Anton Pavlovich Chekhov (29 January 1860 – 15 July 1904) was a Russian playwright and short-story writer considered among the greatest writers of short fiction in history. He died very young. He died at 44, just like Swami Vivekanand who died at 39 (1863-1902). His career as a playwright produced four classics. His best short stories are held in high esteem by writers and critics. Chekhov is often referred to, as one of the three seminal figures, in the birth of early modernism in the theatre. Chekhov practiced as a medical doctor during most of his literary career: “Medicine is my lawful wife”, he once said, “and literature is my mistress.”
His famous works include: The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, Three sisters, The Cherry Orchard, At Dusk, The Steppe, Fatherless, Oskolki (Fragments), Ivanov, Ostrov Sakhalin (or The Island of Sakhalin. I particularly liked two of his short stories, Lady with the dog and The Bet.
Anton Chekhov was born on 29 January 1860 the feast day of St. Anthony the Great in Taganrog, a port on the Sea of Azoz in southern Russia. He was the third of six surviving children. His father, Pavel Yegorovich Chekhov, was the son of a former serf and his Ukrainian wife, was from the village Olho-vatka (Voronezh Governorate) and ran a grocery store. He was a director of the parish choir, a devout Orthodox Christian, but a physically abusive father. Pavel Chekhov was seen by some historians as the model for his son’s many portraits of hypocrisy. Chekhov’s mother, Yevgeniya (Morozova), was an excellent storyteller who entertained children with tales of her travels with her cloth-merchant father all over Russia. “Our talents we got from our father,” Chekhov remembered, “but our soul from our mother.”
Chekhov attended the Greek School in Taganrog and the Taganrog Gymnasium has since been renamed as the Chekhov Gymnasium, where he was held back for a year at fifteen, for failing, Ancient Greek examination. He sang at the Greek Orthodox monastery in Taganrog and in his father’s choirs. In a letter of 1892, he used the word “suffering” to describe his childhood.
When my brothers and I used to stand in the middle of the church and sing in trio “May my prayer be exalted”, or “The Archangel’s Voice”, everyone looked at us with emotion and envied our parents, but we at that moment felt like little convicts.
In 1876, Chekhov’s father was declared bankrupt because he over-stretched his finances while building a new house, and having been cheated by a contractor. To avoid debtor’s prison he fled to Moscow, where his two eldest sons, Alexander and Nikolay, were attending university. The family lived in poverty in Moscow. Chekhov’s mother was physically and emotionally broken by the experience. Chekhov was left behind to sell the family’s possessions and finish his education.
Chekhov remained in Taganrog for three more years, boarding with a man who, bailed out the family for the price of their house. He had to pay for his own education, which he managed by private tutoring, and catching and selling of gold-finches, (a type of bird) and by selling short sketches to the newspapers, among other jobs. He sent every rouble he could spare, to his family in Moscow, along with humorous letters to cheer them up. During this time he read widely, the works of Cervantes, Turgenev, Goncharov, and Schopenhauer, and wrote a full-length comic drama, Fatherless. Chekhov also experienced a series of love affairs, one with the wife of a teacher.
In 1879, Chekhov completed his schooling and joined his family in Moscow, having obtained admission to the Moscow State Medical University.
Chekhov renounced theatre after the reception of The Seagull in 1896, but the play was revived to acclaim in 1898 by Konstantin Stanis-lavski’s Moscow Art Theatre, which subsequently also produced Chekhov’s ‘Uncle Vanya’ and premiered his last two plays, Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard. Chekhov had at first written stories to earn money, but as his artistic ambition grew, he made formal innovations which have influenced the evolution of the modern short story.
He assumed the responsibility of the whole family. To support them and to pay his tuition fees, he wrote short, humorous sketches and vignettes of contemporary Russian life almost daily, many under pseudonyms such as “Antosha Chekhonte” and “Man without a Spleen”. His prodigious output gradually earned him a reputation as a satirical chronicler of Russian street life. By 1882 he was writing for Oskolki (Fragments), owned by Nikolai Leykin, one of the leading publishers of the time. In 1884, Chekhov qualified as a physician, which he considered his principal profession though he made little money from it and treated the poor free of charge.
In 1884 and 1885, Chekhov found himself coughing blood, and in 1886 the attacks worsened, but he did not admit his tuberculosis to his family or his friends. He continued writing for weekly periodicals, earning enough money to move the family into progressively better accommodations.
Early in 1886 he was invited to write for one of the most popular papers in St. Petersburg, Novoye Vremya, owned and edited by millionaire magnate Alexey Suvorin, who paid a rate per line double of Leykin’s and also allowed Chekhov three times the space. Suvorin became a lifelong friend of Chekov, perhaps his closest.
Before long, Chekhov was attracting literary as well as popular attention. The sixty-four-year-old Dmitry Grigorovich, a celebrated Russian writer of the day, wrote to Chekhov after reading his short story “The Huntsman” that “You have real talent, a talent that places you in the front rank among writers in the new generation.” But he went on to advice Chekhov to slow down, write less, and concentrate on literary quality.
