How does a writer allow time to pass, and is one of the story teller's gifts not that of telling a story but telling time, managing to convey through narrative that time has passed? In The Dialogic Imagination, Mikhail Bakhtin discusses what he calls the adventure-time in Greek Romance. "But in essence nothing need lie between them. From the very beginning, the love between the hero and heroine is not subject to doubt; this love remains absolutely unchanged throughout the entire novel." Bakhtin later adds: "it goes without saying that Greek adventure-time lacks any natural, everyday cyclicity - such as might have introduced into it a temporal order, and indices on a human scale, tying it to the respective aspects of natural and human life." The adventure-time Bakhtin talks of no doubt lends itself to cracking stories, full of adventure indeed, but there is the suggestion that adventure-time isn't very temporal at all: it generates the narrative mechanics of time, a series of exciting events. "It is composed of a series of short segments that correspond to separate adventures; within each adventure, time is organized from without technically. What is important is to be able to escape, to catch up, to outstrip, to be or not to be in a given place at a given moment. To meet or not to meet and so forth."
Adventure is offered more to kill time than to search out its presence, but what happens when a writer seems preoccupied with the absence of adventure and the presence of temporality, of time passing? If Chekhov is a great short story writer it rests on this interest: if the adventure so often indicates breathlessness, Chekhov's stories suggest the sigh: a sharp intake of breath as temporal presence.
"Literature is called artistic when it depicts life as it actually is" Chekhov says. "Its aim is absolute and honest truth." Perhaps, but what Chekhov's literature finds is the truth of time, of its casual, unfolding, its previous passing. Quite a number of Chekhov's stories conclude with a rush of time, as if the meandering pace accumulates near the end to register a shift in perception that time generates. In 'The Duel', for example, the central character is a hopeless womaniser who has gone from one chaotic situation to another. At the start of the story Layevsky finds himself no longer in love with Nadezhda, the woman whose marriage his declarations broke-up, and wonders how he can get out of the affair. He isn't any happier where is either: he ran away with the woman to the back of beyond; now he wishes to return to Moscow or St Petersburg. "If you offered me two choices - being a chimney sweep in St Petersburg or a prince in this place - I'd opt for the chimney-sweep." He even claims he never loved Nadezhda at all.
What Chekhov sets in motion here is a story of dissatisfaction, a notion that preoccupied him in numerous stories and stage plays too. But one way we can look at dissatisfaction is to see it as the problem of time colliding with inactivity and dissolution. At one moment Layevsky says "and what business is it of anyone's who I am and what kind of life I lead? Yes, I want to get away! Yes, I run up debts, drink, live with another man's wife. I have fits, I am a vulgar person, and I'm not as profound as some other people." Perhaps time, however, is the harshest judge, as he can sense, if not quite see, he is wasting his life. Not long afterwards he finds himself challenged to a duel by a man in the community, von Koren, who has never much cared for him, and it is through the duel that he finds the importance of time as he discovers himself in danger of losing his life. After surviving the duel he arrives home and "as though released from prison or hospital, he scrutinized long-familiar objects and was astonished that tables, windows, chairs, light and sea brought him a keen, childlike joy that he had not known for such a long time." Then Chekhov jumps three months forward and von Koren is leaving the town. Passing the house in which Layevsky had moved into after the duel, von Koren sees Layevsky "sitting writing, hunched up at a table, his back to the window." Layevsky's friend who is walking with von Koren says "you will be amazed...he sits like that from morn till night, just sits and works. He wants to pay off his debts..." At the end of the story Layevsky goes down to the pier to see von Koren off, and notices that in the wild weather the boat makes two movements forward and one in retreat, and believes it is the same with the truth. "As they search for truth people take two paces forward and one back. Suffering mistakes and life's tedium throw them back, but thirst for the truth and stubborn will power drive them on and on."
