The timeless allure of Chekhov

 

From modest beginnings, Anton Chekhov didn't expect his fame to last, yet as both a short story writer and a dramatist, born 150 years ago, he is one of the immortals, writes EILEEN BATTERSBY

ANTON CHEKHOV once told a friend that he expected to be forgotten within seven years of his death. He could not have been more wrong. Whenever the art of the short story is discussed his is the name most often mentioned. In the context of drama, only Shakespeare has proved more influential. Either way, as storyteller or playwright, he is immortal.

Born 150 years last week in Taganrog, a port on the Sea of Azov, in southern Russia, Chekhov, the son of a grocer, bridges the great 19th-century Russian literary tradition and modernism. Nabokov's first novel, Mary(1926), would look to Chekhov and most writers since, the world over, have continued to defer to an enduring master who rendered the ordinary into art.

One of his grandfathers was a freed serf. Chekhov's impoverished early life, during which he spent happy hours in Taganrog's bird market fascinated by seasonal migration patterns, was dominated by upheaval. His bankrupt father made an inglorious exit from town, concealed beneath a mat on a cart. The wife and children were then evicted when a former lodger, an alleged friend, purchased the house and ordered them out. Eventually the family regrouped 700 miles away, in a basement room in Moscow. Chekhov, then 19, began his medical studies at the university.

He first began to write as a student, initially submitting humorous pieces and sketches - the fee helped support his parents and siblings. On qualifying as a doctor, he practiced, and although he never made much money out of medicine, he was public-spirited, humane and generous with his skill. "Medicine" he once said, "is my legal spouse, whilst literature is my mistress. When I get tired of one, I go and sleep with the other." But Chekhov was a writer. When he finally began publishing work under his own name, he quickly established a following.

His journalism sold well. In 1887, he was commissioned to write a play. The result was Ivanov, a melodrama with comic flourishes, now rarely produced. Yet, in it, the tormented central character, and the balance between comedy and tragedy, gives an insight into the major plays, The Seagull(1896), Uncle Vanya(1899), Three Sisters(1901) and The Cherry Orchard(1904), which would follow and upon which his reputation rests. Those four defining works remain central to the international repertoire.

In them, Chekhov explores time and memory; longing, restlessness and the chilling self-realisation that can destroy a life.

Chekhov's approach to theatre was influenced by Turgenev's sole major play, A Month in the Country, which was years ahead of its time and was only staged in 1872, more than 20 years after it was first written in 1850. Turgenev and Chekhov share a realist's vision which revolutionised Russian theatre. Their elegance and astute observation creates memorable characters. There are shades of Turgenev's novel, Rudin(1856), in Chekhov's great story, On the Road. The languid patrician Turgenev, an aristocrat torn between his love of Russia and his interest in western culture, particularly German literature, courted his own demons. His polemic was more restrained than that of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. Chekhov noted Tolstoy's attention to social nuance but was more stylistically drawn to Turgenev's graceful prose. But there is a difference: in Turgenev, the sights and sounds of nature are seen and heard by a detached author delighting in their beauty; in Chekhov, they are seen and heard by people.

"My holy of holies" wrote Chekhov, "is the human body, health, intelligence, talent, inspiration, love and absolute freedom - freedom from force and falsehood."

Aware that his literary predecessors were novelists preoccupied with issues such as the emergence of Russia, the liberation of the serfs and a new political identity, Chekhov instead turned to atmosphere, mood, nostalgia rooted in regret and longing. His characters experience staggering moments of self-realisation. His narratives are open-ended.

Revered by Woolf, Nabokov, Katherine Mansfield, Somerset Maugham, John Cheever, Eudora Welty and Raymond Carver (whose final story, Errand, dramatises the Russian's final hours), Chekhov's influence has shaped Irish writers such as William Trevor and, particularly, Brian Friel, whose classic, Aristocrats(1979), is powerfully Chekhovian, while he also completed his own versions of Uncle Vanyaand Three Sisters. Thomas Kilroy's 1981 adaption of The Seagullmoved the action from Russia to the west of Ireland.

HOW TO DEFINE the timeless, seductive allure of Chekhov? Part of it lies in his elusiveness, subtlety, adroit dialogue, precise descriptions and confident use of understatement. Unlike Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, there is no sermonising, no extremes. He never tells us what to think. There are no heroes. There is little action. Chekhov instead makes telling use, as Eudora Welty once noted, of the way people speak without listening to each other. No one grasps the relevance of the untidy present better than Chekhov.

