Russian physician and writer, Anton Pavlovich Chekhov (1860–1904) is considered to be one the greatest short story writers, as well as a masterful dramatist and satirist. His works focus more on the character and mood rather than action and tell the story of ordinary events and relationships in small towns and villages of the 19th century Russia.
Rosamund Bartlett is a writer, translator, lecturer, and a biographer specializing in Russian literature and writers such as Anton Chekhov and Leo Tolstoy. Among her many books, she is the author of Chekhov: Scenes from a Life (Free Press), editor and translator of About Love and Other Stories (Oxford World’s Classics) and Chekhov: A Life in Letters (Penguin).
Simply Charly: In an interview with Passport, you mentioned that you felt Chekhov has not always been “well served” by his translators. When translating Chekov’s works, what sort of steps do you typically take to ensure that the original themes, subjects, and references in his work aren’t lost?
Rosamund Bartlett: I sought to challenge the problem of Chekhov not being “well served” by his translators principally in my translations of Chekhov, rather than in my biography of him. While I was writing the biography, I was simultaneously working on new translations of some of Chekhov’s most lyrical short stories (About Love and Other Stories, Oxford World’s Classics, 2004), and the two projects were closely intertwined. Indeed, my chief inspiration for interpreting Chekhov’s life in the way that I did came from the experience of engaging with his prose in such an intimate way. Prompted by my previous research into how two Russian composers, Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich, responded to Chekhov, I worked particularly closely in my translations to reproduce the particular music of his writing, which is at its most poetic when it concerns landscape. Chekhov’s prose rhythms have not always been heard by earlier translators, particularly those who see him as an essentially 19th-century realist writer. In his subtle irony and musicality, however, Chekhov is a very modern artist, as Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield were quick to perceive. As I was at the time also editing Chekhov: A Life in Letters (Penguin Classics, 2004), I was more than usually alert to the insights into his own craft, which Chekhov casually strews among his least important correspondence. This is the case with a letter he wrote to a young schoolgirl, in which he gave her feedback on a story she had sent him. Chekhov’s exhortation that she use punctuation correctly, since it plays the part of, as he put it, “notes in a musical score,” led me to pay particular attention in my translations to commas, semi-colons, and his trade-mark “…” The latter, which, unlike the traditional ellipsis, tends to appear at the end of paragraphs, is an impressionistic device often performing the function of the all-important atmospheric pauses in his plays. It is used as many as 75 times in Chekhov’s story “Gusev,” which Shostakovich once memorably described as the most musical prose in all of Russian literature. Some of Chekhov’s translators into English double the number of his sentences, but cut the number of punctuation marks in half, and that cannot fail to have a direct impact on the overall impression a particular story makes, and the mood he is seeking to convey.
SC: Are there any common mistranslations or slip-ups that you’ve noticed in other translations of his work?
RB: If Chekhov’s work has been misinterpreted by foreign scholars, it has been misinterpreted by Russian scholars too, some of whom were forced to mold their interpretations according to the strictures of Soviet ideology in the 20th century. And many of Chekhov’s earliest Russian critics misinterpreted his work because they simply did not understand it, mistakenly equating its lack of didacticism with a lack of substance. If anything, foreign scholars, like Russian scholars in emigration, have generally been more accurate and objective in their assessments, which have been wide-ranging, simply because they have not been hampered by political constraints. These days, however, there is not much misinterpretation by either foreign or Russian scholars, but instead some healthy dialogue between them.
SC: Chekhov isn’t the only Russian author whose life you’ve chronicled—you’re also the author of Tolstoy: A Russian Life. Did writing your biography of Chekhov prompt you to explore the life of Leo Tolstoy as well, and if so, did it prepare you for the experience? What, in your opinion, was Tolstoy’s influence on Chekhov’s writing?
RB: When I got to the end of my Chekhov biography there was still a question I wanted to answer. I wanted to know why Tolstoy was so important for Chekhov, as it was clear he was more than just a pre-eminent writer. For that, I needed a deeper understanding of Tolstoy’s enormously important role as a public figure in Russia, something which was not easy to illuminate in Soviet times, when it was difficult to research and write about the Orthodox Church. Chekhov’s important philanthropic work was directly inspired by Tolstoy’s example and, although his admiration was not uncritical, he was the first to admit to being influenced by him creatively, both on the thematic and stylistic level. The former can be seen in the sustained dialogue Chekhov conducts with Tolstoy’s iconoclastic ideology in stories such as “Gooseberries” and “The Lady with the Little Dog.” The latter can be seen in Chekhov’s sometimes enormously long, but less unwieldy sentences, his preference for a simple, unadorned lexicon, and avoidance of foreign words.
Tolstoy is the Everest of Russian literature, and so it certainly helped to have scaled the smaller peak of Chekhov’s biography before tackling Tolstoy’s life.