Moments in the story remind us of Chekhov's Letters. "I have not stolen, dissembled, flattered the powerful or sought their favour, have not blackmailed or lived on other people. It is true that in idleness I have wasted my substance, laughing madly, overeating, drinking to excess, have played the prodigal, but surely all of this is personal to me and does not deprive me of the right to think that in the morality section I do not deviate much either up or down from the normal." Chekhov adds: "my sins are many but in morality we are quits, since I am atoning lavishly for those sins through the discomforts they bring in their wake." In another letter he says, "working and looking like a working person at intervals from nine in the morning to dinner and from evening tea until retiring have become habits with me." We notice here morality and the need for temperance; labour and the importance of temporality. Long hours makes us noble.
This is what Layevsky learns in 'The Duel' it would seem. He needs to apply himself. But though Chekhov can come across in his Letters and in the stories as a stern moralist, the writer also understands that a moral system sometimes comes out of the shaking up of the nervous system. That Layevsky gets the fright of his life means that he can at last get round to living one without endless moaning and procrastination. "It's all over", Layevsky thinks after he has been shot, "reflecting on his past and gingerly running his fingers over his neck." "A small swelling had come up as long and wide as his little finger and it was so painful it seemed someone had passed a hot iron over it. This was the bruise from the bullet." Undeniably a lucky escape, and thus reason enough to end his pointless escapades. But we might be reminded of Layevsky's removed ruminations a few pages earlier that very much resemble Chekhov's own in the Letters. "True, Layevksy was wild, dissolute, strange, but at least even he wouldn't steal...he would never whip his child with horse reins or feed his servants with stinking salt beef." He isn't a terrible man, merely another flawed human being. But he is wasting time, allowing it to pass uselessly, and this would seem to be so often where Chekhov's ethos comes in; a sort of 'temp-morality'. If Greek Romance as Bakhtin sees it indicates a utilisation of adventure-time, a time without much point or purpose beyond the creation of narrative devices to forestall a predictable conclusion, Chekhovian time is time passing without event, all the better to show how man so often does little with that time. In one of the letters, Chekhov says "In determining what kind of person I should be and what I should do money will not help. An extra thousand roubles does not solve the problem, while a hundred thousand is a pipe dream. Moreover, when I have money (perhaps this is from want of habit, I don't know), I become extremely heedless and lazy; the world is my oyster then. I need solitude and time."
Here Chekhov acknowledges how he thinks time can be well spent, but most of his characters spend time badly, and few writers are better than Chekhov at looking at Sartre's problem of bad faith from the position of temporality. We notice this at work in 'Concerning Love', where emotional procrastination wastes years in a man's life. Narrated by the bachelor host to his guests, Alyoshkin talks about the time he fell in love with the wife of a man he befriends. "Now I had the chance to meet Luganovich's wife, Anna. She was still very young then, not more than twenty two, and her first child had been born six months before. It's all finished now and it's hard for me to say exactly what it was I found so unusual about her, what attracted me so much, but at that time, over dinner, it was all so clear, without a shadow of a doubt: here was a young, beautiful, kind, intelligent, enchanting woman unlike any I'd met before." Over the years Alyoshkin keeps going back to the house, and it becomes increasingly evident that Anna is also in love with him. But for a long time they didn't announce their love to each other. "We had long talks and there were long silences, and we didn't declare our love, but concealed it jealously, timidly, fearful anything that might betray our secret to each other." This goes on for years, and yet they never end up together, nor can Alyoshkin accept that it was a love lost that nevertheless gave him a certain spiritual growth. No, as the listeners think, after he tells his story: "they felt sorry for this man, with those kind, clever eyes, who had just told his story so frankly, was really turning round and round in his huge estate like a squirrel in a cage, showing no interest in academic work or indeed anything that could have made his life more agreeable."
