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.

Throughout the trip, Egorushka animates the stark landscape with his own emotions: Trees, grass, sky, wildlife are “transfixed with anguish,” and then bursting with a “passionate thirst for life,” and then “lonely,” and “anguished, hopeless” once again. His perceptions of the people he encounters also shift as his moods shift, and as the people themselves shed appearances. Fearful, obsequious Jews are, a minute later, defiant, mocking Jews. A countess is worldly-seeming and enchanting one minute, and the naïve dupe of a rogue the next–and so forth. The qualities of life that Egorushka witnesses on his journey are equally unstable. They run the gamut from callousness and cruelty to kindness and sorrow, with contrasting qualities often converging in the same incident or person. By the end of his odyssey, Egorushka has nearly died from pneumonia, as senseless an experience as death, or a brush with death, always is. When he is momentarily reunited with his uncle and the friendly priest, the latter takes him aside:

Well, how was the journey puer bone [my good boy]?… Sick of it, I suppose…. You go on and on, Lord forgive me, you look ahead, and the steppe still stretches out as continuously as before: there’s no end of it to be seen! That’s not traveling, it’s sheer punishment.

After Egorushka is left alone by his guardians with a kind friend of the family, whom Egorushka has never met before, he wonders about this new embarkation into the future: “What sort of life would it be?” That is the story’s final line, and it is the gentle war cry of Chekhovian irony. The shifting meanings, the uncertainty and instability, the dependence of his perception on his state of mind, the incalculable ratio of appearance to reality, the senselessness of affliction–Egorushka’s journey has in fact been life itself: “You go on and on… you look ahead, and the steppe still stretches out as continuously as before: there’s no end of it to be seen!” His own, private, untransmittable experience of life is, and will always be, the only truthful description of life that he will ever know. Somehow, Chekhov’s art manages to transmit the untransmittable.

Such lifelikeness makes it difficult to talk about Chekhov in a critical way. What makes his stories poetic is precisely their freedom from the “literary.” Like an actual incident, Chekhov’s mastery passes too fast to catch and explain. One of the many gifts of this collection is that the novellas reveal more about Chekhov’s art than do his fleeting short stories. Strictly speaking, they are not novellas at all, but short tales that go on for longer than usual. They are expanding compressions; they deepen rather than progress. And therein lie their little windows onto Chekhov’s art. The highly wrought details in the short stories that occur too briefly to be rationally apprehended unwind more lengthily in the short novels. Yet these aren’t lapses in storytelling. They’re tangible wonders.

What would be a detachable symbol or leitmotif in another writer remains, in Chekhov, embedded in his characters’ lives as a concrete part of their experience. Consider the parasol in Three Years, one of the lesser-known of Chekhov’s works. Laptev, member of a rich merchant family and a colorless, anxious, passive, yet kind and decent man, falls wildly in love with a doctor’s daughter, Yulia Sergeevna. Yulia’s father is treating Nina, Laptev’s dying sister, and Yulia often comes to visit Nina, who is also Yulia’s friend. One day she leaves her parasol behind.

At home, [Laptev] saw Yulia Sergeevna’s forgotten parasol on a chair, seized it, and greedily kissed it. The parasol was of silk, no longer new, held by an elastic band; the handle was of simple, cheap white bone. Laptev opened it and held it over him, and it seemed to him that there was even a smell of happiness around him.

Laptev opens his souvenir and sits giddily under it. The next day, clutching the parasol, he rushes to Yulia’s house, begs her to let him keep it, and then with innocent, crude impulsiveness asks her to marry him. Astounded and confused, she turns him down. Laptev is devastated. Yulia begins to think about his offer, however, and concludes that there was no reason “to refuse a decent, kind, loving man only because she did not like him.” (Chekhov’s irony always resolves itself into a poignancy. A negative becomes a positive in mid-laugh: You suddenly see what Yulia means.) She was getting old, no other opportunities presented themselves and Laptev could change her life for the better. She decides to marry him, even though “to marry him would mean saying good-bye forever to her dreams, her notions of happiness and married life.”

There is much discussion in Three Years of happiness and love. Embittered by their union, Laptev and Yulia each come to believe that both are impossible. They drift through the months and the years into despair. And then they find that they cannot live without each other. They discover that time has woven invisible threads of affinity–not merely habit–between them. They find that they miss each other when they’re not together. They want to protect each other. They seem to enjoy each other sexually. They depend on each other’s kindness, and–of utmost importance in Chekhov–both of them are bored when the other isn’t around. Laptev and Yulia come to realize that “love” does not exist; rather, it consists of the sometimes-present, sometimes-absent experiences–of the other person’s kindness, or intelligence, or honesty, or reassuring presence, or wit, or physical chemistry, etc.–that keep two people together, at least until tomorrow. The conventional idea of love that so oppressed Laptev and Yulia is as about as real as Laptev’s idealizing of Yulia’s parasol into a perfect love.

What is real is the parasol’s “simple, cheap white bone,” “held by an elastic band.” In other words, the only reality is fragile human life: meaningless except for the meanings we deluded and deluding people keep projecting onto it. Toward the end of the story, Laptev brings the parasol to Yulia and tells her that he’s abandoned the idea of ever being happy, but that he was happy one time in his life, when he sat all night under her umbrella. This is ironic in at least two ways: He is in fact still striving for happiness with Yulia by attempting to move her with memories of the parasol; and he is unwittingly telling her that on the one occasion in his life when his spirit soared, the source of joy was not Yulia but his fantasy of Yulia. He is still trying to impose meaning on life, still horrified by the blank, neutral slate life is, still trying to delude Yulia and comically deluding himself. The parasol becomes the perfect symbolic center of the story. And yet it never stops being a parasol; it never becomes “literary.” It carries meaning for the reader only because it has accrued the very same meaning for the characters. Unlike, say, D.H. Lawrence’s famous rocking horse, the parasol is not a privileged communiqué over the characters’ heads between the reader and the writer. It belongs to the characters.

