LIFE ORTRAITIST

ДАТА ПУБЛИКАЦИИ: 19 августа 2021
ИСТОЧНИК: Science in Russia, №1, 2010, C.57-62 (c)


© Olga BORISOVA

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Anton Pavlovich Chekhov (1860-1904)... The Russian storyteller and dramatist well known the world over. A careful observer of detail and character, mood and atmosphere, he portrayed provincial Russian life in understated and ironic stories and in tragicomic plays. His works have been translated in as good as a hundred languages. Chekhov tested his quill still back in school years in funny strips, jovial stories and essays. In his college days as a Moscow University medical student he wrote for many illustrated magazines that carried his comic stories by the hundred. "I am a gazetteer because I am writing all too much, but this is for the time being," Chekhov wrote to his brother. "I won't die like that."



Indeed, his contemporaries were soon to notice the budding talent, and they took him in good earnest. The young story writer gained public recognition by his collection of stories At Dusk (1887) which merited a Pushkin Prize from the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences in 1888. This book "attests to Mr. Chekhov's obvious talent," wrote Acad. Afanasy Bychkov, an eminent historian and director of H.M. Public Library in St. Petersburg, who reviewed Chekhov's collection of stories. The author shows "a good deal of observation and sincerity; the characters he portrays are true to life; some of the stories are artistically elegant..."

Public recognition as well as the favorable reception from eminent writers of the day, the great Leo Tolstoy first and foremost, impelled Anton Chekhov to take a fresh look at his literary pursuits. His works gained in depth and dimensionality, emphasizing mood and atmosphere, rather than external action. From now on the author becomes closely involved with ideological searchings of Russian intellectuals, the intelligentsia. Some of his characters chafe under their philistine, run-of-the-mill existence, while others submit humbly to the banality of their life. All that is in the limelight now.

Chekhov thus becomes a master storyteller poignantly conscious of the burning problems of his time, such as the benighted ways of the peasantry (My Life, 1896; The Muzhiks, 1897; In the Ravine, 1900), the moral degradation and impotence of the intelligentsia incapable of active engagement (The House With a Mezzanine, 1896; The Man in a Case, Gooseberries, About Love—these three written in 1898) and other social issues much in the public eye.

The same motifs permeate the plays The Seagull (1896), Uncle Vanya (1897), The Three Sisters (1901), and The Cherry Orchard (1903), where the dramatist sought to carry the principles of his "objective" prose, as he put it, into his plays: "People dine, they just dine, while their happiness is forged or their life is broken in the meantime..." Each personage lives through his or her drama, none is able to help others, all pine and suffer because of their impotence. Although the author had nothing to say about ways towards spiritual regeneration, and what is to be done to relieve one's sufferings, and urged no repentence, he provided answers to many life issues nonetheless. That's what premier Russian writers noted in Chekhov above all.

"... Chekhov, you see, was a peerless artist... That's it, peerless... The life artist... The merit of his work is that it is understandable and akin both to any Russian and to anyone in general... That's the main thing.

"He took from life whatever he saw, regardless, of the substance of what he saw.

"But if take he did, he conveyed it in great imagery and in clear detail... What carried him away at the

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moment of creation, that he reproduced down to minute traits... Sincere he was, that was his great virtue, he wrote about what he saw and how he saw it.

"Owing to his candor, he created new, utterly new, as I see it, forms of writing—new for the entire world, the forms I have not seen anywhere. His language is an extraordinary language. I remember as I first began to read him, he seemed to me so odd, so "awkward"; but as I got a grasp of him, that language of his captivated me.

"Yes, it is thanks to this 'awkwardness' or—I do not know how to put it—that he captivated you most unusually, just against your will, he infuses your soul with wondrous artistic images...

"... I say it again that Chekhov created new forms, he flouted any kind of sham modesty, and I say that in his art he, Chekhov, is much superior to me!.. He is a one-of-a-kind writer...

"... And I want also to tell you that Chekhov has yet another great merit: he is among those few writers whom, like Dickens and Pushkin and just a few others, you can read all over again, many times. 1 know that by my own experience...

"... Now may I tell you: Chekhov's death is a great loss for all of us, all the more so as we have lost both a peerless artist and a charming, sincere and honest man... He was a fascinating man, modest, lovable..."

Leo Tolstoy. Newspaper "Rus", July 15, 1904

"I first met him in Moscow, at the end of ninety five [1895]. I still remember some of his catch phrases.

— Do you write much? he asked me one day.

I said I did but little.

— That's a pity, said he glumly in his low chest-voice.— See, you ought to work... Indefatigably... all of your life.

Pausing, he added just beside the point:

— As I see it, once you have written a story, you should scratch out the beginning and the end. We, fiction writers, are telling heaps of lies here... And make it short, as short as possible...

"His laughter was most infecting, but he laughed mostly only when someone was telling something funny; yet he himself was telling the funniest things without a shadow of a smile. He was very fond of jokes, absurd nicknames, spoofs; even in his last years, when he felt a bit better, he was inexhaustible in that, though he never emphasized this or that: he would just blurt out two or three words, with a naughty glint of his eye above the pince-nez.

