Chekhov’s Laughter

 


 

Chekhov’s Laughter

Anton Chekhov
Anton Chekhov; drawing by David Levine

“With love to lead the way/I found more skies of gray/Than any Russian play/Could guarantee,” Ira Gershwin wrote in the 1930 song “But Not for Me.” Of course he was thinking of Anton Chekhov. Almost a century later, it is still those gray plays that define Chekhov in the English-speaking world: a review of a recent London production of Uncle Vanya in The Independent managed to include the words “depressing,” “pessimism,” “misanthropy,” and “suffocating,” all in the first paragraph.

Yet Chekhov insisted that his plays were comedies: The Seagull is subtitled “a comedy in four acts,” and while writing The Cherry Orchard he described it as “in places even a farce.” Certainly his first readers would have been surprised to learn that he would be remembered as a great poet of sadness and stasis. When he made his debut in the early 1880s, under the byline “A. Chekhonte,” it was as a humorist—a prolific writer of jokes and sketches for popular magazines with names like Splinters and Alarm Clock. The key to success in this corner of the literary world, he advised a friend who was trying to break into print, was speed and volume: “Write as much as you possibly can! Write, write, write…until your fingers break under the strain…. Let’s have a stream of stories, trifles, jokes, witticisms, puns, and so on and so forth.”

Fifty-Two Stories, a new collection of Chekhov’s short fiction translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, includes several pieces from this period, most of them just two or three pages long. They may no longer raise a laugh, but they are clever and original enough to make clear why editors snapped up Chekhov’s wares. In “A Slip-Up,” a girl’s parents scheme to entrap a suitor into marrying her by surprising them in an embrace, but instead of the icon that they mean to use to solemnize the engagement, they accidentally grab from the wall an old portrait, allowing the unwilling fiancé to escape in the confusion. In “Reading,” a government bureaucrat tries to get his thickheaded employees to start reading books, only to find that the unaccustomed mental effort makes them lose their wits.

In this phase of his career, writing wasn’t a calling for Chekhov but what we’d now call a side hustle. He was paid by the line and needed to make money fast, to help support his parents and siblings while he studied medicine. Having grown up poor, he took a frankly mercenary delight in being able to conjure money out of his own brain: “Would you like a few nice little subjects? I’ve written stacks! Twenty rubles’ worth! More, even,” he wrote in 1883 to his older brother Alexander, who had introduced him to journalism.

In the same year, when he was twenty-three years old, Chekhov wrote to Nikolai Leikin, an editor he often worked with, apologizing for the quality of his submissions and explaining the conditions in which he worked:

A visiting relation’s baby screaming in the next room, while in another room my father is reading aloud to my mother…. Someone has got the music box going…. It would be hard to imagine a worse situation for someone who wants to be a writer.

You can hear a more serious literary ambition beginning to stir. It surfaces again in his complaint to Leikin about his strict one-hundred-line limit for contributions: “I’m sure if I had been able to write it at twice the length it would have been twice as good,” he grumbles.

The turning point in Chekhov’s literary career came in 1886, when he published his first book, a collection of his “A. Chekhonte” sketches. His letters show him trying hard to treat the whole thing as a joke: “A title like Buy This Book or Get a Sock in the Jaw!, or possibly May I Help You, Sir? would be all right by me,” he wrote to a friend before the book appeared (under the title Motley Tales—not much better). But his true feelings emerged when he received a letter from Dmitri Grigorovich, an eminent writer and onetime roommate of Dostoevsky, who praised Chekhov’s talent to the skies while deploring his carelessness and overproduction. “Stop trying to meet deadlines. I do not know what your income is; if it is small, then starve,” the older writer advised.

Chekhov responded with effusive thanks (“Your letter, my dear, beloved bearer of good news, struck me like a bolt of lightning. I almost burst into tears”), before unburdening his literary conscience:

Until now I have approached my writing in a most frivolous, irresponsible and meaningless way. I cannot recall a single story on which I spent more than a day…. I’ve been writing my stories like reporters churn out pieces about fires: mechanically, half-asleep, caring as little for the reader as for myself.

But he promised to reform: “I am still only twenty-six. It may be that one day I shall manage to achieve something, although time is rushing by quickly.”

