Of Sakhalin Island, Chekhov’s account of his journey to a penal colony in Siberia, the great Irish essayist Hubert Butler writes:
“…it is in conflict with the accepted Chekhov legend. It is not wistful, resigned and full of subdued melancholy. It is blazing with certainty and indignation, and because of that, in spite of its tragic contents it is perhaps the most hopeful and optimistic of all his writings. He believed that it was worthwhile to be passionately indignant about remediable injustice and that to remedy injustice was not the task of the statistician, the trained welfare officer, the experienced committeeman, it was the task of every man of sensibility and integrity.”
Chekhov was a doctor and writer, not a professional do-gooder. He was compassionate, not self-righteous. He had emotions and thoughts, not political schemes. He was neither utopian nor reactionary. In short, he was a writer, a self-appointed vocation inimical to the left and right of his day and ours. That he often chronicles suffering is inarguable; that his intent was didactic is ridiculous.
For the first time I’ve noticed how often Chekhov depicts the suffering of children. In “Vanka,” a story from December 1886, a 9-year-old orphan apprenticed to a shoemaker writes a letter to his grandfather at Christmas. The grandfather, a night watchman in a village, is his only living relative. In Moscow, the shoemaker drags Vanka by the hair, beats him with a belt and knocks him out with a blow on the head from a shoe last. In his letter the boy says how much he misses his dogs, Chestnut and Eel, and adds:
“And I also send greetings to Alyona, to one-eyed Yegorka, and to the coachman, and don’t give my harmonica away to anybody. I remain your grandson, Ivan Zhukov, dear grandpa, come.”
Vanka bought an envelope for a kopeck and asked the clerks at the butcher shop how to mail a letter. He addresses the envelope “To Grandpa in the Village,” then adds “Konstantin Makarych.” Without postage, without a return address, he drops the letter in a mailbox so it can be “carried all over the world on troikas of post-horses with drunken drivers and jingling bells.” An hour later, Vanka is sleeping, dreaming of his grandfather reading the letter to the kitchen maids.
In the Richard Pevear-Larissa Volokhonsky translation, “Vanka” is less than four pages long and that is the secret of its power. This is still early Chekhov. He was 26 and writing sketches for newspapers, trying to support his family. If the story veers occasionally into the maudlin – it is a Christmas story written for a popular audience – the author quickly corrects its course with an objective tone and devotion to homely detail. The story is so brief and concentrated, so vigorously aimed in a single direction (the undeliverable letter), it can’t linger in the mawkish.
Just a year later, in January 1888, Chekhov published “Sleepy,” slightly longer than “Vanka” and significantly darker and more sophisticated. Varka is a 13-year-old nanny. She is exhausted, almost hallucinating, rocking the cradle of a crying baby. She, too, is an orphan, also working for a shoemaker, and her late mother, like Vanka’s, was named Pelageya. The shoemaker twists the girl’s ear. His wife shouts and accuses her of giving the baby the evil eye. These accounts blur into Varka’s dreams and memories – her father dying of a painful hernia, a highway covered with liquid mud. The details are as phantasmagorical and disturbing as Dostoevsky’s, minus the melodrama and mysticism.
Out of her mind with exhaustion, Varka concludes the baby is “the enemy that keeps her from living.” In the story’s final sentence, she strangles the baby and “quickly lies down on the floor, laughing with joy that she can sleep, and a moment later is already fast asleep, like the dead…”
This represents a new sense of democracy in fiction. Every character, regardless of wealth or social position, is worthy of empathy. “Varka is still a long way from “Gooseberries,” “The Lady with the Little Dog,” “In the Ravine” and “The Bishop,” but already we see Chekhov’s remarkable growth as a writer, particularly in the way he blurs inner and outer states. I like the second paragraph, which in a lesser writer might serve as mere scene-setting. Instead, Chekhov renders a prose photograph, all the elements of which recur as motifs throughout the story:
“A green oil lamp is burning before an icon; a rope is stretched across the whole room from corner to corner, with swaddling clothes and large black trousers hanging on it. A big green spot from the icon lamp falls on the ceiling, and the swaddling clothes and trousers cast long shadows on the stove, the cradle, and Varka… [Chekhov’s ellipsis] When the icon lamp begins to flicker, the spot and the shadows come alive and start moving as if in the wind. It is stuffy. There is a smell of cabbage soup and shoemaker’s supplies.”
This passage, so densely and objectively detailed, reminds me of similar passages in Whitman, especially in “Song of Myself.” This comes from the eighth section:
“The little one sleeps in its cradle,
I lift the gauze and look a long time, and silently brush away flies with my hand.
“The youngster and the red-faced girl turn aside up the bushy hill,
I peeringly view them from the top.
“The suicide sprawls on the bloody floor of the bedroom,
I witness the corpse with its dabbled hair, I note where the pistol has fallen.”
In Chekhov (1860-1904) and Whitman (1819-1892) we see a mingling of realism and compassion new to literature. What Whitman wrote elsewhere in “Song of Myself” might have been written by either of them in prose, poetry or life: “I am the man, I suffer’d, I was there.”