Anton Chekhov: The story master

Globe and Mail
November 1, 2008

“What does Grandma have to say about Chekhov?” Claire asked her brother, with whom she was instant-messaging.

Their grandmother woke up at ten every day, played the piano, or, if her legs were strong that day, went downstairs for the mail. She behaved with dignity and severity, and was considered the most cultured person in the family.

“She’s dozing,” wrote Mischa.

Later, he relayed the question. “I’m very impressed with him,” Grandmother replied. “In a few lines, with a few words, he can create a life, an atmosphere—and recreate his own country.”

“That’s what everyone says,” Claire wrote.

“Have you read Raymond Carver’s beautiful story about the death of Chekhov?” asked Mischa.

“Like Tchaikovsky creates the country in Eugene Onegin,” Grandma added.

“Carver took most his stories from Chekhov, actually,” Claire added. ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’ comes directly from ‘About Love.’”

“We have eight notes in music,” said Grandma. “When Tchaikovsky uses them, it’s nothing like Strauss. When Chekhov writes a story, the people are from a country not anything like France, nor America—nothing but Russia.”

“This is true!” Claire exclaimed. “Except that when I was reading the stories last night, I was thinking how very much these 19th century Russians seemed exactly like people I know.”

Mischa sat with his grandmother in the drawing room of her apartment in W______ as the stale warmth of midday faintly percolated through the lowered blinds … The opera librettos, the morsel of blueberry muffin still in its wax paper casing, the dish of almonds covered in grey fuzz, all were exactly as they had always been. “How do you correspond with her?” Grandma asked. “You confound my brain. You get already her answer.”

“Mischa, what’s your favorite Chekhov story, and why?” Claire wrote.

“’Lady with a Lapdog.’ I love that story.”

“What do you remember about it?” Claire asked.

“Everything. It’s a great story,” wrote Mischa.

“What makes it great?”

“The watermelon.”

“The watermelon?”

“Yes, that’s the touch of the master.”

Claire searched for the passage. The text was accompanied by a banner advertisement for unlimited local and long distance calling.

… “It’s wrong,” she said. “You will be the first to despise me now.”
There was a water-melon on the table. Gurov cut himself a slice and began eating it without haste. There followed at least half an hour of silence. …

“In any case, I don’t think you can say anything new about Chekhov,” Mischa wrote. “I think it’s sufficient just to say the same old things.”

“About his sensitivity to humanity …. how he doesn’t waste a word, you know … he lets the story speak for itself!”

Claire raised her eyes from the glowing computer screen to the window-pane. Rain clouds were gathering in the east. The gulls stood, wretched, in muddy puddles on the soot-streaked rooftops. It occurred to her that if this were a story by Chekhov, he wouldn’t write, ‘The weather was depressing.’ No, he’d describe the squish-squish of the wet overcoats …

“These stories are harder to write than they look,” she wrote at last.

“That’s why he has many imitators, no equals.”

“If this were a story in the style of Chekhov, it would have an inconclusive ending. Because real life doesn’t have neat endings. In fact, if I wrote an ending, he’d instruct me to cut it.”

“But it has to end at a moment of emotional balance. When you can see forward and backward in life equally, and when the reader is perfectly in the position of the protagonist. The reader can’t know more or less at the end than the protagonist.”

“No, that’s not true. The reader knows what Chekhov knows, which is a lot more than the protagonist.”

“No, I disagree. Chekhov knows lots more than we do. He invented the characters after all. He’s withholding lots of information. Take ‘Lady with a Lapdog.’”

… And it seemed as though in a little while the solution would be found, and then a new and splendid life would begin; and it was clear to both of them that they had still a long, long road before them, and that the most complicated and difficult part of it was only just beginning. …

“That’s the ending,” Mischa wrote. “We have no more idea than the protagonist what will happen next. But we’ve gone from being relative strangers to them to being completely absorbed into their position. They don’t know what will happen next, and neither do we.”

“Yes, but like Chekhov, we see them both, and see that he is not the romantic hero she believes him to be … Nor is he an anti-hero, of course. And in other stories, like ‘Misery’ … we see far more than the protagonist! Most of his characters fail completely to communicate with each other, but we understand them … because Chekhov does. And that’s the same point Carver makes in ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’ … Only the writer really understands.”

“Well, alright then!” Mischa replied agreeably. “And mention how David Bezmogis is the greatest practitioner alive of Chekhovian short stories.”

“I could also note that the Sopranos ends with a Chekovian trailing off … ” Claire was pleased by this thought; she was fairly sure no one had noted this before.

“There you go,” said Mischa. “I’ve lost interest now.”

“Every short story writer of the 20th century, if he’s written a good short story, is compared to Chekhov.”

Mischa reported that Grandma had taken her worn volume of Chekhov from the shelf and was buried nose-deep in it. The dusty pages of the book were covered, like all her books, in her ornate Central European script.

Claire asked: “What else is happening in W________?”

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