Today is the 150th anniversary of the birthday of Anton Chekhov, Russian playwright and fiction writer who died in 1904 of the tuberculosis that afflicted him for much of his adult life. Chekhov followed his own illness with some interest, because his day job was physician. Just as in the case of the attorney Wallace Stevens, a professional training and career didn’t prevent Chekhov from becoming a great literary artist. In fact, in contrast to Stevens, for whom a thrilling career as an insurance lawyer was probably at best a neutral way of paying the bills while he wrote, Chekhov’s medical practice was a positive source of inspiration, giving him a window on psychology, sexuality, illness, and aging. Memo to our new College of Nursing: don’t give up on those literature electives!
Chekhov is known for four major plays (Uncle Vanya, The Cherry Orchard, The Sea Gull, and The Three Sisters), a handful of lesser and shorter plays, and innumerable stories. His fictions range from a page or two to almost 200 pages, from flash fiction to novella. He wrote two novels, which are fairly obscure, but his longer stories are longer than some writers’ novels.
As a result it’s hard to pigeonhole any of Chekhov’s stories. He wasn’t interested in the deft turning of a plot back on itself in a few pages (the method of Maupassant, O. Henry, Thomas Hardy, Kate Chopin). Nor was he floridly rhetorical, like H.G. Wells; his stories don’t illustrate big ideas. (Tolstoy accused Chekhov’s famous story “The Darling” of being a failed feminist argument that ended up proving the existence of the eternal feminine, but that critique tells us more about Tolstoy than about Chekhov; Chekhov always seemed interested in individuals, not categories of people.)
In Chekhov stories, things happen, lives are changed, but nothing fits standard narrative formulas – hence their extreme, ad hoc range of size and manner. In this Chekhov resembles Henry James, his somewhat older contemporary, who preferred the expansive concept of the “tale.” Yet even with James one perceives the aesthetic ideal that a story must illustrate a unified effect.
With Chekhov, instead, we get the impression that a prospect opens briefly on a life or few, and then closes behind them – much, perhaps, as a patients’ lives, their very bodies, become excruciatingly open to their physician for a few days or weeks, and then are lost in the welter of humanity again. Take, for instance, his 1898 story called “A Doctor’s Visit.” When a senior physician gets a call for help regarding a factory-owner’s daughter, he sends his assistant Korolyov instead. Korolyov is young, and ignorant of most things non-medical:
He was born and had grown up in Moscow; he did not know the country, and he had never taken any interest in factories, or been inside one.
But Korolyov knows people, and the causes of their pain. He quickly discovers that the heiress Liza suffers not from heart disease but from depression: a depression that he traces to the system of capitalism itself. Exemplifying, perhaps, the old principle that experts on a place are people who have been there either twenty years or twenty minutes, he analyzes the whole scheme of production, and explains the roots of her depression to his patient. He promises that life will be better in 50 years, even if he and Liza don’t live to see it. She cheers up, a little.
And the encounter is over. Set aside for a moment that 1898 + 50 would put Liza and Korolyov in the postwar Stalinist Soviet Union. Chekhov can’t have known that; what’s more important is that Chekhov realizes that Korolyov can’t know anything. The young doctor’s idealism and optimism are directed out into the fog of the larger social world. What we know of other people is largely conjecture. The young imagine they, and the world, will grow wise. Chekhov observes them imagining, and then turns his attention away.
In a sense, Chekhov wrote “novelistic” short stories, but it’s crucial that he stopped short of fleshing them into novels. Virginia Woolf, who greatly admired Chekhov, would call one of her exercises in vignette “An Unwritten Novel,” and that art form – subtle, oblique, and full of “negative capability” – is Chekhov’s great legacy. He didn’t learn how to write his unwritten novels in medical school, but one should acknowledge that he didn’t learn how in creative-writing classes, either. He used his medical training to live life, and he used that life to make his fleeting impressions of life live on in art.