Chekhov replied that the letter had struck him “like a thunderbolt” and confessed, “I have written my stories the way reporters write their notes about fires – mechanically, half-consciously, caring nothing about either the reader or myself.” The admission may have done Chekhov a disservice, since early manuscripts reveal that he often wrote with extreme care, continually revising. Grigorovich’s advice nevertheless inspired a more serious, artistic ambition in the twenty-six-year-old. In 1888, his short story collection At Dusk won Chekhov the coveted ‘Pushkin Prize’ for the best literary production distinguished by high artistic worth.
In 1887, exhausted from work and ill health, Chekhov took a trip to Ukraine, which reawakened him to the beauty of the steppe (steppe means dry, cold grassland). On his return, he began the novella-length short story “The Steppe,” which was eventually published in Severny Vestnik (The Northern Herald). In the narrative Chekhov evokes a chaise (horse-carriage) journey across the steppe through the eyes of a young boy sent to live away from home, and his companions, a priest and a merchant. “The Steppe” is called the “dictionary of Chekhov’s poetics.”
In the autumn of 1887, a theatre manager named Korsh commissioned Chekhov to write a play, the result being ‘Ivanov’ written in a fortnight and produced that November. Though Chekhov found the experience “sickening” and painted a comic portrait of the chaotic production in a letter to his brother Alexander, the play was a hit and was praised, to Chekhov’s bemusement, as a work of originality. Although Chekhov did not fully realise it at the time, Chekhov’s plays, such as The Seagull (written in 1895), Uncle Vanya (written in 1897), The Three Sisters (written in 1900), and The Cherry Orchard (written in 1903) served as a revolutionary backbone to what is common sense to the medium of acting to this day. — In 1890, Chekhov undertook an arduous journey by train, horse-drawn carriage, and river steamer to the Russian Far East and the Katorga, or penal colony, on Sakhalin Island, (a large Russian island in the Sea of Okhotsk), north of Japan, where he spent three months interviewing thousands of convicts and settlers for a census. The letters Chekhov wrote during the two-and-a-half-month journey from Sakhalin are considered to be among his best.
In 1892, Chekhov bought a small country estate, about forty miles south of Moscow, where he lived with his family until 1899. “It’s nice to be a lord” he joked but he took his responsibilities as a landlord seriously and soon made himself useful to the local peasants.
In 1894, Chekhov began writing his play ‘The Seagull’ in a lodge that he had built in the orchard at Melikhovo. The first night of ‘The Seagull’ at the theatre in St. Petersburg on 17 October 1896, was a fiasco, as the play was booed by the audience, forcing Chekhov into renouncing the theatre. But the play so impressed the theatre director that he convinced his colleague to direct a new production for the innovative Moscow Art Theatre. This restored Chekov’s interest in Playwriting. The Art Theatre commissioned more plays of Chekhov and the following year staged Uncle Vanya, which Chekhov had completed in 1896.
In March 1897, Chekhov suffered a major haemorrhage of the lungs while on a visit to Moscow. With great difficulty he was persuaded to enter a clinic, where the doctors diagnosed tuberculosis on the upper part of his lungs and suggested a change in his lifestyle.
After his father’s death in 1898, Chekhov bought a plot of land on the outskirts of Yalta and built a villa, into which he moved with his mother and sister the following year. Though he planted trees and flowers, kept dogs and tamed cranes. He also received guests such as Leo Tolstoy and Maxim Gorky. In Yalta he completed two more plays for the Art Theatre.
On 25 May 1901, Chekhov married Olga Knipper quietly, owing to his horror of weddings. She was a former protégée and sometime lover of Nemirovich-Danchenko whom he had first met at the rehearsals of The Seagull. Until this time, Chekhov, known as “Russia’s most elusive literary bachelor,” preferred passing relationships and visits to brothels.
By May 1904, Chekhov was terminally ill with tuberculosis. Mikhail Chekhov recalled “that everyone who saw him secretly thought the end was not far off, but the nearer he was to the end, the less he seemed to realise it.” On 3 June, he set off with Olga for the German spa town of Badenweiler in the Black Forest, from where he wrote jovial letters to his sister Masha, describing the food and surroundings, and assuring her and his mother that he was getting better. In his last letter, he complained about the way German women dressed.
Chekhov’s death has become one of “the great set pieces of literary history,” retold, embroidered, and fictionalised many times since, notably in the short story “Errand” by Raymond Carver. In 1908, his wife Olga wrote the account of her husband’s last moments which goes as follows:
Anton sat up unusually straight and said loudly and clearly (although he knew almost no German): Ich sterbe (“I’m dying”). The doctor calmed him, took a syringe, gave him an injection of camphor, and ordered champagne. Anton took a full glass, examined it, smiled at me and said: “It’s a long time since I drank champagne.” He drained it and lay quietly on his left side, and I just had time to run to him and lean across the bed and call to him, but he had stopped breathing and was sleeping peacefully as a child.
Chekhov’s body was transported to Moscow in a refrigerated railway car meant for oysters, an incident that offended Gorky. Chekhov was buried next to his father at the Novodevichy Cemetery.
Some people do great things in a small life span. Anton Chekhov was one of them.
By Kamlesh Tripathi
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