"Accurate and chary of word was he even in everyday life. He prized the word immensely—high-flown, false and bookish words went against the grain with him; he spoke nicely, in his own peculiar manner, forthrightly and clearly. His speech did not betray an author in him-similes or epithets he used but rarely, and if he did, those were just commonplace figures of speech, he never flaunted them, took no delight in an apt word he uttered."

Ivan Bunin, Nobel Prize for literature (1933). "From Literary Reminiscences: Chekhov". 1904-1914

"That's strange-they did not understand Chekhov, and how! He, an 'inveterate pessimist' as he was labeled, was never tired of hoping for a radiant future, he never

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Illustration to Anton Chekhov's story THE CHAMELEON. Artist, Sergei Gerassimov. 1945



Illustration to Anton Chekhov's story THE MAN IN A CASE. The Kukryniks trio (artists Mikhail Kuprianov, Porfiry Krylov and Nikolai Sokolov). 1941

ceased to believe in the invisible, but stubborn and fruitful work of the flower of our homeland. They who were on intimate terms with him do remember his pat phrase which he used to repeat ever so often, sometimes malapropos in a conversation, and which he uttered so assuredly:

— Listen, you know what? In ten years Russia will have a constitution of her own.

"Oh yes, even here his motif was there about the radiant future in store for humanity, the motif that resounded in all his works of the last years...

"I think it was always, day in and day out, and perhaps even at night when asleep or awake in insomnia that he did invisible, stubborn work, at times even sub-consciously-the work of weighing things out, defining and memorizing them. He knew how to listen and draw one out so well as nobody else could do; but often, amidst lively talk, one could see his attentive and kindly look suddenly turn fixed, turn inward, as if going into some inner recesses, contemplating something mysterious and important being wrought within his soul...

"Chekhov was invariably sympathetic, considerate and kind towards young beginners. No one left him being crushed by his immense talent or by one's own insignificance. Never did he say to anyone, 'Do as I do, and look how I act'."

Alexander Kuprin, "Ad Chekhov's Memoriam", first published in a collection of "Znaniye" ("Knowledge") Publishers, 1904

The West European public discovered Chekhov at the close of the 1880s, while the Americans did that throughout the 1890s. Chekhov's plays came to be staged here and there. His fame grew by leaps and bounds. But he took it with a grain of salt. In one of his letters dated 1892 we read, "The Germans translated me long ago. The Chechs and the Serbians approve, too. And the French are not devoid of reciprocity either." And in another letter of the same year, "It's comforting indeed that they have translated me into Danish. No worries about Denmark now." Chekhov did not think his plays would elicit much interest among foreign spectators: "The Russian vaudeville, no mater how well written, will be no success on the French stage where superb vaudevilles are counted by the hundred." But his misgivings proved wrong in the long run—the world's most

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talented stage directors turned to his drama pieces. Chekhov has inspired Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961), Joseph Heller (1923-1999) in the United States, Eugene Dabit (1898-1936) in France, and Peter Handke of Austria (born in 1942).

Chekhov got kudos also from George Bernard Shaw: Chekhov inspired the famous British author (Nobel Prize in literature, 1925) to write his Heartbreak House: the Heartbreak House is not just the name of a play... It is a cultural, idle Europe before the war... The Russian dramatist Chekhov has four charming stage studies for the Heartbreak House, three of which-The Cherry Orchard, Uncle Vanya and The Seagull—were staged in England. That House was depicted by Leo Tolstoy, too, in his Fruits of Enlightenment with severity and contempt proper to him. He nourished no sympathies for it: to him it was the House where the soul of Europe was suffocating... Tolstoy was no pessimist. He did not want the House to last, and once he was able to bring it down on the heads of the agreeable and courteous voluptaries inhabiting it, he took to the pickaxe vigorously...

Chekhov was more of a fatalist. He did not believe his charming heroes would extricate themselves on their own. He knew that sooner or later bailiffs would auction and chase them off. That is why he had no scruples in stressing their appeal, he even flattered them.

Bernard Shaw admitted that in England, where the theaters are just common commercial enterprises, Chekhov's plays, far less profitable than merry-go-rounds and swings, could stand but a few performances. The spectators were amazed and said, "How typically Russian it is!" But something else amazed Bernard Shaw as well. While the typically Norwegian plays of Ibsen reflected the life of intellectuals and the petty bourgeoisie of European fauburgs, the typically Russian plays of Chekhov reflected the life of country estates of all European countries. Over there, at those estates, the delight in music, literature and theater supplanted hunting, shooting, fishing, flirtation, food and drink. And everywhere, the same nice people and the same shocking incorporeality.

In the last twenty years Chekhov was, in his view, the most powerful magnet for young writers of several countries... In none other among the Russian writers of his generation shall we find such an understanding of the Russian mind and the Russian heart, such an infallible sense of the typically Russian character... A country physician, like nobody else, has a possibility of observing human nature; he sees it under the yoke of pain and misfortunes, deprived of any assistance except its own endurance. To Chekhov, a man very sensitive and not lacking a method, it must have been incredibly hard to observe the suffering of his fellow neighbors incapable of drawing strength from the national traits of their character which he, as an inborn artist, saw with extraordinary poignancy.

