Renowned literary critic Joseph Stalin lauded Maxim Gorky as “the great humanist” and fighter for “all progressive humanity” [sound familiar?], Solomon Volkov notes in The Magical Chorus: A History of Russian Culture from Tolstoy to Solzhenitsyn. In contrast, Volkov writes:
“Chekhov had been more concerned with the happiness of the individual; in the opinion of many people, he did not fight for anything. He simply sang the mundane – that was how he was perceived by critics and readers. They did not like the fact that Chekhov, unlike Tolstoy (and later Gorky and Solzhenitsyn), did not aspire to be a leader or teacher of life. Contrary to the Russian cultural tradition, he was not a prophet, or a yurodivy (holy fool), or dissident. That is why Chekhov became so popular on the stages of Europe and the United States. The West is mistaken when it takes Chekhov for a typical Russian writer.”
A writer’s job is writing not fighting (contra Ishmael Reed). Writing well is difficult enough, and few have written better than Chekhov. I don’t know what someone might mean by “typical Russian writer” or “typical American writer.” The best artists are a demographic of one and represent only themselves, not a nation or other superfluous group. Volkov’s observation reminds me of an interview I had with a scholar of Japanese cinema. I told him Ikiru was among my favorite films and he informed me that Kurosawa was the least Japanese of Japanese directors, which accounted for his popularity in the West. I was supposed to feel chastened.
Thursday was Chekhov’s 149th birthday, which I observed by finishing Rosmund Bartlett’s Chekhov: Scenes from a Life and reading three of his stories. He wrote “In the Horsecart” in 1897 while living at Melikhovo, his beloved country estate 45 miles south of Moscow. Maria Vasilyevna is a village schoolteacher, born in Moscow, unmarried, resigned to the loneliness and squalor of life in the provinces. Chekhov begins his story by contrasting the beauty of a Russian spring with Maria Vasilyevna’s dull misery (as translated by Robert Payne in Forty Stories):
“The highway was dry, a splendid April sun was shedding a fierce warmth on the earth, but there was still snow in the ditches and the forests. The long, dark, cruel winter had only just come to an end, spring came suddenly, but for Maria Vasilyevna sitting in the horsecart, there was nothing new or interesting in the warmth of the sun, or in the languid, luminous forests warmed by the breath of spring, or in the flocks of dark birds flying over the puddles in the fields – puddles as large as lakes – or in the marvelous and unfathomable sky into which it seemed one could plunge with such joy.”
Joy is not a state we associate with a “typical Russian writer” – another clichéd notion Chekhov happily ignores. Later in the story, Maria Vasilyevna experiences a brief hallucinatory vision of joy, heightened by its contrast with her stifling world of drunken peasants, larcenous bureaucrats and mud. In a letter he wrote one spring at Melikhovo (in Bartlett’s translation), Chekhov expresses a similar mingling of oppressiveness and rapture:
“Living in the country is inconvenient, the intolerable rasputitsa [mud season, described by Bartlett as “a glorious word conveying a sense of roads literally coming undone”] has begun, but something is going on in nature which is so amazing and moving that it makes up for all the inconveniences of life with its poetry and novelty. Every day brings a surprise better than the one before. The starlings have landed, water is gurgling everywhere, there is green grass already on thawed ground. The day stretches like eternity. It feels like I’m living in Australia, at the edge of the world; my state of mind is calm, contemplative and animal, in the sense that I’m not worried about what happened yesterday and am not thinking about tomorrow.”
Bartlett portrays a man sick for 15 years with tuberculosis, dead at 44, who reveled in fishing, flowers, croquet, good food, women, conversation and the Russian language, and who worked with extraordinary ferocity on his stories and plays. She gives us one of literature’s rare heroes, whose work is typical only of Chekhov. Happy birthday, Anton Pavlovich!