The plays are supreme achievements but should not overshadow the 220 stories, including Ward No 6(1892), The Lady with the Dog(1899), Enemies(1887), Gooseberries(1898), About Love(1898), Enemies(1887), Peasants(1887), The Kiss(1887), Neighbours(1892), An Anonymous Story(1893), The Story of a Nobody(1891) - a dark novella often left out of selections because of its length - and others, all written during his short life. He was an astute observer of human behaviour as well as an inspired chronicler of Russian society.

Mood and atmosphere are vital in his explorations of emotional dilemma which, at times, border on the abstract. For him, the purpose of art is the depiction of unconditional truth and the pursuit of it; he invariably exposes hypocrisy and deception, most emphatically self-deception. Above all, Chekhov, described by Tolstoy as impressionist, understands compromise, downplays plot and avoids conventional denouement. As a playwright he knew both the risks and the significance of silence on stage, of the pause that articulates truth.

His characters are individuals, not types. They live lives of delusion and futility. When Vanya complains of his unhappiness to Sonya, she replies: "Well, it can't be helped. Life must go on. And our life will go on, Uncle Vanya. We shall live through a long succession of days and endless evenings . . ."

Chekhov always maintained that writers must be objective and not take sides. His art is intellectual, deliberate; always human, never judgmental. Tormented love is a favourite theme. The Lady and the Dogis one of his finest stories, and possibly his most famous. An unlikely love story which begins as a cynical study of human behaviour, it slowly moves towards - and achieves - profundity. A chance holiday encounter at a Yalta resort between a worldly older man and a young woman, both married and neither of whom loves their respective spouse, immediately upsets the woman, who admits to being torn between shame and desire:

"My husband is a flunkey . . . I was 20 when I married him, I have been tormented by curiosity; I wanted something better . . . and now I have become a vulgar, contemptible woman whom anyone may despise."

Gurov, her lover, is older, bored by his marriage and addicted to brief affairs. On returning to his Moscow routine, he initially has no regrets: "In another month, he fancies, the image of Anna Sergeyevna would be shrouded in a mist in his memory . . . but . . ." - and here the genius of Chekhov asserts itself in its emotional intelligence - ". . . more than a month passed . . . and his memories glowed more and more vividly."

The pair realise that they are "a pair of birds of passage, caught and forced to live in different cages. They forgave each other for what they were ashamed of in their past . . . and felt that this love of theirs had changed them both."

In About Love, a man recalls his life's one great passion and the days spent pondering the unfairness of it all:

"I was unhappy. At home, in the fields, I thought of her; I tried to understand the mystery of a beautiful, intelligent young woman's marrying someone so uninteresting, almost an old man . . . I kept trying to understand why she had met him first and not me, and why such a terrible mistake in our lives need have happened."

A woman abandons her husband in An Anonymous Story, and moves in with her half-hearted lover. Her humiliation is shrewdly documented by the narrator, a revolutionary working as a footman.

In his plays and his stories, Chekhov created remarkable characters. The most unforgettable of all is Dr Andrey Yefimitch, in Ward No 6, a huge man with the body of "an overfed, intemperate and harsh innkeeper on the high road . . . but his step is soft, and his walk cautious and insinuating; when he meets anyone in a narrow passage he is always the first to stop and make way." Yefimitch's squalidly magnificent descent into despair is one of Chekhov's finest achievements.

Suffering ill-health throughout his life, the consumptive Chekhov was odd, emotionally evasive, a romantic, a realist, an outsider. He was courageous, travelling through Siberia to investigate and report on the penal colony on Sakhalin Island, by interviewing the inmates, criminals and political prisoners.

Chekhov died in a German spa in July 1904, aged 44, following two heart attacks, six months after seeing his final work, The Cherry Orchard, premiered. His wife, actress Olga Knipper, whom he had finally married in 1901, played Ranyevskaya, having also been the original Arkadina ( The Seagull), Yelena ( Uncle Vanya) and Masha ( Three Sisters). Dramatist or story writer? Chekhov was both, a consummate artist who looked into the soul of men to sigh with pity, compassion and understanding.

Essential Chekhov

Ward No 6- one of the finest short stories ever written.

The Lady and the Dog- love at its most bewildering.

Three Sisters- life as a prison, hope as an illness.

An Anonymous Story- brilliant, filtered through an all-seeing narrator.

The Cherry Orchard- black comedy about the death of the old Russia and the emergence of a terrifying new one.