Typically Chekhov

Anton Pavlovich Chekhov (1860-1904) is the last Russian realist and the first modern writer. His plays made him world-famous, but above all his stories are phenomenal. His sincerity and moderation are his biggest accomplishments as a writer and earn him a place among the other giants of Russian literature.

His life

After an unhappy childhood, Chekhov studied medicine, and his medical practice, like the unhappy childhood, turned out to be a great source of inspiration for his literary work. He never made a choice between literature and medicine, as he put it himself: “Medicine is my lawful wife and literature is my mistress.”. In 1901 he married actress Olga Knipper, but unfortunately Chekhov died in 1904 from tuberculosis, an illness that he had suffered from for years.

Style and content

Above all Chekhov kept it short, there is not one word too many. Important themes in his work are inner conflict, feelings of nostalgia, a longing for the past or a better future, hopelessness, lack of willpower and powerlessness. His characters wish to escape their current situation, but they are incapable of doing so, even if there is apparently nothing holding them back. The Three Sisters (1901) for instance talk about moving to Moscow all the time, but it’s their own indecisiveness that stops them from actually moving. People (and dogs, like Kashtanka) prefer to remain unsatisfied or unhappy in familiar circumstances than to risk happiness in the mysterious unknown.

Stanislavski

Chekhov wrote the play The Seagull in 1896. When it premiered in Moscow it was not exactly a success and Chekhov decided not to write any more plays; however, when the famous theatre director Stanislavski put it on stage in Moscow, it became a huge success. Stanislavski’s method focused on psychological realism and all the subtle details were done justice to. After this success, Chekhov continued to write Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard, every one of them plays that are still being performed nowadays.

Chekhov’s Gun

Chekhov wrote a lot about writing and his most famous piece of advice is called “Chekhov’s Gun”: “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”. In other words: use only relevant details and use them to create a certain expectation with the reader.

Influence

His work has influenced countless writers. Tennessee Williams, Hemingway, Alice Munro, Virginia Woolf, Kunio Shimizu; most modern writers were influenced by Chekhov. His contemporary Tolstoy thought he was a genius and was genuinely sad when he died before him. Chekhov himself was influenced by Pushkin, specifically by his Belkin Stories, short stories with a surprising ending.

In short:

Chekhov is a calm and objective story teller. Always an observer and never a preacher. His characters are real, not purely good or evil, often complete with human flaws. He appeals to the sentimental feelings of his reader. He is subtle and often funny. His work is modern and fresh. Chekhov is justifiably considered to be the best short story writer ever.

*****

Books read:

Geschiedenis van de Russische literatuur – Karel van het Reve

Chekhov – Henri Troyat

Several stories, plays, letters and fragments from Chekhov

Practically everything that Chekhov wrote has been translated into English and his collected stories are widely available. Below follows a link to 201 stories in English online. My favourites are Kashtanka and Rothschild’s Fiddle.

Photos © Elisabeth van der Meer and Wikipedia

Text © Elisabeth van der Meer

 

http://www.eldritchpress.org/ac/jr/

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36 thoughts on “Typically Chekhov

  1. Isn’t there a saying that an unhappy childhood is a writer’s goldmine? And, of course, writing about it works like therapy. Interestingly Chekhov always stayed close to his family, supporting them financially. Unlike Turgenev, who always tried to stay as far away as possible from his mother.

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  2. I have read some of his short stories. I like how he is such a minimalist writer, not using an extra word anywhere. And the endings! Sometimes so unexpected. Thanks for this spotlight on him 🙂

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  3. Thank you for stopping by and taking the time to comment! It’s true, Chekhov often has a surprise up his sleeve, I like that too. Have a great weekend, dear, and happy reading 📚😊

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Great blog post Elizabeth! Love Chekhov! I was lucky enough to see “The Seagull” on Broadway a few years ago. Stanislavsky and Chekhov were a powerful combination. I have always admired the advice of “Chekhov’s Gun”, which is usually applied to Ibsen’s” Hedda Gabler”, wherein, if you display a gun in Act I it must go off by Act III. I was also lucky enough to see this on Broadway as well.

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  5. Great post! I really like Chekhov’s plays and went to a study day on them recently (total nerd 😉 ) where someone mentioned how brilliant his short stories are. You’ve reminded me to get my hands on them – I’m off to order now!

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  6. Elisabeth,

    As always, admired this post greatly.

    You say so much, eloquently, in very few words.

    Among comments of yours about Chekhov that struck me forcibly are the ones about Chekov’s “sincerity and moderation” and about the important themes in his work, which you have digested impressively (should I say, marvelously?) Also, that his characters want to escape their current situation, but can’t do so. And, your phrase “risk happiness in the mysterious unknown.”

    You note, accurately, that Chekov “never made a choice between literature and medicine.” I read that he charged patients on a sliding scale, depending on what they could afford to pay, and that he often treated patients for free.

    “His characters are real, not purely good or evil.” So true. What could we not learn from this when it comes to judging other people?

    I realize that your post is not intended to be exhaustive or comprehensive — it accomplishes so much and is informative and enlightening. But, some other things that occurred to me:

    Chekov’s «Остров Сахалин» (The Island of Sakhalin) is a great nonfiction work and piece of journalism. It sometimes reads like a dry report, but its harrowing details are compelling on many levels.

    “Anton Chekhov’s Life and Thought: Selected Letters and Commentary” (1973) — translated by Michael Henry Heim; edited and annotated by Simon Karlinsky — is a wonderful edition of the letters. The commentary is outstanding. It gives a whole new picture of Chekov.

    I loved the portrait that you have used, and the photos. There are a few wonderful photos of Chekov young. One in particular I remember is in the book (now hard to find) “Chekov and the Lady with the Dog” by Virginia Llewellyn Smith. It shows him as an adolescent, looking cherubic.

    The Russian film Дама с собачкой (The Lady with the Dog; 1960) is outstanding.

    Thanks again for this great post.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts, Roger. It is, of course, always nice to hear praise. As you know, I enjoy writing about Russian literature and it’s great if others enjoy reading about Russian literature, like you.
    What I learned from Chekhov is keeping it short. Nonetheless his Sakhalin period is very interesting and I shall probably write a separate blog post about that at some point.
    I shall keep your suggestions in mind 😉

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  8. Chekhov was my introduction to Russian literature. His short novels are so beautiful; I especially love the imagery in The Steppe. I used to read these novels every summer!

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  9. Very interesting post. I love Russian Lit and Chekhov. He was such a huge influence on certain writers as you say, one I have recently read a lot of is Raymond Carver. He was much influenced by Chekhov and even wrote a story imagining his death. Carver, like Chekhov conveys so much emotion with the simplest language.

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  10. Thank you for stopping by, Cynthia. Always good to meet a fellow Russian literature lover. I think that that was Chekhov’s biggest strength, “to convey so much emotion with the simplest language”. 😊

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  11. From time to time like to re-read a story from Chekhov and always enjoy his phrases as jewels, like:
    “Any idiot can face a crisis; it’s this day-to-day living that wears you out.”

    “What a fine weather today! Can’t choose whether to drink tea or to hang myself.”

    “There are a great many opinions in this world, and a good half of them are professed by people who have never been in trouble.”

    “If you want to work on your art, work on your life.”

    Thank you for your post. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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