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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