Chekhovian Cabbage

The other day, I was reading Claire Messud’s latest novel. I gave it a try after reading this paragraph in The Guardian:

This is a novel in which very little happens. Yet it is also an addictive page-turner, and written with such artistry that the reader can do little but succumb. Rarely has the mundane been so dazzling. (The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud – review)

As if I needed me some dazzling mundane…

My anger is prodigious. My anger is a colossus. I’m angry enough, at last, to stop –”

Then I stopped and wandered off from the dazzling mundane, and a moment later caught a few lines of Chekhov’s story mirrors Russia’s own by Kyle Minor.

Chekhov,” V.S. Pritchett’s now-classic biography of the 19th century Russian story writer, physician and playwright, is newly available in an audio-book edition beautifully narrated by Antony Ferguson.

To begin with, Mr. Minor gives major run down on how Anton Chekhov has in many ways become an abstraction useful for describing the work of other writers. 

There is no higher superlative, in some quarters, than to say a writer is “the American Chekhov” or “our Chekhov” or “Chekhovian.”

This sentiment made me wonder about the quarters from which Mr. Minor hails. When one says “in some quarters” one implicitly informs everyone else of one’s belonging to some other quarters, no?

Reading further:

Sometimes, though, when a writer’s prose is described as Chekhovian, it seems to be shorthand for: It’s boring, but it’s good for you.  

Mr. Minor doesn’t say he himself shares this view, so both the reviewer’s “quarters” and his definition of “Chekhovian” remains undisclosed.

Yet, my dismay at this point can be best described by the last Claire Messud’s line I just read, “My anger is prodigious. My anger is a colossus. I’m angry enough –”

I was unhappy, all right. “Oh, my god!” I said, crossly, in the language I share with Anton Chekhov, and added a few words from the same language that weren’t in the dictionary when I was growing up in Russia.  Boring but good for you?  Is this a description of a cabbage soup?  Is that what THEY all think “Chekhovian” means?

No, it isn’t. Not all. Not even some, with exception, perhaps, of Mr. Minor.

Google “Chekhovian style” and you’d see that it wasn’t for nothing that Leo Tolstoy called Chekhov “an incomparable artist…an artist of life.”

The Chekhovian Short Story  underlines narrative traits – impressionism, understatement, the use of ‘epiphanies’ and a mixture of pessimism and humor – that create original, “Chekhovian” style.

letterChekhov noted six principles of a good story.

  •   Absence of lengthy verbiage of a political-social-economic nature;
  •   Total objectivity;
  •    Truthful descriptions of persons and objects;
  •    Extreme brevity;
  •    Audacity and originality: flee the stereotype;
  •    Compassion.

Sounds like a recipe of a boring cabbage soup of a story, no?  

Letters of Anton Chekhov to his family and friends give a great insight into everything Chekhovian, his style notwithstanding. I found a free e-book, in English, here.

The realization that THEY don’t think “Chekhovian” means “dull” worked like a chill pill, and I read the rest of the review, which gave me no further grief. Mr. Minor – in my humble opinion – either made a major slip up or, “sometimes” resides in the wrong quarters. The audio-book is good enough, I’m sure. Perhaps, even excellent.

With that, I relaxed.

 Anton_Chekhov_in_Tomsk (1)

A satirical monument to Anton Chekhov in Siberian city of Tomsk. The writer made an unfavorable mention of Tomsk in his diaries while traveling through the city.

The inscription on the pedestal reads:

Anton Pavlovich [Chekhov] in Tomsk as seen through the eyes of a drunken man, lying in a ditch, who never read “Kashtanka” [Chekhov’s famous short story]

This two-meter high bronze monument to Anton Chekhov has been erected in Siberian city of Tomsk. It honors the 400th anniversary of Tomsk and A. P. Chekhov’s visit to the city in 1890. One of the greatest Russian writers, national hero and pride, Chekhov is wearing a perfectly ridiculous hat, funny coat, skewed spectacles and no shoes on grotesquely oversize feet.

In a way, it was city’s  humorous retaliation. Chekhov left behind a very unflattering remarks about the city:

…Tomsk is not worth a red cent… A very dull town. Judging from the drunkards whose acquaintance I have made, and from the intellectual people who have come to the hotel to pay their respects to me, the inhabitants are very dull, too…  Impassable mud everywhere… At the inn, a waitress, handing me a spoon, first wiped it over her ass… Dining, though, was fine, unlike women, most of them hard to the touch …

It should be said that the writer ended up immortalized in bronze barefoot because he lost his galoshes in Tomsk “impassable mud”.

The monument is set just in front of the restaurant Slavic Bazaar, which is still around since the time of Chekhov’s visit.  Both the monument and the restaurant are popular tourist attractions.  Chekhov’s bronze nose is shining – local students rub it for good luck before major test and exams.

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