Chekhov’s preferences

James Lasdun wrote a tribute to Chekhov in the Guardian in 2010.

Have a striking passage from it:

His father, Paul, ran a grocery-cum-general store where Taganrog society congregated to purchase rice, coffee, paraffin, mousetraps, ammonia, penknives and vodka, and were duly cheated by the proprietor. Family lore records an occasion where a drowned rat was found in a cask of cooking oil. Instead of throwing out the oil, Paul had it “sanctified” by a priest, and continued selling it – an ur-Chekhovian episode, complete with a climax that is at once a non-event (business going on as usual), and a pitiless illumination of the father’s character. A bullying, fanatically religious man as well as a total failure (he went bankrupt in 1876 and fled to Moscow with the rest of the family, leaving the 16-year-old Anton to fend for himself in Taganrog), the father too becomes a major generative element in his son’s imagination. His presence can be felt in Chekhov’s stories in the tyrannical father figures of “My Life” and “Three Years” as well as Jacob, the benighted zealot in “The Murder”. In a more general sense, his spirit becomes absorbed into what might be called the negative pole in Chekhov’s vision of reality: the force of oppression, petty-mindedness and outright cruelty that periodically discharges itself into the stories, sweeping over the characters as a sudden mood of melancholy or pure blackness (like the hallucinated Black Monk in the story of that title), or an impulse of vicious brutality, as in the notorious baby-killing episode of “In the Hollow”.

As a human being – a doctor who went out of his way to help the poor and needy – Chekhov was unambiguously repelled by this aspect of life, and many of his better known remarks are either denunciations of it or defences of its opposite, which he identified chiefly as culture, rationality and scientific progress. There is the famous retort to Tolstoy, whom he revered as a novelist but rejected as a teacher: “Reason and justice tell me there’s more love for humanity in electricity and steam than in chastity or vegetarianism,” while the much-quoted lines from his letter to the poet Alexey Plescheyev are perhaps the clearest articulation of his “beliefs” such as they were: “My holy of holies is the human body, health, intelligence, talent, inspiration, love and absolute freedom – freedom from violence and falsehood, no matter how the last two manifest themselves.”

Yes to all that.


  1. kbplayer says

    My favourite Chekhov quote:-

    He wanted his friend Suvorin to write a story about him, about a young man who fawned on rank, kissed the hands of priests, accepting without question other people’s ideas, express his gratitude for every morsel of bread he eats, a young man who has been frequently whipped, conscious of his own worthlessness-to write the story of how this young man squeezes the slave out of himself drop by drop, and how on waking one morning, feels that the blood coursing through his veins is real blood and not the blood of a slave.)

  2. sawells says

    Ophelia, you might well enjoy “doctor chekhov” – a biography of his medical career. He really walked the walk; battling against cholera epidemics, visiting the Sakhalin prison island. Good man.

  3. Sili says

    BBC Radio 4 has a nice programme – free as a podcast – with Melvyn Bragg: In Our Time. They 45 minutes on Chekov last year.

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