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Anton Chekhov

A prose style as comfortable with fly-ridden grime as champagne and chandeliers

Robert Butler | September/October 2014

He was a year old when the serfs were emancipated in 1861 (his grandfather had been one of them), nine when Tolstoy published “War and Peace”, and 16 when his tyrannical father, a grocer, went bankrupt and fled their modest home in southern Russia. At 19 Anton Chekhov moved to Moscow, where he trained as a doctor and turned out comic stories for money. At 24, he showed signs of tuberculosis; at 26, he was urged by a leading critic to take his talent seriously; at 28, he published his first major story, “The Steppe”. By 44, he was dead.

Chekhov the playwright wrote a dozen or so plays, culminating in four masterpieces: “The Seagull”, “Uncle Vanya”, “Three Sisters” and “The Cherry Orchard”. Chekhov the prose writer wrote 600 stories, ranging from two-page skits to 100-page novellas, that use a far larger canvas than the plays, go deeper into individual minds, and display a visionary grasp of the Russian landscape. From the fly-ridden grime of peasant life and grey gentility of the provinces (“so uneventful and monotonous, yet so disturbing”) to self-loathing antics among the champagne and chandeliers of St Petersburg, Chekhov’s Russia is richly maladjusted. His swift transparent prose travels well, not least because he leaves so much unsaid. Two of his most perceptive critics, V.S. Pritchett and Janet Malcolm, never read him in Russian.

KEY DECISION To turn his diagnostic eye from medical conditions to psychological ones (from disease, as it were, to dis-ease). The serfs may have been freed, but the nervous tics, anxieties, nausea and insomnia reveal countless characters who are trapped, mired or imprisoned. “The art of enslavement is also being gradually refined” (“My Life”). The anguish of confinement builds with fiery internal riffs, seethings and mutterings, sudden vehement episodes and exclamatory outbursts. 

STRONG POINTS The tragi-comic collision between interior worlds and exterior circumstances. Mental states are not a constant. The characters’ perceptions fluctuate: “But alas, these were only thoughts” (“My Wife”). They go off one another. They dream of being elsewhere. The pregnant hostess wants her guests to leave. The fiancée realises she doesn’t love her betrothed. The doctor punches his orderly. “Everything that was essential...was hidden from other people” (“The Lady and the Lapdog”).

GOLDEN RULES (1) “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” (2) “When you...want to make the reader feel pity, try to be somewhat colder.” (3) “Abridge…abridge!”

FAVOURITE TRICKS (1) A character takes a journey, and there’s a journey within that journey. (2) An event of extreme importance to one person means next-to-nothing to someone else: “She was upset at the others seeing nothing special in it” (“Three Years”). (3) Final lines, over which Chekhov took great trouble, shift the reader’s perspective. “It began to drizzle” (“The Duel”).

ROLE MODELS A choirboy in Taganrog, Chekhov became an atheist but remained steeped in the rituals of the Russian Orthodox church. From the Bible he absorbed deceptive simplicity, a gift for omission and oblique resonance.

TYPICAL SENTENCES “Even in fine weather he wore galoshes” (“Murder”).

The Cherry Orchard adapted by Simon Stephens, directed by Katie Mitchell, Young Vic, London, Oct 10th

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