Robert Chandler

An open and shut case

Harvey Pitcher has been translating Chekhov and writing about him for much of the last 40 years. His earlier publications include a book about Chekhov’s plays and a portrait of Chekhov’s wife. His Chekhov: The Comic Stories (Deutsch, 1998) is the best translation of the still undervalued early stories. The present volume is a discussion of Chekhov’s work and life as a whole, but with a particular focus on the later stories.

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Responding to Chekhov

Harvey Pitcher

Swallow House Books, pp. 304, £

Harvey Pitcher has been translating Chekhov and writing about him for much of the last 40 years. His earlier publications include a book about Chekhov’s plays and a portrait of Chekhov’s wife. His Chekhov: The Comic Stories (Deutsch, 1998) is the best translation of the still undervalued early stories. The present volume is a discussion of Chekhov’s work and life as a whole, but with a particular focus on the later stories.

Harvey Pitcher has been translating Chekhov and writing about him for much of the last 40 years. His earlier publications include a book about Chekhov’s plays and a portrait of Chekhov’s wife. His Chekhov: The Comic Stories (Deutsch, 1998) is the best translation of the still undervalued early stories. The present volume is a discussion of Chekhov’s work and life as a whole, but with a particular focus on the later stories.

One of Pitcher’s central themes is Chekhov’s duality — the contrast between ‘the devout humanist’ and ‘the self-contained man’. On the one hand, Chekhov was a liberal and a reformer, an altruistic doctor who treated the local peasants for free and who was responsible during his short life for the building of three schools and the planting of a great many trees. On the other hand, he was a reclusive and obsessive artist and very few people ever felt they knew him at all closely. Pitcher quotes Chekhov’s wife, Olga Knipper, as saying:

You have no need to share things with other people. You lead your own special life and look upon everyday life with some indifference.

Pitcher sees this ‘self-contained Chekhov’ as reckless, elusive and not ‘very likeable or admirable’. He ends his first chapter with the words:

To say which of these two Chekhovs better represents the ‘real’ man is impossible. One has to accept that they co-exist and that like the chameleon of his famous early story, he may appear at different times in different colours.

Pitcher writes well about ways in which the early comic stories anticipate the later work. Two of Chekhov’s greatest stories, ‘A Dreary Story’ and ‘The Bishop’, are about successful men who have inadvertently become estranged from even their closest family. Pitcher brings out the importance of this theme of estrangement, of people living in separate worlds that never meet, even in Chekhov’s apparently lightest work. One of his examples is ‘The Malefactor’ (1885), a story about an

uneducated peasant, who cannot see what is wrong with unscrewing the occasional nut from the railway sleepers to use as a sinker when fishing, and the magistrate’s world of civilised legal procedures.

Pitcher seems strangely blind, however, to one very important aspect of Chekhov’s work: its poetry and the frequent hints of religious symbolism. Chekhov had a profound and detailed knowledge of Russian Orthodoxy and this, not surprisingly, left an imprint on his work. Pitcher devotes a lot of space to the very short ‘A Journey by Cart’, rightly seeing this story as epitomising Chekhov’s ability to write from inside his characters. But he says oddly little about the story’s ending. After a glimpse of the crosses on a church and the windows in a railway station all ‘blazing’ in the evening sun, Marya Vasilyevna catches sight of a lady in a first-class carriage who reminds her of her mother.

This plunges her back into her childhood, and for a moment her present life seems a horrible dream from which she has now awoken: ‘it felt to her as if her happiness, her exultation, was reflected in the sky, in all the windows, and in the trees’ (Rosamund Bartlett’s translation from About Love, her selection of Chekhov’s stories for OUP). This moment of joy is brief, but Chekhov does not dismiss it as illusory, and it is significant that this epiphany begins with a glimpse of church crosses.

Still more surprising is Pitcher’s decision not to discuss Chekhov’s first masterpiece, the subtle and lyrical ‘The Steppe’. This unbalances the book; one would never guess from it that Chekhov is one of Russia’s supreme nature poets.

It also makes it all too easy for Pitcher to ridicule recent (mostly American) scholars for what he sees as fanciful interpretations of Chekhov’s symbolism and linguistic subtlety. Pitcher quotes several comments by Chekhov on his own work, but he does not quote these important words about ‘The Steppe’:

There are many places that will be understood by neither critics nor the public; they will seem trifling to both, not meriting attention, but I anticipate with pleasure the two or three literary epicureans that will understand and value these same places, and that is enough for me.

Nevertheless, Pitcher writes well about many aspects of Chekhov’s life and work: his explorations of peasant life, his trip to the convict settlement of Sakhalin, his marriage, his fear of dying. I was particularly intrigued by his insights into Chekhov the doctor. I had not known that there had been a possibility in 1893, when Chekhov was already a famous writer, of his giving a course of lectures to medical students at Moscow University. Apparently, his intention was ‘to draw his audience as deeply as possible into the world of the patient’s subjective feelings’. In the end, however, it was decided that Chekhov did not have the necessary qualifications to give these lectures.