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Chekhov Was A Master In An Age That Needed No Geniuses

The Vakhtangov Theater in Moscow's production of Chekhov's "Masquerade" (file photo)
The Vakhtangov Theater in Moscow's production of Chekhov's "Masquerade" (file photo)
January 29 marks the 150th birthday of Russian writer Anton Chekhov. I would say this is a most appropriate jubilee. The state of Russia today resembles the period in which Chekhov lived more than it does any other period in its history. Some measure of civilization corresponds between the two, if only in a negative sense. Neither today's Russian regime nor the one under which Chekhov lived is in any sense ideocratic. They are both -- in the broad sense -- secular. They are regimes that do not place any obligations on their citizens beyond the obligation of submissive loyalty. They are moderately conservative regimes: Dramatic reforms have been frozen, but there is no rebound into deep reaction.

Of course, there are differences between the relatively peaceful age of Aleksandr III and the current times, but there is this profound similarity as well. A gray time, an age of little matters, as the age of Chekhov was called.

But such times, as experience (and not just Russian experience) shows, are very conducive to cultural growth. When the cannons are silent, time is conversing with the muses, and the muses needn't strain their voices to be heard over the sound of guns. The voice of the muse grows quiet. The need for a Leo Tolstoy, whose voice rang out over the din of all of Napoleon's cannons, or for a Victor Hugo, whose voice shouted down the entire French Revolution, falls by the wayside.

But if a voice is quiet, that is by no means a sign that it is bereft of gifts. It is just that artists at such times have no reason to occupy themselves with anything other than their own affairs. In such times, professional mastery always improves. The peaks disappear, but the average level strongly, noticeably, and inspirationally rises.

These are not theoretical suppositions but simple facts of the present literary situation in Russia. Despite what the juries of critics might say, we are now seeing the same bright dawning of literature, and in fact it is even more noticeable and clear in poetry than in prose.

Open any of the thick journals and read it from cover to cover -- you won't find any unprofessional works there. But nonetheless people talk about the decline of the culture of thick journals. And a decline there is, but it is purely a quantitative one -- circulation is falling and there is a deficit of novels to be published there because of the booming book-publishing industry. But the encouraging thing is that even if the publishing houses are turning out huge volumes of commercial wastepaper, the literary journals are not.

But what does all this have to do with Chekhov? Chekhov was the first Russian writer to achieve the professional heights of literature outside of all external cultural circumstances. His work was informed by neither a nobleman's education nor the delights of aristocratic culture. He emerged from a decidedly professional milieu -- in fact, he emerged from the mass culture of his day -- from the world of newspapers. He himself acknowledged this and wrote about it many times, saying that the new literary generation owned its professional existence to him. But there was one other note that often sounded in his writing: an awareness of his second-class status, or, to put it more mildly, the fact that he worked in the small genres. "Writing novels is an occupation for the nobility," Chekhov wrote in his letters.

I don't think it is really a matter of novels but of a different professional self-consciousness. The literary nobleman was also supposed to fight in duels, but this meant nothing to people from the professional classes. In other words, literature in the age of Chekhov had become a specialty -- it had ceased to be the expression of the integrated complexity of the individual. In other words, it had ceased to be genius.

Anton Chekhov: Was he a genius?
And this is the most interesting question associated with Chekhov: Was he a genius? It is hard to pronounce that word in conjunction with Chekhov's name, and it is also easy to imagine how he himself would have run away from that word. When Chekhov's most insightful admirers referred to him as a "poet," he responded with a laugh: "A poet, dear sir, is someone who uses the words 'chord' and 'silvery horizons.'"

There is one unusual and unexpected article about Chekhov that is attributed to poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. Of course, he didn't come up with the content himself; rather, it was dictated by the young and passionate literary critic Viktor Shklovsky, who had just invented the term "formalism." The 1914 article is entitled "Two Chekhovs."

Here is a fragment:

"It is Anton Pavlovich Chekhov that I'm talking about," the writer says.

"Just imagine! That's news," you laugh to yourself. "Every child knows all of that."

Yes, I know. You understand every subtlety of each of the three sisters. You have perfectly studied the lives depicted in each Chekhov story. You never lose your way strolling the paths of the cherry orchard. But I want to greet him properly, like an heir to the dynasty of the King of Words.

They have turned all writers into billboards of truth, advertisements of goodness and justice. What is the real worth of each writer? Who can you tell the citizen from the artist?

For the writer, there are no goals outside of the defined laws of the word. Chekhov was the first to understand that the writer merely forms a beautiful vase, but it doesn't matter whether you pour wine or dishwater into it. Ideas, plots are no more. Every nameless fact can be enmeshed in an astonishing verbal pattern. After Chekhov, writers no longer have the right to say there are no topics. "Just think about," Chekhov said, "each expressive word, each precise name, and the plot will come of itself."

That is why if a book of his stories were to fall apart, you could read each one of his lines like an entire story."

Of course, that is a great exaggeration, and it describes more closely poetry than prose. No matter what the formalists say, prose needs a topic. But it is also true that a topic alone is not enough, particularly in an age when literature in general has lost its (fundamentally noncharacteristic) quality to inform directly. When you can read about the Chechen war in a newspaper, then the value of a novel like Zakhar Prilepin's "Pathology" falls dramatically. Verbal mastery is at the forefront in literature, while plot -- if it is preserved at all -- must take on the quality of some sort of extraordinary fantasy. There is nothing so remarkable on the verbal level in, say, the works of Viktor Pelevin or Mikhail Bulgakov, but both of them have all-absorbing, fantastic plots.

And in this we see the impact of different ages. There was no fantastic life under Aleksandr III, while Pelevin lives in an epoch of the phantasmagorical, from which proceeds the mixture of Buddhism and banditry we find in his novels. Chekhov had a harder time -- life didn't give him any clear subjects. But this enabled him to choose verbal mastery. In this regard, he is a copy of Gustav Flaubert, who dreamed of writing a novel that had no plot and was purely its own construct. He didn't always manage this, but he broke away from "Madame Bovary" to "Salammbo" and from "Sentimental Education" to "The Temptation Of St. Anthony."

Chekhov had similar experiences. His "The Black Monk" was unsuccessful, un-Chekhovian. And he had several other works of this type, works that Zinaida Gippius called "oleographs."

However, Chekhov did write about a profound theme, but in order to see it, you need an acute eye. It is the theme of death. Writer Tatyana Tolstaya even found this theme in his "Lady With A Lapdog." And "The Cherry Orchard," of course, is a genuine "dance of the macabre."

This is the source of Chekhov's profundity, a profoundness that is never declared but is felt as a metaphysical longing that sometimes is transformed into joyful hope. When his heroes dream about life in 200 years, about life after us, they are dreaming about death and the uncertain possibilities it opens up. Vladimir Nabokov picked up this theme from Chekhov. Incidentally, it is also not easy to call this acclaimed, artful master a "genius."

There is a saying that goes "Pity the country that needs heroes." You can say the same thing about geniuses, who bring some compensation for unbearable times, some spasmodic attempt to move beyond them. But geniuses fade away and the masters come to the fore. And that is when the hope appears that life can become better -- not just on the empirical level, but in reality.

Boris Paramonov is a philosopher and a long-time contributor to RFE/RL's Russian Service. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL