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| SOURCE: Rayfield, Donald. “Love.” In Understanding Chekhov, pp. 198–212. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1999.|
“The House with the Mezzanine” and the stories of love, requited or not, consummated or not, of 1898–9 reveal a radical change in Chekhov's attitude to woman and sexuality. Even the aggressive activist—Lida Volchaninova or Masha Dolzhikova, even the vicious Aksinia Tsybukina—who condemns the narrator to solitude, or the family to ruin, no longer personifies a Schopenhauerian female force; and she is balanced by the persistent, if passive and vulnerable personification of female dependency—Misius, Aniuta Blagovo, or Lipa. Now, after the crisis of 1897, instinct takes precedence over reflection, desire over morality, and to Chekhov's heroes the unhappiness that arises from indifference, rationalisation or cold, calculating self-interest makes the consequences of sensuality or impulsiveness seem by comparison good, natural and salutary. His women do not alter in themselves: they deceive themselves, they age, they ensnare—but they are no longer mere predators.
As if to counterbalance his former personification of woman, Chekhov created a piece that aroused simultaneously storms of approval and protest. “Ariadna” was a woman that Tolstoy's daughter Tatiana was ashamed to recognise as the core of herself and which Chekhov's friend Elena Shavrova acclaimed as ‘la vraie femme aux hommes’; Chekhov's “Dushechka” (‘Darling’, 1898) was an ideal which the young Tolstaia and her father were proud to acknowledge. Printed in a popular journal, Sem'ia (The Family), the story seems a sudden conversion to the bourgeois ideal. and was greeted by reactionaries such as the elderly novelist Vasilii Nemirovich-Danchenko as enthusiastically as by anti-feminist radicals like Tolstoy. The story reverts to Chekhov's earlier comic technique: the succession of men who rule Olenka, the Darling's, life are caricatures: a theatre impresario, a timber dealer, a veterinary surgeon and a schoolboy, and her succession of bereavements and consolations make for a vaudeville narrative. The fundamental idea is that Olenka can have no interests and no ideas except those that she absorbs from the man she loves, whether it is the man who taught her French when she was a schoolgirl, or the schoolboy whose lunch she packs when she is an elderly woman. Olenka sees no disruption between the years when she lives for her first husband's theatre or her second husband's timber trade. She is a loving, instinctive chameleon. Nearly all Chekhov's readers took the story to be an ideal, or a reality. The narrative tone, while it has a warmth and simplicity missing from other work of the period, does however imply authorial perplexity about female nature. “The Darling”, with her endurance of bereavement and childlessness, is a comic version of the tragedy of Lipa in “In the Ravine”. What is different is the implication that the female is meant to be constant, to survive, and the male to be transitory, and to die. For his own times, and for Soviet times too, “The Darling” created a standard for woman to be judged by. “Dushechka” thus renewed the image of “Dushen'ka” (“Little Psyche”), created out of La Fontaine by the poet Ippolit Bogdanovich more than a century previously, as a model of female self-sacrifice and love. By changing a consonant, Chekhov demoted the female ideal from the mythological to the bourgeois.
Changes in Chekhov's morality can be ascribed to the consumptive's passion for life. The Dreyfus affair had already germinated Chekhov's inbuilt distrust of all authoritarianism and his attachment to individual freedom. One other important factor affects Chekhov's work from 1899 to his death. He had finally sold the rights to his Collected Works for 75,000 roubles, to the publisher of “My Life”, Adolf Marks, a hard-headed businessman who imposed stringent conditions. The most important was that Chekhov himself should retrieve and prepare all his earlier work for reprinting. ‘That will keep Mr Chekhov busy’, remarked Marks. Being, as he half joked, a Marxist, meant that Chekhov had to devote his declining energy to revision, not original writing—which partly explains why his last four years produced just two plays and a handful of stories. While he rejected much of his earlier work, time was spent rewriting (largely cutting) earlier work and, above all, in considering how material he had failed (in his opinion) to realise fully, could now be recycled. The romantic situations and the heroines of his work for New Times in 1886, the figure of the doctor and the lawyer, the theme of the ruined estate, the artist as priest—all these themes are exhumed by a re-reading of earlier work.
Certainly Chekhov's abnegation of sensual enjoyment which tinges “Three Years” has entirely gone by 1897. Lying on his back, in Ward No. 16 of the clinic in Moscow in spring '97, the author of “Ward No. 6” had much to reflect on. Tolstoy visited him; their arguments led to a severe haemorrhage, but Chekhov managed to make Tolstoy define his ideas of divinity and immortality. Tolstoy said he looked on the afterlife as an embodiment of pure reason and pure love into which human souls would merge. To Tolstoy's amazement, Chekhov was repelled and perplexed by this Kantian transcendence of the individual. He rejected an afterlife in favour of a more fervently enjoyed mortality.
