I have a fondness for medical doctors who write, such as Anton Chekhov…
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.