In 1899, at the height of his fame, Anton Chekhov offered his elder brother Alexander some writing advice: “To have as few failures as possible in fiction writing, or in order not to be so sensitive to failures, you must write more, around one hundred or two hundred stories a year. That is the secret.” One can only imagine how Alexander received this counsel from his celebrated younger sibling. Thank you for sharing your “secret,” Anton, but who could possibly write that many stories in a single year?
Well, Chekhov himself could. His advice may have been wildly impractical, but it wasn’t hypocritical. Thirteen years earlier, at the age of twenty-six, Chekhov wrote more than a hundred short stories, articles, and humor pieces in one year. In fact, during the extremely fertile period from the beginning of 1886 to the end of 1887, Chekhov published 176 stories, as well as writing his first full-length play, Ivanov. Oh, yeah, and he was also practicing medicine, seeing patients at his home for three hours each day, six days a week, charging nothing. And he’d contracted tuberculosis two years earlier, so he conducted all of this work while dealing with his own bouts of ill-health.
Bob Blaisdell’s illuminating new book, Chekhov Becomes Chekhov, tracks Chekhov’s life and work during these two years of mind-boggling creative abundance. Blaisdell, who teaches at CUNY’s Kingsborough Community College, insightfully guides us through this period month by month, approaching Chekhov’s work as a passionate and personable reader (and occasional translator) rather than as a distant biographer. He also examines Chekhov’s life during these years by taking a close look at his voluminous correspondence—how did Chekhov find time to write so many letters?—as well as the correspondence and memoirs of his friends, family, and editors. In the process, we learn quite a bit about Chekhov’s early stories, his motives, his relationships, and the difficulties of his life as a working writer.
One thing becomes very clear: Chekhov wrote for money. He got paid per story, and writing was his sole source of income. During these years, Chekhov lived in Moscow with his mother and sister and occasionally with his father and brothers as well, supporting them all. Blaisdell notes that, from early adulthood, Chekhov “took charge of his family’s finances and through his earnings as a writer became its primary breadwinner for the rest of his life.”
Chekhov’s financial circumstances dominate much of his correspondence during these productive years. He frequently dispatches his brothers to track down payments for stories, occasionally appears in court to pay off the debts of those same brothers, and entreats friends and editors for loans. Even as his popularity grows and he begins to write for publications that pay him more, he struggles to account for his family’s needs (“Life is not easy. There’ll probably be some money in the summer. Oh, if only!”), though he’s not above bragging about how much he makes for each published piece to one of his uncles. In sum, Chekhov seems to have written so many stories during this period because he knew he couldn’t afford to do otherwise.
Chekhov’s early stories are generally considered to be minor comic tales at best, and forgettable hackwork at worst. Even the author himself seemed to think so. In a well-known 1886 letter to an older writer who had chastised him for not making full use of his talents, Chekhov makes this explicit: “Hitherto my attitude to my literary work has been frivolous, heedless, casual. I don’t remember a single story over which I have spent more than twenty-four hours.” He admits to composing stories “as reporters write their notes about fires, mechanically, half-unconsciously, taking no thought of the reader or myself.” One day, he suggests, he may slow down and do some serious work, but he can’t afford to do that now: “I have nothing against going hungry, as I have done in the past, but it is not a question of myself.”