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  • Gail Wilson Kenna

Chekhov stories are like exquisite cut-glass bottles with all the different scents of life in them.

I like this image from the Russian writer, Maxim Gorky, about his friend Anton. “In the presence of Chekhov, everyone felt an unconscious desire to be simpler, more truthful, more himself." And in Anton’s own words: “I hate lying and violence, whatever form they may take...I regard trademarks and labels as prejudicial. My holy of holies is the human body, health, intelligence, talent, inspiration, love, and absolute freedom - freedom from force and falsehood."

Last week my RCC-RILL students, nineteen of them, read Chekhov’s “Lady With a Dog.”

This week we will discuss an often taught and much-admired story by Eudora Welty, “A Worn Path.” In her tale, Welty depicts an “ancient” black woman who undertakes a journey for medicine, which her grandson desperately needs. Welty dares, in other words, to cross a racial boundary in her depiction of Phoenix. Which is what she did on the night Medgar Evers was killed. She sat down with a pen and assumed the identity of an angry white man who murders a black man. “Where is the Voice Coming From,” was published in The New Yorker in 1963 and can be read on-line today.

This early Monday morning I read an April 22-23 article from the WSJ Review about the boundaries of identity in today’s NYC publishing world: “Why My New Novel about Racial Conflict Ran into Trouble,” by Richard North Patterson, is an article worth reading about the current madness of restricting the imagination of writers to one’s own identity. Chekhov dared to depict the lives of everyone: peasant and aristocrat, male and female. “It takes a lifetime to squeeze the slave out of oneself,” he wrote. How would AI interpret this quote? I ask.

Crossing boundaries is what literature has offered throughout my life. To live inside King Lear and painfully understand by play’s end, that “ripeness is all.” To transcend time, place, and gender as Flaubert did to create the life of Madame Bovary. To audaciously assume in fall 2019, as I faced knee replacement, that the orthopedic surgeon’s curiosity about the writer Julian Barnes might mean he would enjoy reading Noise of Time, a novel about Shostakovich, set in Russia during the Stalin era. What resulted from sending this novel to Sir William? A narrative titled, “An Orthopedic, a Literary Loving Patient, and Julian Barnes,” in Set Three of Tennis Talk of a Nobody.

In this photo, taken by a friend on the last Saturday in April, I sit in a “cathedral” of a barn in Charles County. My friend and I were invited to bring “our three knees” to our orthopedic surgeon’s farm for his annual fest. I went bearing a bag of books. One was the Comic Stories of Anton Chekhov, for this humorous doctor’s library. Which I might add, contains almost all the fiction of Julian Barnes, shown on pages 162 & 163 in my new book, soon to be available. And now Sir William, this finest of surgeons, can begin a journey with the physician-writer, Anton Chekhov.

Next Week: Flannery O’Connor and “Everything That Rises Must Converge”

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