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.’