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A Russian Realist

ISSUE:  Winter 1991
Chekhov: A Spirit Set Free. By V, S. Pritchett. Random House. $17. 95.

Pritchett’s approach to Chekhov suggests that his modernity lies not simply in his revolutionary realism but in his social conscience and consciousness. Chekhov employed as his publisher late in his career a man named Marx—a particularly lucrative association—and the author had occasion to remark facetiously that he had become a “Marxist!” The remark was meaningful in part because Chekhov was known to his contemporaries as a builder of schools and libraries, advocate of better hospitals, a practical worker in popular education. Chekhov lived in a revolutionary age, and his enlightened views of peasant life are significant. Significant, too, is the historical consciousness that permeates The Cherry Orchard in which is reflected the growing ascendancy of the monetary, industrial, and middle class as it supplants the landed gentry, replacing its idleness and self-indulgence with the activism and moralism of the class struggle, commerce, and industry. Chekhov was describable, like his friends, as a “liberal,” and he indeed reflected the consciousness, if not the spirit, of his time.

The Cherry Orchard is the author’s most famous work, though Chekhov preferred The Three Sisters. The Cherry Orchard has been described as a work in which all the characters speak eloquently and expressively to each other but in which the “others” fail to listen. This is an obvious paradigm of the individualism of the coming age at its worst; an impersonal, mercenary, egoistic age in which the psyche of alienation becomes the hallmark of hell: frustration and disintegration experienced as “success.”

Speaking of realism, Chekhov was the first person in Russia to exemplify this doctrine in the up-to-date form of Joyce and Beckett in which there is approximated an existential pointlessness or certainly nihilism—the belief that a story should end with an event as meaningless as possible, shorn of emotion. It is a technique that our contemporaries employ no better than he did. Its “meaning” may be that life has been taken over by the “objectivity” of science or that the revelations of science do not fortify the spirit.

The relation between realism and social consciousness is based on obvious considerations. The relation between social realism and nihilism is less obvious. The point may be that if our purposes as such involve us in a confrontation with nothingness, then freedom itself is a form of self-immolation. Pritchett’s reference in the title to Chekhov as a spirit set free may refer to the point just expressed.

Illustrative of Chekhov’s “liberalism” was his “sociological” visit to the penal colony at Sakharin 600 miles east of Moscow near Siberia. Nonetheless Chekhov was viewed by his contemporaries as ideologically vague and directionless, despite the liberal overtones of his preoccupations. It is possible that this lack of direction has nihilism—conscious or unconscious—as its source.

Anton Chekhov was born in Taganrog, Russia, in 1860. His father, born a serf, was a struggling grocer—a ruthless disciplinarian and tyrant, although his mother was kindly. In 1879 Chekhov joined his family in Moscow, having been separated from them for ten years attending school. He contributed greatly to the support of his family and entered medical school the same year. In Moscow he began his sophisticated association with the urban intelligentsia and with such great theatrical personalities as Stanislavsky, which proved to be singularly fruitful and was the major source of his fame.

Chekhov was part and parcel of the European school of realism of the late 19th century—although emphatically Russian in his nostalgic lyricism and in the spirit he expressed of romantic stagnation.

Although Chekhov championed Dreyfus, just as Zola did, he never became a political “progressive,” because he was intolerant of the pseudo-intellectualism of political discourse. A Bohemian, Chekhov attached great importance to freedom, both political and artistic; he was fearful of politically minded persons of right and left as a threat to freedom. Again, one perceives a connection between nihilism as such and the intensity of his libertarian attitude.

Chekhov died of tuberculosis in 1904 in Yalta on the sea coast. He had established his fame as a playwright and, as Pritchett maintains, as an even greater writer of stories, novellas, short burlesques, and comic sketches. Significantly, he viewed his plays as comedies and favored a light touch in producing them which they rarely received.


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