Posted by: zhiv | November 11, 2008

Concerning Chekhov

Not sure that there are any good reasons for it, but the blogging side of reading and writing hasn’t been going so well for awhile, and I find myself looking around for an icebreaker.  And then I had an unoriginal but thought-provoking Richard Yates-Anton Chekhov thought the other day, and it served as a prompt to write about my pathetic and meagre experience with Chekhov.

It bears some similarities to the Yates situation, anger at myself for not reading and knowing something twenty years ago or more, but it’s actually much more disturbing.  I didn’t read any Chekhov, at least none that made any impact, until the fall of 06.  Come to think of it, the “oversight” is very much the same as what I’m going through in American Literature now, and I can even apply it to my experience with Roman History, which I had planned to write about earlier in the year and never got around to.  So maybe there’s a more general explanation, and my Chekhov problem isn’t exceptional.  In American Lit I’m realizing that I “know” the all-stars, and I went through the first tier canon, such as it was 30 years ago.  I suppose this whole complaint is just a matter of never taking a second or a third AmLit course, which I didn’t feel like doing at the time.  I’ve mentioned elsewhere how I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin ten years ago or more, and more recently I’ve enjoyed playing catch up on Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Sarah Orne Jewett and others (Catharine Maria Sidgwick, for instance:  who am I missing?)–not forgetting Elizabeth Peabody.  And now I find myself filling in WD Howells, Longfellow, OW Holmes, and JR Lowell on my way to JT and Annie Fields.  I’ll mention briefly, and try to go back to it another time, that the same thing is true for me with the Romans.  I had the basics of Western Civ, spent time on the Greeks, especially philosophy (though I could use more Aristotle) and Homer and drama, read the Aeneid and even the Thebiad of Statius (good story), but only stumbled belatedly into the vast riches of Roman History when I was running scout patrols alongside my kids’ educational expedition.  Long digression, the gist of which is that we all make choices about classes in college or graduate school, and we don’t realize where the gaps are and what they mean.  But I guess that’s why the gods created blogging.

The place where this all gets tricky is when, much later, you find writers or cultures that you’re passionate about.  And I’ll add to that my own curiousity about the less well-known, secondary books and writers who contribute significantly to the fabric of any literary period, Leslie Stephen and the genre of biography as the primary examples.

I guess I should come back around to Chekhov.  Same equation applies to the Russians.  I loved the Russians, and my guess is that I read Crime and Punisment shortly after reading Middlemarch, around the time I was reading Moby Dick and Walden and really starting to get my literary groove on.  It’s embarassing to say, but I think I had discovered that there could be something very intellectually macho about reading literature, that it was stimulating, challenging, and had its own competitiveness; there was definitely something to be gained by doing a lot more reading and playing a little less basketball  (that’s what Barack Obama started doing, and look how it worked out for him).  When I was a kid I spent a lot of effort putting sports trophies on my shelf (in the days before they gave them away just for participation), and in college I discovered the value of filling shelves up with books. 

The Russians were a gratifying catgory, where getting through the all-stars was a formidable challenge in itself.  I clearly remember taking a European novel course where we read Stendhal and moved on to Crime and Punishment and Anna Karenina and then read Proust, and then I read Brothers Karamazov and War and Peace on my own, just because of the level of engagement and the complexity and challenge and the love of great literature.  And now I  know that a lot of kids who get a good start on literary studies do that in high school.  I could happily get into the details of what I did read and what I didn’t, but it was really just the basics of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, and the point here is that I didn’t read Chekhov.  I think it seemed the same as not reading Turgenev or Gogol.  Without taking a course on it, you were naturally going to miss a few things; that’s just the way that it goes.  And soon enough I was reading Buddenbrooks, Kafka, and Camus, then Proust and even Musil, so what was I really missing?  My guess is that I never really thought about it.

