Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Happy birthday Chekhov

I’ve been in iPlayer heaven this week, listening to all the Radio 3 programmes about Chekhov to celebrate his 150th anniversary.

Chekhov on the banal would make the subject of a blog in its own right. British audiences tend to think of his plays as tragic and melodramatic, when actually they are full of motivelessness and boredom, and his stories are always enveloping the everyday in strangeness and surrealism. Janet Malcolm calls it the ‘kind of bark of the prosaic in which Chekhov consistently encases a story’s vital poetic core, as if such protection were necessary for its survival’. In The Broken Estate, James Wood writes that ‘Chekhov thinks of detail, even visual detail, as a story, and thinks of a story as an enigma’. According to Wood, Chekhov ‘loved to read out random oddities from the newspapers: “Babkin, a Samura merchant, left all his money for a memorial to Hegel!” The attraction of such tales, one suspects, was that a newspaper imagines that it has explained a story when all it has done is told one … His writing, which is strewn with unsolved details, is a kind of newspaper of the intimate fantastic … his stories are like tales of crime in which nobody is a criminal.’

Over Christmas I read Chekhov’s letters, which are compassionate and funny and written throughout with a pleasing tone of fake melodrama: ‘I received your letter while yawning at the gates in a perfect agony of extreme boredom, so you may imagine with what marvellous timing your monster epistle made its appearance ... You cruel, savage woman, it is a hundred years since I had a letter from you ... You must come, my dear, good, glorious creature; if you don’t you will deeply offend me and poison my existence.’

Apart from his writing and medical practice, Chekhov helped to build three schools, sent regular parcels of books to his home town's library, wrote about the plight of Siberian exiles and financially supported his often feckless family. He also complained all the time about railway bookstores not stocking his books.

The more I find out about the guy, the more I like.


  1. I can't remember the exact Chekhov quote but it's something along the lines of 'Life's great tragedies are far more likely to occur round the family table than on the battlefield.' And I love the 'nothing happens' nature of Act 2 of 'The Cherry Orchard' where the most exciting event is the German governess eating a cucumber. Glad you're a fan too.