Being used to short stories consisting only of beginning and end, I slacken and commence "to chew the cud" when I come to writing the middle.
- Anton Chekhov, October 1888.
The two quotes above show how bedeviling the Russian writer Anton Chekhov could be. Simple, straight-forward, journalistic, he wrote stories that seem to shimmer just out of reach, like heat on a highway.His personality was even more difficult to pin down. He was a measured, philosophical man with a flash temper, a man dedicated to artistic ideals who never stopped talking about money.
He was a wise man who gambled away his fortune.
A doctor who abused his own health.
And today, most short story writers see him as the master.
When Raymond Carver recently died, some of his final thoughts were about Chekhov. V.S. Pritchett practically crosses himself when the man's name comes up, and every short story writer from Sherwood Anderson to Anne Beattie has had to deal with him, either absorbing his style or reacting against it.
The reason is simple: Anton Chekhov invented the modern short story.
Where Poe and others wrote "linear stories," stories that build to a big finish, Chekhov wrote pieces that appear out of nowhere and then quietly tail off. They move from impression to impression, from thought to thought. It is slice-of-life writing raised to the level of genius.
I've been reading Chekhov again recently: "The Kiss," "The Party," "A Doctor's Visit," "Happiness." And story after story, two things stand out in high relief: the man's talent as an observer and his ability to present human beings in all their foibles without giving into easy judgments and moral posturing.
Writer Robert Stone calls Chekhov "an athlete - a hero - of perception." It's true. He never "constructs" his characters on several levels. He simply observes people so well that the various levels appear on the page.
Poets pull the whole world inside of themselves, then bring it back out with a personal slant, a unique voice. They are visionaries.
Chekhov was not a poet. In fact, he had more in common with physicists. He was determined to learn how the world works, how the forces in human relationships come together, without altering his findings by adding his own opinion, religion or notions of truth.
"When one serves you coffee," he wrote to A.S. Souvorin in 1889, "do not think to find beer in it. When I offer you a professor's ideas, trust me, and do not search in them for Chekhov's ideas."
This commitment to authenticity gives his characters an incredible depth. They have ulterior motives for their actions, then ulterior motives for those ulterior motives. My guess is that anyone who has read Chekhov closely would be so self-conscious in his presence they'd freeze up. He sees everything.
And yet, for all his distance and objectivity, Chekhov seems to have some sort of stake in the lives of the people he describes.
He is the great democratic writer. He takes the failings of his characters personally, he feels good about their successes, grows melancholy at their defeats. Yet he refuses to tell them how to live. In a letter to Souvorin in 1890 he wrote:
Most agree. Anton Chekhov did that job as well as any writer has.