May 01, 2000

Chekhov Today

Nearly a hundred years after his death, Chekhov remains perhaps the most pervasively influential figure in modern short story and drama. Even if you have never read or heard a word Chekhov wrote, you are absorbing his technique and outlook when you read a short story by Katherine Mansfield or John Cheever. Becket’s Waiting for Godot and Harold Pinter’s black comedies would not be possible without Chekhov’s innovations in drama. How is it that this most Russian of writers has become the best assimilated of all foreign writers in the English-speaking (not to mention French, German, Japanese) world?

There is no doubt that Chekhov is, by his own definition, a specifically Russian writer. Unlike Tolstoy, he was quite uninterested in seeing his work translated into other languages and asserted that it could not possibly be of interest to any Frenchman or Englishman—which accounts for the time-bomb effect of his work, which hit us a good twenty years after his death. Chekhov was convinced that the Russian human predicament, created by endless horizons and harsh climate, was quite different from the problems that beset westerners. Unlike almost every other major Russian writer in the nineteenth century, Chekhov did not read or speak foreign languages: he had a schoolboy’s German, a medical student’s Latin and only towards the end of his life, after a winter in Nice, did he learn enough French to read a newspaper. True, he thought very highly of foreign writers - Marcus Aurelius, Shakespeare, Schopenhauer, Maupassant, Zola, Strindberg—whom he read in translation, but they remained fundamentally alien to him.

It is easy to see where Chekhov’s genius and originality lie. Because he was not fully part of the metropolitan, aristocratic Russian establishment, he was one of those fools who “rush in where angels fear to tread.” A provincial from the southern port of Taganrog, the life of a small multi-ethnic town, rather than Petersburg or Moscow, was the true prototype for his characters’ world. Chekhov’s education, however, should not be underestimated: some of the schoolteachers in Taganrog, who are the prototypes of the absurd and contemptible schoolteachers of the plays and stories, were quite remarkable: Chekhov was taught mathematics by a sadistic Dzerzhinsky (who later fathered ‘Red Felix’, the head of Lenin’s Cheka); he was taught geography by Stulli, who was a writer of fiction from whom Chekhov was to borrow much.

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