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Poet of the hopeless

I REMEMBER well that December evening in Moscow when I picked up a fresh copy of the slim volume of Chekhov's short stories that I have re-read over the last month. The snow was falling thick and fast in the yellow street light as I emerged from the shop and soon it lay fresh and soft on the street and the sidewalks and on the sloping roofs of grim buildings. Much has changed in that city, I was told. The lights are bright, the shops are full, there is a new way of life. But in that luminous twilight it all seemed strangely familiar, as if two decades had not passed since the time I used to walk the city day after winter day.

The winter was thick with the same conspiratorial romance. The crunch of the fresh snow underfoot, the hurrying heavily clad figures, the snatch of a music from some open doorway, lovers holding hands on cold stone benches, the drunken lurch from some bar with a chain across the door, the eternal prophetic hands of the Kremlin clock, all seemed familiar and friendly. Youth, it seemed, was still at hand; life was still a promise.

Long-forgotten poem

And as the snow fell, fragments of a long-forgotten poem, written under the sway of some youthful vision, began to float back into the memory:

When/the river froze/Under its massive bridges/And water formed ice/For cars to slip./Men/of pensive granite/Wore hoods of white/And planes sought lights/In snowbound nights.

The streets were still the same; their names had changed. The one I stepped onto, clutching my precious Chekhov volume, used to be called Gorky Street. Monuments to two great poets punctuated it at polite distances — one to the iconic Pushkin, whom one 19th century Russian critic called "our everything", the other to flaming Mayakovsky. Through the doors nudged open by memory, Azerbaijani music floated down a sweeping staircase and pulled me in... the drums began to beat, a deep-throated song of the steppes broke out, there was the careless shuffling of young feet on the wooden dance floor, the flash of a forever smile from a raven-eyed beauty. Eternal friendships were being sworn over flasks of vodka, semi-sweet sparkling wine celebrated so many things that were beyond recall at dawn...

At the beginning of the same street was a tall building now reduced to dust and yet I saw it rise before me in the falling snow. On its 20th floor was a small bar, with four little tables and stools. It had lace curtains on the windows and on the counter there was a pyramid of open sandwiches of black bread, red and black caviar, peppered salami, prepared by a barmaid not unwilling to sit down at the round tables, take a cigarette, sip a drink and laugh.

On many afternoons here, I made friends of casual strangers and penned vagrant poems on paper napkins, comforted by the constant gurgling from the coffee machine.

Some time in that winter of more than two decades ago, on some afternoon when it became too tedious to trudge through the snow, I entered the world of Chekhov. Story after story, written with the combined directness of a medical doctor and the wistfulness of a poet, reflected what I saw around me — the everydayness of Russian life, the vanities and hopes of non-heroes, the fickleness, the fecklessness of human nature. I began to meet his characters everywhere: the doorman who took me to his one-room apartment and told me that he was actually a professor of mathematics and could speak Chinese but preferred to just clean the snow and spend the rest of the day as he liked; the middle-aged Russian woman who caught me by the elbow in Tretyakov gallery one afternoon and would not let go until she had explained each painting to me, complete with quotes from Pushkin and Lermentov; the Army officer who wore his uniform and decorations and drove his car around like a private taxi...

Everywhere, against the immense beauty of Russian landscape, where the winter sun always hung low, they were living out the little ironical dramas of their lives. In celebrating the ordinariness, in raising the portrayal of the unremarkable to the level of world literature, Chekhov was echoing Gogol, who had said that for a successful short story, all a writer needs to describe is his own apartment.

At an amazing pace, Chekhov rolled out 600 stories, many of them very short, some hardly more than sketches. These stories drew their emotional impulse not from a plot but from character. The struggle, the crisis, the resolution were often not there, or internal. In that, Chekhov was a bridge between the structured realism of Maupassant and the psychological modernism of Joyce. Hemingway uncharitably said that Chekhov wrote only six good short stories.

Russian master

But an entire generation of short story masters inspired by him differed with that judgment. In Chekhov's stories, Gorky felt, "everything is strange, lonely, motionless, helpless. The horizon, blue and empty, melts into the pale sky, and its breath is terribly cold upon the earth, which is covered with frozen mud." As for Nabokov, Chekhov wrote "the way one person relates to another the most important things in his life, slowly and yet without a break, in a slightly subdued voice." And many others — Virginia Woolf, Faulkner, John Gardner — acknowledged the Russian master who had made mood the predominant vehicle of conveying emotion, who said everything by leaving out more than he put in. And so in that faraway winter, as over the last month, the slim volume proved the truth of V.S. Pritchett's words that the real short story is "something glimpsed from the corner of the eye, in passing."


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