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The Stature of Anton Chekhov

When Anton Chekhov died in Badenweiler in July 1904 of tuberculosis of the lungs, I was a young man who had embarked upon literature with some short stories and a novel which owed a great deal to the art of fiction in nineteenth-century Russia. Yet I seek in vain today to recall the impression made upon me then by the death of the Russian writer only fifteen years my senior. My mind is a blank. For, like the rest of my countrymen, I was little familiar with Chekhov’s work.

What were the causes of this ignorance? Speaking for myself, it was probably because I was under the spell of the magnum opus, fascinated by those monumental epics, which are the fruit of sustained inspiration for I worshipped the great achievers like Balzac, Tolstoy, and Wagner, and it was my dream to emulate them if I could. Whereas Chekhov (like Maupassant, whom by the way I knew much better) confined himself to the modest dimensions of the short story; and this did not call for heroic endurance throughout the years and decades but could be tossed off by some happy-go-lucky artist in a day or two or a week or two, at most. I felt a certain disdain for this, hardly realizing then that genius can be bounded in a nutshell and yet embrace the whole fullness of life by virtue of a brevity and terseness deserving the highest admiration. Such works attain to full epic stature and can even surpass in intensity the great towering novels which inevitably flag at times and subside into noble boredom. If I understood that better in later life than in my youth, this was largely owing to my growing intimacy with Chekhov’s art; for his short stories rank with all that is greatest and best in European literature.

Speaking more generally, it seems to me that Chekhov was under-estimated for so long in western Europe, and in Russia too, because of his extremely sober, critical, and doubting attitude towards himself—a most disarming quality which however, far from inspiring respect, set a bad example to the world at large. For the opinion we have of ourselves is not without influence on the picture which our fellow-men make of us; it colors their notions and may falsify them. This short-story teller was for too long convinced of the slightness of his gifts and of his lack of artistic distinction. Until the end he had nothing of the literary grand seigneur about him, still less of the prophet or the sage, unlike Tolstoy who looked down on Chekhov amicably and, according to Gorki, saw in him “an excellent, quiet, modest creature.”

There is something disconcerting in such praise from a man whose colossal conceit did not fall short even of Wagner’s. Chekhov would probably have repaid it with a calm polite, ironical smile. For politeness and dutiful veneration mixed with some irony characterized Chekhov’s attitude to the great man of Yasnaya Polyana; and at time the irony developed into open rebellion; not of course in his personal intercourse with that overpowering personality, but in letters to third persons. On his return from his self-sacrificing journey to the exiles’ island of Sakhalin (a descent into hell if ever there was one), he wrote:

What a sour and sullen fellow I should be now if I had remained between my four walls. Before my journey for instance I regarded Tolstoy’s Kreutzersonata as a great event; now on the other hand it seems to me silly and absurd.

Tolstoy’s imperial but also questionable prophetic airs got on his nerves. “may the devil take this philosophy of the great ones of this earth!” he wrote. “All the great sages are as despotic as generals, and as uncivil as generals, too, because they are convinced of their impunity.” That was chiefly aimed at Tolstoy’s abuse of doctors as worthless scoundrels. For Chekhov was a doctor, a doctor by passionate conviction, a man of science, and of faith in science; he believed science to be one of the forces making for progress, the great antagonist of scandalous conditions, since it enlightens the heads and the hearts of men.

In short he was a positivist—from modesty; a simple servant of remedial truth, who never for a moment laid claim to any of the liberties taken by the great.

His long-persisting doubts of himself s an artist extended, in my opinion, beond the self to literature altogether. Literature, to use his own words, was his mistress; whereas science was his lawfully-wedded wife, in whose presence he felt guilt of unfaithfulness because of his love for the other. Hence the exhausting journey to Sakhalin, endangering his already weakened constitution, and his report of the fearful conditions prevailing on the island, a report which caused a sensation and actually resulted in some reforms. Hence, too, his tireless activity as a country doctor which kept pace with his literary work; the administration of the district hospital of Svenigorod near Moscow; the fight against the cholera which he conducted in Molichovo, his own small property. Meanwhile his fame as an author was growing, but he viewed this skeptically, with conscience-stricken modesty. “Am I not bamboozling the reader,” he asked, “and throwing dust in his eyes? For after all I am unable to answer the really vital questions.”