For Sartre, bad faith is where, according to the glossary at the back of Being and Nothingness, "one tells a lie to oneself within the unity of a single consciousness. Through bad faith a person seeks to escape the responsible freedom of Being-for-itself. Bad faith rests on a vacillation between transcendence and facticity which refuses to recognize either one for what it really is or to synthesize them." Alyoshkin would have been acting in bad faith while showing undeclared interest in another man's wife, but by the end of the story he can see lucidly his own procrastination and immorality. Chekhov thus explores the problem of bad faith through his characters, and also in his own existence. In her introduction to the Letters, Lillian Hellman says that he had "contempt for self-deception and hypocrisy", adding, "he was intelligent, believed in intelligence, and intelligence for Chekhov meant that you called a spade a spade: laziness was simply not working; too much drink was drunkenness; whoring had nothing to do with love..." But this was Chekhov's atemporal morality: with morality an absolute value rather than a temporally defined one. Chekhov doesn't arrive at such realisations; he knows them. Such an approach is all very well for one's life (and allowed Chekhov to be so creatively productive) but such assertive atemporal morality in the work would have robbed it paradoxically of the Chekhovian. He would have been just another moralist in fictional form. In the work he was more interested in how morality isn't absolute, nor even perspectival (with everyone having their reasons for acting as they do), but temporal.
Thus we often find Chekhov's characters a strong sense of regret often temporally arranged. The characters wonder how things could have been different, how they could have lived life more fully: they create an ideal 'transcendent' self partly through claiming for various 'factic' reasons, life was against them. In 'Rothschild's' Fiddle' the central character starts to reflect on his existence. "He began to wonder how it was that in the last forty years of his life he had never been near the river." He could have done so many things he realises, but instead "he had yawned away his life." "But look backward - nothing but losses, such losses that to think of them it makes the blood run cold. And why cannot a man live without these losses?" "Why did all he all his life scream, roar, clench his fists, insult his wife?" Yet one reason why Chekhov manages to convey such a strong sense of regret is because at this moment Yakob doesn't hide behind facts, doesn't insist that life was against him, that he had too many commitments and that his wife was always nagging at him. In the past he would have: "Yakob had never been in a good humour. He was always overwhelmed by the sense of the losses which he suffered. For instance, on Sundays and saints' days it was a sin to work. Monday was a tiresome day - and so on; so that in one way or another, there were about two hundred days in the year when he was compelled to sit with his hands idle." But what Chekhov explores is this 'temp-morality': the sense in which time accumulates as a force of moral meaning. It isn't just one or two days of idleness, it isn't that he he once shouted and lost his temper with his wife, it is the accumulation of these moments that add up to a certain temporal judgement.
We see this problem of time and judgement interestingly explored in 'Two Tragedies'. Here a doctor, Kiriloff, and his wife lose their only child, and are aware that they are unlikely to have another. "The doctor was forty-four years old, already grey, with the face of an old man; his faded and sickly wife, thirty five. Andrei was not only their only son, but their last." In the midst of this grief comes Abogin who tells the doctor his wife is seriously ill and he must come and help save her. When arriving at Abogin's house, Abogin realises that his wife hasn't been ill at all, but has gone off with someone who would regularly visit them. She sent Abogin to fetch the doctor so she could disappear with her lover. "This is no sick woman", he says, "but a woman accursed! Meanness, baseness, lower than Satan himself could have conceived! Sent for a doctor, to fly with him - to fly with that buffoon, that clown, that Alphonse."
Kiriloff is disgusted by the other man's histrionics: "my child lies dead, my wife in despair is left alone in a great house. I myself can hardly stand on my feet, for three nights I have not slept. What is this?" The two men continue at emotional cross-purposes, seeing nothing in each other's grief; only focusing on their own as they trade insults. At the end of the story, the narrator says: "time will pass; the sorrow of Kiriloff will pass away also, but this conviction - unjust, unworthy of a human heart - will never pass away, and will remain with the doctor to the day of his death?" The conviction concerns his belief that "he condemned Abogin and his wife, Paptchinski, and all that class of persons who live in a rosy twilight and smell of perfumes; all the way he hated and despised them to the point of torture; and his mind was full of unshakeable convictions as to the worthlessness of such people." What is it exactly in them that he is condemning? Putting aside that Abogin and his wife are people from a wealthy class, we can look at the different nature of these two tragedies. The doctor has lost his only begotten son, and will be unlikely to have another, Abogin has lost his wife. But he hasn't lost her to death but by being cuckolded. For others it might be a source of amusement, and in time could even be viewed by Abogin himself as a minor event in his life. He could meet another beautiful woman and feel relieved that he is no longer married; he might in time see what a treacherous individual she was and be relieved that she has gone. Time can heal certain wounds in a way that makes us see the importance of perspective. But can we imagine a temporal angle upon which Kiriloff can look back with amusement on the death of his son? We think not, and this is partly what the narrator must mean when saying this conviction will remain with the doctor. Perhaps adding to it will of course be the notion that Abogin sets his tragedy up alongside Kiriloff's, and expects the doctor to come to his aid when the doctor is recovering from his own loss. If, in the hierarchy of tragedy, Kiriloff's is far greater; in the hierarchy of status, Abogin trumps the doctor. During the argument, Abogin says, "there you have the money for your visit!...You are paid." Kiriloff replies, as he sweeps the notes to the floor, "for insults money is not the payment." The narrator states that "in each was fully expressed the egoism of the unfortunate, egotistical, angry, unjust, and heartless are even less than stupid men capable of understanding one another. For misfortune does not unite, but severs."
