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Richard Wilson discusses Anton Chekhov’s unique approach to storytelling, his profound understanding of human mortality, and his compassion for others, all of which set him apart as a remarkable writer and human being.

There is a short story by Leonid Andreeyev, some critics likened him to Poe, indeed some called him the Russian Poe, the short story is “Lazarus,” about the man in the New Testament who is raised from the dead. Andreeyev explores Lazarus’ mien after being brought back to life. The tone is what he saw breaks him and anyone who comes in contact with him he can telepathically transmit this knowledge and they go mad, lose their appetite for life, become depressed, extremely depressed, an anhedonia sets in Lazarus that surrounds him like invisible wasps, eventually nobody wants to be around him. It’s too much. This knowledge. This knowledge of death.

We must accept this fact, this most personal of facts, thrown into the world, we will, eventually, be dead. Chekhov knew this, lived it and had digested his own death, he was Heidegger before Heidegger.

Before Chekhov, the short story was seen as an inferior art form, something with a mold, a recipe, beginning, middle, end, oftentimes a message, similar to a parable, a folktale, or they were feuilletons, impressionist sketches, a dalliance, something cute, interesting, inferior. Enter Anton Pavlovich, at a young age, Chekhov contracted tuberculosis, between the ages of 26 and 29, 1886-1889, his so-called “pessimistic era.” Most of his stories before 1886 were either humorous or sketches, his first serious work was The Steppe, which came out in 1888. In his stories, he mentions death 420 times. After 1888, his stories increasingly jettisoned plot for an emotional theme, a piece of life that begins in the middle of a story, the theme develops, the story ends with no packaged ending, no sign even that there will be an ending, he was the first to give a story the frame of a human life. Life is, then it isn’t and the end does not come blaring horns. As I write I may die. So too could you. Chekhov’s stories come out of fog, we witness living, the fog comes again. At first Russians and then Europeans didn’t know what to do with this, so they dismissed it. Pessimistic macabre sketches, talentless said Tolstoy, some were perspicacious enough to realize the man who was a companion of Death had grafted the human condition onto human story. No more were characters ciphers, symbols, tools. They were alive, and when the camera, Chekhov, puts the last period at the end, it isn’t over. In the story “Misery” the cab driver wants to tell his customers that his son died, nobody wants to listen, he’s a poor cabbie, he’s tipsy, fuck him, in the end he tells his horse. The end. In my mind, I thought of the driver for years, what happened? Did he ever accept death? Tell someone? In “The Bishop,” the bishop gets sick, sees his mother, wants to be consoled and called her son, she only calls him your honor, in the end he dies and is happy running where he did as a child, his mother calling for him. The end. But his mama? Did she ever realize her mistake? Chekhov says no, but he doesn’t know for sure. Was it a deathbed realization?

Chekhov is unlike Andreyev’s Lazarus, why? Because all who came in contact with him were calmed, soothed. He had become accepting of Death, a person who does not is, as Eliade says, “a troubled guest on the earth.” or, as Heidegger says, a person who is not complete, a half-formed entity. We must accept this fact, this most personal of facts, thrown into the world, we will, eventually, be dead. Chekhov knew this, lived it and had digested his own death, he was Heidegger before Heidegger. He was the man who gave the shape of the short story, the shape of our human mortality. Today, stories rarely follow what was before Chekhov. We are in Anton Pavlovich’s story, his vision is ours now, nearly every writer opts for feeling over plot. Our reality though is that we still avoid death and our real nature… Nature! and remain troubled guests on the earth. And this is a fact.

When Chekhov’s body was taken to Moscow from Germany, it was a Chekhovian ending. He came in an ice train, on the side it said “Oysters.” Also in the car was the body of an officer. His friends and family followed the casket of the officer. Chekhov lay alone on the platform, eventually they realized their mistake. It was Chekhovian because not only did he structure his stories with no structure, no hackneyed plot, he did an alternation of laughter, tears, laughter, tears. Again, this is natural, completely natural. In his story “Grisha,” a man is wrapped in a blanket, he looked like a turnip and is thrown overboard, his body sinking below the waves. In the story “Oysters,” the wealthy men crack jokes as they give the old man and his son the oysters, if the boy can eat the whole sack full, he gets a lot of money, he begins eating them, cracking his teeth on the shells, obviously he has no idea how to eat an oyster, funny? Yes, until the blood begins to run, the tears, it’s the first one. Laughter, tears, laughter, tears.

Life. Reading Chekhov, one feels that it is life writing itself, at any moment, in any story anything can happen or nothing can happen.

