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.)

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in