A delicious taste of Chekhov

Chekhov’s ruthlessness about his craft is legendary. If his stories are clear springs full of swift currents, Chekhov’s letters are languorous rivers twisting their way across the countryside.

Nandini Ramachandran May 30, 2011 12:23:23 IST
A delicious taste of Chekhov

This blog was born of the idea that everyone needs some unadulterated joy to survive in our bustling digital world. As a writer, I turn to books to find my bliss, moments of scattered frivolity breaking up the boredom of reading for research, reviews, or articles. This blog will curate such snippets. It is a reading diary, as all writing is, built from found art. We shall have poets and philosophers, essays and short stories, and many, many novels. Picasso once said that great artists steal while mediocre artists copy. I hope to invert this equation. Perhaps, in my case, theft will give way to talent.

A writer one can always count on for a jolt of exhilaration is Anton Chekhov, who coined the golden rule of editing: to find the real story, discard the first three elements of your tale. The rule of three works for all narrative. It can mean the first three sentences, paragraphs, pages, or even thoughts. Only when you have clarified what you think to yourself, Chekov’s Razor warns writers, can you hope to communicate with the world. It is a rule that has saved this writer’s skin in the face of countless deadlines.

A delicious taste of Chekhov

Chekhov's letters disdain philosophy and prophecy, and are the autobiography of a witty and literary doctor.Keystone/Getty Images

Chekhov’s ruthlessness about his craft is legendary. If writers would only admit they couldn’t hope to capture anything but daily eccentricities, he wrote, literature would be much improved. He never wrote a Great Novel, devoting himself to reviving the short story and the drama. Yet, pleasurable as such economy is, it can sometimes leave one wanting more. Which is why his letters, all romps and rambles, are such wondrous reads. If his stories are clear springs full of swift currents, Chekhov’s letters are languorous rivers twisting their way across the countryside. In one, I discovered my virtuous twin:

"The third daughter, a graduate of the Bestuzhev courses, is a young woman built like a man, strong and bony as a bream, muscular, sunburnt and noisy. When she laughs you can hear her a mile off......and even though she has read Marx is by no means averse to the clichés of love. However, I don’t think she will get married as she is rather plain."

It was only recently I discovered the impact of personal correspondence upon Russian literature. Letters were the only ‘free Russian press’ of the 19th century, when censorship tarnished published writing. Proof of this primacy was the “Petrashevsky Affair”, which saw Dostoevsky imprisoned for reading aloud, in a private gathering, the critic Vissarion Belinsky’s letter to Gogol. This fiery letter criticises Gogol for his newly Tsarist stance, and became legendary within liberal circles in Russia. It also reveals how, paradoxically, severe censorship proved to be as much a goad as a fetter for Russian literature:

"Preacher of the whip, apostle of ignorance, champion of obscurantism and black reaction, defender of a Tatar way of life -- what are you doing? Look at the ground beneath your feet. You are standing on the edge of an abyss… Only in literature, despite our censorship, there is life and forward movement. That is why the poet’s calling enjoys such respect among us, even where there is little talent… [the public] sees in Russian writers its only leaders, defenders, and saviours from the darkness of autocracy, Orthodoxy, and the national way of life. It can forgive a bad book but not a harmful one."

Chekhov letters are not world-historic. They disdain philosophy and prophecy, and are the autobiography of a witty and literary doctor. He grew up in a generation of writers living in a Russia as rapidly ‘liberalising’ as India is today. Serfdom was abolished in 1861, and Chekhov was the grandson of a serf, unlike the aristocrats that had dominated Russian literature till then. Pushkin, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Bakunin, Gogol were all nobility; of the Greats, only Dostoevsky and Belinsky could be said to come from humble origins. His letters, and stories, share none of their angst or self-hatred. They are all about liberation and emancipation, about finding individual voice within a world of hard knocks. “I am neither conservative or liberal”, he writes in one, “all I want to be is free”.

Another letter concludes with this theme of personal freedom as a perquisite for all writers:

“What upper-class writers have always taken for granted, those from humbler origins must sacrifice their youth to acquire. Try writing a story about a young man, a son of a serf, a former shop-boy…. brought up to respect his betters and kiss every priest’s hand, to submit to the ideas of others, be grateful for every crust of bread.. and then go on to tell the story of how this young man drop by drop wrings the slave out of him, until one fine morning, he awakes to feel that flowing in his veins is no longer the blood of a slave, but that of a complete human being..”

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