Incomparable Naturalism

Only an artificer of the highest skill could have produced so seamless an illusion of reality

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.

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.

Overwhelmingly, that sense of life arises from the astonishing, unelaborated concreteness of Chekhov's evocations of the world. He was the son of a grocer, and in a sense one could say that he never lost the attention a grocer pays to trivial domestic objects. Chekhov's world is, supremely, a world of things. To list those things is an instructive exercise. From the first four paragraphs of "In the Hollow": belfry, chimney, factory, road, railway station, unpressed caviar, jar, mud, fences, willows, waste, acetic acid, cotton, calico, tannery, cattle, stone-built house, church, vodka, skins, grain, pigs, peasant bonnet, timber. (A deliberately random stretch of prose). The properties of objects are always specified: always "Ukrainian" rugs, for instance. The objects of actions are always delineated; if people eat or drink, we are always told what they are eating or drinking. (There is a slightly odd limit to Chekhov's specificity: we are hardly ever told about financial facts—something that Jane Austen never neglected—for a reason I don't pretend to be able to explain.) Many, perhaps most, novelists direct their attention toward the facts of the world only when those facts reflect some psychological truth. This is not so with Chekhov; it is not particularly necessary that when Olga takes a walk in "The Party," we are told she walks through "a thicket of wild pears, wood-sorrel, young oaks and hops." The landscapes are hardly ever illustrative backdrops to an emotional crisis; food and clothes—two things Chekhov was evidently fascinated by—may demonstrate a character's social status, but no more than that. It is impossible to imagine Chekhov's using a dress to prove a moral point in the way Proust used the Duchesse de Guermantes's red ball gown in "The Guermantes Way."

That throughout Chekhov the physical details are lavish and specific is one of the reasons that many of his readers have come to prefer the stories to the plays, where this aspect of his genius could not be fully expressed. These details very rarely attain the status of descriptions, however. More characteristically they are simply lists of objects: "pickled sturgeon, button mushrooms, Malaga wine and plain honey cakes which left a tang of cypress in the mouth" ("The Princess"); "fringes, ribbons, braid, knitting material, buttons" ("Three Years"). Each object appears unnecessary and even surprising in so frugal a writer; cumulatively, though, they create not just a world of unprecedented solidity but the sensation of human lives lived in that world. And every so often we do get a glimpse of what Chekhov surely felt—a sort of ecstasy induced by the simplest objects and self-effacingly ascribed to his characters: "The timid novices, the stillness, the low ceilings, the smell of cypress-wood, the modest fare, the cheap curtains on the windows—these things all touched her, moved her, disposing her to contemplation and good thoughts" ("The Princess").

I said the appearance of life was an illusion, but perhaps it would be truer to say that Chekhov's manner reflects a conviction that there is nothing for the writer to talk about but the physical world and people's lives within it; the means by which the conviction is conveyed are not naive ones, and are clearly identifiable by analysis. But the effectiveness and subtlety of Chekhov's conventions do not mean that his supreme artifice is, in any sense, a conjuring trick, or meretricious.

Many writers have attempted to capture Chekhov, but very few have succeeded. If the list of his imitators is long, fascinating, and rewarding, the secondary literature proper is not an inviting prospect. It is not quite as depressing as, say, Pushkin criticism (my idea of hell would be confinement in a library containing nothing but the Pushkin secondary literature), but still, hardly any of his many biographers have succeeded in conveying our inexhaustible fascination with him. Janet Malcolm's Reading Chekhov is a great improvement on the usual standard, and has the merit of being imbued with Malcolm's loving engagement with her subject on every page. The route she has taken is an honest one, but one that seems peculiarly inappropriate as an approach to Chekhov. It is largely an account of a journey through the former Soviet Union, a pilgrimage to the Chekhovian holy places, and is filled with the small irritations of such a journey: the needling and officious guides one knows so well; the loss of luggage; the sullen, greasy hotels. The memoir is a predominant literary form of our time, and perhaps inescapable, but one very remote from Chekhov's aesthetic. Chekhov described himself as suffering from "autobiographophobia," and when he resorted to the form of a first-person narrative, in "An Anonymous Story" and "A Dreary Story," the narrator was pointedly unsympathetic, remote from the interests and values of both author and reader. Of all authors, Chekhov is the one least easy to imagine trying to charm the reader in propria persona.

Nevertheless, if Malcolm's book is not Chekhovian in tone or manner, that is not a requirement in a biography—one wouldn't want a biography of Milton to be in blank verse, after all. Her project, one slowly realizes, is to travel to Chekhov's territory in the hope of coming across some plausibly Chekhovian stories and lives. Applied to most writers, that would be a terrible idea: it would be a foolhardy biographer of Proust who wangled invitations to the luncheon parties of modern French duchesses. But Chekhov's subjects are mundane, and it is not obviously embarrassing for an investigator like Malcolm to explore ordinary Russian lives, to try to set out the wishes and disappointments of her guides and acquaintances in the course of her Russian journey. Well, no one expects her to fall in love and conduct an affair with an aimless waster encountered at a shabby spa, but there are plenty of lives in our own world as disappointed and blocked as anything in Chekhov; Chekhov's great subject is the most ordinary thing in the world. In the end, it must be said, Malcolm doesn't produce anything as rich as the slightest of Chekhov's stories on these subjects, but who, truly, could have?

