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Saturday, October 19, 2013


When Alice Munro received her Nobel Prize for Literature she was dubbed ‘Canada’s Chekhov’, presumably on the strength of a fellow traveller’s observation, quoted as follows:
Her subjects and her writing style, such as a reliance on narration to describe the events in her books, have earned her the moniker "our Chekhov," in reference to the 19th century Russian playwright Anton Chekhov -- a term affectionately coined by Russian-American short story writer Cynthia Ozick. 
Munro herself is only quoted as saying:
I have recently re-read much of Chekhov and it's a humbling experience. I don't even claim Chekhov as an influence because he influenced all of us. Like Shakespeare his writing shed the most perfect light - there's no striving in it, no personality. Well, of course, wouldn't I love to do that! 
Munro’s assertion that ‘he influenced all of us’ is a heavy dose of literary snobbery  in that she can align herself with many of the literary greats who have paid homage to Chekhov. While some are ambivalent, the overall verdict stands, such as that of Nabokov who is cited as complaining of Chekhov's ‘medley of dreadful prosaisms, ready-made epithets, repetitions’ but declaring that ‘The Lady with the Dog is ‘one of the greatest stories ever written’ and describing Chekhov as writing ‘the way one person relates to another as the most important things in his life, slowly and yet without a break, in a slightly subdued voice.’( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anton_Chekhov)

Whilst I am not a fan of either Alice Munro or Nabokov, I am again reminded of the eternal fame Chekhov seems to have garnered. Hence in line with Munro (above) I have re-read ‘The Lady with the Dog’ and ‘A Doctor’s Visit’ just in case I missed something during my previous attempts to get to like Chekhov as a writer of short stories - a genre I like myself as a writer of no note (hence always eager to compare myself to the one with that je ne sais quoi). Based on my previous reading experience I would of course never deny that Chekhov is a good writer – like a million other good writers. I just fail to see what is so special about him that elicits the heights of literary praise.

So let us do a close reading of the ‘Lady with the Dog’ and critique it mercilessly. This being a Yalta story one is of course aware that Chekhov himself frequented Yalta and as such knows the surroundings well. Yalta as a premier Russian resort town, where the well-off Russian hypochondriacs convalesced, attracted many a character rife for literary treatment, and as such the protagonists of the story, Dmitri Dmitritch Gurov and Anna Sergeyevna fit the description, quite apart from Gurov’s observation that ‘the two peculiarities of a well-dressed Yalta crowd were very conspicuous: the elderly ladies were dressed like young ones, and there were great numbers of generals’. While neither of them belongs to this type of ‘well-dressed crowd’ they are nevertheless paragons of the Russian bourgeoisie, Gurov owning ‘two houses in Moscow’ while Anna is married to a reasonably wealthy man and as such a lady of leisure. Gurov as an obvious alter ego of the author – at least in my reckoning – is of course several degrees removed from all of that, even though on the surface of it he is married with children and holding down a job in a bank. Indeed his main obsession, if not occupation, seems to be to figure out the female species (arguably a fascinating topic under any circumstances), echoing Chekhov to the point, writing to Suvorin:
By all means I will be married if you wish it. But on these conditions: everything must be as it has been hitherto—that is, she must live in Moscow while I live in the country, and I will come and see her ... give me a wife who, like the moon, won't appear in my sky every day. 
Letter to Suvorin, 23 March 1895.
and as paraphrased in ‘Lady with a Dog’:
From the past he preserved memories of careless, good-natured women, who loved cheerfully and were grateful to him for the happiness he gave them, however brief it might be; and of women like his wife who loved without any genuine feeling, with superfluous phrases, affectedly, hysterically, with an expression that suggested that it was not love nor passion, but something more significant; and of two or three others, very beautiful, cold women, on whose faces he had caught a glimpse of a rapacious expression—an obstinate desire to snatch from life more than it could give, and these were capricious, unreflecting, domineering, unintelligent women not in their first youth, and when Gurov grew cold to them their beauty excited his hatred, and the lace on their linen seemed to him like scales.
Is this a lady-killer speaking, or chauvinist or even a misogynist? That he cannot be the former is evidenced by the remark an associate of Gurov makes on his behalf:
The part of a lady-killer does not suit you at all, Dimitri.
Chekhov (and by implication Gurov) cannot not be considered a misogynist even though the idea of ‘capricious, unreflecting, domineering, unintelligent women not in their first youth’ isn’t exactly a flattering statement about women. Chauvinistic? Paternalistic? Quite possibly in today’s terms of political correctness, especially if one describes one’s wife as one ‘who loved without any genuine feeling, with superfluous phrases, affectedly, hysterically, with an expression that suggested that it was not love nor passion’. For is it not the failing of the man/husband to get himself into a situation that blames the female/wife as being disaster of sorts? At the very least the adjectives ‘unreflecting, domineering, unintelligent’ are more applicable to men who treat women as some sort of chattel and/or object of pleasure.

Since ‘Lady with a Dog’ might be considered a cautionary tale whereby an erstwhile chauvinist/hedonist is turned into a true lover (and devoted husband perhaps) one could construe the Gurov character as just that, i.e. the flaws in his character taking a turn for the better, and with a happy end in sight (‘a new and splendid life would begin’), and love conquering all:
Anna Sergeyevna and he loved each other like people very close and akin, like husband and wife, like tender friends; it seemed to them that fate itself had meant them for one another, and they could not understand why he had a wife and she a husband; and it was as though they were a pair of birds of passage, caught and forced to live in different cages. They forgave each other for what they were ashamed of in their past, they forgave everything in the present, and felt that this love of theirs had changed them both.
Never mind that along the way Gurov thought that ‘there's something pathetic about her, anyway’ and that he ‘felt bored’ by Anna’s pathetic self-accusations like ‘ … and now I have become a vulgar, contemptible woman whom any one may despise.’

