By the Way • May 29, 2014

From Andre to Anton: The Writer’s Writer

Our Twitter experiment this week came from Sonia Chung’s wonderful essay, “I Heart Chekhov“, from The Millions. We wanted to design some postcards. We used what Nabokov considered to be Chekhov’s chosen color register, “a ...

Our Twitter experiment this week came from Sonia Chung’s wonderful essay, “I Heart Chekhov“, from The Millions. We wanted to design some postcards. We used what Nabokov considered to be Chekhov’s chosen color register, “a tint between the color of an old fence and that of a low cloud.” Here are testimonials — all loving, we left Hemingway out — dug up from around the literary archive.

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Podcast • May 29, 2014

Reading Chekhov VII: “A Medical Case”

We're reading Chekhov in my living room again, with actors and friends, sipping wine, nibbling on cheese and olives. Chekhov is the world standard of short story writing, the best model there is of the doctor-writer, a tradition that goes back a long way to the gospel writer, Luke, who is supposed to have been a doctor, and of course it includes Walker Percy and William Carlos Williams.

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We’re reading Chekhov in my living room again, with actors and friends, sipping wine, nibbling on cheese and olives. Chekhov is the world standard of short story writing, the best model there is of the doctor-writer, a tradition that goes back a long way to the gospel writer, Luke, who is supposed to have been a doctor, and of course it includes Walker Percy and William Carlos Williams. I met an Egyptian writer, Alaa Al Aswany, author of an important book , The Yacoubian Building, and as I was sitting in his dentist chair,  I asked him about doctors writing novels. He said, “it’s one profession, novelists and doctors. They’re both interested in understanding human pain.” In this story,”A Medical Case,” imagine young Dr. Chekhov visiting an industrial town toward the end of the 19th Century. Might it not have have been one of the seats of the industrial revolution in America — in one of the famous textiles towns like Lowell and Lawrence in our home state of Massachusetts?

By the Way • May 29, 2014

Chekhov’s World, In Pictures

In his stories Chekhov captured, with an almost photographic talent and simplicity, the look of a country at the end of the day. But he died five years before Sergei Prokhudin-Gorkii took his prototype color film camera around Russia. He must have learned to see from the painters around him — his closest friend Isaac Levitan and his brother Nikolai. Below, a view into that beautiful old Russia, with Levitan's portrait of a young Chekhov, a view of his desk at Melikhovo, and a few of Prokhudin-Gorkii's most Chekhovian subjects.

By Max Larkin

In his stories Chekhov captured, with an almost photographic talent and simplicity, the look of a country at the end of the day. But he died five years before Sergei Prokhudin-Gorkii took his prototype color film camera around Russia. He must have learned to see from the painters around him — his closest friend Isaac Levitan and his brother Nikolai. Below, a view into that beautiful old Russia, with Levitan’s portrait of a young Chekhov, a view of his desk at Melikhovo, and a few of Prokhudin-Gorkii’s most Chekhovian subjects.

When I listen to “About Love” from our series, I think of Chekhov’s lonely heroes and heroines who thought of the people a hundred years later whom, they hoped, would contemplate their lives with love and forgiveness.

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Podcast • May 29, 2014

Rosamund Bartlett: Chekhov as a Modern

Speaking of the Russian playwright and short-story master, Rosamund Bartlett is a Chekhovian to the core, a translator of his stories and biographer of his life. We talked about what Chekhov's biography explains about him: the perfect esteem among his countrymen, specially writers; his generosity and decency as a person; his interest in truth beyond ideas, which he didn’t entirely trust.

Speaking of the Russian playwright and short-story master, Rosamund Bartlett is a Chekhovian to the core, a translator of his stories and biographer of his life. We talked about what Chekhov’s biography explains about him: the perfect esteem among his countrymen, specially writers; his generosity and decency as a person; his interest in truth beyond ideas, which he didn’t entirely trust. Ms. Bartlett said his “extraordinary compassion and insight into human behavior” – a lot of it – came from his training as a physician, which none of the other authors had. She described Chekhov as the most contemporary of the great Russian writers, “a Modernist with a capital M.”

“I’ve just come to the end of translating Anna Karenina and writing a biographer of Tolstoy. My relationship with Tolstoy has been very different than with Chekhov. My relationship with Tolstoy has been quite tough; I’ve been fighting with him, battling with him. He’s a very hard character, and there’s no room for me in the relationship. Whereas with Chekhov, even though he’s dead and I’m not engaging with a living person, it’s always a playful relationship, and I’m always discovering new things about him. I’m always reading him in a different way… his incredible compassion, tenderness, and understanding of ordinary people.”

Rosamund Bartlett in conversation with Christopher Lydon

May 29, 2014

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. We're talking through the dreams, the heartbreak, and the truth of the writers’ writer.
Reading Chekhov IV: "The Student"
Reading Chekhov V: "The Teacher of Literature"
From Andre to Anton: The Writer's Writer
Chekhov's World, In Pictures

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…

By the Way • May 8, 2014

Reading Chekhov VI: “About Love”

Welcome back to my living room. 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. On the surface, at least, this is Chekhov's case for the irrational but unconditional demands of the heart.

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.

Podcast • April 3, 2014

Reading Chekhov V: “The Teacher of Literature”

We're reading and gabbing about a Chekhov 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, out of a loving relationship, so as to fulfill my dream and satisfy the mysterious urgings of my soul? The protagonist Nikitin in the story here might be teaching today in Lincoln-Sudbury High School out in the leafy western suburbs of our very own Boston.

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.

March 21, 2014

What Would Tolstoy Say About Russia and Ukraine?