With most writers I can see the artifice, I can get lost in the story but there’s a needling thought in the back of my head saying, “Hey, I see the damned structure, I see the strings.” With Chekhov I forget that all that I’ve read is artifice. But, it is. Nabokov writing on “The Lady with the Dog”:

First: The story is told in the most natural way possible, not beside the after-dinner fireplace as with Turgenev or Maupassant but in the way one person relates to another the most important things in his life, slowly and yet without a break, in a slightly subdued voice.”

Second: Exact and rich characterization is attained by a careful selection and careful distribution of minute but striking features, with perfect contempt for the sustained description, repetition, and strong emphasis of ordinary authors. In this or that description one detail is chosen to illume the whole setting.

Third: There is no special moral to be drawn and no special message to be received. Compare this to the special delivery stories of Gorki or Thomas Mann.

Fourth: The story is based on a system of waves, on the shades of this or that mood. If in Gorki’s world the molecules forming it are matter, here, in Chekhov, we get a world of waves instead of particles of matter, which, incidentally, is a nearer approach to the modern scientific understanding of the universe.

Fifth: The contrast of poetry and prose stressed here and there with such insight and humor is, in the long run, a contrast only for the heroes; in reality we feel, and this is again typical of authentic genius, that for Chekhov the lofty and the base are not different, that the slice of watermelon and the violet sea, and the hands of the town-governor, are essential …

If one truly loves the country, the nation, we keep it clean, respect the elders, the babes, the poor. We don’t soil our nests.

There are many books that have tried to crack Chekhov’s secret and some do get close. Extreme objectivity, with other writers I feel the author hates a certain character, looks down on him or her, with Chekhov he doesn’t judge them. Some early critics in Russia dismissed him as cold, too scientific. The radicals were upset because he didn’t make his poor people mouthpieces of the revolution. The religious didn’t like him because there was so much sin. Chekhov neither supports nor negates a particular ideology, he sees the reader as man enough to make that decision. There are more characters in Chekhov than any other that can be arguments for religion, for God, for responsibility, patriotism, ecological love of one’s country, for amelioration of the desires, for being a Stoic, being a radical, being a conservative. In Chekhov, there aren’t many good reasons to be liberal, in any way, shape or form. In Chekhov’s stories, there are many characters who are religious, who are wondering, searching. In art, anywhere, Russia, the USA, Europe, Asia, wherever, there are not even a handful of good artists who are good people. Its almost a given that if one is a writer, actor, sculptor, whatever, in other areas you’ll be a cretin, scumbag. Tolstoy, genius, as a man? No. Dostoyevsky, great psychologist, man, no. Isaac Bashevus Singer, one of the best writers, alas, bad father and husband. Myself, ok actor, terrible father and husband and brother and son, a miscreant, heathen, flibbertigibbet. Hemingway, Steinbeck, Dickens, Graham Greene, it’s almost a law…and yet, Chekhov was a good man. I’m not the only one who says this, everyone who met him said it. He treated the people he met like they were characters in his stories, he listened, didn’t judge, treated all with respect. He treated thousands and thousands of poor who needed medical treatment, for free.

They came from all over Russia to see him. During a cholera epidemic, then during the Famine of 1891, he took care of 25 villages, as sole doctor, alone, sometimes his sister helping, all free, daily. He visited Sakhalin, infamous then for its prisons, his doctor said he’d die, he went anyway and interviewed every convict he could and advocated for reform. He gave of himself when most people, myself included, dying of tuberculosis, would shriek, leave me alone, let me suffer in peace, for God’s sake. Not him. He respected his elders, his father Pavel was notorious for meting out punishment when he was child, forcing the Chekhov kids to attend service daily, early in the morning, he wasn’t against slapping you, beating you, pulling your ears, hair, pinching. His brothers detested the father, Chekhov lived with him until he died and was quiet. He gave away money, time, and advice. He truly loved his neighbor as himself. The less fortunate of one’s country, contrary to Ayn Rand’s diabolical “philosophy,” do need our help. Maybe not the government’s help, but ours. If one truly loves the country, the nation, we keep it clean, respect the elders, the babes, the poor. We don’t soil our nests. In a now famous letter to his brother Nikolai, a saturnalian, Dionysian jackoff, for lack of a better word, Anton Pavlovich wrote this:

To my mind, civilized people ought to satisfy the following conditions:

1. They respect the individual and are therefore always indulgent, gentle, polite and compliant. They do not throw a tantrum over a hammer or a lost eraser. When they move in with somebody, they do not act as if they were doing him a favor, and when they move out, they do not say, “How can anyone live with you!” They excuse noise and cold and overdone meat and witticisms and the presence of others in their homes.

2. Their compassion extends beyond beggars and cats. They are hurt even by things the naked eye can’t see. If for instance, Pyotr knows that his father and mother are turning gray and losing sleep over seeing their Pyotr so rarely (and seeing him drunk when he does turn up), then he rushes home to them and sends his vodka to the devil. They do not sleep nights the better to help the Polevayevs, help pay their brothers’ tuition, and keep their mother decently dressed.

