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
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
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
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
"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
"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
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
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.
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
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
April: The Old Ways: A journey on foot by