveals the lapses, the mundanities, the coarseness, the sexual honesty which Russian censors and English worshippers removed. His Chekhov, for example, is still philosemitic and a supporter of women’s rights. But every so often his letters show a little hernia of prejudice – ‘Yids’ appear from time to time, and women are verbally patted.

Chekhov wrote hackishly for six years – comic stubs, sketches, cartoons and colourings for newspapers. (His mature work has a briskness, and sometimes a slapping, educative motion.) His meeting with Alexei Suvorin, the owner of the newspaper, Novoye Vremya, funded his greatest writing. Suvorin had had his eye on Chekhov. Their relationship is one of the best things in Rayfield’s book. From 1887 until 1900, he was Chekhov’s patron and deepest correspondent. He was also the writer’s opposite, and Chekhov had to function like Suvorin’s kidney, extracting the businessman’s poisons – his anti-semitism (they quarrelled over the Dreyfus Affair when Chekhov announced himself a Dreyfusard), his artistic conservatism, his wariness of the slightest political radicalism. Suvorin was reviled by most enlightened thinkers, and Chekhov’s alliance with him was often scorned. But Chekhov also became friendly with Gorky, and his fiction was sometimes simultaneously claimed by both Right and Left – the pantomime horse fighting inside itself for front and back legs, and then collapsing on stage.

‘The Steppe’ (1888) was the first important story to appear under Suvorin’s patronage: Chekhov was a renowned writer for the rest of his life. He was only 28, and the story has its hesitations, such as a weakness for theatrical gargoyles (Moses and Solomon, the Jewish traders) who seem Dickensian but are obviously lifted from Gogol. Yet much of the beauty of mature Chekhov is here; it is just an early footprint made by a lighter man. In particular, the bashful pace of the writing, which moves at the aimless, random speed of the imagination. We follow a little boy, Yegorushka, who is going to a new school, and who has hitched a ride with two men, a wool trader called Kuzmichov, and a priest called Father Christopher. (Rayfield tells us that the young Chekhov made a similar trip, on a trader’s cart.) As they leave the boy’s home village, at the start of the journey, they pass the cemetery in which his father and his grandmother are buried. Chekhov’s description drifts.

From behind the wall cheerful white crosses and tombstones peeped out, nestling in the foliage of cherry trees and seen as white patches from a distance. At blossom time, Yegorushka remembered, the white patches mingled with the cherry blooms in a sea of white, and when the cherries had ripened the white tombs and crosses were crimson-spotted, as if with blood. Under the cherries behind the wall the boy’s father and his grandmother Zinaida slept day and night. When Grandmother had died she had been put in a long, narrow coffin, and five-kopeck pieces had been placed on her eyes, which would not stay shut. Before dying she had been alive, and she had brought him soft poppy-seed bun rings from the market, but now she just slept and slept.

Woolf and Joyce admired Chekhov, and, faced with Yegorushka’s drifting thought, one sees why: this is a form of stream of consciousness, more natural and less showy than Anna Karenina’s mania at the end of Tolstoy’s novel. ‘Before dying, she had been alive ... but now she just slept and slept’. Chekhov shadows the accident of thought, its randomness and banality. But something deeper about Chekhov’s art is revealed a page later, when Yegorushka cries because he misses his mother, and Father Christopher comforts him. ‘Never mind, son,’ the priest says. ‘Call on God. Lomonosov once travelled just like this with the fishermen, and he became famous throughout Europe. Learning conjoined with faith yields fruit pleasing to God. What does the prayer say? “For the glory of the Creator, for our parents’ comfort, for the benefit of church and country.” That’s the way of it.’ Father Christopher is offering no comfort at all; he is self-involved. He is speaking his mind, literally. He speaks in the same apparently arbitrary manner as the boy thinks.

This use of stream of consciousness would, in later years, become the basis of Chekhov’s innovation in stagecraft. But it is also his innovation in fiction. Chekhov sees the similarities between what we think to ourselves and what we say to others: both are failed privacies. Both are lost secrets – the former lost somewhere between our minds and our souls, the latter lost somewhere among themselves. Naturally, this kind of mental speech, whether turned inward or outward, has the arbitrary quality of memory or dream. It is memory or dream. And this is why it seems comic, because watching a Chekhov character is like watching someone half-awake and half-dreaming say something abrupt and private which has only a sliver of meaning for us because it refers to the now disappearing dream. In life, at this moment, we sometimes laugh and say to the waker: ‘You’re not making much sense, you know.’ Chekhov’s characters live in these two states.

Sometimes, his characters turn their thought outwards, and speak it; sometimes their thought remains inward, and Chekhov describes it for us – and very often these two ribbons of revelation are indistinguishable from one another, as in Yegorushka’s remembrance of his grandmother. ‘The Bishop’, a late story which Chekhov completed in 1902, two years before he died, is a good example of this new fluency in storytelling. A dying cleric starts to think about his childhood, and suddenly, he is adrift. He remembers ‘Father Simeon, who was very short and thin, but who had a terribly tall son (a theological student) ... Once his son lost his temper with the cook and called her “Ass of Jehudiel”, which made Father Simeon go very quiet, for he was only too ashamed of not being able to remember where this particular ass was mentioned in the Bible.’ The great novelty of Chekhov is not in discovering or inventing such details and anecdotes, for we can find details as good in Tolstoy and Leskov. It is in their placement, their sudden flowering, their lack of apparent point, almost as if his characters were coming across something unwanted, certainly unexpected. The thought seems to be thinking the characters, not the other way round. It is the movement of free consciousness in literature for perhaps the first time – nothing quite like this relationship to memory appears in Dickens or Balzac or Maupassant; not even in Gogol or Tolstoy.

