Robert Chandler

A kind of tenderness

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Memories of Chekhov

edited and translated by Peter Sekirin

McFarland, pp. 215, £

The son of a grocer, Anton Chekhov was born in 1860 in Taganrog, on the Sea of Azov. While studying medicine at Moscow university, he published hundreds of comic sketches in order to pay his way and support his parents and siblings. After becoming famous in the late 1880s, he practised as a doctor only intermittently; most of his medical work was on behalf of the peasants, and unpaid.

In 1890 he made the difficult journey across Siberia to Sakhalin Island, where he investigated the living conditions of the convicts, around 10,000 of whom had been exiled there. During the 1890s Chekhov’s tuberculosis worsened and from 1897 he had to spend most of his time in the Crimean resort of Yalta. There he composed The Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard, as well as some of his finest stories. In 1901 he married the actress Olga Knipper, for whom he wrote the part of Madame Ranevskaya in The Cherry Orchard. He died in 1904.

Chekhov is often seen as a delicate miniaturist who wrote about ineffectual people, but this is to underestimate him. ‘The Steppe’ shows him to be one of Russia’s great nature poets. He wrote powerful evocations of madness (‘The Black Monk’), of moral fanaticism (‘The Duel’), and of oppression (‘Ward Six’). Above all, he wrote with insight about an extraordinary range of people. In the words of Vasily Grossman:

Probably only Balzac has ever brought such a mass of different people into the consciousness of society. No — not even Balzac …. Chekhov brought Russia into our consciousness in all its vastness — with people of every estate, every class, every age.

Chekhov was as remarkable in his everyday life as in his work. Few, if any, writers have been so consistently helpful to so many people: to his family; to the young writers he unfailingly encouraged; above all, to the peasants for whom he built schools and hospitals and to whom he gave free medical treatment.

Peter Sekirin’s anthology contains over 100 first-hand accounts of Chekhov. Some are by family members. Some are by well-known writers: Ivan Bunin, Maxim Gorky and Leo Tolstoy — who was impatient with Chekhov’s plays, which he considered ‘worse than Shakespeare’, but perceptive and generous in his praise of the stories. One memoirist remembers Tolstoy saying, ‘Chekhov is a strange writer. He throws his words at you, as if at random; yet every detail is either necessary or beautiful. And what an intellect!’

Other accounts are by the many women who had affairs with Chekhov; one of the most interesting is by Elena Shatrova, one of four women who claim to have been the prototype for the heroine of ‘The Lady with the Little Dog’. No less interesting is an account by a peasant who, as a child, benefited from the free lunches Chekhov provided at a village school.

Repetition is inevitable in an anthology of this nature. Many of the accounts of Chekhov’s helpfulness, politeness, etc, are almost identical; this may sometimes be tedious, but it shows us something important. What is less excusable is the general sloppiness of Sekirin’s presentation. Sometimes his main text tells us something about the writer of a particular memoir; sometimes it doesn’t — and we have to turn to the bibliography to find out about them. Sometimes relevant information is not provided at all; sometimes it is provided several pages after it is most needed. As for the translation, this veers between the obsolete and the jarringly modern: ‘public house’ is used to mean ‘brothel’, but we hear of Chekhov being ‘stressed out’.

Memories of Chekhov is no substitute for Donald Rayfield’s authoritative biography or for Janet Malcolm’s succinct and perceptive Reading Chekhov. Nevertheless, it is not without interest. I was especially struck by some of the passages about links between Chekhov’s writing and his gardening.

Tatyana Kupernik tells us that Chekhov said he would be unable to keep writing unless he worked every day in his garden. She continues:

Chekhov wrote about Melikhovo [the estate he bought near Moscow]: ‘Everything is miniature around here — a tiny alley, a pond the size of a fish tank, tiny trees. But after you pace along the alley a couple of times, and look more carefully at everything, the claustrophobic feeling that everything is too small disappears. All of a sudden, we have lots of space’. I feel exactly the same after reading his short stories. You read a page or two, think about it, and then the feeling of a small literary space disappears and you see the great, broad image of all sides of Russian life and society.

No less than three artists testify to the difficulty of painting Chekhov. Nikolay Ulyanov writes:

You could not find any particular, dominant feature … There was some kind of tenderness in his face, which escaped you because his expression was constantly changing.

This too could be said of his work.