A satisfactory way to celebrate a writer’s memory and express gratitude for his work is to read him and read him again. Saturday was the sesquicentennial of Anton Chekhov’s birth (according to the old-style Julian calendar, January 29 by the Gregorian). While my 6-year-old ran around in the gymnasium downstairs I sat in the lobby of the YMCA with Robert Payne’s translation of Forty Stories. I read six of them at random and realized each, regardless of how early or slight, was about death. Like Laurence Sterne, Chekhov returned irresistibly to the subject. Both were comic writers and both died prematurely of tuberculosis (Sterne at 54, Chekhov at 44).
In “A Dead Body,” written when he was 25, Chekhov describes two “watchers” sitting with a dead body on a summer night – “one of the most disagreeable and uninviting tasks ever given to peasants.” The story could be the germ of a one-act Beckett play. The young peasant – “a tall youngster with a faint mustache and thick black bushy eyebrows” – is carving a spoon from a piece of wood, and is given no name. He calls his older companion Syoma or Syomushka -- a “pock-marked peasant with an ancient face, a scant mustache, and a little goatee beard,” who stares at their fire. The young man berates and patronizes the old one. He tells Syoma:
“You don’t know how to put words together…You’re plain scared of talking. You must be getting on fifty, but you’ve no more sense than a baby. Aren’t you sorry you are such a fool?”
Syoma answers: “`Reckon so.’”
A wandering lay brother traveling on foot between monasteries is attracted by their fire but horrified by the corpse, which is covered with a clean linen sheet and a wooden icon. He wants directions to his uncle’s brickyard (a non sequitur typical of Chekhov). The peasants oblige him but the pilgrim is too frightened by the corpse. The young one agrees to accompany him for five kopecks. They depart and the five-page story concludes like this:
“Syoma closed his eyes and fell into a gentle sleep. The fire gradually went out, and soon the dead body was lost among the great shadows.”
The young peasant pockets his money. The pilgrim is rattled by death. The fool falls asleep beside a corpse.
One of the effects of reading Chekhov is a renewed interest in one’s fellows and a wish to observe them with greater attentiveness. In the chair next to mine in the lobby of the YMCA sat a middle-aged woman in workout clothes and a bulky ski jacket, fiddling with her cell phone. Across from us sat her husband, a short paunchy man with a sparse beard just turning white. He too worked his phone. He never smiled, his wife never stopped. Both were sweaty and limp. She apparently retrieved a message and said, “That was Agnes. She found somebody for Simon. I guess she does wonders with ADHD.”
The husband pretended to listen, uttered a well-timed grunt and poked at his keypad. The wife went on talking.