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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