SC: You mention in the book that gaining access to Chekhov’s mindset was difficult due to his closed personality, and one of the aspects of Scenes From A Life that makes it unique among Chekhov biographies is your focus on Chekhov’s connection to the Russian landscape itself. How did this approach allow you to present a new perspective on Chekhov’s literature? By visiting the prominent locations of his life yourself, what new insights did you encounter?
RB: The lyricism of Chekhov’s landscape writing, which jumped out of the page as soon as I started working on “The House with the Mezzanine,” the very first story by Chekhov I chose to translate, was certainly a revelation to me and led me to see this quietly iconoclastic writer as an adventurer at heart, who loved to be in the great outdoors. The fact that he contracted tuberculosis at a young age and consistently wrote stories and plays about people who fail to reach their potential has obscured Chekhov’s restless, nomadic spirit. It was when I visited Nice, in order to gain an idea of Chekhov’s life during the six months he spent there one winter, which I suddenly realized that perhaps structuring my biography through his relationship with place held the key to bringing him alive. I think it is highly revealing, for example, that Chekhov lived a very Russian life on the French Riviera, and penned some of his most poetic descriptive passages about the Russian steppe while surrounded by palm trees. I was similarly struck by seeing with my own eyes the spa town of Badenweiler, where Chekhov died, and particularly Taganrog, where he grew up. Usually dismissed as a typical provincial Russian town, I found Taganrog to be anything but. Focusing on Chekhov’s relationship with St. Petersburg, where he felt ill at ease, in contrast to Moscow, was also revealing.
SC: Chekhov once remarked that he and his siblings had received their talents from their father, “but our soul from our mother.” Can the influence of the notoriously strict Pavel Chekhov be seen in Anton’s writing? If so, how did you address this in your biography?
RB: Chekhov certainly had a complicated relationship with his father, who never shrank from subjecting his sons to corporal punishment. There is a famous passage in the story “Three Years” in the main character’s bitter childhood memories, which seem to reflect Chekhov’s own life experience. Yet, as difficult, narrow-minded, and infuriating as Pavel Grigorievich undoubtedly was, I came to see that both son and father mellowed in later years. Pavel Chekhov, who played the violin and painted icons, bequeathed his undoubted musical and artistic sensibilities to his son, while his pedantic diary entries inadvertently inspired some of Anton’s quirky sense of humor in his late work. It says that Chekhov had no will to maintain his country estate of Melikhovo after the death of his father, who lived there at the end of his life, and he transplanted Pavel’s beloved peonies to his new garden in Yalta. Chekhov always had a close relationship with his self-effacing mother, whom he cared for until his death.
SC: Chekhov’s first foray into serious long-form drama wound up either being destroyed or revised into the manuscript we now know as Platonov. Why was Chekhov unsatisfied with this early work? What does this unearthed manuscript reveal to us about Chekhov as a young writer?
RB: Well, this play ended up being very long, and also very melodramatic and unwieldy. Nevertheless, we can see the germ of Chekhov’s future dramatic genius in its experimentation with form, its ambiguities, and its complex central character, who hardly adheres to conventional dramatic stereotypes.
SC: The introduction to your biography on Chekhov describes him as “too often seen as merely melancholic”- an interesting development, considering that many of his earlier works fell into the realm of comic satire. How did the public perception of Chekhov as a purely morose author develop, and what steps have you taken to challenge it?
RB: In Russia, there is less of a tendency to see Chekhov as morose, as he is, if anything, better known as a short story writer, and his early comic stories have always been popular. During the Soviet period, his late plays were often produced with a hard satirical edge to ensure their ideological acceptability. In the West, where he is known predominantly for his last four, undeniably poignant plays, we have tended to see Chekhov as melancholic. Stagings are often full of pathos, and somehow Chekhov has ended up being identified with his sad characters yearning for a better life. In my biography, I wanted to show Chekhov as a man of the outdoors who retained his youthful, adventurous spirit, and never ceased to be quirky and irreverent. I subsequently also translated a collection of early, largely comic stories to help counter the persistent misleading image of Chekhov as a depressing writer (The Exclamation Mark, Hesperus Press, 2008).
SC: Chekhov, a practicing physician, was famously quoted as saying that “Medicine is my lawful wife, and literature my mistress.” In your opinion, did Chekhov consider himself a writer foremost, or a doctor? Did his work as a physician in Russia influence his writing at all?
