“He is not a writer for periods of great optimism or pessimism or violent agitation, but when the human spirit is convalescing from some orgy of emotion, Chekhov is the perfect companion and counsellor; he is reasonable, scrupulous and gently astringent.”
That’s as good a summation – think of it as a pitch to novice readers – as you’ll find outside reading Chekhov himself. And it doubles as a self-definition of the its author, the great Irish essayist Hubert Butler. “Materialism without Marx: A Study of Chekhov” dates from 1948 and you’ll find it in Independent Spirit: Essays (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996). The most cosmopolitan of self-described provincials, Butler taught English in Leningrad in 1931 and translated Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard (for his brother-in-law Tyrone Guthrie’s Old Vic production starring Charles Laughton). In Chekhov he saw a skeptical, principled, compassionate, nonaligned kindred spirit, immune to ideological fashion.
Butler reviews familiar ground, including Chekhov’s friendship with Alexy Suvorin, the publisher of the influential newspaper New Times who championed Chekhov’s work while attacking Dreyfus and his defender, Emile Zola. Suvorin was a reactionary and anti-Semite. Chekhov was an ardent Dreyfusard and, in the context of late-nineteenth-century Russia, a liberal. Butler rightly calls Suvorin, “outside his own family, the most important person in Chekhov’s life.” Chekhov, whose understanding of and compassion for conflicted human nature is unrivalled, maintained a seventeen-year friendship with Suvorin. Friends suspected Chekhov of harboring sympathy for Suvorin’s unsavory views. The friendship was strained by the Dreyfus Affair, but you fail to understand Chekhov and his values if you think he was merely a cynic literary opportunist. Butler lauds Sakhalin Island, based on Chekhov’s 11-week journey to the penal colony in Siberia. The book was only belatedly translated into English, as of 1948, Butler says, “because it is in conflict with the accepted Chekhov legend.” He writes:
“It is not wistful, resigned and full of subdued melancholy. It is blazing with certainty and indignation, and because of that, in spite of its tragic contents it is perhaps the most hopeful and optimistic of all his writings.”
Find the Oneworld Classics edition of Sakhalin Island, translated by Brian Reeve, which includes excellent notes and the book’s first chapter printed in the original Russian. With Henry Mayhew’s London Labor and the London Poor (1851), it’s the finest nineteenth-century work of journalism I have read. Butler describes Chekhov’s return from Sakhalin after eight months’ absence:
“He returned one December afternoon from his long journey, accompanied by two mongooses, a palm civet and a flat-faced, hairless Buryat priest, all of whom were to be accommodated in the tiny Chekhov flat in Moscow. The Buryat priest did not stay long, but the palm civet darted under a bookcase, from which it never again emerged except by night to forage for food and bite the legs of sleepers. The mongooses, on the other hand, led a sociable life, tearing off the wallpaper to look for bugs, making messes in visitors’ hats and turning their gloves inside out. Chekhov meanwhile wrote his book . . .”
Chekhov was born on this date, Jan. 29, in 1860.