Other aspects of Malcolm's study can only be put down to an incompatibility of cultures. Malcolm is an intensely metropolitan figure, of course, and her journey from her milieu to the ramshackle provinces of the former Soviet Union is, to a striking degree, the reverse of the journey the sisters dream of in Three Sisters. And her interests, I think, are not exactly Chekhov's. Some valuable work has been done recently on Chekhov's relations with formal religion, but it is perverse to pay attention to such issues in so short a study: Chekhov was, surely, the most worldly and secular of Russian writers. He very rarely even troubled to attack religion and its human manifestations. An exception is the assault on faith in "In the Hollow"—a story Malcolm rather startlingly misreads on this score, failing to see how thoroughly Chekhov damned the consolations offered by a belief in the afterlife. Quite simply, Chekhov wasn't particularly interested. The Jewish question, which emerges in Malcolm's attempts to visit a Moscow synagogue, is certainly a big one in contemporary Russia, but is not one that seems to have engaged Chekhov very extensively.

When Malcolm writes about Chekhov's relations with his family, there is a distinct and rather damaging mismatch of cultures. She quotes two splendid letters to his brothers. In one he told Nikolai, "You have only one failing ... your utter lack of culture," and set out what he saw as the virtues and dignity of the cultured outlook. In the other he berated Alexander for treatment of his common-law wife that was "unworthy of a decent, loving human being." Malcolm reads this in a contemporary Freudian manner:

Not being an actual firstborn, Chekhov evidently never felt comfortable in the firstborn's posture of superiority, and expressed his dislike of the censorious side of himself by stacking the deck against his fictional representations of it: von Koren and Lvov [characters in "The Duel" and "Ivanov"] are "right," but there is something the matter with them; they are cold fish. Chekhov, in his relationship with his older brothers, brings to mind the biblical Joseph. Chekhov's "sourceless maturity"—like Joseph's—may well have developed during his enforced separation from the family ... Chekhov's love for his big brothers transcended his anger with them; he evidently never entirely shed his little brother's idealization of them.

There is a troubling sense here that Malcolm thinks that European culture, then and since, placed the same value on intimate and open family relations that contemporary American culture does; like many American commentators on European writers, she fails to see the extremely high value other cultures place on the notion of personal dignity. The subject of The Cherry Orchard, "My Life," "In the Hollow," "The Princess," and dozens of other unsparing examinations of domestic conduct is not primarily emotional failure but impropriety. Worryingly, Malcolm seems to think that Chekhov was deploring a failure to talk, a failure to be sufficiently loving and sharing.

Chekhov is a notoriously difficult writer from whom to draw general conclusions—that is at the heart of his greatness. But it seems to me that on the whole he thought unhappy families would often be better off if their members stopped talking to one another altogether. What often raised Chekhov to a point of fury was people who behaved without dignity and did not fulfill the obligations of their social position. Curious as this may be in a man whose social ascent was so vertiginous, he rarely conceded the possibility that marriages between unequal partners could work. The vicious portrayal of the sister-in-law in Three Sisters is repeated again and again in the stories, and the message is quite unambiguous: if—like Modeste Alekseyevich, in "The Order of St. Anne," or the hero of "My Life"—one seeks to abandon social position through marriage or behavior, disaster and a terrible loss of dignity inevitably follow. Really, Chekhov was as snobbish as Ouida. The few times he seemed to imagine a happy marriage on unequal terms, in, for instance, "A Woman's Kingdom" and that magnificent vignette "At a Country House," he was content to leave the envisaged marriage as a hopeless dream. Of course, like many of the greatest Russian writers, he could also be fascinated and excited when a character helplessly disobeyed the demands of propriety: the sublime moment in War and Peace when the Princess Bolkonsky declares her love, and the social abdication at the heart of The Idiot, are rivaled by Chekhov at the climax of "The Princess" and in the beautiful abandonment of "A Lady With a Dog." But he saw no happiness proceeding from such moments. Good and curious as Malcolm's study is, one feels throughout that it is a period piece in a way Chekhov would not have appreciated and might not even have understood.

Chekhov will survive the adulation of his admirers, and the limitations inadvertently placed on him by such homage direct our attention to the gigantic range of his intelligence. Even a genius like Mansfield or Pritchett or Raymond Carver strikes us now as starting from a particular moment in the indefinite history of our engagement with Chekhov; with every re-reading the most careful reader of the master will see more, and become more painfully aware that his mind, his powers of observation, were larger than ours to an inconceivable degree. His subjects were confined and specific, and he was the great poet of the provincial. But when an observer as sophisticated and open as Janet Malcolm looks at him, the conclusion is painful and inescapable: our limitations are rigid and proximate; to Chekhov's genius no limits have yet been plausibly proposed.