This early morning, I hear thunder and watch rain falling on the cottage porch. Lush green woods hide a view of Mill Creek on which I live. If only the dry West had this rain. Despite flashes of lightening and water pooling outside, I find comfort in reading Chekhov. My affection for this 19th century Russian writer is old and deep. I hear him whisper, "You live badly, my friends. It is not good to live this way." How timely are his words? Always the quiet voice, which I must read in translation. Yet still, I experience his lucid prose, his economy with words, the way he takes what is complex and renders it simply, with balance and rhythm in every sentence. And sitting here, I have decided to offer a four-session course in spring 2023 on a collection of Chekhov short stories. This will be a follow-up to the recent course on George Saunders, who included three Chekhov stories in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain.
To continue where I left off last week, I ask this question: How did Chekhov's journey to Sakhalin Island change him? Physically speaking, while there he experienced a remission in his tuberculosis. Only when he returned to Moscow did a rale return. This word refers to the sound in the chest made by someone with diseased lungs. (I found the word when I checked rail.) Yet despite his serious lung condition, Chekhov wrote, "What a sour creature I would be now if I had not made the journey." Mentally and artistically, the journey convinced him that to rail was folly. In the 1880s Chekhov had been interested in Tolstoy's ideas. But after his journey to Sakhalin, he wrote that Tolstoy's moral philosophy no longer moved him. "Deep down I'm hostile to it, which of course is unfair…I have peasant blood flowing in my veins, and I'm not the one to be impressed with peasant virtues…War is evil, and the court system is evil, but it does not follow that I should wear bast shoes and sleep alongside the hired hand and his wife."
After his journey, in story after story, Chekhov quietly reminds readers that "life is given to us only once." Yet this man of science, this rationalist, does not preach or teach. Why? Because his journey convinced him of the uselessness of sermons. What did Chekhov write after his months on Sakhalin Island? A scientific report: "Remembrance of Hell." Its only effect was a government commission sent to the island. Although some abuses were abolished, no real reform occurred. Obviously, given the Russian Exile System.
Exile to Siberia has been called "the greatest sustained machine of evil in human history and reached its apotheosis under Stalin," according to author Daniel Beer in The House of the Dead. (WSJ Review, January 7-8, 2017, "A Prison Without a Roof.") Having read this long review, in which Chekhov is mentioned, I feel compelled to ignore Anton's advice about not sermonizing! I will say this. In the present USA, with its female book clubs of "happy ender" readers, a novel like A Gentleman in Moscow, set during Stalin's reign, has sold millions of books, and a Wall Street trader-turned-writer is richer. Really? But twelve million died in Siberian penal labor camps during Stalin's reign, though not Amor's charming fictional Count. If you would like to read an honest work of fiction about that era, read The Noise of Time, by Julian Barnes, about Shostakovich, "held fast under the thumb of despotism." Chekhov reminds us that rust corrodes iron and lying corrodes the soul. And fiction, he would assert quietly, is not meant to distort the truth but to reveal it.
What else changed for Anton after his arduous journey? He bought an estate for his family, on which he lived. He provided free medical treatment for hundreds in his district. From his own funds, he erected and supported three schools. And in 1891-92, during an epidemic of cholera, he was the district's doctor, as well as inspecting factories in Moscow for their sanitary conditions. All the while he continued to write stories and plays.
I end with words from his friend and fellow writer, Maxim Gorky. In a letter to Chekhov he wrote, "You are doing great things with your stories, arousing in people a feeling of disgust with their sleepy, half-dead existence...your stories are like exquisite cut-glass bottles with all the different scents of life in them; and believe me, a sensitive nose will always find in them the delicate, pungent, and healthy scent of what is genuine and valuable…."
Next week: Another Physician-Writer, Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air