For all of his attempts to win happiness for himself, Laptev comes to the same realization as Yulia, aptly summarized by the protagonist of the masterpiece My Life: “how sad it is to live in the world.” In the same way as Chekhov’s art achieves the illusion of capturing experience unmediated by art, Chekhov’s heroes and heroines learn to live without the mediations of big plans, great loves, large ideas. It is not, Chekhov means to say, that life is consistently sad. It is that every life, no matter how abundant its joys, is ultimately sad.

My Life, a sort of shlemiel story, has its protagonist, Misail, reaching his rueful conclusion after trying to live as authentically as he can. He spurns his rich, brutal father, rejects his high social class, marries for what he thinks is love, cares for his emotionally wounded sister. He shears the mediations off life and pares existence down to its simple white bone. At the end, he is outcast and bereft. We last see him alone, his now-deceased sister’s young daughter his only companion. Orphans or near-orphans abound in Chekhov. The hero of the bizarre Story of an Unknown Man, a political spy named Vladimir Ivanych, who falls in love with his quarry’s abandoned mistress, ends up taking care of her little girl after the mother dies in childbirth. It’s as if these parentless children came into life already prepared for the fact that, as Laptev puts it, “there were no firm, lasting attachments.” Their future lies in their beginning; they are pre-saddened. And yet these orphans are luckier than nearly all the heroes of the novellas, who have been physically abused, like Chekhov himself, by their fathers. If orphanhood is a pre-sadness, for Chekhov it is also a state of grace.

But although Chekhov’s world exists on the tide of persistent, gentle melancholy, it is far from a bleak place. “Life is given only once,” says Vladimir Ivanych, speaking for all of Chekhov’s protagonists, “and one would like to live it cheerfully, meaningfully, beautifully.” The best of Chekhov’s people surrender their illusions and try to endure life’s inherent limitations and disappointments. And for this sober honesty they are rewarded with a substitute for the cushioning mediations that they’ve given up. They learn to forgive themselves and to forgive other people; they learn to be kind. “Kindness” is a word that occurs over and over again in Chekhov. It is a mode of being rather than a big idea about how to live, a quality of experience rather than a mediation of experience. It is cheer, meaning and beauty self-created from within.

Kindness and irony blend indistinguishably at the end of the magnificent novella The Duel. Superficially, the duel of the title is between the ideas of a ruthless Darwinist named von Koren and an ineffectual humanist named Laevsky, an intellectual combat that ends in an actual duel with pistols. But the real struggle is between Laevsky and his lover, Nadezhda; and even more than that, between each one’s perception of the other and the actual other. Laevsky has grown tired of Nadezhda. Stifled, bored, constantly irritated, he makes plans to leave her, but feelings of guilt and pity keep him stewing in misery by her side. What he doesn’t know is that Nadezhda, vain and coquettish, has been slowly drifting away from him and impulsively, even innocently, conducting affairs with two other men. She also is mired in pity and guilt.

Like Laptev and Yulia, however, Laevsky suddenly realizes, in a beautifully modulated moment, that Nadezhda is his life. Nadezhda herself discovers that her vanity has brought her further than she wanted to go and placed her in the hands of a brute. When Laevsky catches Nadezhda with the man, the irony of both their positions propels them into a new situation. Shorn of their delusions, they marry and dwell in life’s simple white bone, in a gray mist between happiness and unhappiness, borne up by their clemency toward each other, which itself is the product of their understanding of life’s tragic limitations.

At the end of the novella, Laevsky and the other characters, all of whom have clashed with each other to some degree, stand at the edge of the sea. They are watching von Koren being rowed out to a ship that is waiting to take him on a zoological expedition. The water is very rough, and soon von Koren’s little boat becomes harder and harder to see as it gets tossed about on the waves, yet another irony, since this cold-hearted eugenicist, who seeks to master nature, is now at nature’s mercy. Straining to see von Koren, Laevsky thinks

The boat is thrown back…it makes two steps forward and one step back, but the oarsmen are stubborn, they work the oars tirelessly and do not fear the high waves…. So it is in life…. In search of the truth, people make two steps forward and one step back. Sufferings, mistakes, and the tedium of life throws them back, but the thirst for truth and a stubborn will drive them on and on. And who knows? Maybe they’ll row their way to the real truth…

And Laevsky entertains these thoughts while watching and worrying over the safety of von Koren, who would gladly have killed Laevsky in their duel if he hadn’t been suddenly distracted. Yet such irony doesn’t undermine Laevsky’s reflections; it amplifies them into kind comprehension. The entire novella opens out into Chekhov’s trademark blend of irony and poignancy. Rather than issue a thunderous Tolstoyan judgment or proclamation or conclusion, which perhaps reminded him of a cruel father’s tyranny, Chekhov finishes his tale with the stubborn facticity of the parasol. Its last sentence is: “It began to drizzle.” What makes Chekhov so inestimably precious is that he is a writer who lets life have the last word. Which it does anyway. Zhizn zhizn.