3. They respect the property of others and therefore pay their debts.

4. They are candid and fear lies like the plague. They do not lie even about the most trivial matters. A lie insults the listener and debases him in the liar’s eyes. They don’t put on airs, they behave in the street as they do at home, and they do not try to dazzle their inferiors. They know how to keep their mouths shut and they do not force uninvited confidences on people. Out of respect for the ears of others they are more often silent than not.

5. They do not belittle themselves merely to arouse sympathy. They do not play on people’s heartstrings to get them to sigh and fuss over them. They do not say, “No one understands me!” or “I’ve squandered my talent on trifles!” because this smacks of a cheap effect and is vulgar, false and out-of-date.

6. They are not preoccupied with vain things. They are not taken in by such false jewels as friendships with celebrities, handshakes with drunken Plevako, ecstasy over the first person they happen to meet at the Salon de Varietes, popularity among the tavern crowd. They laugh when they hear, “I represent the press,” a phrase befitting only Rodzeviches and Levenbergs. When they have done a penny’s worth of work, they don’t try to make a hundred rubles out of it, and they don’t boast over being admitted to places closed to others. True talents always seek obscurity. They try to merge with the crowd and shun all ostentation. Krylov himself said that an empty barrel has more chance of being heard than a full one.

7. If they have talent, they respect it. They sacrifice comfort, women, wine and vanity to it. They are proud of their talent, and so they do not go out carousing with trade-school employees or Skvortsov’s guests, realizing that their calling lies in exerting an uplifting influence on them, not in living with them. What is more, they are fastidious.

8. They cultivate their aesthetic sensibilities. They cannot stand to fall asleep fully dressed, see a slit in the wall teeming with bedbugs, breathe rotten air, walk on a spittle-laden floor or eat off a kerosene stove. They try their best to tame and ennoble their sexual instinct… What they look for in a woman is not a bed partner or horse sweat, … not the kind of intelligence that expresses itself in the ability to stage a fake pregnancy and tirelessly reel off lies. They — and especially the artists among them — require spontaneity, elegance, compassion, a woman who will be a mother… They don’t guzzle vodka on any old occasion, nor do they go around sniffing cupboards, for they know they are not swine. They drink only when they are free, if the opportunity happens to present itself. For they require a mens sana in corpore sano.

And so on. That’s how civilized people act. If you want to be civilized and not fall below the level of the milieu you belong to, it is not enough to read The Pickwick Papers and memorize a soliloquy from Faust. It is not enough to hail a cab and drive off to Yakimanka Street if all you’re going to do is bolt out again a week later.

You must work at it constantly, day and night. You must never stop reading, studying in depth, and exercising your will. Every hour is precious.

Nabokov:

Without this phenomenal sociability of his, without his constant readiness to hobnob with anyone at all, to sing with singers and to get drunk with drunkards; without that burning interest in the lives, habits, conversations, and occupations of hundreds and thousands of people, he would hardly have been able to create that colossal, encyclopedically detailed Russian world of the 1880s and 1890s which goes by the name of Chekhov’s Short Stories.

People make much ado and hubbub about Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, to understand the Russian soul but for me, and Gorky and Bunin and millions of Russians, it’s the quiet, kind, writer from Taganrog who walked with Death and still smiled for almost twenty years.

He isn’t for everyone, the man who wrote stories with emotions that act as disease, they infect your consciousness, you recall thirty years later, as if it really happened, don’t read him to unlock the Russian mystery, to answer questions about Russian people. He usually leaves that to the reader.

The farmer Alekhin says in Chekhov’s “About Love,” “We decent Russian people entertain a partiality for these questions that remain without answers.”

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Richard Wilson

Richard Wilson is a writer and professional actor living and working in Moscow, Russia. Originally, he is from Humboldt County in the extreme northern part of California. Before acting, he worked as an Alaskan fisherman, a cowboy, lumberjack, dockworker, road builder, punk singer, farmer, and factory worker. He has performed in eleven Russian films, twelve Russian serials, and many commercials. He is currently finishing a collection of feuilletons about his experiences in Russia and a screenplay based on the last year of Baron Ungern von Sternberg's life.

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Neil Bucklew
Neil Bucklew
8 months ago

There is one book from the US, “Speaker for the Dead”, by Orson Scott Card, that approaches this, but from a very anglosphere manner of course. A person Called a Speaker for the Dead, investigates a persons life in a forensic science manner, as a Sherlock Holmes for the dead. After investigation, the Speaker tells the deceased’s story to the community they belonged to in a manner similar to Chekhov narrating at an Irish wake. It is an archeo-futuristic techno-ritual of a religion of the future. I highly recommend the book.

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