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.
The idea that Chekhov's stories trace the disorganized, untidy shape of real-life events is a powerful one, but to see how false it is, one might look at the structure of "Doctor Startsev." Startsev is a young physician in a provincial town. He is taken up by a rather vulgar but charming family, the Turkins, who give "artistic" soirees. Their daughter, Catherine, who dreams of going to Moscow to study the piano, attracts his attention, and he proposes to her. She refuses, saying that she wants to devote herself to her art. Some years pass, and Startsev attends another soiree. Catherine tries to get him to propose again, but he has grown cold and bored with her. The story ends with Startsev, fat, unfeeling, and rich, and Catherine, older and suffering from poor health, living their sad separate lives.
In one sense this is a beautifully naturalistic performance with an unremarkably unhappy ending, but in another it could hardly be more formal. The structure is as artificial as a Bach fugue; the first soiree at the Turkins' is recapitulated in every detail, but the recapitulation is in a minor key. The only difference—it is one of Chekhov's grandest coups—is that what once delighted Startsev now bores and irritates him. The illusion of life is, as ever, overpowering—and immensely skillful. In reality Chekhov's art is as calculated as Swinburne's. So where does that illusion come from? Why do we feel that here we are being shown "real life" in a way we are not in, say, the first book of The Idiot? "In the Hollow," perhaps Chekhov's greatest story, has much of the same quality of steadily mounting fury, but at no point do we have the sense, which Dostoyevsky was at some pains to instill, of being caught in the workings of a gigantic, relentless machine. "Doctor Startsev," once examined, is as mechanical a morality tale in its awesomely literal recapitulations as Tolstoy's "How Much Land Does a Man Need?" But always one feels the illusion of real life, and never the organizing hand of the creative imagination. In part this is owing to Chekhov's addiction to unfinished actions; even "In the Hollow," which has as shatteringly final a narrative as can be imagined, ends with a fade-out, as Lipa and Praskovya go on crossing themselves, over and over. And in part it is down to Chekhov's refusal ever to intrude himself with a judgmental adverb. I reflected, when I read Janet Malcolm's description in Reading Chekhov of "an almost satirically long empty corridor" in a hotel, that that was an indulgence Chekhov would never have permitted himself. Chekhov's judgments were sure and final and terrible; but he did not make them with adverbs.