RB: Chekhov certainly started his career believing himself to be a doctor. It says something that for the first six years of his writing career he signed his work with a pseudonym, and felt he should save his real name for all the important medical articles he believed he would later write. It should also be pointed out that it took a long time for him to take himself seriously as a writer, having begun contributing humorous sketches and stories to comic journals purely to earn money in his student years in order to support his impoverished family. After distinguished members of the literary community gave him the confidence to see himself as a writer, he gradually gave up his medical career. He did not entirely cease practicing, as he set up an ambulatory clinic for the peasants at his country estate in the 1890s, and in 1899 he wrote a famous letter to his friend Grigory Rossolimo in which he stated very clearly how his study of medicine had affected his outlook as a writer:
“I have no doubt that my involvement in medical science has had a strong influence on my literary activities; it significantly enlarged the scope of my observations and enriched me with knowledge whose true worth to a writer can be evaluated only by somebody who is himself a doctor; it also provided me with a sense of direction, and I am sure that my closeness to medicine has also enabled me to avoid many mistakes.” (pp. 425-426 in A Life in Letters)
Chekhov’s medical practice was also important to his artistic work, because it brought him into contact with a huge cross-section of the population, as reflected in the large range of characters in his writing. The deep, albeit often wry compassion evinced for them, which is one of the reasons we return again and again to Chekhov’s stories and plays, is no doubt also deeply bound up with his medical vocation.
SC: Chekhov: Scenes From A Life was first published in 2004. In the years since then, what has the critical reaction to your biography been like? Has the scholarly perception of Chekhov shifted at all since your biography was released?
RB: When I was invited to write my biography of Chekhov, I had a fresh approach, having previously worked in a different area of Russian cultural history. Donald Rayfield’s comprehensive biography freed me up to write a life rooted in my often different understanding of the writer I was translating; I felt I did not need to say everything in order to convey a sense of his life. Chekhov manages to say an awful lot in few words, and I took a similarly impressionistic approach to writing his biography, in which I wanted above all to bring him alive and convey a sense of his creative spirit.
So my biography is quite unconventional, and, not surprisingly, met with some uncomprehending responses among old-school Chekhov scholars when it was first published. Generally, however, critical reaction has been positive, and it has been particularly gratifying for me that the most enthusiastic responses have come from people who really understand Chekhov—playwrights such as Brian Friel and directors such as Lucy Bailey. I should point out that my biography, while based on scholarly research, is not in itself a scholarly book – it is aimed as much at the general reader as the academic community, so as far as the scholarly perception goes, I see myself as just one of a number of people approaching Chekhov from new and different angles and contributing to the broadening of our understanding of his writing.
SC: Chekhov was born to a family of serfs; his grandfather Egor bought himself out of serfdom, and Chekhov himself was only a year old when all of Russia’s serfs were freed. Considering that Chekhov would in later life become the lord of Melikhovo, is it safe to say that social status played a prominent role in his life and writing? Do you think it was Chekhov’s family background as a peasant that motivated his philanthropy?
RB: To answer the second question first, Chekhov’s family background was definitely important, because he never forgot his roots, and he continued to have fairly impoverished family members living modest lives in his hometown of Taganrog. He was also acutely aware of the precarious social status of small-scale merchants like his father, and grateful for the privilege of education it bestowed. As soon as he was able, he started sending books to the library in Taganrog, later built three schools, and even at the end of his life was a governor at a school for girls in Yalta. The example set by Tolstoy, as I have explained above, was also critical to Chekhov’s philanthropic impulse. But Chekhov also had something innate, which incited his philanthropy that may have been partly inspired by the example of various religious figures in his life, such as a popular local priest whom he encountered in his childhood.
Social status did not bother Chekhov in the sense of any aspiration to move in a particular circle. He avoided the aristocracy, and was nonplussed to be finally given “noble” status in the 1890s. He was hardly the “lord” of Melikhovo since his modest cottage with a plot of land could hardly be compared with the great porticoed country estates of the gentry.
SC: What do you feel makes Chekhov worthy of reading or critical study for a modern audience, and which of his works would you recommend to novice readers?
RB: First of all, I’d certainly recommend that his plays be seen on stage rather than read, if at all possible. For those who can’t get to a theatre, there are some fine films (Louis Malle’s 1994 film of Vanya on 42nd Street, for example) and historic filmed stagings (such as those starring Laurence Olivier and Peggy Ashcroft), which are available these days. And I would recommend trying to track down stagings, filmed or otherwise, of Chekhov’s hilarious one-act vaudevilles (The Bear, The Proposal) alongside the classic late dramas such as Uncle Vanya and The Cherry Orchard.
As far as Chekhov’s stories go, “The Lady with the Little Dog” is probably his best-known and a good place to start, along with works such as “Ward No. 6, “ “The Duel,” and “The Kiss.” I’d also recommend some of the humorous early stories, such as “Fat and Thin,” “The Death of a Government Clerk” and “A Work of Art,” to readers unfamiliar with Chekhov’s universe.
Like all great artists, Chekhov deals with the fundamental problems of human existence in his writing, so he never really goes out of date. What makes his writing particularly attractive to modern readers is its unerring insights into the continuing absurdity and tragedy of life on earth, set against the fathomless beauty of nature.