“People claim that Chekhov hated life, that he was a pessimist, a grumbler. Slander! The bleakest of his stories is harmonious. His world is elegant, perfect, charming in a feminine way. `Gusev’ is more perfect than anything Tolstoy ever wrote. Chekhov is the most mellifluous, the most musical of all writers.”
This sane judgment was written in 1907, three years after Chekhov’s death (and three before Tolstoy’s), by twenty-five-year-old Kornei Chukovsky (1882-1969), who went on to become a beloved writer of Russian poetry for children, a literary critic and the translator of Defoe, Whitman, Chesterton and Synge, among others. The source of the passage at the top is from a remarkable volume, Chukovsky’s Diary, 1901-1969 (trans. Michael Henry Heim, 2005), which begins during the reign of Nicholas II and ends with Brezhnev.
During his lifetime and ever since, Chekhov has been confidently misunderstood by critics and readers alike. He is gloomy, too light-weight, too conservative, a decadent, too liberal, too apolitical, a nihilist, a shameless bourgeois, and a realist or not a realist. Oh, and nothing happens in his stories. The only other major writer I can think of who is comparably misunderstood is Kipling.
“Gusev” is probably the first Chekhov story I read. As a kid I found it in a library copy of Randall Jarrell’s Book of Stories: An Anthology (1958). Jarrell adored Chekhov. He translated The Three Sisters. Peter Taylor remembered him as the tennis coach at Kenyon College, sitting with his players “about the soda shop reading Auden and Chekhov and Proust.” In a lecture he delivered at Harvard, Jarrell told his audience that “Proust and Chekhov, Hardy and Yeats and Rilke . . . demand to be shared.” Jarrell is remembered for his pans (and they are delicious) but his enthusiasms are unforgettable.
“Gusev” is claustrophobically sad, and yet exhilarating. Chekhov gives us a clinically described death at sea: “He slept for two days, and at midday on the third two sailors came down and carried him out.” Never has omniscient narration been so powerful and, in the final sentences, almost surreal. It’s as though Chekhov sees everything. The body is dumped overboard. Chekhov’s vision is audacious and unblinking:
“After that another dark body appeared. It was a shark. It swam under Gusev with dignity and no show of interest, as though it did not notice him, and sank down upon its back, then it turned belly upwards, basking in the warm, transparent water and languidly opened its jaws with two rows of teeth. The harbour pilots are delighted, they stop to see what will come next. After playing a little with the body the shark nonchalantly puts its jaws under it, cautiously touches it with its teeth, and the sailcloth is rent its full length from head to foot; one of the weights falls out and frightens the harbour pilots, and striking the shark on the ribs goes rapidly to the bottom.”
“Overhead at this time the clouds are massed together on the side where the sun is setting; one cloud like a triumphal arch, another like a lion, a third like a pair of scissors . . . . From behind the clouds a broad, green shaft of light pierces through and stretches to the middle of the sky; a little later another, violet-coloured, lies beside it; next that, one of gold, then one rose-coloured . . . The sky turns a soft lilac. Looking at this gorgeous, enchanted sky, at first the ocean scowls, but soon it, too, takes tender, joyous, passionate colours for which it is hard to find a name in human speech.”
It’s as though suddenly God takes over the story. Here is an entry from Chukovsky’s Diary, dated July 15, 1954:
"Today is the fiftieth anniversary of Chekhov’s death. Exactly fifty years ago, while I was living in London, I read the announcement of it in the Daily News and spent the whole night walking round and round the Bedford Square fence weeping—sobbing—like a madman. It was the greatest loss of my life . . . Fifty years have passed, yet my love for him—for his face, for his work—remains constant.”