ARTicles vol. 2 i.1: On Chekhov and Prose

"Russian critics have noted that Chekhov's style, his choice of words and so on, did not reveal any of those special artistic preoccupations that obsessed, for instance, Gogol or Flaubert of Henry James. His dictionary is poor, his combination of words almost trivial–the purple patch, the juicy verb, the hothouse adjective, the crème-de-menthe epithet, brought in on a silver tray, these were foreign to him. . . . Thus Chekhov is a good example to give when one tries to explain that a writer may be a perfect artist without being exceptionally vivid in his verbal technique or exceptionally preoccupied with the way his sentences curve. . . . The magical part of it is that in spite of his tolerating flaws which a bright beginner would have avoided, in spite of his being quite satisfied with the man-in-the-street among words, the word-in-the-street, so to say, Chekhov managed to convey an impression of artistic beauty far surpassing that of many writers who thought they knew what rich beautiful prose was."

-Vladimir Nabokov, Lectures on Russian Literature

"[Chekhov] is a strange writer: he throws words about as though at random, and yet everything in his writings is alive. And what great understanding! He never has any superfluous details, every one of them is either essential or beautiful."

-Leo Tolstoy in Talks with Tolstoy, by A.B. Goldenveizer

"'Do you know how I write my short stories? Here!' [Chekhov] glanced at the table, picked up the first thing that met his eye–it happened to be an ash tray–placed it before me and said: 'If you want it, you'll have a story tomorrow. It will be called "The Ash Tray."'"

-The radical journalist and short-story writer V.G. Korolenko in Reminiscences

"The descriptions of nature are artistic; you are a genuine landscapist. Except for the frequent use of the device of personification (anthropomorphism) when you have the sea breathe, the heavens gaze down, the steppe caress, nature whisper, speak or mourn, etc.–such expressions render your descriptions somewhat monotonous, occasionally oversweet and sometimes indistinct; picturesque and expressive descriptions of nature are attained only through simplicity, by the use of such plain phrases as 'the sun came out,' 'it grew dark,' 'it rained,' etc."

-Chekhov in a letter to Maxim Gorky in 1899

"Even in his earliest stories, Anton Pavlovich could already make out in the dreary sea of banality its somber absurdities with their tragic overtones. One need only read through his 'humorous' stories attentively to convince oneself how much of the cruel and repulsive the author sorrowfully observed and, with a feeling of shame, concealed behind his droll words and situations . . . Nobody understood so clearly and keenly as Anton Chekhov the tragedy of life's banalities; nobody before him could with such merciless truthtelling depict for people the shameful and painful picture of their life in the dreary chaos of petty bourgeois prosiness."

-Maxim Gorky, Reminiscences

"It is all Nietzsche. They are people who do not have any clear philosophy of life which could differentiate between good and evil–they are almost animals."

-Tolstoy referring to the characters of "Lady with a Lapdog"

"A publisher once remarked to me that every writer had somewhere in him a certain numeral engraved, the exact number of pages which is the limit of any one book he would ever write. My number, I remember, was 385. Chekhov could never write a good long novel–he was a sprinter, not a stayer. He could not, it seems, hold long enough in focus the pattern of life that his genius perceived here and there: he could retain it in its patchy vividness just long enough to make a short story out of it, but it refused to keep bright and detailed as it should keep if it had to be turned into a long and sustained novel. . . . Except for one faux-pas in his youth, Chekhov never attempted to write a fat book. His longest pieces, such as 'The Duel' or 'Three Years,' are still short stories."

-Vladimir Nabokov, Lectures on Russian Literature

"In my opinion, after writing a short story one should strike out the beginning and the end. That's where we men of letters most often lie."

-Chekhov in conversation with the writer Ivan Bunin

"I read your 'Lady.' Do you know what you are doing? You are killing realism. . . . That form is finished, that's a fact! Nobody can go further down that road than you have done. Nobody can write so simply about ordinary things as you can."

-Gorky in a letter to Chekhov

"Chekhov was the first among writers to rely so much upon the undercurrents of suggestion to convey a definite meaning."

-Vladimir Nabokov, Lectures on Russian Literature

Ryan McKittrick is the A.R.T.'s Associate Dramaturg

Ryan McKittrick
September 1, 2003
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