I started to get a vague sense that I was making a big mistake and underestimating Chekhov after I had been working in the movie business for a couple of years.  The dramatic/playwright side of things naturally started to come up a lot, a bit too often for comfort.  David Mamet, who I couldn’t even measure in his own right, was devoted to Chekhov, and there were lots of references in Woody Allen, reviews, and elsewhere.  It was hard to ignore, but I was determined to bluff my way through.  It brings up another category–enough already!–the world of theater and drama.  When you break it down like this, the basic reading responsibilities of a poor English major and zhiv film producer are fairly daunting, aren’t they?  Nobody told me that reading an Elizabethan revenge tragedy would help me make Adam Sandler movies, but I did it anyway.  I had mounted a sustained Shakespeare campaign from my earliest days of literary interest, and good coverage of Resotration drama and the 18th century made me confident that I had solid literary-dramatic credentials.  Clueless once again, I had no idea that the theater majors were reading deeply and had plenty of material–I guess I thought they were always memorizing scenes and putting on shows, and I never thought anything they were doing would play a role in my life and work, except for seeing a good play now and then.  I ended up missing out on a major chunk of modern literature:  modern drama.  It’s hard to reconstruct the little bit that I actually knew, probably just Oscar Wilde, a little George Bernard Shaw, skipping ahead from a high school glance at Tennessee Williams; I really don’t remember.  But I know that I skipped over Ibsen and Chekhov and didn’t have any interest in it.

I’ll save my Tom Stoppard stories for another time, which go along with my first clueless, exciting years as Berkeley English ABD in the film business.  As I said, this is when the dread about Chekhov started creeping into my conscoulsness, but it always takes something more emphatic to get me going.  The final prmpt turned out to be my daughter.

She was ahead of the game in history in her junior year, and had an opportunity to take an elective Russian history and culture class, which a young Stanford PhD at her school was teaching for the first time.  It was a great class, and provided me the opportunity to gather up the Russian literature that was scattered around my library, organize it into a single solid shelf, and start thinking about it again.  I read Fathers and Sons, which I had never gotten to, and loved it.  In her class they were learning the historical backgrounds that fostered the literary culture, and then dipped into shorter works.  There was also a lot of art history and eventually the rise of ballet and Diaghilev.  Pretty perfect introductory course, exactly the thing that I never had.  I’m not sure how it happened exactly, and it wasn’t a major part of the syllabus, but Chekhov jumped out in a substantial way.  She was doing it, flying through stories and all the major plays, so it was obviously time for me to read Chekhov.

I got the point immediately.  And I was angry, furious at my blind, lame, stupid choices and ignorance.  The stories were simple, concise, modern, profound, accessible, magnificent.  it was all right there:  this is who we are, how we act, and this is the way to write a story.  What had I been thinking, spending all of that time wading through Proust or trying to figure out The Waves; what was the value of all the long journeys into abstraction and obscurity?  I wasn’t going to be too hard on myself, and I’m comfortable with my choices and where things have ended up.  But I will say that a little timely Chekhov could have gone a very long way over the last 30 years, and might have changed everything.  But there had never been a distinct interest or a clear, decided prompt, and a resistance of sorts had even built up. 

And of course I also have to relate this 06-07 anger about my own ignorance to my later frustration about not reading Revolutionary Road and Richard Yates until this past March, and in the fall of 07, a year ago, I had the same experience with J.M. Coetzee.  Yates is the most understandable, since he has been obscure and neglected for years, which is a complex phenomenon in itself.  Coetzee is more recent and celebrated and it was more a matter of getting around to it, although it would have been so great to have read Coetzee in the 80s.  Neither of these, however, is even close to having a massive Chekhov blindspot, which takes some doing.  But there it was.

I had a natural writer’s consciousness from before I was a reader, and I’ve learned over time that I was resistant to suggestions about how to develop literary sophistication, and I wanted to make my own way.  For a long time I was reading literature for basic enlightenment and insight, to be able to discuss it and compare and contrast, but I was also trying to figure out how to write.  I had gotten started with simple, helpful, and accessible writers, Fitzgerald and Hemingway.  But when I began reading not just through the survey of English literature, but also George Eliot and Woolf and Dostoyevsky, Austen and Tolstoy, I began to get lost and intimidated by literary history, and I didn’t have guideposts for my own creative writing, while my critical analysis was a spirited but fairly pathetic attempt to match the complexity of the literature and theory that was all around me.  And I don’t suppose that the prevalent movements in contemporary literature at the time, veering a postmodern course, were helpful.  I read John Hawkes and John Barth and then Marquez and Calvino, Philip Roth starting a long cycle of novels about writers, Saul Bellow writing about intellectuals, and who knows what else, all sorts of things.  The idea of writing a series of stories, of learning the craft through trial and error and rejection, was a weak flame flickering behind plans to find a dissertation topic. 

Looking back, there might have been some easy steps taken to go down the path of learning the writer’s craft.  Instead I followed my own lights and stumbled into an unexpected creative world and life in the movie business, and I can’t complain.  It’s not like I’m down and out, saying that I could have been a contender, Charlie, instead of a bum and that’s what I am.  It’s not like that.