His allotted span of life was short. He was only twenty-nine years of age when the first symptoms of tuberculosis declared themselves; he was a doctor; he knew what that meant, and one cannot help wondering if his foresight as to the brevity of his guest performance here below did not contribute its quota to that strange modesty of his, that skeptical, infinitely winning and unobtrusive humility which continued to characterize his spiritual and artistic bearing as a whole, including even the instinct to turn it to account as a typical feature of his art and as the peculiar magic of his existence. Twenty-five years—that was roughly the time allowed him for his creative life; and truly he made full use of it; for a good 600 stories bear his name, not a few of which have the compass of the long short story; and there are masterpieces, such as Ward Number Six, among them. In this tale a doctor, sickened by the stupidity and wretchedness of the world of normal men, becomes so friendly with an interesting madman that the world judges him to be mad himself and locks him up. This story of eight-seven pages, written in 1892, makes no direct accusation; but it is so frighteningly symbolic of the debasement of autocracy that young Lenin said to his sister:

When I had finished that story yesterday evening, I found that it positively haunted me. I couldn’t stay in my room. I got up and went out. I felt as if I myself were locked up in Ward Number Six.

But, if references are to be made and praises bestowed, then I must certainly mention A Tedious Tale, for it is my favorite among all Chekhov’s stories, an outstandingly fascinating work which for gentleness, sadness, and strangeness has no equal in the literary world. It is an astonishing production; if for no other reason, because this tale, allegedly “tedious’ yet actually overwhelming, is put into the mouth of an old man by a young man of thirty with the utmost sympathy and understanding. The hero is a world-renowned scholar with the rank of a general, an Excellency, who often calls himself by that title in his confessions. “My Excellency,” he says, adding, as it were, an inaudible “Good Lord!” or “Dear me!” For, high though he stands in the official hierarchy, he stands high enough spiritually for self-critical and altogether critical mind to regard his fame and the veneration shown to him as ludicrous; and to despair in the depths of his soul because his life, so full of honors, has always lacked a spiritual center, a “central idea,” and that therefore at bottom it had been a life without sense and without hope. He writes:

Every feeling and every thought lives an isolated existence in my mind; and the most experienced analyst will not discover in my judgments on science, the theatre, literature, etc., etc., what people call a central idea, or the God of living men. And if that is lacking, there is nothing but the void…It is not in the least surprising therefore that the last months of my life have been darkened by thoughts and feelings worthy of a slave and a barbarian and that indifference is now my portion. For if something higher and stronger than all external circumstances does not inform the life of a man, then indeed a common cold is enough to disturb his equilibrium; and all his pessimism or optimism together with his great and little thoughts are merely symptoms and nothing else. I am defeated. Why, then, should I continue to think or to argue? No, I shall simply sit and wait for what is coming in silence.

“And my ending is despair”; Prospero’s last words keep on recurring to the mind when reading the confessions of Nikolai Stepanovitch, so old and so famous, who says: “But as it happens, I fail to love the popularity of my name. I am afraid it had deceived me.” Anton Chekhov was not old, he was young when he put those words into the mouth of the general; but he had not very long to live; and perhaps that was why he was able to anticipate the mood of old age with such incredible, uncanny prescience. “I fail to love the popularity of my name.” For Chekhov, too, did not love his increasing fame; he felt “for some inexplicable reason uneasy about it.” Was he not deceiving his readers by dazzling them with his talent, since he was “unable to answer the really vital questions”? “A conscious life without a definite philosophy of life,” he wrote to a friend, “is no life at all, but a burden and a nightmare.” In A Tedious Tale, Katya, the ward of the famous scholar, turns to him in vain. She has suffered shipwreck as an actress; and she, the one human being whom he still cares for, loving her with the secret tenderness of old age, asks him in her helplessness and distress: “What shall I do? Answer me, Nikolai Stepanovitch, I implore you. What shall I do?” And the only answer he can give is this: “I don’t know, Katya, Upon my honor, I don’t know.” Then she leaves him. The question: “What is to be done?” haunts Chekhov’s writings at every turn in a deliberately confused way which even borders on the ludicrous because of the odd, helpless, stilted manner in which his characters indulge in fruitless speculations on the subject of this vital question. The truth about life which this author felt it his bounden duty to proclaim devalues the very ideas and opinions which he has his figures argue and fight about. That truth is by nature ironical.

