Books January 2002

Incomparable Naturalism

Only an artificer of the highest skill could have produced so seamless an illusion of reality
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Even the greatest of writers can boast a distinguished posthumous detractor: Shakespeare had Tolstoy and Shaw, and Jane Austen had Charlotte Brontë. The statements these detractors made are so important and interesting that in the end they actually contribute to the sense of their subjects' worth and complexity. Indeed, one might ask whether a writer can ever be regarded as of the first rank if he or she has never attracted intelligent, passionate rejection. Regarding minor talents we don't trouble to disagree, and no one has ever thought it worth being extensively rude about Surtees, whereas Dostoyevsky, Thomas Mann, and Marcel Proust stand at the summit of literary achievement partly because we are never finished arguing about them.

But Chekhov has never attracted anything but admiration. As far as I know, no one has ever tried to mount a general case against him. Since his death very few practitioners of the art have regarded him as anything but the supreme artist of the short story. It is true that Hemingway, in a combative mood, once pretended not to care for him; but even Hemingway was obliged to exempt half a dozen stories from condemnation. Chekhov's influence has been enormous, and always benevolent; even those writers closest to him in manner, such as Katherine Mansfield and V. S. Pritchett, strike us not as imitators but as writers who found in his characteristic manner ways in which they could discover their own characteristic manners. Writers find their own classics; but sooner or later everyone must reckon with Chekhov.

The reason for this supremacy among writers is often said to be Chekhov's incomparable naturalism. Put in a naive way, the usual claim is that Chekhov was not really a writer, with all the artifice and manipulation that implies, but someone who simply set down "life." His stories, like life, have no beginnings, middles, or ends; they do not deal in crises and happy endings; they are simply glimpses of ordinary lives in their untidiness and irresolution. (How radical an approach that remains may be attested by any writer, even now: like many serious writers of short stories, I've experienced having a story turned down on the grounds that it had "no beginning, middle, or end." I wish I'd had the wit to say, "Few episodes in life do, apart from this telephone call.")

It's certainly true that Chekhov always wanted to give the impression that life continued outside the boundaries of his narrative, and many of his stories end by telling us that his characters' lives go on beyond the last page. "The day after this meeting I left Yalta and how Shamokhin's story ended I do not know" ("Ariadne"). The child Sonya sits, at the end of "An Anonymous Story," looking at the narrator "as if she knew that her fate was being decided," but what that fate is, the story does not explore. "There is no more to be said about him" dismisses the eponymous hero of "Doctor Startsev," but his life goes on. Many stories end with unanswered questions—"What kind of life would it be?" ("The Steppe")—or with the initiation of some new action. Many, like "Terror" and "A Marriageable Girl," end with a departure for some new place, or, like "The Russian Master," with the promise to run away. Almost all of them contain, like the beautiful last paragraph of "A Lady With a Dog," the contemplation of "a wonderful new life." At the simplest level a remarkable number of Chekhov's stories end with a change in the weather: "It began to drizzle" ("The Duel"); "All night long rain drummed on the windows" ("Gooseberries"); "The sun began to rise" ("Lights"); the extravagant and, for once, rather overdone transformation of the seascape at the end of "Gusev."

All these endings, focusing on a new beginning rather than concluding something, emphasize what many people have most admired in Chekhov: a sense that life has been glimpsed here, and not glimpsed fully. At its grandest and most mysterious that conviction homes in on the famous unexplained noise that interrupts and concludes the action of The Cherry Orchard—a great string breaking in the distance. Plenty of productions have tried to turn that into a symbol, but it is rather more than that: it is a convulsive acknowledgment that there are things in the world, and in these lives, that neither the artist nor the audience can understand. But to describe Chekhov as purely a chronicler of life, as naive critics have done, is quite wrong. Rather, these expressions of incompleteness are supremely effective artistic conventions, designed to give the powerful illusion of real life. The inconclusive ending may be thought of as something that springs from Chekhov's observations of life; on the other hand, just as plausibly, one could say that Chekhov was imitating one of the most effective devices of his great master, Pushkin. Many of Chekhov's endings are variations on the beautiful and startling conclusion of Pushkin's Tales of the Late Belkin: "My readers will excuse me from the unnecessary chore of relating the denouement." (It's always worth remembering what a huge international reputation Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy acquired—in the unlikeliest places—in the decades after the initial craze for it in England.) Chekhov's characteristic untidiness is, surely, drawn directly from the very deliberate narrative shape of Eugene Onegin. The illusion of reality in Chekhov is dazzlingly effective; only an artificer of the highest skill could have produced so seamless an illusion. And, viewed coldly, Chekhov's plots can be as sensational and melodramatic as anything to be found in Dostoyevsky. The fantastic farrago of the immense dramatic torso which posthumous editors have titled Platonov is customarily written off as an early aberration, but a distinct taste for the extreme persisted to the end of Chekhov's life. Men, women, and infants are brutally murdered; coincidences abound; passionate declarations and terrible confessions come thick and fast. We don't normally think of Chekhov as a gothic writer, but we shouldn't neglect the ghost in "The Black Monk" or the frightful escalations of "Murder" and "In the Hollow." The extraordinary sadistic sequence of "Ward Number Six," with the brutal payoff of the doctor's being confined to the asylum, is one from which even O. Henry might have shrunk; and it is one of Chekhov's very best things.

The standard reading of Chekhov's career is that having started as a writer of comic sketches, he turned away from those brilliant but artificial jokes toward a much looser, more naturalistic style. This is basically accurate, of course, but it neglects a fundamental continuity. What is apparent from those sketches is his genius for formal variation; a story may be no more than entries in the complaints book of a provincial railway station; it may, like "The Death of a Civil Servant," that brilliant imitation of Gogol, conclude with startling inappropriateness. A story may be about nothing very much, as children play cards inconclusively and ineptly, or a huntsman and his wife meet by chance in the woods; a dramatic explosion may erupt without warning, or a furiously exciting crescendo may be manufactured out of nothing more than increasing numbers of people standing and staring up into the sky. It is a mistake to think that he abandoned that keen awareness of literary form in favor of the shapeless sequences of life. The slow escalation of "A Dreary Story," the profoundly moving and unconventional last section of "Murder," are the work of a supreme manipulator of form; and Chekhov perfected his craft in the zany puppet dramas of his first stories.

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