Reading Chekhov V: “The Teacher of Literature”

Why, again, are we reading Anton Chekhov — the doctor, playwright, story writer, model man who died young in 1904? He’d been the toast of twilight Russia before the revolution, and as we keep discovering again, he was a modern in so many ways, a contemporary of ours, really. I begin this living-room session around a master-story, “The Teacher of Literature,” with a fragment from great Vladimir Nabokov. In his lectures at Cornell in the 1950’s on Russian literature in general, the great Vlad goes elegantly overboard. First, on what Chekhov did and then how he did it:

It is not quite exact to say that Chekhov dealt in charming and ineffectual people. It is a little more true to say that his men are charming because they are ineffectual. But what really attracted the Russian reader was that in Chekhov’s heroes he recognized the type of the Russian intellectual. The Russian idealist, a queer and pathetic creature that is little known abroad and cannot exist in the Russia of the Soviets. Chekhov’s intellectual was a man who combined the deepest human decency of which man is capable with an almost ridiculous inability to put his ideals and principles into action. A man devoted to moral beauty, the welfare of his people, the welfare of the universe but unable in his private life to do anything useful, frittering away his existence in a haze of utopian dreams, knowing exactly what is good, what is worthwhile living for, but at the same time sinking lower and lower in the mud of a hum-drum existence, unhappy in love, hopelessly inefficient in everything, a good man who cannot make good.

Vladimir Nabokov, Lectures on Russian Literature, page 253 in the Harcourt paperback edition, 1981.

And how did he do it? Nabokov was at pains to say that Chekhov was not a great stylist, not a man of effects like Gogol or Flaubert or Henry James. He dealt in plain, man on the street language. Nabokov says:

The magical part of it is that in spite of his being quite satisfied with man in the street among words, the word in the street so to say, Chekhov managed to convey an impression of artistic beauty far surpassing that of many writers who thought they knew what rich beautiful prose was. He did it by keeping all his words in the same dim light and of the exact tint of gray, a tint between the color of an old fence and that of a low cloud. The variety of his moods, the flicker of his charming wit, the deeply artistic economy of characterization, the vivid detail and the fade-out of human life, all the peculiar Chekhovian features are enhanced by being suffused and surrounded by a faintly iridescent verbal haziness.

Vladimir Nabokov, Lectures on Russian Literature, page 253 in the Harcourt paperback edition, 1981.

Why do we read Chekhov aloud? Mainly because, as we’ll discover again today, something comes alive in the spoken word, specially in the voices of actors, that you don’t read on the page. We’re reading and gabbing about a story called “The Teacher of Literature,” published in 1894; Chekhov was 34 years old. It’s a story about a young man in love, at a crisis in his young marriage. I’d put this one in the folder of Chekov stories that ask essentially: “Should I stay or should I go?” Can I get out of the village and chase my dream in Moscow? Can I leave — and Chekhov writes about women and men in this dilemma — the one I’m with for my soul’s sake? The protagonist Nikitin in the story here might be teaching today in Lincoln-Sudbury High School out in the leafy western suburbs of our Boston metropolis.

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  • This reading and discussion is a pleasure to listen to! I loved hearing everyone’s thoughts about what Nikitin might do after the tale’s end, so I’ll try to give my take on it. I think that he really will ‘escape’ from the surrounding ‘vulgarity’ – I think that he will leave his situation. There are two paragraphs that feel to me as though they match or echo each other; the first is from Part I, and the second concludes Part II:

    ‘When late in the evening he left the high school and went to the Shelestovs’, his heart was beating and his face was flushed. A month before, even a week before, he had, every time that he made up his mind to speak to her, prepared a whole speech, with an introduction and a conclusion. Now he had not one word ready; everything was in a muddle in his head, and all he knew was that today he would certainly declare himself, and that it was utterly impossible to wait any longer.’

    ‘In the next room they were drinking coffee and talking of Captain Polyansky, while he tried not to listen and wrote in his diary: “Where am I, my God? I am surrounded by vulgarity and vulgarity. Wearisome, insignificant people, pots of sour cream, jugs of milk, cockroaches, stupid women. . . . There is nothing more terrible, mortifying, and distressing than vulgarity. I must escape from here, I must escape today, or I shall go out of my mind!’

    By the story’s end, I think that Nikitin’s character has remained consistent enough to act the same way that he did after the first pivotal moment (which led to his marriage) – he seems to be the type of person who will always follow his insistent, inner voice. Just before he confronts his future wife Masha, the text tells us, “all he knew was that today he would certainly declare himself,” and he ends up declaring himself indeed. So, when Nikitin writes in his diary, “I must escape from here, I must escape today,” I assume that he will, again, follow through on this instinct.

  • Potter

    I finished reading this story scratching my head; what is this guy all about? I then listened and found the 2nd “reading” more helpful just because I looked for clues. The discussion was the best so far too, but then you had to serve a lot of wine, olives, nuts and cheese for this one.

    Nikitin starts off denying his youth by exclaiming his years. But the youth of his spirit reveals itself by the end. Once he is married and less desirous, having achieved his dream life, which he compliments himself upon achieving at first, he can now look at it and feel himself more deeply. Part of this change that came on that was not mentioned that I think deserves mentioning is the unexpected death of his colleague Ippolit. Maybe life is not all about making it happen but Providence or natural forces as well.. good fortune which many not last.. and that life can be short empty and painful too. This reminds me of the character in Gusev, Pavlov, who also feels he has control over life and then dies of consumption.

    Nikitin had stopped writing in his diary near the end too. What did he have to write if he was now feeling or seeing that he had not lived enough?

    My feeling about the Russian character would have Nikitin plodding on but with these existential issues plaguing him. Chekhov seems to leave room for this guessing game which allows us this Rorschach, but it is the Russian spirit that he describes.

    Again the intertwining of descriptions of nature which seem to mirror the mood I find lovely. And again, Beckett comes to mind.

    The passages from Nabakov were wonderful!! Thank you

    • mary

      Potter, I feel as though we should offer you some wine and cheese in return for being such a careful listener of these podcasts.!At the end of this one I almost recorded a sweepstakes for those who got through to the end. No surprise that you’re among them!

      • Potter

        Thank you Mary. I notice that some of these stories are online for free. Those interested don’t have to purchase books.

        I am thankful to you and Chris and the readers for this series. It is such an excuse to stop, sit for a bit and read, to get out of the everyday world and nourish myself with these artfully written stories. The bonus is hearing it read to me, and then the interesting interpretations .