To return to Chekhov in this cultural moment makes you feel as if you were experiencing spring in Russia. His meticulously crafted fiction and plays seem absolutely free of artifice, as if telling stories were a natural function of his physical being, like a birdsong, and not a highly disciplined and self-conscious creative-intellectual activity. Yet so much writing about fiction now consists of tiresome debates over realism versus modernism, the nature of consciousness in the novel, character versus caricature, poetic language versus plain language–it is all a kind of analytical birdcage.
During the past forty years, the university has offered refuge to scores of artists and intellectuals and, for some time, an academic style has been flowing back into mainstream literary culture. It boggles the mind that Harold Bloom’s impossibly dense and jargony Zagat-like guides to the best of the canon, to the greatest geniuses and to the wisest wisdom get defined as great “popular” criticism. Reading Bloom’s abstractifying impositions, you start feeling anxious, as though you just realized that the exam was tomorrow and you hadn’t begun studying for it. (The influence of anxiety!) The idea of literature as, in Kenneth Burke’s phrase, “equipment for living,” has just about gone the way of the typewriter.
And suddenly Chekhov’s universe appears anew in this beautiful, if sometimes maladroitly translated–by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky–new collection of his five short novels: Chekhov’s acheful, unsparing eye; his unforgiving yet gentle irony; his characters’ dignified pathos and their pathetic attempts to dignify themselves with big theories of how to live in this world; and the writer’s uncanny evocation of their self-delusion as simultaneously ludicrous and heartbreaking. About Chekhov, Maxim Gorky wrote, “In the presence of Anton Pavlovich, everyone felt an unconscious desire to be simpler, more truthful, more himself.” Reflecting on Chekhov, you find yourself using words like “sadness,” and “longing,” and “disappointment,” and “love,” and “kindness,” and “hate”–you feel, inexorably, a sudden desire to talk not about literature, not about the conventions and strategies of fiction, but about life itself, as if Chekhov had not so much invented his stories as discovered them in a field, or inside a broken bottle.
“Zhizn zhizn” goes a Russian saying: Life is life. Experience ultimately defeats the most elevated attempts to make sense of it. Art, science, ideas (not to mention debates over realism versus modernism), all go down before the onslaught of time and sensation. An unmediated clarity–the illusion of actual experience unfolding through actual time–characterizes Chekhov’s fiction, and also his plays, which revolutionized the theater in the way they stripped the stage of theatricality. Indeed, when the people in Chekhov’s plays dream of transforming themselves through devotion to a plan for the betterment of humankind, or through love or travel, they are yearning for the type of dramatic twist that you find in a well-constructed plot. In Chekhov’s plays, the promise and salvation of the theater are always waiting, unattainably, just offstage. The honest core of Chekhov’s art is the acknowledgment that even art is helpless in the face of life.
Chekhov wrote The Steppe, appropriately the first tale in this volume, when he was 28, and it is a kind of manifesto of Chekhovian lifelikeness. A fatherless 9-year-old boy named Egorushka is taken by his uncle, a wealthy merchant, and a rich priest on a long journey far from Egorushka’s mother and home, the purpose of which is to enroll the boy in school and thus give him a good start in life. At one point, realizing that they have to make a side trip, his guardians arrange to meet Egorushka later and leave him with a group of peasants who are part of a caravan bringing merchandise to market.