Two years later, in 1888, Chekhov published his first long story, “The Steppe,” in a prestigious literary journal. It made him famous, and over the next decade he would produce his most substantial and ambitious fiction: “A Dreary Story,” “Ward No. 6,” “The Duel,” “The Story of a Nobody,” “Three Years,” “My Life.” In the same period, he wrote his first great plays, The Seagull and Uncle Vanya; made an arduous transcontinental journey to the Russian penal colony of Sakhalin in order to report on conditions there; and worked tirelessly as a doctor in Melikhovo, where he built a dacha. The grandson of a serf was now the owner of a country estate; the hack was one of the most respected writers in Russia. His pace slowed only in 1898, when tuberculosis forced him to retire to the warmer climate of Yalta. Even so, in the six years that remained to him, Chekhov managed to write Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard, as well as some of his best stories, including “The Lady with the Dog” and “The Bishop.”

Many of those classic tales were translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky in their Selected Stories of Anton Chekhov, published by Modern Library in 2000. Returning to Chekhov two decades later, the prolific pair have filled Fifty-Two Stories with a combination of famous and lesser-known short tales. Pevear and Volokhonsky’s translations of virtually the entire modern Russian canon have been celebrated by some critics as accurate and freshly revealing and reviled by others (including Janet Malcolm in these pages*) as awkward, flat, and charmless. A reader who doesn’t know Russian, of course, has no way of judging if Pevear and Volokhonsky accurately capture the tone of the original. But their direct, plainspoken approach feels particularly appropriate for Chekhov, who once wrote that “a writer must be as objective as a chemist.”

In the preface to Fifty-Two Stories, Pevear writes that their “intention…has been to represent the extraordinary variety of Chekhov’s stories…in terms of characters, events, social classes, settings, voicing and formal inventiveness.” There is certainly variety in these stories, as well as some familiar Russian types—a neurotic student (“The Breakdown”), superstitious peasants (“Luck”), a spoiled aristocrat (“The Princess”). But while Chekhov clearly relished the challenge of moving between ages and classes, the variety of his settings only highlights the continuities in his work—above all, his increasingly profound interest in comedy. Because Fifty-Two Stories is arranged chronologically—from those early sketches to “The New Dacha,” written in 1898, which belongs to the world of The Cherry Orchard—it reveals this development with fascinating clarity

In Chekhov’s first efforts, comedy simply means jokes, sometimes with bawdy punchlines. At a party, a man opens a musical instrument case and finds a naked woman inside: that’s the last scene of “Romance with a Double Bass,” and the story itself—a farrago about a musician who loses his clothes while swimming and encounters a woman in the same straits—is just a way of getting there. Other stories depend on the comedy of exaggeration and the slow burn. In “The Siren,” a clerk’s monologue about his favorite foods grows more and more tempting until his colleagues run home for dinner; in “The Exclamation Point,” a government clerk is haunted by visions of punctuation. The biter bit is another reliable formula: in “Corporal Whompov,” a village busybody keeps trying to get his neighbors thrown in jail for minor infractions, so they put him in jail instead.

But soon enough (in Chekhov’s compressed career, which lasted barely twenty years, every development comes quickly) the comedy becomes more technically ambitious. In “Kashtanka,” the plot is irresistible fun—a lost dog joins an animal circus and learns how to do tricks, like forming a pyramid with a cat and a goose—and the story is made up of short episodes, perfect for holding the attention of children. Apparently it worked: when Chekhov visited the family of Alexei Suvorin, the newspaper publisher who was his most important friend and supporter, he noted that “the children never take their eyes off me because they are waiting for me to say something incredibly clever. They think I am a genius because I wrote ‘Kashtanka.’”

But what must have appealed most to Chekhov was the experiment in perspective: How to describe the world as it might appear to a dog, freed from human preconceptions? His answer is funny in its simplicity—when Kashtanka dreams, she dreams about meeting other dogs—but a similar idea yields a more complex kind of comedy in “Grisha,” which narrates an afternoon stroll through the eyes of a curious two-year-old. Chekhov writes near the beginning of the story:

Up to now Grisha has known only a rectangular world, where his bed stands in one corner, his nanny’s trunk in another, a chair in a third, and in the fourth an icon lamp burns. If you peek under the bed, you see a doll with a broken-off arm and a drum.