But I read Yates and how he struggled and forged the great postwar realist novel out of pain and despair and nurturing his talent, and it sends me back to Fitgerald and Hemingway and Flaubert with new eyes, and I see a wrting teacher (like Yates) promoting a simple program.  Keep it simple, keep it real, write what you know, go to the heart of things, dare to be honest.  And nowhere is the program clearer or more direct, the mastery more assured and “painstakingly effortless” than in Chekhov.  Perhaps, in my days of dark ignorance, I didn’t find Chekhov because he wrote no “novels” and I foolishly thought I was past studying short stories–but now the absence of a novel seems to be a major accomplishment somehow.  And how many poets and novelist tried to write plays but never succeeded–Samuel Johnson, Dickens, Henry James, who else?–while Chekhov was a sensational success.  And for me, a literary guy working in the movie business, Chekhov becomes the perfect writer, showing how to write stories, create character, explore psychology and conflict, and then he makes the successful conversion to drama and shows how to write great plays and films and the type of dramatic art that we all naturally love. 

I spend a healthy chunk of every day, it seems, explaining my own taste and approach to film writers:  a poor man’s Jim Brooks, character-based comedy with significant dramatic content, accessible stories where we care about recognizable characters who are like us, ourselves.  I guess I should probably be mentioning Chekhov in there somewhere, now that I know better.



  1. There should be a ritual confession of literate people of greats they have never read, or never read enough of…something like AA…”I am a reader, but I don’t really know my Chekov.” I love “Grief,” and “The Darling,” but have yet (I confess) to feel the admiration and affinity I know I should.

  2. DH — always good to see you turn up, and I just wrote a Yates post that I think you might enjoy. And I know our pal KCJ is coming to see you–she’s in the archive, excited, as we speak. I’m a little surprised at the lack of an affinity, given your Yates connection and his obvious devotion. KCJ and I were just comparing the failed play at the beginning of RevRoad with the failed play at the beginning of The Seagull, for instance. And then she helped me by finding the Yates-absorbed-in-Chekhov moment, in Bailey, which I guess was when he was in the hospital with bad lungs.

    But I love the “ritual confession.” I think it’s been more of a drinking game in my experience, if I remember correctly.

  3. Wow! what a post…no surprise there then. Lots of things struck me; your honesty about your own naivety, like thinking you were ‘above’ short stories: I remember something like that and it makes me cringe to admit it. And DeWitt admitting he’d never quite ‘got’ Chekhov too; you can’t write on this blog unless you’ve had a truth drug.

    But beyond that, why do you often say you get annoyed or angry with yourself? You’ve quite clearly read more than the average librarian and how dull both you (don’t take this the wrong way – I’m warming to my theme) and life would be if we all followed perfectly charted course? The magic is in the eclectic mix: randomness, spontaneity. You can’t regret Woolf or Proust (and I don’t really believe you do) just as I mustn’t regret Richardson or …..? You see, I can’t even name a writer except Richardson that I might have regrets about.

    Chekhov is everything you say he is – I had a deeply passionate relationship with him when I was at Cambridge – sadly he didn’t know about it!
    The one i could never get was Strinberg; Ibsen, yes. Strinberg, no. I’ll have to wait for that epiphany.

    I have tried to chart my own literary development but can’t do it with anything like the clarity you manage. It reads like nothing on earth. There is a preponderance of Jane Austen and George Eliot though. I came very very late to American writers and what a fantastic voyage of discovery that has been: Faulkner (I love The Sound and the Fury); Wharton, bits of James, Morrison, Walker, Emerson, Whitman, Stevens (I think his poem ‘Sunday Morning’ quite possibly the most brilliant poem I’ve ever read – i could teach an entire lesson on the first stanza alone), Thoreau (in small doses), WCW, Arthur Miller, Robert Frost, Tennessee Willims, Cather, Cormac Mccarthy and on and on zzzzzzzzzzzzz

  4. Why would anybody regret Richardson? Richardson’s great! Must admit that I never made it through Grandison–how’s that for ritual confession. But then, I did bail out and all.

    Cambridge, eh? Much too fancy for a Berkeley stoner scholar gypsy like myself. Now it all makes sense.

    And my mom is a librarian (retired). Drinking and smoking and very Yates/Chekhovian, and I read a lot more than her a long time ago. But she still makes me feel bad. So there’s a little glimpse at the anger for you.

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