There are tragedies and there are comedies…a comedy depends on stopping the story at exactly the right moment.—Siri Hustvedt
Chekhov was not my first love. More obviously delectable to a college freshman just returned from her first visit to St. Petersburg and discovering Russian literature for the first time were the thick novels of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. Those “great, baggy monsters” (as Henry James called them) buoyed me up through my first marriage, my frantic conversion to Christianity, and my equally hasty divorce. I imbibed the entire oeuvre of Dostoevsky on a reading binge, hoping to drown my tumultuous marriage in his tales of white nights, conniving detectives, and holy fools. Dostoevsky’s tortured heroines perfectly matched my overstrung mind, and his philosophical dialogues about the existence (or not) of God were the perfect object of reflection for my theologically conflicted soul. “I return my ticket,” Ivan Karamazov said directly to God (in the person of Alyosha). I won’t pause to consider it, but D.H. Lawrence’s interpretation of this scene (in a new translation of the “Grand Inquisitor” chapter published by the Hogarth Press in 1929) struck me as the inanest piece of literary criticism I had ever read, and I was certain I could do better.
Chekhov offered a different kind of pleasure.
Tolstoy struck a different chord. His ability to cut through racism and prejudice, in particular of the home-grown Russian variety, set him apart from any other Russian novelist I had read. Certainly, it placed him light-years ahead of Dostoevsky, whose novels swarm with hunchbacked Poles and snivelling Jews. Tolstoy did not pull at my heartstrings in quite the same way as did Dostoevsky, but he did speak to my social conscience, and to my desire to make a difference in the world. In the early years of the twenty-first century, amid the Russian air strikes on Grozny, Hadji Murad and the other Tolstoyan fictions set in the Caucasus read like political prophecies from a writer intimately familiar with the results of nationalist hate. I created a special shelf in my student apartment for Tolstoy, a writer I came to adore not for what he had to say about love, but for his vision of the social good. Thus did the pair whom Nabokov christened Tolstoyevsky enter my life: through my personal travails (in the case of Dostoevsky) and my desire to change the world (in the case of Tolstoy).
Chekhov offered a different kind of pleasure. I did not have the chance to taste him until my final semester at Berkeley, after a whirlwind tour of the Russian canon. I was in a class on the Russian short story. We had been assigned to read six carefully selected tales in the original, and scrutinized their lexis, morphology, and syntax intensively twice a week. For our first story, my professor had chosen Chekhov’s “Lady with a Lapdog” as the object for analysis. “Chekhov’s story is possibly the best short story in all of Russian,” she said, “some would say in all of world literature.”
There was indeed something magical about ”Lady with a Lapdog.” Unlike Tolstoyevsky’s baggy monsters, the story seemed to thrive on silences. What actually transpired in the story wasn’t in any way remarkable, at least not according to my memory from my reading as an undergraduate. What stayed in my mind was the author’s habit of not interpreting the events he disclosed. Like Hemingway, Chekhov never reported anything that could not be verified first hand. The narration was laconic, dry, and terse. It was also incredibly moving, in part because it left it to the reader to project onto the text almost all the emotions simmering in and between the characters. Gurov sees Anna’s eyes and thinks “there’s something pathetic about her,” and Anna tells Gurov “You will be the first to despise me now,” but in Chekhov’s world no omniscient author tells us what to think. Interpretation is left to the reader. Chekhov’s method seemed demanding, yet devastatingly close to the complexity and uncertainty of life.
Then he licks his voluptuous lips.
The most enduring impression I took away from that story, and which I carried with me in the decade that followed my graduation from college, was that, to a much greater extent than Tolstoyevsky, Chekhov was a cynic. After depicting the blossoming of love between a younger woman and her older lover, I recalled from my undergraduate reading, Chekhov showed how love is fated not to last. This is how I interpreted and remembered an unforgettable detail in the Yalta hotel room, after Gurov and Anna Sergevevna have sex for the first time: Anna laments her lost virginity while Gurov is overcome with boredom. He then glances around the room and spies a ripe, bright pink watermelon not far from their bed. Gurov promptly proceeds to devour the watermelon until only the rind is visible. Then he licks his voluptuous lips. This memory, of a man who has grown disgusted with the woman he has just penetrated and who is already on the lookout for new pleasures, remained with me for many years after my first reading of “Lady with a Lapdog.” All other aspects of the story had become dim.
