Literary notes: The embarrassment of literary fame

IT IS hard to think of any other writer of genius who not only questioned his own worth, but also the very worth of his art. These crises of self-doubt assailed Chekhov from time to time throughout his life, and are to some extent tribute to his extraordinary modesty. But why was he nearly capsized in this way, and so often?

He began as a doctor first and a writer second; he saw writing as a frivolous activity. His first writings were scarcely literature at all. Needing money badly, he wrote facetious sketches for the comic papers. When he developed literary ambitions proper he was seen by the establishment as an entertainer, and was denied access to their prestigious journals. Publication of the masterpiece The Step changed all that - everyone was convinced that a new star had risen. Everyone, that is, except the young star himself, who was haunted by the fear that he would be exposed as the impostor he really was.

No happier as a doctor than as a famous author, he still saw medicine as the more honourable profession. He told his brother to put "Brother of the Distinguished Author" on his visiting card, and wrote to his mentor Suvorin: "Russian life bashes the Russian till you have to scrape him off the floor . . . In Western Europe people perish because life is too crowded and close; in Russia they perish because it is too spacious . . ."

In Moscow he lost his way. Fame half seduced, half embarrassed him. In reality he felt like a "mountebank". Being a writer in 19th-century Russia involved commitment to a role, and he was deeply uncertain, not knowing whether to be ashamed or proud of what he had done. Out of his confusion arose dreams of travel, of exile, of escape. The new intelligentsia accused him of writing coldly about human suffering. To silence his critics, but also to silence the voice inside himself, he proposed a journey across the wastes of Siberia to investigate the penal settlements of Sakhalin, Russia's Devil's Island.

Chekhov was a sickly and inexperienced traveller; the project struck his friends as suicidal. The Trans-Siberian Railway had yet to be built so he travelled by river steamers and a hired tarantass which was springless and open. Asked by Suvorin to account for this madness he replied that he was bored and dissatisfied with all he wrote, the very word "art" frightened him, and he confessed: "I want passionately to hide myself somewhere for five years and engage in serious, painstaking work. I must teach myself to learn everything from the beginning, because as a writer I'm a complete ignoramus. I must write with a good conscience, I must spit on a great many things . . ." He did labour at his scientific project on and off for five years, but in spite of himself classic stories poured from him.

His innate distrust of the theatre prompted one critic recently to see his dramatic works as attempts to undermine it, as essentially hostile. Certainly the first production of The Seagull was such a disaster that he swore he would never write another play, and told Suvorin, "It is isn't the play that was unsuccessful, it was my own person."

One should not forget Chekhov's astonishing resilience. He was literally dying when he wrote The Cherry Orchard. He came to believe that by showing us to ourselves as we really are he would somehow improve us and the world. His irony is supremely modern and so is his unease. His desire to repudiate the lies and vulgarity in which he found himself and to sever connections with his milieu led him to make a stand against charlatans in the only way he knew by evolving as an artist of immense refinement and great delicacy of judgement.

Philip Callow is the author of `Chekhov: the hidden ground' (Constable, pounds 16.99)

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