A Belated Apology to Anton Chekhov

Author Steven Barthelme shares how he came to appreciate 'Lady With Lapdog.'

Doug McLean

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature.

For a man who died at 40, Anton Chekhov left an astounding legacy. Though he worked full-time as a physician—which in 19th-century Russia meant driving horse-carriages around the frigid countryside to visit badly suffering people in the middle of the night—Chekhov completed an unthinkable 600 short stories and 13 plays in his lifetime. His work inspires adoration from readers, including writers as different as Virginia Woolf and Raymond Carver. When asked about his influences, a representative devotee named Tennessee Williams famously said:

"What writers influenced me as a young man? Chekhov! As a dramatist? Chekhov! As a story writer? Chekhov!"

Yet Chekhov's charms are subtle, and some readers find themselves underwhelmed after the first encounter. One contrite member this of this camp is essayist and short-story writer Steven Barthelme, who wrote what he told me is an "Apology to Chekhov": an admission that he initially shrugged at a writer who later became an all-time favorite.

With brothers Frederick and the late Donald, Steven Barthelme is one-third of the most influential literary sibling trio since the Bronte sisters. His latest collection is Hush Hush (Melville House), which brings to its stories of the damaged and downtrodden Chekhov's precision and hugeness of heart. With Frederick, he wrote an unusual memoir of gambling addiction, Double Down, in the first-person plural. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, and McSweeney's, and he teaches at the University of Southern Mississippi.

Steven Barthelme: I first read Chekhov's "Lady With Lapdog" when at an embarrassingly advanced age I had to teach it in a sophomore lit class at a rot-gut university in Louisiana where I had gotten an instructor job. I thought, What's so great about this? In other words, I missed it utterly.

I wish I could tell you how I became enlightened, but I don't remember the process, truth be told. It was probably just happening onto other, simpler Chekhov stories like "The Lament," "Kashtanka," and "The Kiss" where even I could see what was so great about this. Anyway, somehow I came around.

As many writers more noble than I have remarked, "Lady With Lapdog" is a stunning thing, full of memorable bits of business. I admire for instance all the things Nabokov admires, the business where Gurov is slicing up his post-coital watermelon while his companion is theatrically weeping over her virtue, the headless statuette inkstand at the provincial hotel, etc.

There's a special place in my heart, too, for the moment in the story when he has snuck off to her little town and, standing on the street where she lives with her husband, sees the little dog, and wants to call to it, but can't remember its name. Also the moment when Gurov is back in Moscow and finally can't stop himself from baring his soul—"If you only knew what a fascinating woman I met in Yalta"—to a vaguely drawn friend with whom he has been eating and playing cards. The man listens to his ecstatic exclamations and then says, "You're right, that sturgeon was a bit off," responding to some earlier, unreported and trivial remark concerning dinner. Listener indifference, which is reader indifference, is a trademark joke in Chekhov.

But the passage I remember best is in among a half-dozen breathtaking things near the end, when the now ex-philanderer is reflecting about his own aging and the women he has known:

Why did she love him so much? He always seemed to women different from what he was, and they loved in him not himself, but the man whom their imagination created and whom they had been eagerly seeking all their lives; and afterwards, when they saw their mistake, they loved him all the same.

This is wonderful—that is, full of wonder—but still not outside the capability of most our best writers today, the sort of psychological irony that any good thoughtful liberal could observe and recognize the value of reporting.

It's the two clauses which end that sentence, though—"and afterwards, when they saw their mistake, they loved him all the same"—that reach the sublime, the move only the rarest of writers (Alice Munro, say) could make. Chekhov doesn't care that what he has his man remarking is neither logical nor makes sense as behavior. And he doesn't care whether it's good or bad, only that it's what people do—and that it's marvelous. This is what poet Charles Simic calls the proper subject of a poem: "astonishment at what is before you... awe before the world." Most writers' spiritual politics, of whichever stripe, would not allow them to see it, and even if they saw it, most writers don't have the forbearance, don't love the world enough, to recognize that it's sort of perfect. That, I think now, is what's so great about Chekhov.