Thursday, February 12, 2009

`If We Want to Know What Other People Are Like'

The next time a reader asks for a reliable introduction to Chekhov I will suggest he read the stories, starting with “The Lady with the Dog” and “My Life,” and supplement them with “A Chekhov Lexicon” by the Scottish novelist William Boyd. Boyd’s form is productively arbitrary: He draws 26 subjects from Chekhov’s life and work and arranges them alphabetically, from “Anton” to “Zoo,” even finding something worthwhile to do with “X”:

“X-rays: an x-ray of Chekhov's lungs early in his life (had such a thing been available) would have showed the shadowy traces of the `tubercules’: latent walled-in lesions of the bacillus Mycobacterium tuberculosis. Chekhov probably caught the disease in childhood. And he saw his brother Kolia die of it in 1889. Moreover, Chekhov was a doctor: he knew exactly what was in store for him. The bacilli lie dormant in the body, kept at bay by the immune system. At moments when the immune system is under stress or weakened, the bacilli break out of the tubercules and begin to spread extensively in the lungs. The lung tissue is then effectively eaten by the bacilli - consumed - hence the 19th-century name for the disease: `consumption’. In Chekhov's time - the pre-antibiotic era - the only cure was isolation, rest and good nutrition. In the last years of his life Chekhov's lungs became increasingly devastated. The amount of lung tissue available for the exchange of gases in the breathing process radically decreased. Chekhov died of breathing failure, exhaustion and general toxaemia (the tuberculosis had also spread to the spine).”

An indifferent writer would make a tedious hash of Boyd’s scheme, a random retelling of free-floating factoids. Instead, there’s drama, much research rooted in long and careful reading (Chekhov was six-foot, one-inch tall – towering for his time) and oblique literary criticism. Take “R”:

“Real lives. Chekhov said: `Every person lives his real, most interesting life under the cover of secrecy.’ By this I take him to mean that other people are fundamentally opaque, mysterious - even people you know very well, your wife or husband, your family. Janet Malcolm, who has written a profound and insightful book on Chekhov (Reading Chekhov), says that `We never see people in life as clearly as we see the people in novels, stories and plays; there is a veil between ourselves and even our closest intimates, blurring us to each other.’ This, it seems to me, is the great and lasting allure of all fiction: if we want to know what other people are like we turn to the novel or the short story. In no other art form can we take up residence in other people's minds so effortlessly. Chekhov tells us a great deal about his characters but, however, resists full exposure: there always remains something `blurry’, something secret about them. This is part of his genius: this is what makes his stories seem so real.”

A diet rich in Chekhov, consumed with Boyd’s additives, would ease much of the flatulent distress brought on by the strain of trying to define realism. I was speaking to a class of fifth-graders about the similarities between fiction and nonfiction, stressing that their boundaries are permeable though most readers and writers intuitively know the difference. A boy said he thought that was true because in some of the novels he has been reading, he knows the stories are “made up” but he “recognizes” people, places and things. When I asked which novels he said: “David Copperfield by Charles Dickens.” I found the specificity touching.

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