Reading Chekhov VI: “About Love”

Welcome back to my living room. We’re sitting around with actors and friends reading Chekhov stories. Chekhov (1860 – 1904) was the model doctor-writer, the “Uncle Vanya” and “Cherry Orchard” playwright and a man, it turns out, with a very active love life, a long and not particularly happy marriage, and a too-short career universally admired for its searching truthfulness in art and love, too.

We’re reading the story, “About Love,” from 1898. Chekhov tells it as a conversation among three men on a hunting weekend — a veterinarian, a school teacher and a small landowner-farmer Alekhin, who starts the ball rolling:

“So far only one incontestable truth has been uttered about love: ‘This is a great mystery.’ Everything else that has been written or said about love is not a conclusion, but only a statement of questions which have remained unanswered. The explanation which would seem to fit one case does not apply in a dozen others, and the very best thing, to my mind, would be to explain every case individually without attempting to generalize. We ought, as the doctors say, to individualize each case.”

The story becomes Alekhin’s anguished memoir of the secret and unspoken love he lost — of the married woman who left their town in agony for want of his intervention. On the surface, at least, this is Chekhov’s case for the irrational but unconditional demands of the heart. Not the least mystery to me is that Mikhail Baryshnikov’s stage production of “About Love,” which came to Boston this past winter, left out what are for me the key lines:

“We were a great crowd to see Anna Alexyevna off. When she had said good-bye to her husband and her children and there was only a minute left before the third bell, I ran into her compartment to put a basket, which she had almost forgotten, on the rack, and I had to say good-bye. When our eyes met in the compartment our spiritual fortitude deserted us both; I took her in my arms, she pressed her face to my breast, and tears flowed from her eyes. Kissing her face, her shoulders, her hands wet with tears — oh, how unhappy were! — I confessed my love for her, and with a burning pain in my heart I realized how unnecessary, how petty, and how deceptive all that had hindered us from loving was. I understood that when you love you must either, in your reasonings about that love, start from what is highest, from what is more important than happiness or unhappiness, sin or virtue in their accepted meaning, or you must not reason at all.”

From “About Love” in Anton Chekhov’s Short Stories, Norton edition, 1979. Constance Garnett’s translation. Pages 194 to 201.

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  • Few of the things that I follow online make me as happy as hearing these Chekhov recordings. I especially like the group discussions, because, although one can always peruse a book on one’s own, it is a rare pleasure to hear lively and interested minds reacting to its text. (Also, now that I think of it, the way that each reader vocalizes the story’s words is, in itself, a kind of literary criticism.) I was absorbed by your conversation about ‘starting from what is highest’, and it seems a most fitting honor to the genius of Chekhov that you allow the mystery of love to remain unsolved.

  • Potter

    What an absolutely beautiful story!! I read this twice and have not listened to your podcast yet but I wanted to give my own reaction: we live to love. What lee is there to say? We know it best when we fall in love, are in love and driven and it is a very focussed love. The thing is to keep loving all the way through and broadly and beyond this focus, this desire. So I understand Anna’s neurasthenia which maybe has to do with the mores of the time, the constraints and her inability to reconcile or contain her needs and desires. Chekhov offers us a kind of moral to the story that has to do with a reasoned choice versus choosing passion and pain, go one way or the other.

    I noticed here the cameo appearance of a Jew or Jews as in the other stories as I thought to mention it. They are the other or a lower sort, not so worthy but not necessarily felt by Chekhov himself- I don’t think so anyway- but depicted as such too in other stories.

  • Potter

    I guess I don’t think this is a man’s problem, as Chris said. It was Anna that got sick and Alehin who moves on and tells the story… perhaps with sadness. As Chekov says, all things come to their end. Both chose not to make the move towards their love. and as one of the readers says, we don’t know if the love would have remained so strong if it were not so repressed.

    I heard a blues line today on the radio that fits: “I jus’ can’t keep my two men apart; I got one for my livin’ and one for my heart.”

    I agree with Bryan Ray about how the readings are not only criticism, but interpretation of the story.

    Thank you Jim Donahue for great audio! ( I hope he also gets wine cheese and olives).

  • Potter

    I wish more would join in here. Overstaying my welcome perhaps with yet another post on this one, but a further thought: while I read this story I am also carrying on a long conversation with my cousin about our grandmother and grandfather, Russian-Lithuanian Jewish immigrants to this country around the time that Chekhov was writing; it’s just a little after actually, very early 20th century. My grandmother was almost in Anna’s position in what had become an unhappy marriage but with many children. I mean when a marriage no longer is meaningful and there is no growing love, a woman of that era still depended on a man for her and the children’s survival. There was no thought of divorce and there were certainly none of the laws we have today about alimony and support. Women did not go to work, out on their own. Anna must have really broken down at the end to have to leave everything to gain her sanity.