With the working class Chekhov had no contact at all and he never studied Marx. He was not a workers’ poet like Gorki. But he found accents for his haunting chagrin in the face of existing conditions which went to the heart of his people, as for instance in The Peasants, that great and awful social document. During a religious festival, a sacred image, “The Giver of Life,” is carried round in a procession from village to village. A vast concourse of villagers and visitors, surrounded by dust and noise, streams out to meet it; they all stretch out their hands towards it, gazing at it ardently and calling out with tears: “Our Protectress! Our Mother!”:

It was as if all of them suddenly understood that there was something else besides empty space between the earth and heaven, that the rich and the mighty had not snatched everything away, that there was still some protection against injuries and wrongs, against slavish oppression, against deep, unbearable misery, and against the fearful evil of drink…“Our Protectress. Our Mother!” But hardly was the ceremony over and the sacred image borne away, than everything went on in the same old way as before, and coarse, drunken voices were heard again from the inn.

The compassion and the bitterness (“everything went on in the same old way”) are typical of Chekhov; and I am inclined to think that his popularity, so strikingly manifested at his death and burial in Moscow, had its roots in descriptions of this nature. This manifestation caused a “loyal” newspaper to remark that Anton Pavlovitch must have belonged to the “stormy petrel of the Revolution”.

He did not look like a stormy petrel, nor like a moujik turned genius, not yet like Nietzsche’s pale criminal. The portraits show a slightly built man dressed in the fashion of the day: a starched collar, a pince-nez on a narrow cord, a short pointed beard, regular, rather suffering features and a melancholy regard. His features express intelligent attention, modesty, skepticism, and kindness. They betray no symptoms of a stormy inner life, either; it is almost as if he were too modest to entertain such passions; there is no sign in his life that he ever felt passionately about a woman; and biographers are of the opinion that he, who could describe love so well, never experienced erotic rapture. Yet he married none the less, three years only before his death, a marriage which came to pass as a result of his happy relationship with the Moscow Art Theatre and his friendship with Stanislavski; for his bride-elect was the gifted Olga Knipper. His letters to her have been preserved, written in his own hand; and they too are wary in the extreme of emotion and keep to a whimsically ironical tone.

These last years in the Crimea, where his health forced him to reside and where the Art Theatre visited him en bloc to play his pieces to him, were perhaps the happiest of his life, owing to his marriage, his friendship with Gorki, and the honor of Tolstoy’s company; for the latter would spend periods of convalescence from time to time in a  castle near Yalta. In addition the invalid  rejoiced like a child over his election to honorary membership in the literary section of the Petersburgh Academy of Science. But when, two years later, Gorki’s membership was rejected by the Government because of his radical views, Chekhov, like Korolenko, resigned as a protest. His last story was “The Bride” (1903) and his last play The Cherry Orchard; and in these works, calmly facing the coming dissolution and refusing to make much ado even about his illness and death, he left us with a message of hope. His life’s work, which made no monumental claim to the dimensions of epic, nevertheless enfolds the whole of Russia, that vast country where eternal nature exists side by side with the hopelessly unnatural conditions of its pre-revolutionary social fabric. “The insolence and idleness of the strong; the ignorance of the weak vegetating like animals—and everywhere incredible poverty, affliction, degeneration, drunkenness, hypocrisy and lying…” But the nearer the end approach, the more affectingly the inner light of faith in the future played round the dark picture; and ever more brightly and warmly a poet’s loving gaze embraced a coming communion of proud, free, and active human beings, “new, noble, and reasonable patterns of life on whose threshold we are perhaps already standing and whose shape we sometimes foresee.”