We find, about this time, in Chekhov's notebooks a new affirmation of agnosticism, of the right not to know, which seems to push him further away from Tolstoy: ‘A good man's indifference is as good as any other religion. … Between “God exists and God does not exist” lies an enormous field …’. Chekhov now seems to wish to remain in the verdant pastures of this field, not to cross it, as he accuses Russian intellectuals, from one extremity to the other. Suddenly, in Chekhov's world death is less fearsome than a wasted life: just as the peasant Lipa is to realise that ‘you only live once’, so Chekhov's doctors, lawyers, bankers and teachers are to stumble on the truth that happiness lies in grasping opportunities, in acting on desire, in letting the individual blossom to the full before it has to fade. The ‘new, beautiful life’ of the future goes on luring and bewitching the hero, but it no longer matters whether the ‘new life’ is real or illusory, so long as it works as a myth to stimulate the hero, or heroine, to act. The first thing we notice in Chekhov's last stories is the proliferation of verbs such as ‘it seemed to him’, ‘he calmed himself with the thought’, ‘he was thinking’. The narrator's viewpoint has collapsed; once there is no certainty of right and wrong, the hero freely lets his instincts and impulses lead him on.
Undoubtedly, Chekhov's stay in France, with the routine life among émigrés at the Pension Russe in Nice, the contemplation of all the hopeful sick Russians buried in the Orthodox Cimetière de Caucade and, in contrast, the vibrant atmosphere of French intellectual life, where writers dared to challenge the government, must have changed him, so that, like Pushkin before him, he became a follower of Voltaire. The cultivation of one's garden, the nurturing of private life in a public hell—which is the morality of Voltaire's Candide—the idea that good or evil events do not correlate to good or evil intentions, as in the conclusion of Voltaire's Zadig, are carried over into “About Love” and “The Lady with the Little Dog”. All the spell of Tolstoy was dissipated: reading his tract What is Art?, Chekhov could dismiss it as an old man's natural belief that the end of the world was coming. Chekhov begins to describe himself in a new way. He praises idleness (prazdnost') as a pre-requisite of happiness, distinguishing it from laziness (len'), while conceding that ‘my disease is going crescendo—it's incurable’, he could say to Avilova that he was ‘a man who enjoyed life’. Later, at Yalta, whilst he expressed horror as former colleagues died in Yalta's dirty hospices of tuberculosis, he could ironically welcome ‘classlessness in the face of the bacilli’, such was the ease that he felt when society's rules no longer mattered.
The Dreyfus affair had distanced Chekhov from Suvorin. In October 1898, Chekhov's father died—and although the old man had been an absurd despot, who probably never read a line of his son's work (on which he depended, but never commented, rather as he might on the income from a prostitute daughter), the loss of this ‘chief cog’ in Melikhovo, the voice of patriarchal cant, nevertheless lifted some of Chekhov's inhibitions. Most of his time Chekhov would now spend with his mother in Yalta; in school terms, his sister Maria worked (and enjoyed the social life of the sister of a celebrity) in Moscow. Even after marrying, in May 1901, Chekhov was to spend half his time apart from his wife. For the first time in his life, Chekhov could be alone, even when he did not want to. With fewer dependants and less tutelage, a new philosophy of life and love was bound to evolve.
The shock of leaving Melikhovo, however hastily, was considerable. Although he bought land and had a house built in Yalta, planting hundreds of trees and shrubs, and replaced the dachshunds he had abandoned to perish at Melikhovo, Chekhov knew that his tenure in the Crimea was short, and his exotic gardening there never absorbed him as had the estate of Melikhovo. For the first time in his life he was idling, and nothing disciplined or cut short his impulses. The money that Marks had paid, however, soon proved inadequate. Marks covered his investment in his first year and Chekhov had soon spent his first 25,000 roubles on his new property in Yalta: large capital sums gave a feeling of freedom such as Chekhov had never known before. He realised, of course, that this freedom to travel, to do nothing, to write what he pleased, to fall in love, had come too late. This gives poignancy to his last stories where, more often than not, the hero fails to act, or acts too late. It comes out in Chekhov's letters: to Lidia Avilova whom, like most of his would-be loves, he kept on as a useful friend and correspondent, he wrote, ‘God doesn't give horns to a butting cow’, enlarging on the picturesque reference to the money coming too late to be enjoyed with the regretful—‘I was free and I didn't know freedom’.
At the end of his life Chekhov returned to his youth. Very many of those who were now close to him had been classmates or friends at Taganrog—the lawyer Konovitser (whom Dunia Efros had married), the Tolstoyan Sergeenko, the Moscow Arts Theatre actor Vishnevsky, Pavlovsky, the Paris correspondent of New Times, and his cousin Georgi. The cold and ghastly provincial boredom of Taganrog made life there out of the question, but Chekhov devoted more and more time and money to his native town. Not only did he personally buy many of the books in the library: he also commissioned from the sculptor Antokolsky a statue of Peter the Great, the founder of the town, and contributed to the local museum.
