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Work in Progress

The Vast Humanity of Anton Chekhov

A new book traces Chekhov’s relentless work as both a doctor and a master of the short story.

Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images
Anton Chekhov in his study in Yalta in the 1890s

Anton Chekhov was probably the least statuesque major Russian writer of his generation. He wrote short stories rather than novels, lived modestly, and rarely boomed out complicated philosophical ideas in large valise-sized volumes, as his contemporaries, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, were wont to do. He came from peasant stock, unlike the aristocratic Turgenev; and his politics rarely got in the way of his fiction, as they sometimes did for Gorky. He was generous, intimate, hardworking, and didn’t express grandiose opinions of himself or suffer unduly from the usual Russian vices—vodka, infidelity, and gambling. But most of all, even after achieving success as a short story writer and playwright, Chekhov never quit his day job as a doctor, and continued supporting his friends and family while suffering everything from hemorrhoids and bad teeth to frequent brain-numbing depressions, phlebitis, and the long case of tuberculosis that eventually killed him at the age of 44.

Born in Taganrog in 1860, Chekhov knew the extremes of Russian life. His father was a freed serf who achieved a brief, hard-fought success as the owner of two local grocery shops before losing them both. He impressed upon Chekhov and his siblings both a respect for the world’s natural forces (he frequently beat them) and a love for music (he devotedly took them to church each week to enjoy the choirs). His mother, a far gentler creature, doesn’t show up as prominently in Chekhov’s correspondence but resides in the background as a vast, humanizing force. Chekhov’s four close-knit brothers and sister each seem to have been both talented and wild. His older brother Nikolai suffered from alcoholism and bad debts that caused him to disappear for weeks at a time, while the youthful Alexander shamed his parents by taking up residence with a married woman.      

Chekhov Becomes Chekhov: The Emergence of a Literary Genius 1886–1887
by Bob Blaisdell
Pegasus Books, 400 pp., $29.95

From a young age, Chekhov delighted in the company of friends and family, and rarely had a dismissive word to say about anyone. (Toward the end of his life, he even spoke kind words for his violent father, who never bothered to read his stories even after he became famous.) What distinguished both the young and middle-aged Chekhov was his continuing capacity for intensive, daily, unremitting work—whether he was studying for medical exams, writing stories and humor pieces, or pouring out correspondence filled with well-considered advice to those he loved.

He often composed his stories at home in the evenings while surrounded by friends and family, taking a few minutes off to play the piano or join in a song. As his brother Mikhail recalled of their first months living together in Moscow, “he thrived on the excitement.” Another friend recalled the continuous and often amorous clamor of young men and women as a “bacchanalia, my dear, a real bacchanalia!” Even amid his worst periods of depression, ill health, and insolvency, Chekhov never tired of company. He wrote to a cousin who moved nearby: “You will not be an infrequent guest, at least every week.… Except for Tuesday, Thursday, and sometimes on Saturdays, I’m always at home in the evenings. Come early so you can stay longer. P.S.: On Tuesdays I’m home after nine, on Thursdays only until nine, so that there is not a single day when you risk not seeing me.”

As Chekhov’s most engaging biographer, Ernest Simmons, once put it: Chekhov “loved life more than the meaning of life.” He took his pleasures small, intimate, and frequent. He was quietly magnanimous and privately monumental—the exact opposite of Tolstoy, who strode widely on the world stage but at home remained a distant, irreproachable personality, especially to his wife and children. Bob Blaisdell’s new biography, Chekhov Becomes Chekhov, is absorbing, pleasurable, and as unaffected as its subject; and while describing Chekhov’s life through close readings of his multitudinous stories and correspondence over two years—1886 to 1887—he doesn’t simply (as the title promises) explain how Chekhov came to be Chekhov but rather how impossible it was for him to become anybody else.

As Blaisdell summarizes these two tumultuous years, it feels almost as exhausting to read about Chekhov as to be him:

In 1886, the 26-year-old Moscow doctor published 112 short stories, humor pieces, and articles. In 1887, he published sixty-four short stories… and three volumes of his short stories were published. Meanwhile, three hours a day, six days a week, Dr. Chekhov treated patients in his office at his family’s residence, and also made house calls; he lived with and supported his parents and younger siblings. In the winter of 1886, he became engaged and unengaged to be married. He mentored other writers with matter-of-fact encouragement and brilliant criticism. He carried on lively, frank, funny correspondence with editors, friends, and his older brothers.… After a blue and dreary summer of 1887, he wrote a four-act play in the space of two weeks.

