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.”
When, then, did Chekhov become Chekhov? His earliest stories were written pseudonymously, usually under the name Chekhonte, but in the period Blaisdell covers, Chekhov begins writing under his own name. He continued to work at a ridiculous pace, however, routinely publishing five or ten or even fifteen stories each month during his mid-twenties. The received wisdom would suggest that Chekhov was still a long way from becoming Chekhov at this point. (“Gooseberries” and “Lady with the Dog,” two of his most celebrated stories, wouldn’t be written until his late thirties.) But Blaisdell’s book persuasively and enthusiastically challenges this received wisdom.
When I was in my mid-twenties, newly obsessed with the short-story form, I somehow encountered the notion that Chekhov’s tossed-off early tales were minor compared to the later works, and I never thought to see for myself. (When you’re young, you only want the major works.) And even much later, whenever I read a collection of his stories, I’d mostly skip right past the early ones. But Chekhov Becomes Chekhov made me realize how much we miss out on when we dismiss a certain era of a writer or artist’s work entirely based on other people’s opinions. The book convinced me to care about stories I’d never heard of and sent me back to stories I’d overlooked or forgotten.
Many of these stories turn out to be vintage Chekhov: tales of ordinary, overlooked, and occasionally ridiculous people in difficult situations, full of tension and human frailty, surprising and profound in ways that are often hard to explain. Let’s take just one example: “The Letter,” a story from April 1887 that Blaisdell close-reads over several pages. In the story’s opening paragraph, we meet “His Reverence Father Fyodor Orlov” who is “extremely exhausted, and thinking intensely about the same thing, ‘When would his visitor go?’” The visitor who won’t leave is Father Anastasy, a haggard old man who’s been suspended from his priestly duties for his “unsober life.” His presence leads the third-person Chekhovian narrator to an observation you might recognize from your own experience:
Not everyone knows when to be silent and when to go. It not infrequently happens that even diplomatic persons of good worldly breeding fail to observe that their presence is arousing a feeling akin to hatred in their exhausted or busy host, and that this feeling is being concealed with an effort and disguised with a lie. But Father Anastasy perceived it clearly.
Although Anastasy realizes he should leave, he sticks around, even when another visitor arrives. This new visitor has come to Father Orlov with a problem: his son is an unbeliever who has been living with a married woman for three years. As the visitor explains the circumstances, Father Anastasy coughs, laughs, and makes inappropriate jokes about this situation. If the story has an antagonist so far, it has to be him.
The visitor asks the wise and intelligent Father Orlov to write a letter condemning his son for his evil ways, and Orlov eventually agrees to do the job, because he knew the visitor’s son as a boy and never liked him. (The boy was always asking “delicate and insoluble” questions about religion and, even worse, he had a “contemptuous and critical attitude to fishing,” one of the reverend father’s favorite hobbies.) So Father Orlov dictates an elegant and high-handed letter chastising the young man for his “pagan” ways. The visiting father leaves happy, ready to send the letter, and Father Orlov’s happy too, because the annoying Anastasy goes with him.
Here’s where the story gets especially interesting. Walking together out in the dark, Anastasy tells the pleased father that, although it’s a “splendid” letter, he shouldn’t send it to his son. “You’ll only upset him,” he says. “Forgive him. Let him alone!” The father is surprised. How could he just forgive him? If he did, he’d have to “answer to God” for his son’s behavior. Father Anastasy’s response stays with me: “Even so, forgive him all the same. Really! And God will forgive you for your kindness to him.” Suddenly, it seems that Father Anastasy might be the hero after all.
Because this is Chekhov, though, the story isn’t done adding layers of complexity, which Blaisdell analyzes in a perceptive and moving way. I won’t tell you how the story ends, or whether the letter actually gets sent, but ultimately we see that all three of the story’s characters have their own flaws, struggles, and genuine moments of feeling. “This story is a play that we are watching with the comic genius who wrote it,” Blaisdell observes. “He knows what each character is thinking and feeling, but for the most part he has the confidence in us that we can figure out—with his occasional comments and from the dialogue—the hearts and minds of these three men.” Here, Blaisdell captures one of the joys and difficulties of reading Chekhov: we’re tasked with attending closely to the “hearts and minds” of his characters, even when their actions aren’t easy to admire.
This leads us, finally, to Chekhov’s empathy. In another letter to his elder brother, Chekhov lists “continuous objectivity” as one of his criteria for “true artistic production.” Unlike our own use of the word, Chekhovian objectivity doesn’t seem to mean moral neutrality or an emphasis on fact over emotion. Rather, he seems to be suggesting a type of empathetic objectivity, in which the artist attempts to imagine other people’s lives—their struggles and moral failings, their joy and suffering—without bias or sentimentality. We read Chekhov’s work to inhabit this same state of clear-eyed compassion ourselves.
Blaisdell’s book makes clear that Chekhov himself, being both human and a product of his times, didn’t always live up to his own standards. Despite his stated devotion to both personal decency and artistic objectivity, he had some real and troubling biases, seen most overtly in several instances of casually bigoted anti-semitic humor in his correspondence. Blaisdell, who openly adores Chekhov as an artist, wrestles with Chekhov’s prejudices, neither rationalizing them away nor condemning all of his work as a result. Despite being an exceptional figure, Chekhov comes across as not so different from many of his characters (and, perhaps, ourselves): capable of both compassion and cruelty, full of contradictions, neither absolute hero nor absolute villain.
Remarkably, though, his fictional characters almost never seem to be a stand-in for himself. Over the course of Chekhov’s literary career, economic necessity and artistic imperative led him to imagine and closely consider thousands of lives very different from his own. Blaisdell’s book makes some modest attempts to connect various stories to details from Chekhov’s personal life, but these are mostly unconvincing. Rather, as Blaisdell notes himself, “Chekhov’s imagination is what brought him to the world’s attention and has kept him there.” This fascinating biography and the stories from this period allow readers to be newly astounded by Chekhov’s prodigious imagination, while reminding us to expand our own empathetic imagination well beyond the page.
Chekhov Becomes Chekhov
The Emergence of a Literary Genius
$29.95 | 400 pp.