Reading Chekhov


Our “Reading Chekhov” series culminates in a full hour on the Russian physician who spun the small happenings of old Russia into some of the most popular plays in the world and into stories that stay with us and feel new. Andre Dubus III, Maxim D. Shrayer and Rosamund Bartlett are taking us through the dreams, the heartbreak, and the truth of the writers’ writer.

Chekhov’s phrases, scenes and lines keep expanding when they’re spoken aloud. He has the further peculiar effect of inviting digressions as we go – conversations and asides about all manner of things, philosophical and emotional, and not at all specially Russian. For our podcast project “Reading Chekhov,” we’ve assembled actors and storytellers to bring these Russian classics to life.

Guest List

"The Cherry Orchard" performed for the first time at the Moscow Art Theatre, January 17, 1904

“The Cherry Orchard” performed first at the Moscow Art Theatre, January 17, 1904

More Reading

  • Ben Greenman’s provocative, funny ‘translation’ of Chekhov’s stories into the language and world of contemporary celebrity, called Celebrity Chekhov;
  • An interview with Rosamund Bartlett in Passport magazine on her biography of the man himself — she calls Chekhov “one of the few people you end up admiring more rather than less having probed the details of his life”;
  • Maxim Shrayer discusses Nabokov and Chekhov with Five Books:

Nabokov’s stories go back to Chekhov and Bunin and the great Russian love story, in which desire and memories interact, mostly in unhappy ways for the characters, but happily for the reader.

I think that in Anton Chekhov’s presence every one involuntarily felt in himself a desire to be simpler, more truthful, more one’s self…

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  • Potter

    Thankful and thank you…really! The more I read Chekhov the more in awe I am of him and what he managed to leave us in his short life. It’s truly amazing.

  • Thank you for your wonderful rendition of The Student. You might be interested in listening to my russian-english literature podcasts, which I dictated for my russian students of English

  • Potter

    The lure of Chekhov for me sort of came from behind in this series especially. In the past I was really taken by “A Dull Story”. After plowing through (it’s sometimes called “a Boring Story “ indeed it can be but there is a reason) comes this gem:

    “unless a man (i.e. a person) has something stronger, something superior to all outside influences, he only needs to catch a bad cold to lose his balance entirely, to take every bird for a fowl of ill omen , and to hear the baying of hounds in every noise, while his pessimism or his optimism together with all his thoughts great and small, are significant solely as symptoms and in no other way”

    I felt grateful to Chekhov for that. It seemed to clear something up for me about myself, about the people around me.

    I must have seen the “Cherry Orchard”, did see “Uncle Vanya” (on TV) “The Seagull” (at ART?) in the past. But I never really focussed on Chekhov the person and his life, how his life relates to his work and how extraordinary he was as a person, what he left behind in such a short time for all time. So I am very grateful for this series.

    I insisted on reading myself first and then found that I needed to read again because coming from today’s busy-ness I was not empty enough (so to speak) not paying the attention this needed. Just the exercise of emptying ones mind to take this in is therapeutic enough. But I realized too that every sentence in these stories needed attention, focus. So reading twice brings more. And then hearing it and the different takes (though I resisted that at first) brought even more depth.

    So I end up not wanting to let go of Chekhov ( I won’t) and very grateful. I think too that though this is not a popular discussion, it may catch on. I hope so. It’s here, this gift, for the taking!

  • Cambridge Forecast

    Excellent ROS panel on Chekhov.

    When I think of Chekhov (“Ward Six”, “Cherry Orchard”, etc.
    plus the movies such as “Lady…” and “Uncle Vanya…”), the following “items” seem Chekhovian to me:
    “Every life is, more or less, a ruin among whose debris we have to discover what the person ought to have been. This obliges us to construct for ourselves—as the physicist constructs his models—an imaginary life of the individual, the graph of his successful life. Upon which we then distribute the jags (they are sometimes enormous) which external destiny inflicted. We all feel our real life to be a deformation—sometimes greater, sometimes less—of our possible life. The second problem is to weigh the subject’s fidelity to this unique destiny of his, to his possible life. This permits us to determine the degree of authenticity of
    his actual life.”

    (from Ortega y Gasset, “The Dehumanization of Art”, Doubleday paperback, 1956, page 132)

    2. The sense of things one gets from the very title of that Eudora Welty book,“Losing Battles.”

    3.The sensibility of Ozu in his Japanese films such as “Tokyo Story” in the fifties where two women are reacting to the unfeeling and rude behavior of siblings at a mother’s funeral ceremony and
    one exclaims to no one in particular, “Life is …disappointing, isn’t it”? and the woman sitting nearby, after hesitating a moment, mumbles, “Yes it is.”

