It started last summer, when I reread his novelette The Steppe in a Reykjavik guesthouse. I said to myself, “This is a writer who understands people as they are.” Tonight, I read his play The Seagull, which gives us a rural Russian estate and introduces us to a group of people of are dissatisfied with themselves and one another. If I have my way, I will read a good deal more of Anton Chekhov this next year. It is so easy to be cowed by Tolstoyevsky—as my late mother used to refer to the two giants of 19th century Russian literature—that one is prevented from reading their contemporaries.
This is a great pity, because there are so many great writers to choose from among their contemporaries. I am thinking not only of Chekhov, but also Ivan Goncharov, Nikolai Leskov, Ivan Turgenev, Mikhail Lermontov, and Alexander Pushkin. And I am sure there are half a dozen more that I just don’t know about yet.
Chekhov was a physician, a playwright, and perhaps the world’s greatest writer of short stories. In addition, he wrote a great travel book about a visit to the island of Sakhalin off the East coast of Siberia, which was an early prison colony. In addition to a description of the conditions there, we have his description of the trip there and back in the days before the Trans-Siberian Railroad was built.
Chekhov was a prolific writer who lived a short life. Like so many of his contemporaries, he was a victim of tuberculosis. As a doctor, he knew what was happening to him. Yet his writing never suffered any ill effects.
In addition to his plays, there are a handful of his stories that are well worth seeking out. My favorites are “The Steppe,” “The Lady with the Dog,” and “Ward Number Six.”