Perhaps one reason why it severs in this instance rests on the different nature of their misfortunes. While it is the case that some people never really recover from a wound to their pride (Boldwood in Far From the Madding Crowd comes to mind), the loss of a child would seem a tragedy of far greater magnitude. If someone might be inclined to say to a man whose wife has left them that it is time for them to get over it, the same remark in relation to a lost offspring could appear callous. Time does make a difference: these men are joined in tragedy, but one tragic event has what we might call a much shorter temporal life than the other tragedy. When the narrator says Kiriloff's conviction is unjust and unworthy of a human heart, we wouldn't disagree, but we can understand why he might see the wealthy Abogin as unworthy of pity quite as he himself might deserve it. This isn't the thought only of a selfish man. The weight of time is reflected in this thought: he has gone to help someone whose wife hasn't been ill at all. Of course Abogin is distraught, but he has strictly speaking, wasted the doctor's time. After Abogin tells the doctor what has happened, Kiriloff talks about his wife in despair and his son lying dead. What is this man's cuckolding next to his great loss, and should we not see the story's title as a little ironic: that these tragedies do not deserve to be on the same titular plane? Yet the narrator insists that Kiriloff's thoughts at the end are unworthy of a human heart. From one perspective, from the instantaneous nature of pain, all pain is perhaps equal - but from a temporal perspective it is not. It is something of this temp-morality that we might feel in reading the story.
Chekhov is a descriptively very precise writer: both a scene setter and a character delineater. 'Gooseberries' opens: "the sky had been overcast with rain clouds since early morning. The weather was mild, and not hot and oppressive as it can be on dull grey days when storm clouds lie over the fields for ages and you wait for rain which never comes." 'Ward 6' begins: "There is a small annexe in the hospital yard surrounded by a whole forest of burdock, stinging nettles and wild hemp. The roof is rusty, half the chimney has collapsed, the front steps have crumbled away and are overgrown with grass, and only traces of plaster remain." But if we believe that there is something within this scene-setting it rests on time setting too. We especially notice this in the description of 'Ward 6', with the rusty roof, the overgrown grass and the traces of remaining plaster each suggesting the passage of time. This passage of time becomes all the more pronounced as the story ends where it started. Here a doctor is fascinated by a young man whose paranoid thoughts about being captured for murder becomes all but realised when a couple of semi-decomposed corpses are discovered in the snow. He believes people must hold him responsible for the murders, and hides out in a cellar. Eventually he is brought back home, but in time a doctor recommends he is taken to hospital, and then transferred to 'Ward 6'. The doctor who transfers him there is described as a man "passionately enamoured of intellect and honesty, but he had neither the character nor the confidence in his own powers necessary to establish around himself an intelligent and honest life." A friendship of sorts develops between the doctor and the patient, but Ivan the patient insists that Andrei the doctor cannot claim that their situations in life are the same. "Between a warm and comfortable study and this ward there is no difference" Andrei reckons. Ivan says he should "go and preach that philosophy in Greece, where it is warm and smells or oranges - it doesn't suit this climate." As this friendship develops, Andrei is asked formally to take a rest, "that is, retire from his post." Along with a friend he goes to Moscow and leaves behind this far flung place without "theatres, nor concerts..." But eventually he finds his way back at 'Ward 6', this time as a patient, his nerves shot, his beliefs frail and his concentration constantly interrupted by troubled thoughts. "In the old times, Andrei Yefimitch had been in the habit of spending the time after dinner in walking about his rooms and thinking. But now from dinner to tea-time he lay on the sofa with his face to the wall and surrendered himself to trivial thoughts, which he found himself unable to conquer."
