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Vladimir Nabokov’s lectures on Anton Chekhov


Anton Pavlovich Chekhov’s grandfather had been a serf but for 3,500 rubles had bought his own and his family’s freedom.

His father was a petty merchant who lost his money in the 1870s, whereupon the whole family went to live in Moscow while Anton Pavlovich remained behind in Taganrog (Southeast Russia) to finish high-school. He supported himself by his own work. After finishing school, in the autumn of 1879 he too went to Moscow and entered the university.

Chekhov’s first stories were written in order to ease the poverty endured by his family. He studied medicine and after graduating from the Moscow university became an assistant of the district doctor in a small provincial town. It was there that he began to accumulate his wealth of subtle observations of the peasants who came to his hospital in search of medical assistance, of the army officers (for a battery was stationed in the little town—you will find some of these army men in The Three Sisters), and of those innumerable characters typical of provincial Russia of his time whom he recreated later in his short stories. But at this period he wrote mostly humoristic little bits which he signed with different pen-names, reserving his true signature for medical articles. The little humoristic bits of writing were published in various dailies, often belonging to violently antagonistic political groups.

Chekhov himself never took part in political movements, not because he was indifferent to the plight of the simple people under the old regime, but because he did not feel political activity to be his predestined path: he too was serving his people, but in a different way. He believed that the first thing needed was justice, and all his life he raised his voice against every kind of injustice; but he did it as a writer. Chekhov was in the first place an individualist and an artist. He was therefore no easy “joiner” of parties: his protest against existing injustice and brutality came in his individual way. Usually critics who write about Chekhov repeat that they are quite unable to understand what induced him, in 1890, to undertake a dangerous and fatiguing trip to Sakhalin Island to study the life of those sentenced to terms of penal servitude there.*

His first two collections of short stories— Speckled Stories and In the Twilight—appeared in 1886 and 1887 and were immediately acclaimed by the reading public. From that time on he belonged among the leading writers, could publish his stories in the best periodicals, and was able to abandon his medical career and give all his time to literature. He soon bought a small estate near Moscow where all his family could live. The years spent there belong among the happiest. He thoroughly enjoyed his own independence, the comforts he was able to provide for his aging parents, fresh air, work in his own garden, visits from numerous friends. The Chekhov family seems to have been full of fun, full of jokes: fun and laughter were the main feature of their life.

“Not only was Chekhov eager to turn everything green, to plant trees and flowers, to make the soil fruitful, he was always eager to create something new in life. With all his life-confirming, dynamic, inexhaustibly active nature, he gave himself up not merely to describing life but to transforming it, to building it up. He would bustle about the building of Moscow’s first People’s Home, with a library, reading room, auditorium, and theatre; he would see about getting Moscow a clinic for skin diseases; with the help of the painter Ilya Repin he would organize a Museum of Painting and Fine Arts in Taganrog; he would initiate the building of Crimea’s first biological station; he would collect books for the schools on the Pacific island of Sakhalin and ship them there in large consignments; he would build three schools for peasant children, not far from Moscow, one after the other, and at the same time a belfry and a fire department for the peasants. Later, when he moved to the Crimea, he built a fourth school there. And, generally, any construction work fascinated him, for in his opinion such activity always increased the sum total of man’s happiness. He wrote to Gorki: ‘If every man did what he could on his little bit of soil, how marvelous our world would be!’

“In his notebook he made this entry: ‘The Turk digs a well for the salvation of his soul. It would be good if each of us left after him a school, a well, or something of the kind so that our life would not pass into eternity without leaving any trace behind.’ This activity often demanded much hard labor of him. When, for instance, he was building the schools, he himself had all the fuss and bother of dealing with the laborers, bricklayers, stove-installers, and carpenters; he bought all the building material himself down to the tiles and doors for the stoves, and he personally supervised the construction work.


* At the beginning of this lecture, VN interpolated passages from Kornei Chukovski’s “Friend Chekhov,” Atlantic Monthly, 140 (September 1947), 84-90. Ed.


