Chekhov and Dostoyevsky have been taking up a lot of my free-reading time lately. Reading Chekhov’s stories and letters alongside each other is fascinating, as Chekhov spends a lot of his time in his letters reflecting on his writing. He also reveals a lot about the material conditions and historical and literary contexts in which he’s working, and the process of literary production in nineteenth-century Russia. Chekhov was a doctor at a time when tuberculosis was rampant (the disease would be the cause of his death at the 44), when cholera outbreaks regularly swept through Europe and Asia, and when a new cure for syphilis had been developed. He was born a year before Nicholas II freed the serfs, and so grew up, lived, and wrote in a culture undergoing major social restructuring. He lived through the Franco-Prussian war and the Dreyfus affair (Chekhov criticised Zola’s writing in terms of style and philosophical aims until J’accuse, which he admired and supported). The Brothers Karamazov, Anna Karenina, and War and Peace were all published in his lifetime (and he was friends with Tolstoy, as well as Tchaikovsky). He lived through the nineteenth-century’s mass industrialisation and mass obsession with print and journal culture. All of these contexts worm their way into his writing in one way or another.
Chekhov’s need to write for money to support his mother, father, and siblings worked combination with his constantly-reiterated belief that he was not the sort of person who wrote for the “thick journals” (ie the more serious journals with longer articles and stories) to compel him to write for several of the seemingly uncountable smaller journals that existed as part of nineteenth-century print culture. This medium seems to have either suited or influenced Chekhov’s writing style in a big way. In his letters he writes about the line restrictions in the small journals — a bit complainingly, to be sure:
I must admit that being held to a strict word count does cause me a certain amount of grief […] From the very first phrase the injunction not to exceed 100 lines cramps my style. I abbreviate, sift, cut as much as I can, sometimes […] to the detriment of my subject and, most importantly, to the form. Once I’ve done all my cutting and compressing, I start to count…I get up to 100, 120, 140 lines (I’ve never written more than that for Fragments), lose heart, and…don’t submit. Doubts creep in as soon as I spill over on the fourth sheet of small-format writing paper…and so I don’t send my story in. What usually happens is that I have to rehash the ending and send off something I didn’t really want to… (18)
Chekhov also claims, in this and various other letters, however, that he is “a great believer in short pieces” (18), and often protests that he is not really a novelist of playwright at heart. His love of “short pieces” either formed or suited his belief appropriate language in realist writing, as he explains in a letter to Maxim Gorky:
anthropomorphisms tend to make […] descriptions somewhat monochrome, sometimes cloying, and sometimes obscure; the only way to achieve colour and expressivity in nature writing is by plain phrases such as ‘the sun set’, ‘darkness fell’, ‘it started to rain’, etc. (406)
Chekhov aims for a precise and unadorned realism that fits well with his short fiction — and what he can accomplish in six or seven pages with this style is often astounding. He also tends to emphasise the significant details of one’s external environment in order to show how they affect a person’s inner life — as in “In Exile” where descriptions of the cold lodgings of a group of convicts in Siberia illuminate the misery and loneliness the group reveals in their conversations about the loved ones they’ve left behind or brought with them, or “Typhus” where the minor details of a train journey convey the fever of the traveler from whose point of view the story is told.
Longer works like “In the Ravine” and “Ward 6” give Chekhov the space to fully demonstrate another quality he thought important to writing: impartiality. “Ward 6” manages to display the destructive apathy of asylum doctors and officials in the first half before sympathetically showing how horrifically easy it is to become a prisoner of one’s own asylum. “In the Ravine” shows how the poverty of a failed factory town affects even the wealthy and powerful: his central characters are parasites, cheats, counterfeiters, and murderers, and yet the story asks us to see them at various moments as just as unhappy as the less-wealthy and more honest characters in the town (and suggests that perhaps only fortune and opportunity separate “good” morality from “bad”.)
There’s far more to Chekhov’s stories than I can possibly manage to convey here. Not surprising, given that, by his own count, he wrote “more than 4,800 pages” of them (425). Probably best to just go read more of him.
18 February 2013 ~ Hamilton
Chekhov, Anton. A Life in Letters. Ed. Rosamund Bartlett. Trans. Rosamund Bartlett and Anthony Phillips. London: Penguin, 2004.
—–. Ward No.6 and Other Stories. Ed David Plante. Trans. Constance Garnett. New York: Barnes and Noble, 2003.