There is little action in the story, and the most important event the encounters between Andrei and Ivan. What counts is how time works on Andrei, eventually revealing the problems he possesses but finally can't quite keep pushing away. Whatever problems he had with the world, he had the freedom of concentration and the joy of reading. "He read much, and always with pleasure. Half his salary went on the purchase of books, and of the six rooms in his flat three were crowded with books and old newspapers." Perhaps we can say the encounters with Ivan lead to an increasingly despairing mindset, but it is more that time eventually works its way into Andrei's worldview: that the hint of futility that reading could help alleviate becomes the full acknowledgement of despair as he can't even keep his mind on a book. It is not a series of situations that make up time in Chekhov's stories; rather it is a series of encounters. But where situations can accelerate or obliterate the importance of time, the encounter exemplifies it.
What do we mean by this? If we take for example a man who finds that he loves a young woman but her father believes the man isn't worthy of her hand, he might involve himself in a series of situations that proves he is a suitable suitor. The father's estate is in trouble after bad crops one summer and the father is in despair, knowing that if he has another bad year he will be bankrupt and lose his land. The young man, who has studied agriculture, insists that he can help. He believes the seeds previously used were poor and for the next season they need to sew better ones. He notices that it wasn't only the weather that led to a bad yield, but that the father hadn't made the most of the land. The writer will have set up a twofold suspense that doesn't leave time to unfold, but for time to be anticipated. We wait to see if the young man's know-how will prove valid, and assume that if it does the father will see a man worthy of being his son-in-law and the young man will get the girl. Time here will be fixed by the nature of the goal: the purpose of the story would be to get the girl that our central character cannot have from the first moment, but will get her in the closing scene. In between there can be numerous other situations thrown in: there can be a rival for the young woman's affections (and the more manipulative he happens to be the more plot the writer can muster), there can be problems trying to get the right seeds as our hero travels far and wide to find them. It might look like the weather is conspiring against him, but it eventually turns good. These are all contained within the central premise: boy wants girl; boy gets girl. There will be numerous retardation devices (a literary theory term for narrative delay), but these could be added or subtracted accordingly. The longer you want the story to be, the more devices will be inserted. If you want to keep it brief you might remove the love rival, if you want to extend it you might have several suitors and so on. This is close to Bakhtin's adventure-time, and very far away from Chekhov's temp-morality.
So how exactly does temp-morality work, or is the point here that we cannot so easily nail down its attributes? There is little doubt that we can talk about the Chekhovian, and numerous writers have been claimed as his antecedents, from Raymond Carver to Alice Munro. But perhaps one of the reasons why a writer is defined through the adjectival lies in a singularity that cannot easily be quantified. If Bakhtin can sum up the attributes of adventure-time, it rests on the homogenising nature of the material, but we want to suggest Chekhov can't so easily be defined. But of course if we can talk of the Chekhovian at all, then there must be aspects that we can point up. We often feel that his characters are tired, disillusioned, faithless, procrastinating and unambitious. They are men more often than women, and figures whose sense of failure doesn't lie in the failed action, but in the accumulation of disappointment. One way of looking at the Chekhovian is to rewrite our above synopsis from the perspective of a Chekhov tale. A young man wishes to marry a beautiful young woman, but her father doesn't approve. He feels that he must somehow find a way to earn her love and her father's respect, and goes from the countryside to the city. There he discovers a different way of life that calls into question the love he has for the girl, and the reasons why he thought he should earn the father's esteem. After a year, rather than returning to the town where his love lives, he takes an engineering job somewhere in the further reaches of Russia, and stays for three years. He reads various writers while searching for a deeper meaning to his existence, and helps the locals with building up their infrastructure. He returns to his home town feeling like a different man, and discovers that the woman he had previously hoped to marry has become prematurely wizened in his absence. She is now engaged to someone else, and one afternoon while walking along the street he bumps into the father. While expecting the father to show anger because of his absence, the now old man looks at him with a look of gentle resignation, and asks him how he has been, as if acknowledging that he should have allowed him to marry his daughter years before. Our central character stays in the town for a few months, and leaves a few days before his ex's wedding. His last image is seeing this couple walking down the street and he feels that while she might not be happy with this man, she wouldn't finally have been any happier with him. The moral of the story, such as it is, would lie in the moral of time: that time passes and people change. We can never really judge an action until time sits inside it and helps us make a decision on the basis of it.
