Thursday, March 29, 2018

`Revealing the Anatomy of Feeling'

In 1894, on March 29 or 30, Chekhov was in Florence, behaving like a tourist, and writing to his sister Maria Chekhova, three years his junior:

“I’m worn out with racing through museums and churches. After seeing the Venus dei Medici I can only say that if she were dressed in modern clothes she would look hideous, especially around the waist. I’m well. The sky is overcast, and Italy without the sun is like a face hidden under a mask. Keep well.” He signs himself “Yours, Antonio,” and adds: “The Dante monument is beautiful.” [Anton Chekhov’s Life and Thought: Selected Letters and Commentary, trans. Michael Henry Heim and Simon Karlinsky, 1973]

His note reminds us of Keats in his letters to his sister Fanny, eight years younger than the poet. Maria was an adult, but we hear the same big-brother joshing and teasing. Both writers would die of tuberculosis and both avoided discussing the subject, tactfully hoping not to alarm their siblings. Both men are on the short list of writers we admire for their words and lives. Both could be beatified as the patron saints of writers – St. Anton, St. John (yet another one).

I’m reading Ilya Ehrenburg for the first time: Chekhov, Stendhal and Other Essays (trans. Anna Bostock and Yvonne Kapp, 1962). The opening piece, “On Re-reading Chekhov,” is seventy pages long and reads like an intelligent old man dabbling in literary nostalgia. It’s difficult to assess the effect of post-Stalinist Soviet politics on Ehrenburg’s words. Was there censorship from within or without? A shrewder eye than mine – a Russian eye – could probably tell. For a non-Russian reader, Ehrenburg is not a scholar but a conversationalist, not afraid to digress within a digression:

“Chekhov was a reserved man, his stories contain many descriptions of human suffering, his humour is not boisterous, his optimism is not blind and he never made much ado about his love of life: he loved life without protestations and without sermons.”

Ehrenburg identifies in Chekhov a rare mingling of qualities. Too many proclaim their optimism like auctioneers – quickly and nonsensically. Few writers so winningly balance a tragic sense with life’s essential comedy. The passage comes from the essay’s final paragraph:

“Whenever I pass Chekhov’s monument at Istra I look at the familiar face and I smile. It is difficult to express the gratitude I feel to this writer, perhaps the most human of them all. He said that a man is enriched by learning about the circulation of the blood or hearing `I remember a glorious moment’: and so it is that Chekhov has truly enriched me by revealing the anatomy of feeling, and many of his sentences have stayed in my memory like verses of Pushkin or, nearer to us, Blok. He did not set out to teach anything but he has taught millions of people. . .”

In Hope Abandoned (trans. Max Hayward, 1974), Nadezhda Mandelstam writes of Ehrenburg:

“He was always the odd man out among the Soviet writers, and the only one I maintained relations with all through the years. He was as helpless as everybody else, but at least he tried to do something for others. . . . There was a great crowd at his funeral, and I noticed that the faces were decent and human ones.”

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