The great pleasure of seeing Chekhov develop as a writer, from ‘The Steppe’ to ‘The Lady with the Dog’ 11 years later, is to see the way he discovers and enlarges this idea of apparently arbitrary detail. For it is not merely Chekhov’s characters who think in sudden lunges and bites of detail. It is the principle of Chekhov’s whole narrative style. Nabokov once complained about Chekhov’s ‘medley of dreadful prosaisms, ready-made epithets, repetitions’. But Nabokov was wrong. Chekhov’s metaphors, nature-scenes and visual details are often finer than Nabokov’s (and invariably finer than Tolstoy’s) because they have an unexpectedness that seems to break away from literature. He sees the world not as a writer might see it but as one of his characters might. This is the case even when he is telling a story from outside a character’s head. ‘From somewhere far off came the mournful, indistinct cry of a bittern, sounding just like a cow locked up in a shed.’ This is not an obviously ‘poetic’ likeness: it is how a villager might think of a bittern’s cry. ‘A cuckoo seemed to be adding up someone’s age, kept losing count and starting again.’ A girl about to burst into tears, ‘her face oddly strained as if her mouth were full of water’. (The key there is the word ‘oddly’. Oddly to whom? To the other characters in the room, one of whom is Chekhov: he is no longer a writer.) The noise, in a poor village, of ‘an expensive-sounding accordion’.

More completely than any writer before him, Chekhov became his characters. A great story like ‘Gusev’ is impossible without this identification. It is set on a boat returning to Russia. In the sick-bay, a stupid peasant called Gusev is dying. The other patients make fun of his primitive imagination – he thinks that the winds are chained up somewhere like dogs to a wall, and that it is stormy because they have been let loose. As Gusev lies in the ship, he recalls his home village, and we see that his imagination is not primitive. Soon, he dies, and is buried at sea, wrapped in a sail. ‘Sewn up in the sailcloth,’ writes Chekhov, ‘he looked like a carrot or radish: broad at the head and narrow at the feet.’ As he falls into the sea, clouds are massing. Chekhov writes that one cloud looks like a triumphal arch, another like a lion, a third like a pair of scissors. We realise that Chekhov sees the world as Gusev does. If Gusev is foolish then so is Chekhov. Why is it more foolish to think of the wind as a chained dog, as Gusev does, than to think of a cloud as a lion or a corpse as a radish, as Chekhov does? Chekhov’s narration disappears into Gusev’s.

Amazingly, Donald Rayfield has little time for Chekhov’s writing. It appears to obstruct the siege of biographical ‘fact’. Rayfield tells us in his Preface that Chekhov’s works are discussed ‘inasmuch as they emerge from his life and as they affect it, but less as material for critical analysis. Biography is not criticism.’ This separation of life and work is primitive. Biography is criticism, particularly if the work is the life, and especially in the case of Chekhov, who so often evaded life to strengthen his work. Undoubtedly, Rayfield offers a newly full idea of Chekhov’s life – more brutal, more cruel, more ordinary, more lonely. But his book is only greyly rich: a massive diary of travel and letters and meetings. About the writer, he tells us almost nothing, and in several places disarms facts of their literary context. On the whole, it would be better if he never mentioned Chekhov’s work, because his brief comments seem merely formulaic. ‘Gusev’, he tells us, ‘is an awesome portrayal of nature’s indifference to death ... Chekhov’s post-Sakhalin phase had begun.’ ‘Ward 6’ is ‘a bleak allegory of the human condition. There is no love interest.’ Of ‘The Student’, he comments: ‘This is “late Chekhov”, where ... all is evoked, not stated.’ And so on. Most of the stories are brushed off in a line or two.

He forces stories into biographical cells, distorting many of them. At other times, he takes comments by Chekhov and skins them of the literary. In January 1901, Chekhov was in Rome with his friend, M.M. Kovalevsky. Chekhov, according to Rayfield, was ill and depressed. He had three years to live. Offered as evidence of Chekhov’s state of mind is his response to a penitential procession that he saw with Kovalevsky at St Peter’s. Rayfield comments: ‘Anton’s mood grew grim: he told Kovalevsky he was writing nothing long, because he would soon die. He watched a penitential procession in St Peter’s. Asked how he would describe it, he replied: “A stupid procession dragged past.” ’ But Kovalevsky’s memoir (most recently reprinted in Andrei Turkov’s Anton Chekhov and His Times, published in Moscow in 1990) makes clear that Chekhov’s was a literary response. Kovalevsky discusses Chekhov’s dismissal in the light of his ‘avoidance of any kind of unnecessary detail’ as a writer. When they had watched the procession go by, Kovalevsky suggested that, ‘for a belletrist’, what they had seen was ‘not without a certain attraction’. ‘Not the slightest,’ replied Chekhov. ‘The modern novelist would be obliged to satisfy himself with the phrase: “A silly procession dragged on.” ’ Apart from anything else, the literary context is more interesting than the wrongly biographical reading; it tells us more about the ‘biographical’ Chekhov.

