Wednesday, January 27, 2010

`Bound By Contract to His Duty'

When I meet a literate Russian I almost invariably ask if he or she has read Chekhov. Most have, and we talk about favorite stories or anecdotes from the writer’s life. If I’ve judged my subject accurately we sometimes move on to other writers – Tolstoy, say, or Mandelstam. Either way, the Russian is flattered by my interest and sometimes visibly swells with literary patriotism. I’ve never asked a comparable question of a reader from another nationality, and I wonder about the response of an American reader if probed on James or Cather. Would the question provoke pride, befuddlement or politically correct deflection?

We employ “peer tutors” of varying ability in the special-education center where I’ve been working. These are high-school students who volunteer a little time each week to work with the kids, helping with snacks and games, and supervising them on walks and work details. Two new boys showed up Tuesday, one a football player, the other a skinny kid with a Russian surname and accent. While showing the latter where things are kept in the kitchen, I popped the Chekhov question and he, in turn, asked: “Do you know Russian?” No, I only wish I did, I said. He asked skeptically, “But you still read Chekhov? In English?” Well, yes. What's the alternative? “Why?” He’s perhaps my favorite writer, one of the greatest we've ever had. The Russian boy grabbed my hand and pumped it vigorously, as though I had just sold him his first car. “He is a great Russian. We love him. He tells the truth,” the boy said, and I thought of the passage in a letter Chekhov wrote in 1887 to one of his friends, the children's writer Maria Kiselyova:

“The writer is a man bound by contract to his duty and to his conscience. In for a penny, in for a pound: however degrading he may find it, he has no choice but to overcome his squeamishness and soil his imagination with the filth of life.”

Good readers of all nationalities this month celebrate the sesquicentennial of Chekhov’s birth. I’m reading a little bit of him each day, this great, unclassifiable Russian writer, scorned and misunderstood in his day by radicals and reactionaries alike. The Marxists contorted themselves into grotesque shapes trying to homogenize and pasteurize Chekhov. It never worked. Our Russian student, born after Communism’s implosion, said nothing of such attempts to subdue an unruly writer. Chekhov merely made him feel proud to be Russian. As V.S. Pritchett writes in “A Doctor,” a 1973 essay (included in Complete Collected Essays):

“In a well-known letter Chekhov said that it was not the artist’s business to solve questions, but to pose them correctly. Marxists do not allow the posing of the question: they state the answer first and then create the question.”

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