Almost twenty years later, the Russian literary pantheon had lost some but by no means all of its glory to me. A long succession of other loves had intervened between me and Chekhov: Arabic, Persian, Georgian, not to mention my abiding passions for French, German, Italian, and Spanish literature. All of these literatures I have tried to know with some degree of intimacy. But, in spite of my promiscuous disloyalty to other literatures and languages, Russian kept cropping up in unexpected ways. Chekhov in particular, whom I never knew intimately during my undergraduate years, appeared without warning in places where I least expected to find him.
One of the most unexpected places in which Chekhov cropped up was on an online dating profile. To do justice to this memory I’ll use the historical present: A Brussels-based scientist lists Dostoevsky among his favourite authors. I, the author of a senior thesis on Dostoevsky, immediately “like” this scientist. An hour later, he does the same. I write back. It is 3:30 am, but since when was love measured in hours? I ask him, of course, about Dostoevsky. Which novel does he like the most? I then tell him about my late adolescent discovery of the Russian master, and how it changed my life. He replies: the same thing happened to him around the age of sixteen. We are synchronized! In our next exchange, we agree to spend the Christmas and New Year’s holiday together in Paris.
You will have guessed, have you not, that this was the beginning of love.
Paris is like a dream. We spend our first full day together strolling through the Jardin du Luxembourg, trading memories of the books that impacted our lives: Thomas Mann, Stefan Zweig, Thomas Bernard, Nathanial West, Richard Yates, John Cheever, and the neglected John Williams. It does not take long before we come around to The Brothers Karamazov and the mysterious Alyosha. My companion from Brussels has an impressive knack for remembering detail. Better than I could ever do without rehearsing, he delineates the ups and downs of the trial scene, recounts Alyosha’s wanderings throughout Skotoprigonyevsk, and speculates on the reasons for Old Karamazov’s murder. I am impressed.
In contrast to the analytical approach of my undergraduate years, we do not linger over the philosophical nuances of Dostoevsky’s fictions. We do not the ponder the existence (or not) of God. (As confirmed atheists, we know how such debates are destined to end.) We do not agonize over the problem of evil or commiserate with the sufferings of the children whose stories Ivan Karamazov had cut from a recent newspaper. Instead, we walk, hand in hand, over the pebbled pathways of the Jardin du Luxembourg, past its duck-filled ponds and the villa that crowns it at the end, towards a sun that is casting its golden halo along the Seine. We have not yet kissed.
You will have guessed, have you not, that this was the beginning of love. And you will not have been wrong. We were much like Gurov and Anna in Yalta. Thereafter I visited him twice in Brussels. We then convened in London and drove each other crazy. Our love was of a strangely short duration, that evaporated soon after it was born. Chekhov, I had thought, was the prophet of this evanescence. He foretold the entire story of our relationship in his “Lady with a Lapdog.”
Or so I thought until I read the story again, after the breakup with my Brussels lover, almost twenty years after I read it as an undergraduate, hungry for a story that could explain to me how what had blossomed so beautifully between us in the Jardin du Luxembourg could have been poisoned so rapidly. I opened up my college textbook and flipped to the familiar Chekhov story. I soon discovered that I had misremembered Chekhov. Although the cynicism was indeed the story’s opening gambit, Gurov’s indifference to Anna Sergeevna soon yielded to an entirely different affective horizon. “Lady with a Lapdog” ends with the two lovers unable to extricate themselves from their love, and able to feel alive only when they are together. Each experiences true love for the first time in their otherwise monotonous lives, a love that must be kept secret because both of them are married.
I had misremembered Chekhov. I then re-read “Lady with a Lapdog” again, in search of even more illumination in the aftermath of my recent romantic fiasco, and I discovered that I had not only misremembered Chekhov’s plot, but also misremembered his tone. As an undergraduate I had taken Chekhov for an unadulterated cynic, when in fact his story depicts the gradual emergence of a love so intense that the world cannot contain it. The narrative’s apparent ruthlessness results not from love’s inconstancy, or his hero’s womanizing mentality, as my memory had told me. Rather, the story’s tragedy consisted in the suppression of love by the marriage bond. Chekhov was not merely parodying Anna Karenina’s adultery plot, as critics have often commented; he was propagating a new romanticism, which insisted on the ability of love to overcome social conventions. The story ends with Anna crying and Gurov “clutching his head,” both of them trying to devise a solution that would allow them to live a “new and splendid life” that was not secret, “and it was clear to both of them that they had still a long, long road before them, and that the most complicated and difficult part of it was only just beginning.”
