The Magazine

A Russian Master

Anton Chekhov's unforgiving eye was focused on himself.

Sep 25, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 02 • By ALGIS VALIUNAS
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The Complete Plays

by Anton Chekhov

Edited and translated

by Laurence Senelick

Norton, 992 pp., $39.95

Of great modern writers, the one readers tend to think of as most like themselves is Anton Chekhov (1860-1904).

The supreme modern playwright, and a peerless writer of short stories, Chekhov embodied, in his work as in his life, the ordinary virtues that good democrats like: warmth, compassion, appreciation for simple pleasures, amused skepticism about big ideas, worldly experience that only enhances the common touch, misgivings about moral absolutes and the people who require them.

Those who knew Chekhov, and those who read him a century after his death, agree on fundamentals: He was the very soul of goodness.

How Chekhov's goodness translates into literary greatness remains controversial. The English playwright David Hare writes in the introduction to his adaptation of Chek hov's first play (which Chekhov left untitled but which Hare calls Platonov) that a "critical battle has been raging in the hundred years since Chekhov's death." On one side are those who think Chekhov so loves his characters that he grants them the irreducible complexity of actual living men and refuses to use them as vehicles for moral judgment. On the other side are those, like the leftist Hare, "who prefer to believe that their man was as political, as social and as specific a writer as Gorky or Tolstoy. They think of him as a moralist."

The critical debate concerns which sort of liberal writer Chekhov happened to be: the serenely nonjudgmen tal creator or the heroically indignant crusader. This first-ever English edition of Chekhov's Complete Plays, translated and edited by Laurence Senelick, a professor at Tufts who has done his job as scholar and translator nearly to perfection, provides the occasion to reconsider the liberal imagination in the light of Chekhov's life and work.

Anton Chekhov was born and raised in Taganrog, a town of some 50,000 inhabitants 600 miles south of Moscow. Greek millionaires formed the local aristocracy, Cossacks and Ukrainians spiced the rich ethnic stew, and Turkish procurers plucked young girls from the street to adorn their masters' harems. Chekhov would coin the epithet "Taganrogish" to describe boorishness, malice, ignorance, and squalor.

Chekhov's paternal grandfather had been a serf who had bought his freedom, and his father was a merchant, choirmaster, and martinet. Anton would remark that his own experience ratified his belief in progress: Life definitely got better when his father stopped beating him. After the elder Chekhov went bankrupt in 1875 and lost his house, the family decamped to Moscow, leaving Anton behind to finish his studies. Anton rejoined his family in 1879, coming to Moscow for medical training.

To help support himself and his floundering family, Chekhov stole time from his studies to write, tossing off droll sketches for the comic newspaper Dragonfly. Only several months into Chekhov's literary career, his editor delivered a stinging slap: "You are withering without having flowered. Such a pity." Chekhov shared that disheartening opinion of his own work, dismissing the slapstick anecdotes, mock advertisements, and cartoon captions he turned out as "my literary excrement." He tried his hand as a columnist, but found the work dispiriting. "Journalist means at the very least a scoundrel," he lamented; and rather than continue cranking out his quota of unfunny humor, he would prefer "dealing with a dose of the clap."

In 1885 a freelance assignment for the Saint Petersburg Gazette led to a productive association with that paper: Permitted to write seriously and at greater length than before, Chekhov began to find his voice and became demonically prolific. In 1886, a swanker Saint Petersburg daily, New Time, invited him to appear in its pages, and Chekhov entered into business, and into warm friendship, with the publishing tycoon Alexey Suvorin. Flagrantly anti-Semitic, awash in self-made wealth, generally supportive of the autocratic government, Suvorin was the bête noire of the liberal intelligentsia, and Chekhov had reason to believe that writing for New Time would blacken his own name. But only a couple of years later, his reputation was flourishing. Even the prestigious Thick Journals--literary monthlies whose devotees looked down their noses at the daily papers Chekhov had been writing for--published extended reviews of his work; and with his long story "The Steppe" in 1888, they began publishing him.