“Or take his work as a doctor. During the cholera epidemic he worked all alone as a district doctor; without any assistant he took care of twenty-five villages. And take the help he gave to the starving during the years when the harvest failed. He had many years of practice as a doctor, chiefly among the peasants of the Moscow suburbs. According to his sister, Maria Pavlovna, who helped him as a trained nurse, he ‘treated more than a thousand sick peasants a year at his home, gratis, and he supplied them all with medicines.’ ” A whole book could be written about his work in Yalta as a member of the Board of Guardians for the Visiting Sick. “He burdened himself to such an extent that he was practically the entire institution in himself. Many tubercular people came to Yalta at that time, without a copper in their pockets, and they came all the way from Odessa, Kishinev, and Kharkov just because they had heard that Chekhov was living in Yalta. ‘Chekhov will fix us up. Chekhov will arrange lodging for us, and a dining room, and treatment’ (Chukovski).”

This great kindness pervades Chekhov’s literary work, but it is not a matter of program, or of literary message with him, but simply the natural coloration of his talent. And he was adored by all his readers, which practically means by all Russia, for in the late years of his life his fame was very great indeed. “Without this phenomenal sociability of his, without his constant readiness to hobnob with anyone at all, to sing with singers and to get drunk with drunkards; without that burning interest in the lives, habits, conversations, and occupations of hundreds and thousands of people, he would hardly have been able to create that colossal, encyclopedically detailed Russian world of the 1880s and 1890s which goes by the name of Chekhov’s Short Stories.”

” ‘Do you know how I write my short stories?’ he said to Korolenko, the radical journalist and short-story writer, when the latter had just made his acquaintance. ‘Here’s how!’

“‘He glanced at his table,’ Korolenko tells us, ‘took up the first object that met his eye—it happened to be an ash tray— placed it before me and said: ‘If you want it, you’ll have a story to-morrow. It will be called “The Ash Tray.” ‘ ”

And it seemed to Korolenko right then and there that a magical transformation of that ash tray was taking place: “Certain indefinite situations, adventures which had not yet found concrete form, were already beginning to crystallize about the ash tray.”

Chekhov’s health which had never been strong (and which had suffered in consequence of the hardships of his trip to Sakhalin) soon made it imperative for him to seek a milder climate than that of the Moscow region. He had tuberculosis.

He went away, first to France, but then settled down in Yalta, in the Crimea, where he bought a country-house with an orchard. The Crimea in general, and Yalta in particular, are very beautiful places, with a comparatively mild climate. There Chekhov lived from the late eighties to almost the very end, leaving Yalta but rarely to visit Moscow.

The famous Moscow Art Theatre, founded in the nineties by two amateurs—one an amateur performer Stanislavski, the other a man of letters Nemirovich-Danchenko—who both were endowed with an extraordinary talent for stagemanagement, was famous before it began the production of Chekhov’s plays, but it is nevertheless true that this theatre truly “found itself” and reached a new height of artistic perfection through Chekhov’s plays which it made famous.

“Chaika,” the Seagull, became a symbol of the theatre: a stylized reproduction of a seagull came to stay on the theatre’s curtain and programs. The Cherry Orchard, Uncle Vanya, The Three Sisters all became triumphs for the theatre as well as for the author. Mortally sick with consumption, Chekhov would appear for the first performance, listen to the passionate acclaim of the audience, enjoy the success of his play, and then, sicker than ever, return to his Yalta retirement. His wife, Miss Knipper, one of the leading, I can even say the leading actress of the theatre, came sometimes to him in the Crimea on short visits. It was not a happy marriage.

In 1904 a very sick man, he thus put in an appearance at the first performance of The Cherry Orchard. He had not been expected by the public and his appearance provoked thunderous applause. Then he was feted by the elite of Moscow’s intelligentsia. There were endless speeches. He was so weak from sickness and it was so perceptible that cries arose in the audience, “Sit down, sit down. . . . Let Anton Pavlovich be seated.”

Soon after he made his last trip in search of cure, this time to Badenweiler in the German Black Forest. When he got there he had exactly three more weeks to live. On the 2nd of July, 1904, he died far from his family and friends, amidst strangers, in a strange town.