Unlike Dostoevsky, Chekhov is rarely a first love.
In misremembering Chekhov, I had simplified my task, really mis-simplified. I had turned this Russian writer into a simple-minded cynic, and thereby shielded myself from Chekhov’s most important lesson for my own life. I had made short work as well of the emotions that had just imploded in my personal life. With its open-ended conclusion and its denial of closure, the Chekhov story as I reread it for a second time corresponded more closely to the actual trajectory of my life. My circuitous path towards love was more like the the “new beginning” that pierced me upon my second re-reading than it was anything like the Don Juan parable I mistakenly conjured in my undergraduate imagination when I read the story for what was then an adventurous Berkeley class in Russian literature. Much of “The Lady with a Lapdog” is about how a person can grab adventure in an otherwise monotonous life. Adventure is what both Gurov and Anna seek independently when they go to Yalta. Both were unhappy, and after their first rapturous taste of each other, Anna says: “It’s wrong…You will be the first to despise me now.” She has not lost her virginity, as I misremembered, but her virtue. Chekhov links adventure to the loss of virtue, and monotony to the chains of social norm that bind them into further unhappiness. As Gurov and Anna sit listening to “the monotonous hollow sound of the sea rising” in Yalta, there is the understanding in both of them that this sound “will sound indifferently and monotonously when we are all no more. And in this constancy, in this complete indifference to the life and death of each of us, there lies, hid, perhaps, a pledge of our eternal salvation, of the unceasing movement of life upon earth, of unceasing progress towards perfection.” This a moment in which the omniscient third-person narrator fuses the perception and understanding of the two lovers. Us here is Gurov and Anna, it is every human being who ever lived, and thus it is also us, the readers. Chekhov, I came to realize, was every bit as profound, and every bit as tragic, as Tolstoyevsky. The major difference between Chekhov and the Russian novelists is that Chekhov chose to end his stories before they falsified the uncertainty of life.
During my undergraduate years, I met many people who recounted falling in love with Russian literature through the novels of Dostoevsky. Within a few years of graduating, they had forgotten those novels and moved onto areas of study far removed from Russian literature: biology, chemistry, and mathematics were all favoured by these apostates of the Russian canon. Unlike Dostoevsky, Chekhov is rarely a first love. Perhaps few decide to become Russianists, or literature specialists, based on their reading of his stories. But also unlike Dostoevsky, Chekhov tends to keep the devotion of those who have fallen in love with him for the rest of their lives. Perhaps the reason for this lies in Chekhov’s peculiar way of representing the world, or more specifically the way he both writes about and engages the extremes of remembering and forgetting. “The Lady with a Lapdog” is a story about an inability to forget what is too memorable. Both Gurov and Anna flee Yalta to their polar cities, St. Petersburg and Moscow, not only with an intention to forget each other but also a strong confidence that they can do so. But they can’t. Time passes, but Gurov’s “memories glowed more and more vividly.” They were vivid to such a point that “he was tormented by an intense desire to confide his memories to someone.” Anyone who has experienced Chekhov’s revelation of the antagonism between memory and forgetting will find it difficult ever to consider the relationship between love and memory without remembering “The Lady with a Lapdog.” We remember, after reading the story, that Guvov, upon his arrival at Anna’s house in St. Petersburg, cannot remember the name of the dog, and he worries “irritably that Anna Sergeyevna had forgotten him.” She did not, and when she sees him she turns pale, because she could never forget. I turned pale because I forgot Chekhov’s story. But in my case, even though I misremembered Checkhov, I was drawn back to him, much as Gurov is drawn back to Anna and Anna is drawn back to Gurov, for a new chance on a “long, long road” that is long mostly because it is “the most complicated and difficult part” and is “only just beginning.”