The truth of life, spat out with elegance

Anton Chekhov achieved more under a death sentence than most of us do in a lifetime. Patrick Hussey pops a cork for 'the greatest short story writer of all time'
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The Independent Culture

When Chekhov spewed blood, he at least did it with style. The first spectacular blooming of the TB that was to kill him took place in the fashionable Moscow restaurant, the Hermitage. You wonder what his fellow diners made of the ghastly scene: the dismal coughing fit, the look of horror as his great friend and publisher Suvorin rushed to help. Or would they have been used to crimson spray, brave faces and rapid changes of couverture?

One hundred years ago this month, Anton Chekhov passed away during an ill-advised trip to Germany. Barely able to move or breathe, he nevertheless boarded a train to the spa town of Badenweiler. Did he really believe he would return to Mother Russia? Surely not - his own career as a doctor and personal experience of his disease silenced hope. Yet despite the dark certainty of his own extinction, he stoically carried on the rasping trudge towards death.

Chekhov always made the best of the great stitch-up he regarded existence to be. After reading his hundreds of stories, and having viewed his guttering plays, you cannot fail to come to one conclusion. Life is silly, he tells us, life is sad and there is not much you can do about it. Chekhov is the most monstrously adult voice you will ever come across in your reading life, or any other.

His story begins in the port of Taganrog, a cosmopolitan place that nestles against the Black Sea, lost in Russia's sprawling south. Times were hard in 1860 and Russia a changing, unstable place. His paternal grandfather, the granite-like Egor Chekhov, sweated and hustled his way to the magical sum of 832 roubles. With this he bought his family's freedom, releasing them from serfdom and pushing them on to the next rung of the social ladder. Chekhov's own father then did his very best to cast them back down.

Pavel Chekhov was a religious fanatic and a hopeless shopkeeper. He prayed and beat his children, he nailed tyrannical constitutions to the wall of the family home. "Step out of line and you will be hurt," said one. Chekhov and his brothers worked ridiculous hours in their father's failing store and struggled to keep up their grades. As Chekhov put it: "Father thrashed me with a cane, he boxed my ears, he punched my head and every morning, as I woke up, I wondered first of all, would I be beaten today?"

Stories of Chekhov Sr's idiocy abound. He chased customers from the store, was obsessed by expensive tea no one wanted and polished the store front religiously as the provisions rotted. This man was Fawlty with fists, and the source of the violent, unthinking behaviour Chekhov was so often to lampoon. When a dead rat was found in the huge vat of olive oil, Pavel excelled himself. He neither replaced nor boiled the oil, but called a local priest to bless the fetid liquid, thereby ensuring the whole town knew about it. The shop went bust, Pavel was declared bankrupt and fled to Moscow to escape the bailiffs. Most of his family followed, leaving Anton all alone and barely more than a boy.

Left alone, he knuckled down and went on to win a place at Moscow University to study medicine. There is a perverse equation to Chekhov: the worse things got, the more he succeeded. In his life, in his writing, Chekhov simply refused to fail. From the moment he first coughed blood in his early twenties, he knew death would come early. His response was to work.

He saw his gifted brothers squander their brilliance on women and booze; his own efforts never faltered through tragedy, disappointment or praise. He worked so hard as writer, physician and looking after his squabbling, dependent family that he almost certainly drove himself to an early exit.

He built schools, nurtured the sick, championed the cause of Siberian exiles. His letters (only recently uncensored) and a brilliant, impressionistic new biography by Rosamund Bartlett show a man who visited prostitutes, knifed colleagues in the back, caroused and wrestled peasant girls with the best of them. This was a genius who found time for fart gags, fishing and tumbling half the actresses in Russia. All this under a death sentence; you cannot deny his verve.

Nevertheless, you sense Chekhov lived only for his writing; and to be specific, his prose. The plays form a fraction of his work, indeed the first mature effort - Ivanov - was the bastard produce of a dare and the need for roubles. Yet somehow Chekhov is known as the father of Modernist theatre, his remarkable contribution to the development of Western prose half-forgotten. After all, we are dealing with the man Raymond Carver called "the greatest short story writer of all time".

Stories such as "Gusev", "The House with the Mezzanine" and "Gooseberries" rank among the most excellent works of any pen. Even the lesser-known stories such as "Fortune" or "Verochka" are awesome. Themes of squandered humanity, peasant brutality and ineffectual lives are all that you might expect. But the brushstrokes are refined to the point of wonder, making that cliché of Chekhov the miniaturist simply inadequate. The man was splitting atoms.

Chekhov prepared his stories like mixtures; tinctures almost, they can be so delicate. Without doubt there is medicinal intent to all his writing. Dipping into this exquisite pharmacy is endlessly rewarding.

The letters and the bulging biographies show that Chekhov lived a warm, admirable life. But if you want his opinion on that life, then look where he would have directed you: at his work. Despair and greyness swirl around these stories like an evening fog. All the effort and success Chekhov strove for, the admirable way he lived his life, was little more than a spiritual Zimmer frame, an aid to get him through his brief, diseased stay on earth.

Donald Rayfield's 1997 biography (now out of print) was so successful in painting in Chekhov's colourful humanity that there is a danger of letting our opinions of Chekhov the man silence the existential thrum of the writing. The man who ends one story with the hero's corpse being eaten by a shark, who never describes successful love, the writer who depicts all human effort as essentially futile must never be regarded as somehow cuddly. There is so much more than the dour realist yet he was that standard literary chimaera, divided by cynicism and idealism. More often than not cynicism is the weightier presence.

One of the joys of Chekhov is his lightness of touch, his polite ambiguity. But just to make things difficult (indeed Chekhovian) you should start with "The Steppe", the early story in which he announced his talent. The tale of a young boy, taken on a journey he barely understands, it rolls in storms, the ocean of land; freshness bursts off the page. It's as pithy as Dickens but leavened by a startling feeling for nature. It isn't a story, it's a flower forever half-pressed.

In the end it pays to remember that our man pops the odd cork for existence. Nature, walks in the moonlight, solitary moments of joy. They are all duly noted, the doom just comes later and inevitably. In other words he tells the truth; his work no doubt a ferocious call for an effort before sunset but no more. Ailing half his life from the "white" plague, Chekhov spat out the truth of life with unparalleled elegance. All writers know the truth, but no one has ever matched Chekhov for style.

'Chekhov: Scenes from a Life' by Rosamund Bartlett is published by Free Press (£20). 'The Steppe and Other Stories 1887-1892' trs Ronald Wilks is published by Penguin Classics (£8.99). Also in Penguin are 'Anton Chekhov: A Life in Letters' trs Rosamund Bartlett and Anthony Phillips, and 'Anton Chekhov: Plays' trs Peter Carson (£12.99 and £5.99). To order any of these titles (with free p&p), call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798897.