It wasn’t as if literature beckoned him so much as he slipped in through the back door. Chekhov’s early short comic pieces and stories appeared pseudonymously in poorly paying literary magazines such as the Petersburg-based Fragments, usually under the self-mocking byline of Antosha Checkhonte. And yet quite quickly he established an audience even while, as a doctor, he treated some of the poorest and most desperate people in Moscow.        

The “study of medicine,” he wrote about those years, “had a serious impact on my literary activities … and enriched me with knowledge whose value for me as a writer only a doctor can appreciate.” Illness and death are certainly everywhere in Chekhov, and his people suffer a range of infirmities from tuberculosis and pleurisy to anemia and cancer. (Whenever a Chekhov character coughs, it bodes poorly.) But while his stories grew more serious and emotional in later years, and he began publishing in better-paying, better-regarded journals (such as the right-wing New Times, edited by Aleksei Suvorin), they always retained a comic undertone. His characters strive to achieve things—such as love, self-command, or financial success—but those efforts are made ironic in the face of a world that, while sometimes beautiful to look at, remains indurate to human happiness. And even though New Times brought Chekhov wider success, it didn’t reflect his own liberal politics. Yet this was another sign of Chekhov’s broadly accepting nature since, so far as he believed, politics (like religion) didn’t provide much of an antidote to social, or merely human, miseries. 

He preferred to put his faith in art and science—and the opportunities they provided to approach human lives with calm, objective compassion. On the other hand, almost any whiff of ideology or religion worried him, and in many stories, such as “Uprooted: An Incident From my Travels,” he expresses sympathy with young people who find ways to “uproot” themselves from the religious beliefs of their families (especially those of their fathers). For him, Christianity, Judaism, nihilism, and superstition were all common spiritual drags on human life, much like the physical drags of illness, alcoholism, gambling, and despair. 

Many of these early, relatively brief stories are better than one might expect, and it’s the greatest pleasure of this book that it invites us to read (or reread) such “minor” stories as “The Beggar,” in which a middle-class businessman boasts about how he reformed a poor man with “tough love” rather than handouts—only to learn that it was the kindness of a fellow servant that actually put him on the road to sustainable living. A similar dynamic drives another shortish story, “Who Was to Blame?” in which a school headmaster buys a cat to hunt the mice in his school, but the cat proves shy of mice, which the headmaster tries to correct by beating him. Eventually the headmaster throws the cat into the street, where it spends the rest of its life more terrified of mice than ever before. As the headmaster’s sympathetic nephew recounts at the end of the story, he was himself “taught” Latin by this same uncle and later grows up to find that whenever he sees a classical work, he’s haunted by the vision of his uncle’s “sallow grey face.” “I turn pale,” he confesses, “my hair stands up on my head, and, like the cat, I take to ignominious flight.”

Chekhov’s “twist in the tail” endings are never just jokes but reveal fundamental ironies of human life—such as that cruelty and force don’t teach animals (like us) how to behave but only what to fear (which is, of course, cruelty and force). In “A Work of Art,” a doctor receives a special gift from a poor client—a candelabra decorated with rude orgiastic images that he’s ashamed to display in his home, and so he “regifts” it to someone else. They “regift” it forward, and forward again, until the original client returns to the doctor with a surprise—he found a matching candelabra! Unlike O’Henry’s “Gift of the Magi,” this relay race of gift-giving doesn’t disclose a sentimental message about the selflessness of love; it reveals a fundamental human selfishness: that people don’t appreciate an act of generosity if it makes them look bad in front of their friends.

Chekhov’s early stories have often been dismissed as minor work, or a pulpish training ground that led him to write bigger, better stories, but most of them are no less complex or moving than the later ones, inhabited by the same sorts of men and women who seek (and usually fail) to achieve the same things: love, knowledge, success, freedom, and a good life. But if they’re lucky, being alive and healthy is the only true achievement they ever attain; and even then it’s with the knowledge that it won’t last.