There is no such sense of time in our previous example, even if we have at least given it some of the cyclical, seasonal quality that Bakhtin's adventure-time refuses. It accepts that the initial goal is met by the consequent result. Time is there as delay, not astransformation. This is why Bakhtin can talk about there being no change from beginning to end, only inserted sequences that put off the inevitability of the conclusion. The only inevitability in Chekhov's work is that time will pass, and in time's passing hopes and dreams will change.
However, if time is moral in Chekhov's work it rests on having the capacity to make a self confront their soul rather than a set of actions that are already given morally. In other words, in the idea that the young man must gain the father's respect to win the daughter's hand there is the assumption that values are categorical and the hero has to find a way in which he can be equal to the value the culture assumes. In Chekhovian morality there can be no such underpinning because time changes the nature of value and the nature of desire. At the beginning of our Chekovian example, the young man thinks he knows what he wants, and the father assumes he knows what values are correct. By the end of the story neither no longer holds. And they no longer hold because time has removed the assumptions of both father and the prospective son-in-law. In our earlier example both remain: thus nothing changes.
To conclude let us discuss two more Chekhov stories, 'A Nightmare' and 'The Lady with the Lapdog', and one or two others in passing. In the former a thirty year old man is in the rural district of Borisovo hoping to open a new parish school with the local priest's help. What he finds there is on odd fellow of twenty eight with an un-enquiring mind and what seems like a limited education. "This fellow is not of the brightest, that's evident...He's rather shy and much too stupid." The priest shows more concern for the tea and biscuits rather than hearing what Kunin has to say, and later muses how different he himself is to this greedy figure who drank the tea as soon as he arrived and couldn't get enough of the biscuits. "If I were a priest, for instance...an educated priest fond of his work I might do a great deal...I should have the school opened long ago." Over the course of the story he realises that he should think less of the priest's failings than his own as he sees the poverty the priest lives under. One day for example when Kunin visits him Kunin doesn't even receive any tea: it turns out that the priest couldn't afford the leaves. "After being here over a year as a member of the rural board," Kunin sees that while he has been "Honorary Justice of the Peace, member of the School Committee!" he has also been "Blind puppet, egregious idiot!"
The story covers a short period of time in Kunin's life, but by the end of it he coughs up past memories and past experiences, a phlegmy emotional residue that he can't easily escape. It isn't only his year on the board that makes him feel like a fool, but his life before that too. "He could not help remembering the recent past when he was senselessly squandering his father's fortune, when as a puppy of twenty he had given expensive fans to prostitutes, had paid ten roubles a day to Kuzma, his cab driver..." We can imagine a quite different story here where a purposeful young man goes to a rural town and makes something of both himself and the community he enters. This wouldn't quite be adventure-time, but it would at least be eventful, with Kunin impacting on the area and improving his self-worth. But as so often in Chekhov's work the event is secondary to the realisation; that the temporal as the evident waste of time is more apparent than time as accumulated automatic memory. This is a Bergsonian notion of time where event isn't given from the accumulation of past accomplishments, but open to the new experience. "The past survives under two distinct forms: first, in motor mechanisms; secondly, in independent recollections." (Matter and Memory) But Henri Bergson adds: "the practical, and consequently, the usual function of memory, the utilising of past experiences for present action -recognition, in short - must take place in two different ways. Sometimes it lies in the action itself and in the automatic setting in motion of a mechanism adopted to the circumstances; at other times it implies an effort of the mind which seeks in the past, in order to apply them to the present, those representations which are best able to enter the present situation."
