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    Friday, July 19, 2024

    Book Notes: Anton Chekhov, a writer for today

    “I am reading a wonderful book ––– I don’t know whether you would like it or not ––– it’s Chekhov’s The Island of Sakhalin –– his account of his trip to the prison island in 1890. My Brazil book isn’t like that at all ––– but if mine could turn out one tenth as good, I think I’d die happy.” Elizabeth Bishop in a letter to her friend, Frani Blough Muser, September 19, 1968. (One Art, Elizabeth Bishop Letters, p.496)

    In an earlier letter, this time to Anne Stevenson dated Jan. 20, 1964, Bishop writes: “What I mean is more than ‘observation’…. It is a living in reality that works both ways, the non-intellectual sources of wisdom and sympathy. …. someone I have read & read since I have been in Brazil, is Chekhov. If only more artists could be that good as well as good artists.”

    And in a letter to Robert Lowell from Brazil in March 1963:

    “I spent two days in Samambaia reading a long, bad but fascinating new life of Chekhov……What a wonderful man really –– almost a saint. The son of serfs yet a greater gentleman than the estate-owning novelists.”

    This was the Chekhov that came to my mind on seeing, on television, the 47-year-old Alexei Navalny lying in his open coffin. Navalny, a man of extraordinary courage and humanity, who “laid down his life for his friend,” whose life had been ended in a harsh penal colony like the one on Sakhalin Island that Chekhov knew.

    As described in Bishop’s letter, in1890 Chekhov made the arduous, 6,000 mile, journey across Siberia to Sakhalin Island to see for himself, as a medical doctor and biologist, seeking empirical evidence, to “observe” and to record, in meticulous detail, the conditions of the prisoners and indigenous people living there.

    The book he wrote to describe this “descent into hell” remains, to this day, a powerful indictment of all such systems, just as his stories are stories of the human heart in all its “infinite variety,” told with the high art of a genius and a heart full of compassion for his fellow human beings.

    As a medical doctor he served the poorest of the poor and never accepted any payment for his work. From a young age he made his living, and supported his family, with his writings. He was three years younger than Navalny when he died of tuberculosis at the age of 44.

    Seamus Heaney, whose friendship with Elizabeth Bishop was cut short by her sudden death in 1979, would surely have met her criteria, along with Chekhov, of “good as well as good artists.” In Heaney’s 1984 volume “Station Island,” the lyric “Chekhov on Sakhalin” recalls Chekhov’s journey - the moment when he is returning from Sakhalin by sea. In seven rhymed quatrains, the reader travels with Chekhov to Tyumen, Siberia’s 16th century city, and to gaze with him down into the depths of Lake Baikal:

    But first he drank cognac by the ocean

    With his back to all he had traveled there to face.

    His head was swimming free as the troikas [open carriages drawn by a team of three horses abreast]

    Of Tyumen, he looked down from the rail

    Of his thirty years and saw a mile

    Into himself as if he were clear water:”

    …. …. …. ….

    “No cantor

    In full throat by the iconostasis

    Got holier joy than he got from that glass

    That shone and warmed like diamonds warming

    On some pert young cleavage in a salon

    Inviolable and affronting.”

    Heaney paints a portrait of a man who enjoyed all that life had to offer, but also a man who was haunted by what he had just experienced on Sakhalin:

    “He felt the glass go cold in the midnight sun.

    When he staggered up and smashed it on the stones

    It rang as clearly as the convicts’ chains

    That haunted him. All through the months to come

    It rang on like the burden of his freedom

    To try for the right tone –– not tract, not thesis ––

    And walk away from floggings. He who thought to squeeze

    His slave’s blood out and waken the free man

    Shadowed a convict guide through Sakhalin.”

    The last lines of Heaney’s poem refer to a famous letter that Chekhov, grandson and son of a serf (freed under Tsar Alexander’s reforms), wrote from Moscow to his life-long friend Alexei Savorin, dated Jan. 7, 1889, in which he describes how he “squeezes the slave out of himself drop by drop and how, on waking up one morning, he finds that the blood coursing through his veins is no longer the blood of a slave, but that of a real human being.” (Letter # 15)

    But, as Heaney says, “the free man” who “ Shadowed a convict guide through Sakhalin” felt “the burden of his freedom/ To try for the right tone––not tract, not thesis ––“ A burden that Heaney himself found very heavy, as a poet, as an Irish Catholic, at the time of The Troubles which form the back story and subtext to Station Island.

    In “Stepping Stones,” the 2008 book-length interview with Dennis O’Driscoll, he discusses the struggle “To try for the right tone ––not tract, not thesis––“, the burden of whether or not to engage politically, “If I had followed the logic of the Chekhov poem, I’d have gone to the prison [The Maze] and seen what was happening to the people on that hunger strike and written an account of it, “not tract, not thesis.” (p. 259).