Chekhov may have been one of the most realism-bound of all the great short story writers; he rarely tried his hand at fantastic stories or stories that verged on the supernatural (unlike Maupassant), and whenever “macabre” events occur—such as in “A Night in the Cemetery,” in which a drunk, dreaming of a post-death experience, awakens in a very real mortuary where he had passed out—the punch line of the “joke” is reality itself, which proves more terrifying than any dream. “Chekhov believed in nightmares and hallucinations,” Blaisdell notes, “but not in ghosts”

And while Chekhov’s peers wrote big books on banner-headline topics such as War and Peace, The Possessed, and Crime and Punishment, Chekhov produced the most unassumingly titled stories in modern fiction: “A Boring Story,” “A Trifle,” “A Misfortune,” “A Trivial Incident,” and so on. (His second collection was simply titled “Motley Tales,” as if it were an assembly of scruffy, mismatched mutts.) He presented his stories as small, insignificant, and forgettable; and yet within the first few sentences, each one deftly establishes who and where the main characters are, what is significant about their lives (not much), and what the weather is like—a continuum of natural forces that determines the lives of Chekhov’s characters far more than their private desires and aspirations.

In one of Chekhov’s first stories for Suvorin’s New Times, “The Witch,” the sexton of a rural church sits pondering the storm outside his house. He believes that it’s driven by the passionate desires of his errant wife, whom he envisages as possessing vast supernatural powers:

It was hard to say who was being wiped off the face of the earth, and for the sake of whose destruction nature was being churned up into such a ferment; but, judging from the unceasing malignant roar, someone was getting it very hot. A victorious force was in full chase over the fields, storming in the forest and on the church roof, battering spitefully with its fists upon the windows, raging and tearing, while something vanquished was howling and wailing.… A plaintive lament sobbed at the window, on the roof, or in the stove. It sounded not like a call for help, but like a cry of misery, a consciousness that it was too late, that there was no salvation.

When the storm forces a postman to seek protection in their home, the sexton presumes his wife has lured him there for sex. For Chekhov, all-too-human rage and passion are about as supernatural as the world ever gets.

Chekhov wrote quickly, industriously, and prodigiously during these years, and he largely did it for money. At the same time, he never dissembled about the world as he saw it, and he seemed to care as much for his fictional characters as he did for his friends and family. For him, writing had little to do with technique, plot devices, acceptable notions about politics and religion, or educating his readers. It was only about writing as quickly as possible about the world he knew. “What is there to teach?” one of his many writerly characters asks. “There is nothing to teach. Sit down and write.” Don’t waste life on theorizing about it, Chekhov said, again and again. Which is why Chekhov’s most cerebral characters are unhappy—they think too much about the things they should be doing (telling someone they love them, moving to Moscow, selling the family estate, etc.). If there is any panacea for the stress and bitterness of human life, it is only by exhausting one’s anxieties and ambitions through hard work. And working hard was something that Chekhov rarely stopped doing until he died.        

These two tumultuous years chronicled by Blaisdell came to a conclusion with the production of Chekhov’s first full-length play, Ivanov, leading him to write more for the theater and less for the magazines, at which point he washed up on the happiest, most successful years of his short life. He finally had time and opportunity to write stories at whatever length he preferred, and found his way into his great novella-length stories, such as “Ward Six,” “The Duel,” “A Boring Story,” and “Three Years.”        

“Among the Russians who are happily writing at the present day I am the most light-minded and least serious,” Chekhov wrote near the height of his fame as a story writer. And it was by toiling in what was considered the relatively unserious shorter forms that Chekhov must have felt free to express his monumentally small visions of life. But “light-mindedness” doesn’t do justice to the brooding and complex dispositions of his characters, who are usually too serious for their own good. They commit horrible acts when they think they’re behaving nobly, or noble acts for the most selfish of motives; they misjudge the true qualities of other people and are just as often misjudged in turn; and while they occasionally enjoy love, a nice meal, or a warm day in the sun, they never escape the knowledge that these moments can’t last.       

As Blaisdell confesses in his conclusion to Chekhov Becomes Chekhov: “I have found myself in the midst of writing this biography sometimes reading Chekhov’s publication record like an accountant.” But this almost stolid intrepid reading of Chekhov’s daily productions is what makes this book so pleasurable. It’s the sort of book that dedicated readers rarely find, one that doesn’t presume to teach us about Chekhov so much as simply enjoy him. It is like reading along with a fellow lover of Chekhov, attentive to the nuances of the life behind the work and yet never absorbed by anything but Chekhov’s inexhaustible affection for the odd, brave, ridiculous, grotesque, noble, brutal, and always marvelously understandable people he knows so well.