In 'A Nightmare', Kunin doesn't utilise half-forgotten skills in building a school, he accesses half-forgotten memories as he realises how blind he happened to be and how indulgent his past life was. Automatic memory would suggest purpose; accessing memories often hint at regret, and there are few writers more attuned to the regretful than Chekhov. By the end of 'A Nightmare' no school is built, but a character is transformed: Kunin is unlikely to walk around with the same set of presuppositions he started with. Yet Chekhov ends the story by saying: "So had begun and had ended a sincere effort to be of public service on the part of a well-intentioned but unreflecting and over-comfortable person." Chekhov's pessimism is such that he cannot even quite allows someone useful reflection in the wake of useless activity. There is a hint here that it is useless reflection; that Kunin will remain what he is seen to be essentially: a person of hasty judgement.
However, we shouldn't take this to be Chekhovian conservatism; more an acceptance that, just as in a fable or tale, personality is irrelevant next to the action, in Chekhov's stories self is so present that it cannot easily be utilised by situation. This isn't the cipher of the story, but the self of complexity. In 'The Russian Master', a character "clearly realized that he would probably never have peace of mind again, that he would never be happy in that two-storeyed house that hadn't been whitewashed." The narrator adds: "he suspected that all his illusions had faded away and that a new kind of life had already begun, a life which made him feel restless, fully alert and which clashed with peace of mind and personal happiness." But being human there will probably be further illusions sitting behind even these thoughts.
Which leads us to 'The Lady with the Lapdog' and perhaps to Chekhov's greatest story. If we have suggested that Chekov's work is close to a sigh, then this beautiful tale is one long, deep breath. Here the central character is a man who married young, and then devoted much of his time since recovering his youth in the bodies of other women, and consequently now sees his wife "as almost twice his age." But despite his philandering, love seems to have eluded him. His constant pursuing of women hasn't given him what he wanted, but has been in danger of robbing him of what he seeks. Though uncomfortable in the company of men and happier around women, he regards the latter as "the lower breed". "Long and indeed bitter experience had taught him that every new affair, which at first relieved the monotony of life so pleasantly and appeared to be such a charming and light adventure...inevitably developed into an extremely complicatedproblem..."
But there he is approaching middle age and he meets a woman, Anna, that he thinks will be yet another liaison, yet happens to be someone whom he can't eradicate from his mind. Initially he meets her while she is holidaying at Yalta. He is escaping from family life: not yet forty he has two sons and a daughter. Gurov and Anna spend much of their time together and he is interested but not always infatuated. When she talks about her problems "Gurov could not help feeling bored as he listened to her", and when she receives a letter from her husband where he discusses the problems with his eyes, she feels she must return to him. As they part, "she did not cry, but looked sad, just as if she were ill, and her face quivered."
Gurov is by no means a sympathetic character here, and an inversion of our earlier figure from 'The Kiss'. There a man had no sexual experience at all; Gurov has had plenty, and no doubt hasn't only hypocritically cheated on his wife, but probably hurt numerous other people while doing so. But though Chekhov is a writer capable of judgement, on this occasion he doesn't so much withhold it as contain it. In 'The Russian Master' the third person narrator can call a dog "a small, mangy, hairy muzzled, nasty little cur", and in 'Three Years' a character is described thus: "his expression had none of that natural grace which makes even coarse, ugly faces likeable." Self-appraisals in the singular and the plural can be harsh too. "I'm a parasite, thanks to you, wasting away in idleness, eating your food, spending your money, and I'm paying for this with my freedom, and a kind of faithfulness that is no use to anyone." ('My Wife') "We're unjust, slander people or torment the life out of them, waste all our energy on futile trash, which only makes our lives harder." ('Terror') Chekhov may say in his Lettersthat "the artist should not be a judge of his characters or what they say, but only an objective observer." However, often judgement is there nevertheless.
