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Close observer of his characters

03 January 2014

John Arnold on The Lady with the Little Dog and Other Stories by Anton Chekhov

Committed to love of neighbour: Anton Chekhov

Committed to love of neighbour: Anton Chekhov

THE anti-heroine of Bernhard Schlink's The Reader, Hanna Schmitz, is illiterate, and serving a life sentence in prison. She is sustained mentally by tape recordings, sent to her by a well-educated former lover.

In the film of the book, the tape with which she begins to teach herself to read begins: "People were saying that someone new had appeared on the seafront: a lady with a little dog." There could be no better place for induction into the art of the short story, in which Chekhov excels.

Born into a poor and pious household in provincial Taganrog, Chekhov studied to become a doctor; and, although he never had a regular post, he also never ceased to practise his profession, which helped him to become classless -a rare accomplishment in pre-revolutionary Russia. In fact, he was the most widely travelled and widely experienced of all the great Russian writers, having gone overland to the penal colony in Sakhalin, and returned by sea.

At first, he supplemented his income by writing short comic items for the new popular press, where he was not allowed to be sad. It was only when he qualified as a doctor that he began to write for literary journals, and was able to express his underlying visions of loneliness, frustration, and despair, albeit in the comic and even farcical forms, which he had perfected (as seen in the story "Fish Love").

This comes out most clearly in the late stories and plays, such as The Three Sisters, loosely based on the Brontës, in which three talented young women with a feckless, drunken brother spend their lives dreaming of Moscow and of fulfilment.

Chekhov abandoned carefully contrived plots. He composed musically, and his imagery was often aural rather than visual. A typical story or play has three or four movements, with different speeds and moods, predominantly in minor keys. Like Schubert, he wrote his best work when he knew that he was dying.

An overt gaiety and lyricism overlay a deep melancholy and intimations of mortality, which coincided with the lingering death of the Russian gentry, to which he had become assimilated. Medical practice and the agony of his final years taught him, as a young man, to understand what it is like to be old, tired, and lingering on a deathbed (as in his story "The Bishop").

Chekhov was not, strictly speaking, a Christian believer; but when he wrote of the bishop in that story: "His love for church services, the clergy, and the sound of bells being rung was deep, innate and ineradicable," he was speaking autobiographically.

The prevalence of superstition among the peasantry enabled him to invoke the supernatural (as he did in "The Black Monk"), rather as Shakespeare did, without necessarily committing himself to belief in it. In "The Student", he wrote perceptively of biblical faith, again without either embracing or rejecting it. He lived a life of exemplary service to the poor and downtrodden, but remained uncommitted to everything except the love of neighbour in word and deed.

Like the fictional Dr Zhivago, who excelled in diagnosis, the real Dr Chekhov derived his literary talent from his capacity for acute observation. Nowhere is this more evident than in his rendering of speech. He was the first to notice that we do not normally communicate in well-constructed interlocking dialogues, but rather in disconnected parallel monologues. Harold Pinter learnt from him.

Like a doctor, too, his attitude to his characters is clinical rather than judgemental. "The Lady with a Little Dog" was taken to be a challenge to the high moral tone of Tolstoy. Chekhov was accused of inviting comparison with Anna Karenina, and of condoning adultery.

His Anna Sergeyevna also has beautiful grey eyes, one of only two features that are described; and a significant scene is set in a railway station. Her lover, Gurov, is a shallow serial philanderer; and the seduction seems to be moving towards inevitable disappointment, when the narrative takes an imperceptible turn, and the banal and unheroic couple appear to be moving towards true love.

They gain our sympathy, which is what Chekhov intends. Still, the story is inconclusive, and Gurov's conversion might just as well be a mid-life crisis as a great love. Doesit matter? I used to challenge my students to read the last page aloud without a tear or at least a lump in the throat; and I never had to pay up.

Chekhov eschews literary style, and even similes and metaphors. He simply writes ordinary, good, unpretentious contemporary Russian, but with enormous subtlety and sense of rhythm, and also the ability to evoke rather than describe. There could, indeed, be no better place to start, or re-start, reading Russian literature than his stories.

The Very Revd Dr John Arnold is a former Dean of Durham.

"The Lady with a Little Dog" is in About Love and Other Stories by Anton Chekhov, translated by Rosamund Bartlett, published by Oxford World's Classics at £7.99 (CT Bookshop £7.20); 978-0-19-953668-9. The story is also included in other editions, such as The Lady with the Little Dog and Other Stories 1896-1904, published by Penguin Classics at £8.99 (CT Bookshop £8.10); 978-0-14-044787-3.


Gogol spoke of "laughter through tears". Is it the other way round with Chekhov? 

"His attitude to his characters is clinical rather than judgemental." Is it? 

"Chekhov's stories ask questions, but give no answers." Are his inconclusive, open, indeterminate endings satisfactory?

In "The Lady with a Little Dog", only a reference to "morning mist" indicates that Gurov and Anna have spent the night together. Can you find other examples of Chekhov's reticence and discretion? 

"Chekhov . . . exhibited far more Christian qualities than many self-consciously religious writers" (the translator Rosamund Bartlett). Should he be numbered among the sheep or the goats (Matthew 25.31-46)? 

What religious qualities were seen in "The Bishop"? 

Chekhov has been described as a "literary Impressionist". Can you see similarities between his work and the Impressionist painters? 

Have you seen any of Chekhov's plays, for which he is better known than his stories? If you haven't, would you like to see one, now that you have read his work?


IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 7 February, we will print extra information about the next book. This is The Compassion Quest by Trystan Owain Hughes. It is published by SPCK at £9.99 (CT Bookshop £9 - Use code CT440 ); 978-0-281-06825-8.

Author notes

THE Revd Trystan Owain Hughes was born in North Wales in 1972, the son of a priest. He has an M.Th. from Oxford University on suffering and prayer, and a Ph.D. from Bangor in church history. He has recently become Diocesan Director of Ordinands for Llandaff, and Vicar of Roath, before which he was Anglican Chaplain at Cardiff University. His book Finding Hope and Meaning in Suffering (SPCK, 2010) was the Archbishop of Wales's Lent Book in 2011. His latest book, Real God in the Real World, was the BRF Advent Book for 2013. He contributes to Radio 2's Pause for Thought and Radio 4's Prayer for the Day. He lives with his wife and three children.

Book notes

In The Compassion Quest, Trystan Owain Hughes draws readers into an approach to life that looks beyond immediate concerns tothe whole of creation. He uses examples from nature, film, poetry, and books to accompany his desire to show that love in action - compassion - can bring light to those around us: they can enable us to flourish as part of a connected world, created by God. His seven chapters range over such areas as relationship, reverence for life, and "bringing Jesus down to earth".

Books for the next two months:

March: The Spanish Holocaust by Paul Preston
April: The Old Ways: A journey on foot by Robert Macfarlane

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