The eruption of the outside world into this orderly universe is fascinating but painful, and the story ends with Grisha in tears, overcome by the volume of his new impressions.

In these high-concept tales, Chekhov was discovering the theme of his greatest work: the line between what makes us laugh and what makes us cry is a matter of perspective. A man at a party is accidentally kissed by a woman who mistakes him for someone else: that could be the setup for another comic sketch, and when the officer Ryabovich in “The Kiss” tells his comrades that it happened to him, that’s exactly how they receive it. One reciprocates by boasting about his own anonymous conquest on a train: “I open my eyes and, can you imagine—a woman! Dark eyes, red lips like fine salmon….” “But how could you see the lips if it was dark?” another responds; and so the whole thing is reduced to barracks banter.

Five years earlier, Chekhov might have written “The Kiss” in a hundred lines, focused on the moment of the kiss itself. Now what interests him is its aftermath, the way it initiates Ryabovich into a wholly internal drama of elation, fantasy, and eventual disillusionment. Like Grisha, his naiveté allows him to experience things with an extraordinary simplicity and intensity: “His cheek, by the left moustache, where the unknown woman had kissed him, trembled with a light, pleasant coolness, as if from menthol drops,” Chekhov writes, in a simile whose banality tells us everything we need to know about the scope of Ryabovich’s sensory experience.

Yet by the end of the story, even though almost nothing else happens to Ryabovich, he has grown from innocence into knowledge. “It had flowed the same way in May,” he reflects when he returns to the site of the kiss in August:

From the small river in the month of May it had poured into a big river, from the river into the sea, then it evaporated, turned into rain, and maybe that same water was now flowing again before Ryabovich’s eyes…What for? Why?

“The Kiss” was written in 1887, the year after Chekhov received Grigorovich’s admonishing letter, and it shows how he would fulfill his promise “to achieve something” in fiction: not by rejecting his early work and becoming self-consciously serious, but by turning his comic stories inside out. Many of his masterpieces could be summarized in a way that makes them sound like comedies. “Ward No. 6,” like “Corporal Whompov,” is about turning the tables: the doctor in charge of an insane asylum neglects his patients, and in the end he becomes an inmate. Even The Cherry Orchard follows the same broad outline: Lopakhin, the grandson of a serf, ends up as the owner of the estate where his grandfather toiled. If Beaumarchais had written it, it would have been a comedy with Lopakhin as the resourceful, Figaro-like hero.

Anton Chekhov reading his play The Seagull to members of the Moscow Art Theater company, 1898
State Literary Museum, MoscowAnton Chekhov reading his play The Seagull to members of the Moscow Art Theater company, 1898

Of course, the actual effect of “Ward No. 6” is terrifying, in a way that foreshadows The Trial (a book that made Kafka break down laughing when he read it aloud to friends). It doesn’t appear in Fifty-Two Stories, but in other, shorter pieces we can see Chekhov experimenting with comic forms. The 1894 story “In a Country House” revolves around a stock type, the reactionary blowhard. Here, he is named Rashevich, and we meet him in mid-rant:

From the point of view of brotherhood, equality, and all that, the swineherd Mitka may be as much of a human being as Goethe or Frederick the Great; but put yourself on a scientific footing, have the courage to look facts straight in the face, and it will be obvious to you that blue blood is not a prejudice…. I’m an incorrigible Darwinist….

His audience is Meier, a young magistrate who is the only person in town still willing to visit him—but only on account of Rashevich’s two daughters, whom he is tentatively courting. This time, however, it turns out Rashevich has misjudged his theme, since Meier, as he stammeringly admits, is “a commoner myself,” part of the herd whom Rashevich has just been dismissing as unfit to survive. If the story ended with Meier storming out, it would be a satisfying comic twist—the aristocratic bully getting his just deserts.

But what does it actually feel like to be that blowhard? A joke is funny when we hear it, but is it funny to be trapped inside of it? After Meier leaves, Chekhov’s focus shifts from Rashevich’s outer monologue to his inner one, allowing the reader to perceive his bafflement at his own actions—the way he keeps saying things that will alienate people, even though he’s ashamed that his neighbors shun him and call him “the toad.” When it comes to expressing his true feelings, his oratorical gifts desert him and all he can do is mutter, “‘Not nice…,’ he sighed, lying under the blanket. ‘Not nice!’” The story ends with Rashevich overhearing his daughters, who are furious that he has driven off their only suitor, referring to him as “the toad.” Outsiders, including the reader at first, may deride this man’s belligerence and complacency, but Chekhov shows that from the inside these feel more like helpless compulsion and self-loathing.