Yet in 'The Lady with the Lapdog', Gurov isn't a man who gets his just desserts, but one whose life has been an emotional desert. The price he has been paying for his desire has been its increasing absence. He might have believed he had for years been getting what he wanted, but Chekhov suggests that instead for half his life he has been confusing the material world of assignations, with the spiritual world of love. If his other lovers have been out of sight/out of mind (a materialist approach to feeling), then the antithetical statement is now the case: absence makes the heart grow fonder (a spiritual approach to feeling?). "He kept pacing the room for hours remembering it all and smiling, and then his memories turned into daydreams and the past mingled in his imagination with what was going to happen. He did not dream of Anna Sergeyevna, she accompanied him everywhere like his shadow, and followed him wherever he went." Woman is no longer the lower breed; she is forcing upon him higher feelings. "Closing his eyes, he saw her as clearly as if she were before him, and she seemed to him lovelier, younger and tenderer than she had been..."
Eventually he traces Anna to her home town, declares the intensity of his feelings and she declares the intensity of her own. They arrange to meet, and thereafter meet every two or three months in Moscow. By now his hair was already beginning to turn grey. It struck him as strange that he should have aged so much, that he should have lost his good looks in the last few years." He looks back on previous loves and believes "to women he always seemed different from what he was, and they loved in him not himself, but the man their imagination conjured up and whom they had eagerly been looking for all their lives; and when they discovered their mistake they still loved him." Is that what he is now doing to Anna, projecting onto a love unworthy of the feeling? One thinks not: "before, when he felt depressed, he had comforted himself by all sorts of arguments that happened to occur to him on the spur of the moment, but now he had more serious things to think of, he felt profound compassion, he longed to be sincere, tender..."
Of course we might wonder how true this man can become when he is after all cheating on his wife and in danger of breaking up his family, but while as we have noted Chekhov is not afraid of judging his characters, here he seems willing to accept that affairs in the past can easily be passed off as the philanderings of a man who wants it all. His love for Anna appears not just to flatter the man and flutter the heart, but to expand his sense of self. As with the dislikeable womaniser in 'The Duel' with whom we started, Gurov is a redeemable figure, but this is neither a religious nor a practical transformation - it is neither God's will, nor quite one's own. In the former, and its most convoluted, brilliant and demanding, we have the Dostoevskian conversion, however momentary: "There are seconds - they come five or six at a time - when you suddenly feel the presence of the eternal harmony perfectly attained." (The Possessed) Andre Gide notes that "In The Idiot we hear Prince Myshkin connect this condition of euphoria...with the epileptic attacks to which he [Dostoevsky] is subject." (Dostoevsky) Part of Dostoevsky's genius resides in what Nietzsche would call, as Gide observes, a transmutation of values out of physiological disturbance. Chekhov's characters are much less extreme than Dostoevsky's in this sense, and change tends to be less manic than resigned. But the changes aren't finally practical either: they don't come out of an action that galvanises someone into becoming a better person. Even in 'The Duel', we don't sense a man of energy; more a figure of resignation. "He sits like that from morn to night, just sits and works."
So what is it that creates this shift that is neither quite spiritual nor simply practical, but the nature of time: the temp-morality for which we have been arguing? Gurov falling in love with someone at the age of twenty would not have had the power the story contains no matter how intoxicating his feelings might have been. What matters is as much what he has lost as what he has gained as he thinks about the years that have passed, and not only the ones he might wish for with Anna. The narrator says at the very end of the story: "And it seemed to them that in only a few more minutes a solution would be found and a new, beautiful life would begin; but both of them knew very well that the end was still a long way away and that the most complicated and difficult part was only just beginning." They have pasts they cannot easily escape and yet perhaps without those pasts, without the weight of time accumulated, this love wouldn't have the depth charge Chekhov gives to it. Love conquers all is a common enough truism, but time conquers all is another contrary one. Chekhov brings the two together in 'The Lady with the Lapdog' and we can't help but wonder if the latter is a statement much closer to Chekhov's sensibility than the former, but the two conjoin beautifully in a gridlocked moment of nuanced despair. As Gurov thinks to himself slightly earlier in the story: "Time had passed, he had met women, made love to them, parted from them, but not once had he been in love; there had been everything between them, but no love." Now there is love between Anna and Gurov, but just as present one feels is time too: it is a gaping temporal chasm that they will not easily be able to cross.Yet perhaps the feelings are there partly because they recognise time's abyss.
© Tony McKibbin