Is Chekhov, the story teller, merely playing on life’s many contradictions or is there a sense of an inherent psychological disturbance? Chekhov in real life seemed to have a somewhat difficult relationship with the female species, preferring the brothel rather than domestic pleasures, preferring to have a somewhat platonic relationship with his ‘wife’. Sex seems to be a subject best not talked about and in ‘Lady with a Dog’ we are baffled by the quick and salacious line
"Let us go to your hotel," he said softly. And both walked quickly.
which ends in
Afterwards when they went out there was not a soul on the sea-front …
Did they do it? Did they just talk and steal a few kisses? Did Anna improve on Gurov’s wife who is said to love ‘without any genuine feeling’? What exactly is this love that ‘had changed them both’? Gurov/Chekhov invokes ‘fate’ as the progenitor, akin to the Greek Cupid shooting his arrow. How does this equate with his previous life in that women (lovers, wife, and daughters) are a nuisance incapable of true love? Isn’t love supposed to be something that develops and need s a lot of patience and tolerance? Chekhov seems to paint over these questions with a broad brush that belies a certain boredom with the very idea. It just doesn’t make much sense when Gurov complains
… he always seemed to women different from what he was, and they loved in him not himself, but the man created by their imagination, whom they had been eagerly seeking all their lives; and afterwards, when they noticed their mistake, they loved him all the same. And not one of them had been happy with him. Time passed, he had made their acquaintance, got on with them, parted, but he had never once loved; it was anything you like, but not love.
This man is in need of serious therapy! Maybe one cannot deny that such men roam the earth, creating a lot of unhappiness (‘not one of them had been happy’) along the way, and that one can use them as a character in a short story. But what is the point? That they can be redeemed in the end with true love, love that only can ‘fate’ dish up? Chekhov cannot even contemplate what that would mean other than to say that ‘the most complicated and difficult part of it was only just beginning’. This is yet another contradiction, for how can love as ‘fate’ be ‘difficult’? Chekhov does seem to have inkling that love – as a human endeavour – is ‘complicate and difficult’ but on the other hand he doesn’t want to have all these long-term complications and difficulties, preferring the one-night stand and a shake-down in the shower (as Leonard Cohen, the song-writer, puts it so beautifully) and then complain that this isn’t the answer either.

If we assume that Chekhov deep down has a fairly cynical attitude to life (life is a bitch, or, again, as Leonard Cohen sings about the ‘homicidal bitch who decides who eats and how doesn’t’) we can find some evidence for it in his other story ‘A Doctor’s Visit’ which we will analyse briefly. Chekhov as a real-life medical doctor has of course developed that attitude common to all medics, namely that life is cheap and ever so transient, and that all our efforts to keep people alive is a somewhat perverse endeavour – but at least a well-paid one, especially if one attends to the richer hypochondriacs. In any case, this seems to be the crux in A Doctor’s Visit, the Muscovite well-to-do doctor attending to a rich but very sickly grown-up girl whose mother owns and runs a horrible cotton factory in the country-side. The main point seems to be to muse about the contradictions of life:
The strong must hinder the weak from living—such was the law of Nature.
Well said! If we spend our lives to observe this sorry spectacle we cannot but become crafty cynics – and in the case of Chekhov turn this into an accomplished art form. I myself find myself practising this form of black humour, for what else can one do? Become a revolutionary and be shot? Chekhov like his good Dr Korolyov in the story do know very well what is wrong with people and what medicine they need – even if it is only someone to talk to. Chekhov as the doctor was said to make less money from his doctoring than from his literary enterprises, treating many of his poorer patients for free. That he did not attend to his own illness (TB) was perhaps a sign of denial peculiar to some medicine men who let fate play out is design, not bothering to intervene, and as such Chekhov has the sad history of dying in Germany in a ‘Bad’ where sick people go to be cured. Korolyov on the other hand seems to epitomise the doctor who has everything under control, enjoying the snippets of life as much as he can, deriving some pleasure from a sunny Sunday:
…. but thought of the time, perhaps close at hand, when life would be as bright and joyous as that still Sunday morning; and he thought how pleasant it was on such a morning in the spring to drive with three horses in a good carriage, and to bask in the sunshine.    
This sounds like a strong dose of pleasure as only the lofty bourgeoisie can enjoy, a kind of meaningless trifle in the midst of the sea of mindless suffering. It sounds like what the bourgeois Americans did a century or so later, namely cruise in an open Cadillac and have some back-seat fun. Stories that peter out this way are of course lauded by the literary cognoscenti as being of the Chekhovian trade-mark, stories without beginning or end, excerpts from life, vignettes, snap-shots of time, short streams of consciousness, making cute observations about the absurdities of life, as no doubt Chekhov is master of (from his Notebook):
Aristocrats? The same ugly bodies and physical uncleanliness, the same toothless old age and disgusting death, as with market-women.
This is all true enough but disingenuous at the same time, for the market-woman would rather be an aristocrat, given half a chance. It is from this point of view that I find Chekhov difficult to like as a writer. I prefer writers who write of their visions to change the world, not writers who merely describe the world. That Alice Munro also belongs to the latter category is of course no surprise, as she a master of the local non-event, stuck in a Canadian countryside where psychological drama revolves around the choice of the breakfast cereal.

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