Chekhov's two important new friendships were with Gorky and Bunin. Gorky's ‘coarse, rudimentary but still enormous talent’ and Bunin's genteel disposition may well have contributed to Chekhov as much as they derived, as pupil writers, from his company. (Gorky, remarkably astute for a revolutionary, extracted more money for Chekhov from his editors; Bunin cared for Chekhov's mother—and made love to his sister—in Chekhov's absences from Yalta.) Marks had not in fact liberated Chekhov, who soon discovered that his worries were only increased. ‘Now I'm a Marxist’, he said ironically. Preparing the earlier volumes of his Collected Works took more of his time than the writing of new original works. Up to 1885, his work was difficult to trace and often had to be copied from newspaper files. A million words had to be re-read, stories sorted, retitled and rewritten. Works printed by Suvorin were transferred in toto to Marks; but here, too, Chekhov could not let stories of the 1880s be reprinted without applying to them all the intensity and terseness, the self-sufficiency of characterisation and purity of language which he had learnt in the '90s. This Herculean task used up his creative energy. In 1899, for instance, “In the Ravine” and “The Lady with the Little Dog” were almost his only new work. There were, however, important benefits. Looking at his early writing Chekhov was flooded with material that he had not used to the full. Innumerable incidents from stories of his first seven years—phrases, scenes, characters such as the gauche young doctor, young heroines thirsting for life—all stuck in his mind and develop out of all recognition in his later work. Doctor Toporkov of his first serious story, “Belated Flowers”, is a prototype of Doctor Startsev in “Ionych”; Verochka leads both to the lady with the little dog and to Ekaterina in “Ionych”.
Rewriting induced Chekhov to refine his style still further. With each work of the end of the century, a still greater density of imagery is to be noticed, more terseness, the repression of adjectives and adverbs and recourse to rhythms, to assonance and alliteration, to elaborate cadences as a counterpoint to the sense. The adjectives begin to fit into a pattern of images, so that the overall effect has the unity and intensity of pointillist painting. The accelerated fruition of Chekhov's style is due not only to his own revisions, but also to his teaching of others. All his life he had put up with the mediocre novels and stories of his friends; only now was he able to help real talent. His critiques of Gorky makes him more stringent towards himself. He writes in September 1899:
A man sat on the grass' is intelligible, because it's clear and doesn't hold up one's attention. On the other hand, it is hard to understand and rather heavy for the brain if I write: ‘A tall, narrow-chested man of medium height with a red beard sat on the green grass that passers-by had now trampled down, sat noiselessly, looking around shyly and timidly’. That takes some time for the brain to take in and literature must be taken in at once, in a second.
Chekhov's notebooks reflect the change in his work: the later the work, the more closely its text corresponds with the extremely laconic phrases and synopses of which his notes consist. This terseness is also due to a quickening of the pulse. In 1898, when Chekhov became involved with the Moscow Arts Theatre, his links were emotional as well as literary, despite the disappointments and arguments. The idea of a new type of theatre implied for him a new type of audience and response; in his private life, it meant his first unrepressed love—for the actress Olga Knipper. ‘The older I get, the faster and harder the pulse of life beats in me’, he tactlessly told Lika Mizinova in September 1898, as he enthused over the ‘little actresses’ of the theatre.
The novelty of Chekhov's late style can best be seen in a trilogy of stories (the only occasion in which stories were overtly linked), “Chelovek v futliare” (“The Man in a Case”), “Kryzhovnik” (“Gooseberries”) and “O liubvi” (“About Love”), published in Russian Thought, July and August 1898. They are linked by a trio of narrators—Ivan Ivanych, a veterinary surgeon, Burkin, a science teacher, and Aliokhin, a gentleman turned miller—and they were to begin a series of further stories, which Chekhov never wrote. In some ways, they revert to his earlier technique of setting a story in a ‘frame narrative’, just as “Ariadna” has its passionate events framed by a casual discussion of woman; but this is now a very economical device. The landscapes of the south, Chekhov's poetic nocturnes of moonlight, the symbolism of rain and water, are taken out of the story and form a contrast to the enclosed, dead world of the tales that the narrators tell. They themselves appear as the ‘new individuals’, free, sensual, open and unpretentious, in contrast to the senseless characters of the stories, who are prisoners of ugliness, dreams and inhibitions. Each story opens and closes with descriptions of shifting weather and light, of sun and water, so that nature's life contrasts with the characters' deadness.
The first story of the series is told by Burkin, the schoolteacher. He is, if we except the amiable, but spineless literature teacher in the story of that name, the only positive male schoolteacher in all Chekhov's work. The story flows casually out of an incident as Burkin and Ivan Ivanych settle down for the night in a shed (they are out shooting) and notice the peasant girl who has never left her own world for the town. Burkin tells the story of “The Man in a Case”, his colleague the Greek teacher, Belikov. It is a Gogolian tale. Like Gogol's landowners, Belikov's characteristics envelop his possessions, so that animate and inanimate are the same. He himself (like Professor Serebriakov in