What if we could summon the best Russian minds we've ever known - starting with the humanist Tolstoy, the Slavic nationalist Dostoevsky, the gentle Russian in the Crimea Anton Chekhov, and the moderns Solzhenitsyn and Nabokov to fill in the back story of the Russian annexation of Crimea?

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We’re putting the Crimea story through the filter of Russian poetry, literature and history. I’m calling on two Russian-born authors and scholars, Maxim Shrayer of Boston College, and Svetlana Boym of Harvard. What if we could summon the best Russian minds we’ve ever known – starting with the humanist Tolstoy, the Slavic nationalist Dostoevsky, the gentle Russian in the Crimea Anton Chekhov,  and the moderns Solzhenitsyn and Nabokov to fill in the back story of Russian annexation of Crimea?

 

March 6, 2014

Reading Chekhov IV: “The Student”

We're in my living room again with a group of friends drinking wine and reading Chekhov, the great short story writer of Russia and the world. We're reading a famous story called "The Student." It is for me not only the most perfect, postage-stamp little dose of Chekhov's moods, alternately bleak and ecstatic; it also sets a complex reflection on betrayal, hardship, history and hope in an unforgettably beautiful scene.

Anton Tschechow in Moskau/1891 - Anton Chekhov in Moscow / 1891 - We’re in my living room again with a group of friends drinking wine and reading Chekhov, the great short story writer of Russia and the reading world. We love him for so many reasons, including the fact that he invites us to digress. We’re reading a famous story called “The Student.” It’s a late winter, early spring night in the 1890s, Easter weekend.  A student is coming home from shooting, and he pauses to share a Gospel story — Peter’s denial of Jesus — with peasant women. Chekhov liked to say this was his favorite story; a lot of people disagreed with him, some vehemently. I think he liked to say it because the story ends on an exalted note, as if to answer those who thought he was desperately gloomy and dark and atheistic. He may have said that he loved it as a sort of sop to his critics.  It is for me not only the most perfect, postage-stamp little dose of Chekhov’s moods, alternately bleak and ecstatic;  it also sets a complex reflection on betrayal, hardship, history and hope in an unforgettably beautiful scene.

Podcast • February 6, 2014

Reading Chekhov III: “Gusev”

Each one of Anton Chekhov’s short stories, like each of Beethoven’s string quartets, can feel like a fresh experiment. They all seem different in size, shape and feeling, each one a reinvention of the form. ...

Each one of Anton Chekhov’s short stories, like each of Beethoven’s string quartets, can feel like a fresh experiment. They all seem different in size, shape and feeling, each one a reinvention of the form. “Gusev,” the third in our reading-aloud series, is just such a one-off surprise, in 12 dense pages — nothing like our first two, “Vanka” and “Dreams.”

Chekhov wrote “Gusev” on shipboard, returning from his stark study mission to the prison island of Sakhalin in 1890. He was 30 years old, ten years into a concentrated writing career that would end with his death of tuberculosis in 1904. The story is about a peasant soldier, ill and yearning for family and home, on a troop ship ferrying him back from a military assignment in the East. It is full of the sorrows of empire, of loneliness and alienation.

To our chorus of actors, general readers and amateurs in my living room, however, more memorable, more marvelous, more instructively “Chekhovian” was something very like ecstasy in the underwater ending of the story. It reminded me of Sandra Bullock’s return to earth and seawater in last summer’s astonishing film Gravity. Or more precisely, as I watched Alfonso Cuarón’s movie months ago, I was sure that he had learned a lot from Chekhov’s “Gusev”, in the realm of the space-travelers’ spiritual longing and then in the astonishing palette of colors and the vitality of fish and vegetation in the closing scene.

And up above just then, on the side where the sun goes down, clouds are massing; one cloud resembles a triumphal arch, another a lion, a third a pair of scissors… A broad green shaft comes from behind the clouds and stretches to the very middle of the sky; shortly afterwards a violet shaft lies next to it, then a golden one, then a pink one… The sky turns a soft lilac. Seeing this magnificent, enchanting sky, the ocean frowns at first, but soon itself takes on such tender, joyful, passionate colors as human tongue can hardly name.

The close of “Gusev,” p. 121 in Anton Chekhov: Stories, translated by Richard Pevear and Larrissa Volokhonsky. Bantam, 2000.

We took the story to be a meditation on inescapable death and, just as powerful, the transcendence of life in nature. It brought to mind a conversation with a compleat Thoreau in our time, Bernd Heinrich, and his prize-winning book, Life Everlasting, and his revision of the Ash Wednesday reminder, “dust thou art, to dust thou shall return.” Isn’t it provocatively true to observe, “from life thou art, to life thou shall return.” Which affirms in turn Dostoevsky’s epigraph in The Brothers Karamazov from the Gospel of John 12:24: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.”

James McConkey of Cornell has written beautifully of “Gusev” along some of the same lines.

Our “Gusev” readers are Luke Salisbury, who teaches literature and writing at Bunker Hill Community College; Sarah Barton, “a librarian by day, an actress by night,” as she put it; Ken Cheeseman, a stage and screen actor and artist in residence at Emerson College; and Donna Sorbello, an actress in Boston. Among the voices heard in our chorus were Dan Pritchard of the Boston Review, actor Nijazi Jusufi and writer Sarah Lydon. We’ve been reading from the Bantam collection of the Stories of Anton Chekhov, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Thanks to Yo-Yo Ma for his version of the Rococo Variations composed by Chekhov’s friend Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Special thanks to the audio pro on so many stages Jim Donahue, who wired us all for sound.

Listeners out there, we’d be delighted to hear your take on “Gusev” and on our impressions of it. Next up, if you care to read ahead, will be the mini-story “The Student.” Not everybody loves it, but Chekhov called it his favorite.