It is characteristic that Rayfield, while recounting Chekhov’s arduous journey in 1890 to the prison island of Sakhalin, hardly quotes from the book-length report that Chekhov completed and published in 1895. It is as if the journey had no literary dimension. Still, Rayfield is probably right, despite the crudity of the baptism, to refer to ‘Chekhov’s post-Sakhalin phase’. Sakhalin was a Siberian prison colony, a kind of living death-camp. Near the end of his book, Chekhov describes seeing a murderer being given 90 lashes. Then this detail – a military medical assistant who asks a favour. ‘Your worship, please let me see how they punish a prisoner.’ ‘There were times,’ Chekhov wrote, ‘when I felt I saw before me the extreme limits of man’s degradation.’

Chekhov believed in the importance of good schools and medicine. But Sakhalin heated his meliorism. His greatest stories became darker, more absolving. Prisons are everywhere in them: even the lovers in ‘The Lady with the Dog’, published in 1899 when Chekhov was first involved with his future wife, Olga Knipper, feel trapped in a cage, ‘and it was impossible to escape from it, just as though you were in a lunatic asylum or a convict chain-gang!’ The bleak ‘Gusev’ (1890) was seeded when Chekhov saw two men die on board the ship bringing him back from Sakhalin. ‘Ward 6’ (1892) is set in an asylum. A complacent doctor, who has ignored the sufferings of his patients, finds that his mind is lapsing. He in turn is thrown into the asylum. From the window, he can see the town prison: ‘There’s reality for you!’ thinks the doctor. He dies in the asylum, but as he leaves consciousness he goes on a mental safari, and Chekhov awards him one of those gorgeous lunges, one of those random aerations or white apertures that are so distinctive a feature of his work: ‘A herd of deer, extraordinarily beautiful and graceful, which he had been reading about on the previous day, raced past him; then a peasant woman stretched out a hand to him with a registered letter.’ These stories have a frantic humanism: Chekhov wrote to Suvorin in 1898 that the writer’s task was ‘to stand up for the guilty if they have already been condemned and punished’. This was a year after he made his first public stand, on behalf of Dreyfus.

What did Chekhov believe in? In his essay on the writer, the philosopher Lev Shestov suggested (approvingly) that Chekhov had ‘no ideal, not even the ideal of ordinary life’. His work, Shestov said, murmurs a quiet ‘I don’t know’ to every problem. Soviet critics decided that Chekhov’s ‘hopeless’ characters were too pessimistic about Russia’s future and its imminent revolution. But because the stories confound philosophy they do not necessarily lack it. Susan Sontag’s apprehension that Chekhov’s writing is a dream of freedom is surely right – ‘an absolute freedom,’ he wrote, ‘the freedom from violence and lies’. Freedom is not merely political or material in his work. It is a neutral saturate, universally available like air or light. How often he describes a village, and then, at the village’s edge, ‘the open fields’. The narrator of ‘Man in a Case’ remembers the freedom of being a child when his parents went out, ‘and we would run around the garden for an hour or so, revelling in perfect freedom.’

And because Chekhov is undogmatic, he must admit that freedom is not attractive, and that it frightens us. Perhaps freedom is only the freedom not to exist? (‘Oh how nice not to exist,’ cries Chebutykin in Three Sisters.) Often we notice that his characters long to escape into a freedom whose vastness depends on its non-existence. Moscow is not just an impossibility for the three sisters. It does not exist, and their desire for it has made it disappear. Perhaps the gap between yearning for a new life – the most familiar gesture of Chekhov’s characters, and one the writer saw first-hand among his own family – and yearning for no life, is small.

But whatever happens to Chekhov’s characters, however they yearn, they have one freedom that flows from his literary genius: they act like free consciousnesses, and not as owned literary characters. For the great achievement of Chekhov’s beautifully accidental style, his mimicking of the stream of the mind, is that it allows forgetfulness into fiction. Buried deep in themselves, people forget themselves while thinking, and go on mental journeys. Of course, they do not exactly forget to be themselves. They forget to act as purposeful fictional characters. They mislay their scripts.

Chekhov’s characters forget to be Chekhov’s characters. We see this in ‘The Kiss’, written when he was 27. A virginal soldier kisses a woman for the first time in his life. He hoards the memory of it, and bursts to tell his fellow soldiers about his experience. Yet when he does tell them, he is disappointed because his story takes only a minute to tell, and ‘he had imagined it would take until morning.’ In Chekhov’s world, our inner lives run at their own speed. They are laxly calendared. They live in their own gentle almanac, and in his stories the inner life bumps against the outer life like two different time-systems, the Julian calendar against the Gregorian. This was his revolution.