Posts Tagged ‘anton chekhov’

Last Friday I roped some of my more malleable friends into coming to the Wheeler Centre’s A Night of Chekhov event. I shouldn’t have been so ardent in my roping-in, because the room was packed to the rafters with Chekhovanatics young and old. I could have made a lot of new friends. I could have invited them all to my house to talk about Russian realism and how mouldy my bathroom ceiling is. (I guess they all dodged a bullet there.)

Typically, I arrived late, and after divesting myself of my gigantic fur coat, vodka receptacle and bear hat, I scanned the panel to see Cate Kennedy, Alex Menglet, Jean-Pierre Mignon, Stephen Armstrong and … ‘Is that Peter Goldsworthy?’ I scrawled on my notepad, and then showed it to my friend Daniel, who gruffly said, ‘Da’, before turning back to his iPad to look for beautiful aspiring spies of a marriageable age.

It’s been a while since I read any Chekhov, but it’s an enduring experience. It was a real pleasure hearing these five fans discuss Chekhov’s prose and plays with so much bonhomie and specificity. And I don’t feel bad calling them ‘fans’, because they each brought a personal depth to the discussion.

Occasionally, the panel format can be a staid one, inducing dreams of eiderdowns in the audience, but not so with these five. Stephen was a great moderator who had more than just questions to offer, saying, ‘I’ve come to believe that the English hate us because of what they do to Chekhov.’ A lot was made of the Western tradition of extracting humour from Chekhov and leaving only ethnography – mere pictures of Russian life. Mignon was quiet, but Kennedy was vivacious and warm. Goldsworthy played his similiarities to the Russian scribe for some deserved laughs: ‘You invited me here as a short story writer? I thought I was here as a doctor.’ Menglet was wonderful, suffering the indignity of a fur hat and reading from ‘The Cherry Orchard’ in Russian and offering his take on performing the works of the great writer.

Obviously, the star of the show was the polymathic and ceaselessly industrious Anton Pavlovich Chekhov, whose literary feats were matched by his medical ones. The loudest note sounded in Friday’s conversation was Chekhov’s humanism – his ability not to ironise or judge his characters, not to leave a story at the teaching-point. Compassion – it’s a crucial aspect of any fiction writing, and he was a master.

Postscript: ‘Internet research’ for this blog post unearthed the quote ‘I have tried googling for some sort of list of Russian clichés, but I have not succeeded.’

It really took me a long time to get into the Russians. I’m 24 now, and I’ve only read Crime and Punishment so far. Does Nabokov count? Well, I’ve read Lolita. But those are kind of the bare minimum, aren’t they? So I decided to get serious with Anton Chekhov’s Ward No. 6 and Other Stories, 1892-1895. You know something is serious when it has a date range in the title. It means: whoa, this guy did good stuff in other years, too. I’ve already posted a review of Murder, one of the stories in the collection. The other stories offer plenty of insight into Chekhov’s life and interests. Chekhov was a doctor, and the story Ward No. 6 is set in a mental hospital; Chekhov loved gardening, hence The Black Monk’s protagonist Kovrin considers ‘A few Observations on Mr Z’s Remarks on Double-Trenching in New Gardens’ light reading.

What I really love about Chekhov’s stories arises from its genre, which I guess you could call Russian realism. Selecting a diverse range of characters to portray, Chekhov throws in observations spanning class and gender. From parsimony to prodigality, details and decisions are invoked to present a straightforward yet dramatic picture of 1800s Russia. The lightness of Chekhov’s touch belies the intrepidity with which he surveys the ingredients of the personal present, such as tricks of personality and situation entrapment.

Even more specifically than Russian realism, Chekhov is a master of the aesthetics of consequences. Stories like A Woman’s Kingdom, which details the life of Anna Akimovna, the heiress of a bustling industrial business, investigate the doubled-edged blessing and curse of belonging to the middle class. Anna’s business is heavily reliant on the poor treatment and management of its workers, a fact which both plagues and bores her. The institution of marriage is assiduously mined, too–The Two Volodyas has as its focus Sophia Lvovna who, married to one man, lusts after another. Sophia’s lack of self-restraint or understanding is her flaw, and though it is not fatal within the confines of the story, her leisurely floundering evokes pity and exhaustion.

Though Hemingway criticised Chekhov as an ‘amateur writer’, his stories are remarkable despite their deceptive simplicity. His slice-of-life style, which allows him to resist relying on resolution for meaning, sees him invest his characters with enough shovel, as it were, to dig their holes. And to immobilise without even taking out the rope, well that’s definitely something.

September 28, 2008

I love short stories, and I love a deadline (I’ll examine the latter part of that statement with some bemusement tomorrow, I think). So I’ve decided to join in the fun at Ready When You Are, C.B, where they’re running Short Story September, with a short story review.

Chekhov’s story Murder reminds me of the Theatresports game Murder Endowments, where the elected victim has to act in such a way that when the murderer returns to play, it is immediately apparent who should be knocked off. But in Murder, instead of just one odious victim, Chekhov gives us a whole range of characters whose personalities force detective guesses to rebound. Matvey Terekhov, the righteous simpleton, bores fellow villagers to tears with enthusiastic retellings of church happenings; the barbate good looks of Matvey’s cousin, Yakov Ivanych, can’t hide the lack of good feeling he has towards others; and Yakov’s sister Aglaya is a money-hungry mother who speaks only to shriek and whine.

Life at Progonnaya sees faith and hypocrisy as friends, and the characters each have their own variation of this curious blend of characteristics. One sings hymns while denying friends bread, another speaks of devotion while laying claim to family property; so it’s no surprise that before long at least one person has behaved in a most irreligious way. And of course, the titular murder is a chance for Chekhov to get some mileage out of the symbols of purity and sin; a white kerchief (worn in the 1800s by members of the Flagellant sect) gets well and truly splattered with blood at the scene of the crime.

Lest anyone think Chekhov has lost his moral compass, the climactic murder doesn’t mark the end of the story. Villagers watch as the culprits are most publicly taken in hand, and justice is of course served. Or is it? Somehow, ineffable and self-validating faith, the worst incarnation of that phenomenon, sneaks through the ugliness of hell to again find rest in its most loyal proponents. Murder teaches a lesson that is easy to see in the lives of others but difficult to discern in our own, and for that we may be grateful, or not.