High praise from John Galsworthy; Nobel Prize in literature (1932)

"Chekhov, like Maupassant whom I knew much better by the way, was a master of the 'little form', author of short stories. In their artistic verve they surpass great large-size creations that may inevitably lose their pace and get deferentially dull. If I came to understand that better in my later life than in my youth, I owe that chiefly to Chekhov's narrative skills that, no doubt, belong to all what is the strongest and best in European literature."

Thomas Mann, Nobel Prize in literature (1929). "Essay on Chekhov". 1954

"Exactly half a century has passed since the death of one of the greatest our writers and we, people of the 20th century, are thinking, in clear consciousness, all together, about him—be it in Paris or in Moscow. Progressive weeklies and magazines... devote special issues to

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Chekhov. Critics, teachers, stage producers, dramatists and actors praise his memory in them... Unlike his naturalist contemporaries Chekhov depicts reality in dark shades not because of his personal goüt and not because this is his method. He paints the world in the hues of his time, in the hues of boredom and grief. And yet Chekhov offers other hues as well. The world of Chekhov's writings fortells a future world..."

André Wurmser, French author, critic and journalist. "Russia's Famous Writer". 1954

"I learned by this ABC that 1 loved, the ABC of life. The Chekhov stories, now short, now long, that have but so little of sentimentality in them like an autumn leaf has of moisture; these clear-cut and accurate sketches; these ocular lessons unchallenged in their radiant brightness, where humor is the anchor of salvation for the heart—all that infuses you just against your will, like heat or cold. It gets into every skin tegument of yours, reaches nerve ganglia and teaches you to feel. Had I not read Chekhov on end, would I have seen so clearly those striking images still alive in my memory? His books have blended with life, life has taken his books by storm, the divide between fact and fiction has vanished, and in my memory I have ceased to tell real people from those living on his pages... The vast, all-engulfing pity, human solidarity, the deep injury inflicted upon man, the moral ugliness and stupidity have overwhelmed me by turns, like tidal waves in dreams, surging higher than the tallest skyscraper."

Elsa Triolet-Aragon, French author and translator, Concourt Prize winner. "L'histoire d'Anton Tchekov.

Sa vie—son œuvre". 1954

"Chekhov impersonates the theater to me just as Mozart does music... The Chekhovian theater is the best answer known to date to the problem posed by Rousseau. No, man is not kind by nature, he is stingy, callous, vainglorious, sensuous, egotistic and base. But for all the paucity of human nature, deep bonds of tenderness and suffering bind all people."

François Mauriac, French novelist, Nobel Prize in literature (1952). "L'express", No. 101, 1955

"Chekhov talks to me in whispers. This is a friendly writer. 1 do not look for Dostoyevsky's stunning discoveries in him, nor for Gogolian bitter laughter, nor for the dispiriting grandeur of Tolstoy, but I look for the charm of what is more modest, more appeasing and more sad-making... His art is distinguished for restraint hardly amenable to analysis... He describes life flowing through the dreary sameness... And it is but in a few words flung as if casually that he tells us there is a breath-taking mystery concealed behind this gray shroud. He points his finger at an ant of a man, and censures the entire world order. The futility of the 'treadmill' arrests attention, while the author makes no attempt at all to validate his point. The readers ought to judge for themselves about his works. A picture is shown to them, that's all there is to it. But every trait, every stroke of brush on this picture is put upon with such a consummate skill that it is impossible to deny the tragic impact of the whole. Chekhov's eye is as true as a photographic camera."

Henri Troyat (Lev Tarasov), French novelist. " Tchekhov". In the book "Sainte Russie. Souvenirs et reflexions. " 1956

According to John Cheever, an American author, his feeling towards Chekhov, in a greater degree than towards other writers he respects, is a friendly feeling. They who know Chekhov's work will understand, the warmth and serenity you experience only in a close friend's company...

Chekhov is always interesting, there cannot be anything more interesting. You can find madness, romantic love, cruelty and delight. They who accuse his stories of being not rich in content complain that his stories are unlike the traditional narrations with the opening, the middle and the dénouement or, if we use the comic scholarly lingo, the revelation. The content of Chekhov's works appears no less conventional than the content of the earliest works within our reach; but his innovative genius lay in the search for form at a deeper level. The inner tension and conventionality of his works clearly correspond to his knowledge of love.

And last, a word from William Saroyan, another Chekhov admirer; he wonders what there was in Chekhov to make him, Saroyan, feel such a tight bond... It must have been that Chekhov always remained true to himself in what he wrote... and, in a relatively short time of his life that was so busy and filled, and that raced so fast, he created a vast world peopled by real human beings... It was he, Anton Pavlovich Chekhov, who noticed and described them, a man who was able to find something worthy and nice in each, and see the comic side in any dissembling, deceit, lie, empty vainglory and just folly. To him people are always people-some simple-hearted, artless, easily duped; and others, so clever-clever and incredulous that they are ready to chase the very truth away...

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