    4. India’s Rabindranath Tagore’s short stories such as the “Postmaster” where a romantic parting is described like this:
    “So the traveller, borne on the breast of the swift-flowing river, consoled himself with philosophical reflections on the numberless meetings and partings going on in the world—on death, the great parting, from which none returns.
    But Ratan had no philosophy. She was wandering about the post office in a flood of tears. It may be that she had still a lurking hope in some corner of her heart that her Dada would return, and that is why she could not tear herself away. Alas for our foolish human nature! Its fond mistakes are persistent. The dictates of reason take a long time to assert their own sway.
    The surest proofs meanwhile are disbelieved. False hope is clung to with all one’s might and main, till a day comes when it has sucked the heart dry and it forcibly breaks through its bonds and departs. After that comes the misery of awakening, and then once again the longing to get back into the maze of the same mistakes.”

    Kierkegaard tells us somewhere that the whipsawed feeling of life comes from the truth that life must be lived forwards and can only be understood backwards. This feeling of characters pushed one way and pulled the other on these antiparallel Kierkegaard tracks connected by crossties of the piffling, captures something of the Chekhovian “spiritual physics” for me.

    Richard Melson

    • Potter

      Regarding the Ortega y Gasset quote, one can only understand it’s meaning really after having lived and in retrospect. Young and searching I was attracted to this book which was lost together with so many others in a personal holocaust ( lost all my books too). I was also, and years after attracted to Ozu’s Tokyo Story ( loved it- don’t know why) and at the time gave myself through the magic of videos, a Japanese film festival. I am picking that up now with Mizoguchi. So what does this all including Tagore and Kierkegaard have to do with Chekhov? Reading Chekhov is provocative and evocative. Thanks!

  • Cambridge Forecast

    Three “valedictory” points for outstanding ROS Chekhov show:

    1. The Russian Word “Skushno” and Chekhov’s World
    Gregor von Rezzori (1914 –1998) is an underprized Central European writer whose books are being reissued by NYRB publishers.
    The Russian word “skushno” is introduced in his writings. It appears in Gregor von Rezzori’s novel “Memoirs of an Anti-Semite”. That novel begins in Czernowitz, close to the scene of the action in Nine Lives.
    Rezzori admits that “skushno” is a difficult word to translate but suggests ‘a spiritual void that sucks you in like a vague but intensely urgent longing’.”
    One wonders if “skushno” fits Chekovian types of despair.

    2. Janet Suzman and Chekhov’s “The Three Sisters”
    Janet Suzman, the niece of the anti-apartheid leader Helen Suzman, and a well-known stage and screen star, received various awards for her performance as “Masha” in Chekhov’s “Three Sisters” in the seventies.
    She said on a TV appearance a generation ago that she considered “Three Sisters” the best play ever.
    You could google this and will hopefully find many interesting Chekhov- connected reflections from the dramaturgy point of view, from the staging angle.
    3. Dismal-Nomics and Chekhov
    You remember the icy businessman in the “Cherry Orchard”, Lopakhin, who wants to get rid of the cherry orchard and put up houses which he proceeds to do at the end.
    This should perhaps bring to mind those scenes in the E.M. Forster-based movie “Howards End” where the Vanessa Redgrave character (who has a mystical relationship to her estate house “Howards End) complains bitterly to the Emma Thompson character (“Margaret Schlegel,” from the culture-vulture Schlegel family) about how beautiful historical houses are being demolished all over to put up horrible flats.

    You might also think of “Downton Abbey” where the same kind of process is occurring and explains why Maggie Smith keeps complaining about the horrible Lloyd George ruining them all with his new wealth taxes and restrictions.
    The Satyajit Ray (India) movie masterpiece “Jalshagar” (“Music Room”) is about a landowner facing a “Cherry Orchard” financial impasse and escapes to his music room for pleasant reveries.

    Wikipedia explains:
    Jalsaghar depicts the end days of a decadant zamindar
    (landlord) in Bengal, and his efforts to uphold his family prestige even when faced with economic adversity. The landlord, Biswambhar Roy (Chhabi Biswas), is a just but other-worldly man who loves to spend time listening to music and putting up spectacles rather than managing his properties ravaged by floods and the abolition of zamindari system by the Indian government. He is challenged by a commoner who has attained riches through business dealings, in putting up spectacles and organising music fests. This is the tale of a zamindar who has nothing left but respect and sacrifices his family and wealth trying to retain it.
    This is sort of a “Cherry Orchard” situation on the other side of the world.
    Richard Melson