“No writer, not even Chekhov in his short stories, can be Vermeer. A painter can leave you with nothing left to say. A writer leaves you with everything to say. It is in the nature of his medium to start a conversation within you that will not stop until your death, and what he is really after is to be among the last voices you will hear.”
In this sense, literature is the humblest of arts, the easiest to do and the most difficult to do memorably well. Every twit is convinced he can write, and he can if we define writing as marks on a page or screen. Clive James in his chapter devoted to Lichtenberg in Cultural Amnesia (2007) is shrewd to cite Chekhov for his example. In his lifetime Chekhov’s stories were said to be about nothing (when they were not about a critic’s hobbyhorse, generally political in nature). Some readers still find them so, and confuse Chekhov’s amusement at human foibles with fluff. Dr. Chekhov is a diagnostician with no cure to peddle.
Take “The Lottery Ticket” (trans. Constance Garnett, The Wife and Other Stories, 1918), written by Chekhov in 1887 when he was twenty-seven. Ivan Dmitritch looks for the numbers of winning lottery tickets in the newspaper. He finds the “series number,” the first four digits on his wife’s ticket, listed. But he pauses before checking the final two numbers. “`And if we have won,’ he said--`why, it will be a new life, it will be a transformation! The ticket is yours, but if it were mine I should, first of all, of course, spend twenty-five thousand on real property in the shape of an estate; ten thousand on immediate expenses, new furnishing . . . travelling . . . paying debts, and so on. . . . The other forty thousand I would put in the bank and get interest on it.’”
Chekhov devotes the next two pages to Ivan Dmitritch’s detailed, rapid-fire reverie – a garden, “a summer soup, cold as ice,” a bathing-shed, a “big glass of vodka,” “a salted mushroom or a soused cucumber.” Then his fantasy turns to travel, the South of France, Italy, India. Masha, his wife interrupts. She, too, wishes to travel. Now Chekhov dos the miraculous. The husband resents his wife’s interest in travel. He would rather travel alone, and imagines how unpleasant a traveling companion Masha would make. She would fret about money. “And for the first time in his life his mind dwelt on the fact that his wife had grown elderly and plain, and that she was saturated through and through with the smell of cooking.” Inevitably: “She glanced at him too, and also with hatred and anger.” Naturally, they do not hold the winning ticket. Here comes the decrescendo:
“Hatred and hope both disappeared at once, and it began immediately to seem to Ivan Dmitritch and his wife that their rooms were dark and small and low-pitched, that the supper they had been eating was not doing them good, but lying heavy on their stomachs, that the evenings were long and wearisome. . . .”
Earlier in the paragraph quoted at the top, James writes: “Written works of art aren’t perfect. They create an air of being so, but they are too full of life to keep all their own implications within the perimeter.”