An Author Profile
By Gabriel Blanchard
Chekhov is celebrated for his eponymous gun, but his writing is more like a knife, sharpened to razor-like simplicity.
❧ Full name: Anton Pavlovich Chekhov [än-tøn päv-lø-vĭch chĕk-ŏv; see our pronunciation guide for details]
❧ Dates: 1860-1904
❧ Areas active: throughout the Russian Empire (the modern Belarus, Russian Federation, and Ukraine), principally the regions between Moscow and the Black Sea, and the island of Sakhalin north of Japan
❧ Original language of writing: Russian
❧ Exemplary or important works: The Cherry Orchard; “The Lady With the Dog”; The Seagull; Three Sisters; “A Trifle From Life”; Uncle Vanya
From the Carolingians to the Reformations, Eastern Europe was in continual flux. Borders hardly stood still among Swedes, Germans, Poles, Ottomans, Latgallians, Rusyns, Karelians, Vlachs, and groups with names even harder to pronounce than that—and all these before we talk about the Mongols.* But by the late eighteenth century, not only had Moscow consolidated its power over the Rus, or Russia, it had started importing the fashionable refinements of its neighbors to the west, who were themselves busily importing the fashionable refinements to their west, especially from France. By the nineteenth, Russia was producing not only great saints and theologians (as it had been doing for a solid nine hundred years), but poets, novelists, and playwrights of international repute; and as Europe delicately organized and reorganized its balance of power in a desperate attempt to avoid another Napoleon-scale war,** one such talent stepped onto the European stage: Anton Chekhov.
The name Pavlovich is a patronymic,† indicating that his father’s name was Pavel. Anton’s childhood was unhappy, and this was due largely to his being a son of Pavel Chekhov: though he presented a fine appearance to outsiders (being among other things the director of his parish choir—no mean feat in the Russian Orthodox Church), he was an abusive husband, a terror to his children, and, by the time Anton reached adulthood, a defaulter on debts. Many of Chekhov’s plays and stories feature outwardly devout or cultivated traitors, liars, and hypocrites, and more than one commentator on his work has seen in this the lineaments of Chekhov’s father and his cruelty to his family.
Speaking of these plays and stories, it was in part to pay off his family’s debts (as well as to fund his own education) that Chekhov began to write in the first place. He was hailed almost immediately as a serious talent by both the public and the literary establishment—a rare privilege among writers!—including a letter of advice and encouragement from Dmitry Grigorovich, one of the most respected Russian authors of the period. Before Chekhov had finished his career, he had written seventeen plays, seven novels and novellas, and nearly six hundred short stories.
His style was winsome partly because of its directness and economy, like Hemingway‘s in English (upon whom he was an influence). It is from him that we get one of the most-cited, and arguably most-misinterpreted, rules of writing, “Chekhov’s gun”: a memoirist reports him saying, “Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first act that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third act it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.” Now, this advice was specifically about plays, and was likely not meant to be taken with adamantine literalness in the first place; amateur writers are apt to get lost in description when they ought to be advancing the plot, but of course it does not follow (especially not in a novel or short story) that no space may be given to establishing atmosphere. However, when treated like a rule of thumb and not like an iron fist, Chekhov’s gun does become an excellent tool for keeping writing clear, lively, and focused. It certainly did all these things for Chekhov himself!
Given his colossal output, a complete overview of his work even in the briefest form would be thoroughly impossible here. We may therefore focus on two of his works: his short story “A Trifle From Life,”‡ and his play The Cherry Orchard.
The Cherry Orchard is a then-contemporary piece, intimately involved in the social realities of the late nineteenth-century Russian Empire. Serfdom in Russia had been effectively equivalent to slavery, and was abolished only a year after Chekhov’s own birth; the rising Russian middle class was populated largely by nouveaux riches§ of these humble origins, and the titular cherry orchard is on an estate belonging to an aristocrat who is, in the end, forced to sell up. The cultural and æsthetic values of the nobility are recognized as something more than mere trumpery; yet the nobles themselves are recognized as ignoble, unable to do the actual hard work that would sustain such values, living half in a dream of the irrecoverable past. Everyone in the play is, it seems, too hesitant to effect anything of worth. As they depart with the final curtain, offstage, the audience can hear the cherry trees being cut down.
“A Trifle From Life,” on the other hand, is a remarkably universal, remarkably cruel story. A certain Nikolai Byelyaev goes to visit his mistress, Olga; she is a married woman, and in fact she and her husband have two children, Sonya and Alyosha—but she is separated from him and has forbidden their children to see him. Their nurse, however, has been taking the children to see their father on the sly. Alyosha, only eight years old, accidentally lets the secret slip to Byelyaev, imploring him not to tell on his word of honor; Byelyaev, curious about what the children’s father thinks of his wife and her lover, gives it; and poor, innocent Alyosha, understanding nothing, relates how their father dotes on them, still loves Olga, and, while never personally insulting her lover, states (quite truthfully) that he has ruined her reputation. Byelyaev—obviously spiteful toward his predecessor for being a better man than himself in every conceivable respect—works himself into a rage over this “insult,” and betrays Alyosha’s confidence, in the child’s presence, the instant Olga arrives home. The eight-year-old boy’s heartbroken wail, even though silent on the page, is the stuff of nightmares: “You promised!”
*The Mongols—of Genghis Khan fame—ruled a truly ridiculous realm, covering the bulk of Eurasia during most the thirteenth century; at its height, the Mongol Empire embraced about the southern half of Russia, all of Afghanistan, Belarus, China, Iran, Iraq, Kazakhstan, the Koreas, Mongolia (surprise!), Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan, plus the smaller in-between countries and all but the western bits of both Romania and Turkey. (What have you done this morning?)
**Surely it will work this time.
†Patronymics were and are a standard element in Russian names regardless of sex. Though similarly placed, they are not analogous to Anglo-American middle names; their use is governed by strict rules, and they are often required in formal contexts.
‡Unluckily, translations from Russian into English often vary slightly in wording. “A Trifle From Life” is also rendered “A Trifle From Real Life” or “A Trifling Occurrence”; similarly, “The Lady With the Dog” (possibly the most celebrated of Chekhov’s short stories) is also known under the names “The Lady With the Toy Dog” and “The Lady With the Lapdog.”
§Literally “the new rich” or “new money,” i.e. anyone raised middle class or lower but who has come into sufficient fortune to now be considered upper class. There is a good deal of traditional snobbery against these people from “old money”; however, note etiquette columnist Judith Martin’s definition of the term: “Only nouveaux riches worry about the age of other people’s money.”
Gabriel Blanchard is CLT’s editor at large. He lives in Baltimore, MD.
Published on 25th September, 2023.