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  • Gail Wilson Kenna

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

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By February, he said in a letter, "I am living through a crisis. If I don't find the take-off point, it will go downward with me.…"


In May he wrote, "Suddenly, it does not interest me any more to see my stories in print. Criticism, literary conversations, talk, successes, failures, fees, all are no longer of any concern to me. In one sentence, they have become meaningless. I now feel like a downright fool. Somehow, things have come to a standstill for me… to an impasse in my personal life. I am not disappointed, I am not tired, not melancholic….it is just that everything suddenly has become less interesting. I must try to find some incentive, to get off the ground." (Thank you, Anton. This seems to be where I am, minus your literary fame and medical training.)

In December, in another letter, Chekhov admitted to… "a lot of forced work, but not a moment of serious effort. I long to hide away somewhere for five years, and to occupy myself with hard and serious work."


Yet by the end of 1889, Chekhov had found an answer! He would travel thousands of miles to Sakhalin, an island of imprisoned and damned human beings. In March 1890, he wrote candidly that his journey would not be a valuable contribution either to literature or to science…."Even if the journey has nothing to offer, should there not be two or three days that I shall remember all my life? Sakhalin is a place of unbearable suffering. I regret that I'm not sentimental; otherwise, I would say that we should pilgrimage to places like Sakhalin, as the Turks go to Mecca. From the books I have read and am still reading, I take it that we let millions of people rot in jails, rot for nothing, without thought or reflection, barbarically. I assure you that Sakhalin is necessary." In another letter, Chekhov clarified his intent. "I am not traveling to collect observations and impressions for literary use, but only in order to live differently for half a year than I have lived until now."


As soon as Chekhov made his decision to make the arduous journey, his personal crisis was over, and he began his plans and preparations. He did not receive official support from the imperial prison administration to examine the hygienic and sanitary conditions of prisoners. Although he was promised that he would be free to proceed, he did not know that a secret official telegram was sent to the governor, and Chekhov was not to be allowed to see political prisoners.


What about the journey itself? Steamboat up the Volga, travel by railroad, then 4000 kilometers in an open coach, unless he could hire a private one, and through the Taiga, then on to Lake Baikal. Yet another boat, then another coach, freezing "like a goldfinch in a cage." Siberia! A nightmare in May, still winter there, and Chekhov coughing up blood (his TB identified at age 23). For a week he stayed in Irkutsk, and apparently felt well and happy. He had his first bath, threw away his filthy clothes, bought new ones. And after traveling two and half months, he reached the sea and Nikolayevsk-on-Amur, on July 5, 1890. On July 11, Dr. Anton Chekhov arrived in Sakhalin.



Next time: What did it all mean, Anton?

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Yet I begin with my living hero, Dr. Robert Coles, who for over five decades has inspired me through his books, such as The Call of Stories (Teaching and the Moral Imagination) and ten others in my library. Another admired physician-writer is the late Southern novelist, Walker Percy, who says of the book I just cited: "Coles is a rare bird, a skillful psychiatrist who knows all about the diagnoses and abstractions of medicine but keeps seeing patients as human beings who have stories."








In a 2010 work by Coles, Lives We Carry With Us: "Profiles of Moral Courage," is a chapter on Walker Percy and also one on Dr. William Carlos Williams. Coles wrote a thesis on this famous writer's Patterson while at Harvard. Williams is the one who encouraged Coles to be a medical doctor, telling him that it would complement his writing, as it had Williams' life as a poet.


This dual profession is also true of Anton Chekhov, or as Coles calls him, Dr. Chekhov. This Memorial Day weekend I have spread books by these writers on the bed. And this past week was my final class of Russian short stories. The last one we discussed was Chekhov’s "Gooseberries." A short poem by William Carlos Williams seems perfect for how this short story affected me, one I've read off and on for decades.


You slapped my face/oh but so gently/I smiled/ at the caress.


George Saunders might agree about the gentle slap. On page 338 in A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, Saunders wrote: "What I admire most about Chekhov is how free of agenda he seems on the page…interested in everything but not wedded to any fixed system of belief, willing to go where the data takes him. He was a doctor, and his approach to fiction feels lovingly diagnostic. Walking into the examination room, finding LIFE sitting there, he seems to say, "Wonderful, let's see what's going on." ' Saunders claims that Chekhov uses the short story to move beyond opinions…."If he has a program, it's being wary of having a program."


For Dr. Chekhov, who died at age 44 in 1904, the holy of holies was a list that ends with "freedom from violence and falsehood, no matter how the last two manifest themselves." Saunders says, and I agree, that Anton's feeling of fondness for the world created stories in which there is a constant state of reexamination and reconsideration. "As we watch Chekhov continually, ritually doubt all conclusions, we're comforted. It's all right to reconsider. It's noble, holy even. It can be done," Saunders says. A physician-writer in the class on Thursday wryly noted that Vladimir Putin might not be charmed by Chekhov's story, "Gooseberries," and reconsider 'his' war in Ukraine. Obviously true. But Chekhov described himself as a young man who squeezed the slave out of himself, drop by drop; that waking one beautiful moment he felt that he no longer had a slave's blood in his veins but the blood of a real man. And that physician-writer is someone I cannot imagine bowing to a dictator. Better to be sent to Siberia.


Next week: Dr. Chekhov's 6000 mile journey on the Great Siberian Post Road in the late 19th century to investigate conditions in Sakhalin Island among prisons and settlements there.


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