    While working on the book about Sakhalin, Chekhov found this “right tone” in his story “Ward No.6.” It describes in slow, incremental detail, several characters and their life in the insane ward of a local hospital.

    In Chekhov’s inimitable manner, the story draws you along, the characters come alive on the page with details that stay vivid in your mind for no apparent reason, and then there is the stab to the heart and you are left, book still open in your hand, short of breath. So many of his stories are about people not listening to each other –– the sledgedriver Iona Potapov in “Misery,” or the unfortunate Ryabovitch with “with whiskers like a lynx’s.” in “The Kiss”–– Chekhov hoped the world would listen to “Ward No. 6”

    One person especially listened. The dissident Russian poet, Anna Akhmatova, who somehow survived Stalin’s Russia while witnessing terrible suffering, and who was no fan of Chekhov’s writing (she called it “muddy and gray”), said that “Ward No. 6” captured perfectly the conditions that she lived with every day.

    Another of Chekhov’s longer stories, “The Steppe,” is told from the point of view of a 9-year-old boy “in a red shirt,” Yegory, going off to school accompanied by his merchant uncle and a kindly old priest, (perhaps the only such in Chekhov’s universe), Father Christopher, who “always smelled of cypress and dried cornflowers.”

    But the steppe itself is also a central character. We experience the coming of dawn when “the whole wide steppe flung off the twilight of early morning and was smiling and sparkling with dew. The cut rye, the coarse steppe grass, the milkwort, the wild hemp, all withered from the sultry heat…. now washed by the dew and caressed by the sun, revived, to fade again.”

    And then there are all the birds, petrels, partridges, lapwings; there are marmots and hares and “In the grass crickets, locusts and grasshoppers kept up their churring, monotonous music.” There is heat and monotony and the “lilac horizon” and a terrible storm.

    There is abundant life, as in all his stories, along with unforgettable characters drawn with the lightest touch of the pen.

    His stories remind me so much of Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry, poetry that is so rich with closely observed detail, like the “big hirsute begonia” in “The Filling Station” and characters like the unforgettable Miss Breen in “Arrival at Santos”,and Crusoe in “Crusoe in England” with his “Friday, my dear Friday.”

    Crusoe’s “knife there on the shelf ––/ it reeked of meaning, like a crucifix./ It lived. …. I knew each nick and scratch by heart,/ the bluish blade, the broken tip, /the lines of wood grain on the handle. …. the parasol that took me such a time/ remembering the way the ribs go./ It will still work but, folded up,/looks like a plucked and skinny fowl.”

    In “The Moose,” that long bus journey through the Nova Scotia night, stanza upon stanza of vivid, closely observed, details of everyday life, the travelers on the bus who might themselves have been in a Chekhov story, and, when the moose finally appears, that haunting question:

    “Why, why do we feel

    (we all feel) this sweet

    sensation of joy?”

    This, and so many of Elizabeth Bishop’s poems, are open ended - leaving the reader the gift of an open space for possibilities. Chekhov’s stories have the same quality, questions without obvious answers, which make them astonishingly 21st century.

    Anton Chekhov and his two older brothers were cruelly beaten every day as children, not just by their father but also by the choir master at the church in Taganrog, the city on the Black Sea where he was born. It left Anton with an abhorrence for any violence, physical or verbal, and a deep empathy for the sufferings of his fellow man.

    When he was a teenager, his father fled to Moscow to escape debtors prison, taking the family but leaving Chekhov alone to finish his studies. As well as attending school, he “read voraciously” in the Taganrog public library.

    Which brings to mind that other young boy who found safety, intellectual nourishment and escape from a difficult world in the public library in New York City - James Baldwin, whose centenary will be celebrated at Stonington Free Library on May 12 (Mother’s Day). David Leeming, Baldwin’s biographer and close friend, will talk about the life-changing and life-long friendship between James Baldwin and the artist Beauford Delaney.

    To close, here is a vignette from David Leeming’s book describing James Baldwin when a young child. It is a salute to libraries, to kindliness, to hope and yes, in this Poetry Month, to the power of words:

    His “smallness and shyness made him a natural victim of his peers, but Mrs. Ayer (the principal at P.S. 24 - “the first black principal in New York City”) made sure that teachers helped Jimmy to develop.

    …. …. … … …

    His teachers encouraged him to visit the public library at 135th Street, where he read voraciously in the newly established Schomburg Collection. The library became his sanctuary and, in his mind, as he never went to college, his alma mater –– the place where on his deathbed he was to ask that his papers be deposited.” (James Baldwin, a biography by David Leeming, p. 13. Knopf 1994)

    Rest In Peace, Alexei Navalny.

    Belinda de Kay is director emeritus of Stonington Free Library.

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