This movement from mockery to sympathy marks the point where Chekhov’s comedy passes into humanism. Several of the tales in Fifty-Two Stories feel like self-conscious trials of empathy, in which Chekhov the doctor tries to imagine his way into the minds of textbook “cases”: a woman in labor in “The Name-Day Party” or a paranoid obsessive in “A Breakdown,” which actually ends with a doctor taking his medical history. In later stories, Chekhov applies himself to characters who are more challenging because they are less lurid and “interesting”: a poor provincial schoolmistress in “In the Cart,” a sexless middle-aged bachelor in “Ionych.” Traveling down this imaginative road, he arrived at the late plays in which, famously, “nothing happens,” yet which seem to convey so much of what it is like to be human.

But the most powerful tales in Fifty-Two Stories are the ones that revolve around laughter and being laughed at. Nothing is more tormenting, Chekhov repeatedly suggests, than to be treated as a joke when one isn’t in on the joke. In “Enemies,” Kirilov, a country doctor whose son has just died, is torn from the side of his grieving wife by a stranger, Abogin, who insists that Kirilov come immediately to tend to his own mortally ill wife. When they arrive at Abogin’s, it turns out that his wife isn’t there: she was feigning illness to get him out of the house so that she could elope with her lover. Kirilov’s reaction isn’t simply anger, but something more complex: he insists that he has been personally insulted, dragged out of his own tragedy into Abogin’s farce. “I’ve been forced to play in some sort of banal comedy, to play the role of a stage prop!” he shouts.

This is how Chekhov formulates the theme of humiliation, which is so pervasive in nineteenth-century Russian fiction: as a problem of being trapped in the wrong genre. In the 1887 story “Volodya,” the “unattractive, sickly, and timid” seventeen-year-old protagonist is determined to recast himself as a forceful romantic hero by seducing Nyuta, an older married woman who is a friend of his mother’s. But Chekhov allows the reader to see that it is really Nyuta who is doing the seducing, and that even sleeping with Volodya doesn’t stop her from thinking of him as a silly adolescent. He is horrified to overhear Nyuta joking about his passionate overtures to his mother: “And maman laughed!” he says to himself, realizing that nothing he does will make adults take him seriously. The story ends abruptly with Volodya shooting himself in the head—the most earnest gesture he can think of, which is also the most typically adolescent overreaction possible. The story is a tragedy about a hero who is unable to be tragic.

This makes “Volodya” a kind of first draft of The Seagull, which Chekhov wrote almost a decade later, and which also turns on the humiliation of a young man by his mother. Konstantin tries to break out of the shadow of his famous actress mother, Arkadina, by literally creating a new genre for himself, staging a play in the avant-garde Symbolist style. But his mother just laughs at the performance: “He told me himself that it was all in fun, so I treated his play as if it were comedy,” she says. In the end, being treated as a comic figure, instead of as the serious person he feels himself to be, drives Konstantin to suicide—less because he wants to die, perhaps, than because he finally wants to convince his mother that he is serious.

The premiere of The Seagull in October 1896 was a notorious disaster, in part because it was staged as the first half of a benefit evening for a popular actress, who was to appear in a light comedy on the second half of the bill. Audience members who showed up expecting to be made to laugh by Chekhov’s “comedy in four acts” got their revenge by laughing at it when they weren’t supposed to—thus inflicting a version of Konstantin’s humiliation on the playwright himself.

In a letter to Suvorin a few days later, the bitterness of that humiliation can be gauged by the effort Chekhov makes to shrug it off:

After the performance I dined fittingly at Romanov’s, then went to bed where I slept soundly…. I acted with the cold reasonableness of a man whose proposal has been rejected, and for whom the only thing remaining is to go away.

But after that first night audiences warmed to The Seagull, and a few days later the actress playing Nina wrote to the playwright, “Victory is ours…. How I’d like to see you now, but what I’d like even more is for you to be present and hear the unanimous cry of ‘Author.’” In the end, Chekhov had the last laugh.

 

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