A difference exists between a real artist like Chekhov and a didactic one like Gorki, one of those naive and nervous Russian intellectuals who thought that a little patience and kindness with the miserable, half savage, unfathomable Russian peasant would do the trick. One may compare Chekhov’s story “The New Villa.”

A rich engineer has built a house for himself and his wife; there is a garden, a fountain, a glass ball, but no arable land—the purpose is fresh air and relaxation. A couple of his horses, splendid, sleek, healthy, snow-white beasts, fascinatingly alike, are led by the coachman to the blacksmith.

“Swans, real swans,” says the latter, contemplating them with sacred awe.

An old peasant comes up. “Well,” he says with a cunning and ironic smile, “white they are, but what of it? If my two horses were stuffed with oats, they would be quite as sleek. I’d like to see those two put to plow and whipped up.”

Now, in a didactic story, especially in one with good ideas and purposes, this sentence would be the voice of wisdom, and the old peasant who so simply and deeply expresses the idea of a modus of life regulating existence would be shown further on as a good fine old man, the symbol of the peasant class consciousness as a rising class, etc. What does Chekhov do? Very probably he did not notice himself that he had put into the old peasant’s mind a truth sacred to the radicals of his day. What interested him was that it was true to life, true to the character of the man as a character and not as a symbol — a man who spoke so not because he was wise but because he was always trying to be unpleasant, to spoil other people’s pleasures: he hated the white horses, the fat handsome coachman; he was himself a lonely man, a widower, his life was dull (he could not work because of an illness that he called either “gryz’ ” (hernia) or “glisty” (worms). He got his money from his son who worked in a candy-shop in a big town, and all day long he wandered about idly and if he met a peasant bringing home a log or fishing, he would say, “That log is rotten” or “In this weather fish don’t bite.”

In other words, instead of making a character the medium of a lesson and instead of following up what would seem to Gorki, or to any Soviet author, a socialistic truth by making the rest of the man beautifully good (just as in an ordinary bourgeois story if you love your mother or your dog you cannot be a bad man), instead of this, Chekhov gives us a living human being without bothering about political messages or traditions of writing.* Incidentally, we might note that his wise men are usually bores, just as Polonius is.

The fundamental idea of Chekhov’s best and worst characters seems to have been that until real moral and spiritual culture, physical fitness and wealth, come to the Russian masses, the efforts of the noblest and best-meaning intellectuals who build bridges and schools while the vodka pub is still there, will come to naught. His conclusion was that pure art, pure science, pure learning, being in no direct contact with the masses, will, in the long run, attain more than the clumsy and muddled attempts of benefactors. It is to be noted that Chekhov himself was a Russian intellectual of the Chekhovian type.


* VN closes this section with a deleted paragraph: “To conclude: Chekhov together with Pushkin are the purest writers that Russia has produced in the sense of the complete harmony that their writings convey. I feel it was rather hard upon Gorki to have spoken of him in the same lecture, but the contrast between the two is extremely instructive. In the twenty-first century, when I hope Russia will be a sweeter country than it is just now, Gorki will be but a name in a textbook, but Chekhov will live as long as there are birchwoods and sunsets and the urge to write.” Ed.


No author has created with less emphasis such pathetic characters as Chekhov has, characters who can often be summed up by the quotation from his story “In the Cart”: “How strange, she reflected, why does God give sweetness of nature, sad, nice, kind eyes, to weak, unhappy useless people — and why are they so attractive?” There is the old village messenger in the story “On Official Business” who tramps through the snow miles and miles on trifling and useless errands which he neither understands nor questions. There is that young man in “My Life” who left his comfortable home and became a miserable house-painter because he could not endure any longer the nauseating and cruel smugness of small-town life, symbolized for him by the dreadful straggling houses that his father the architect builds for the town. What author would have withstood the temptation of drawing the tragic parallel: father builds houses, son is doomed to paint them? But Chekhov does not so much as allude to this point, which if stressed would have put a pin through the story. There is in the story “The House with the Mezzanine” the frail young girl with a name unpronounceable in English, frail Misyus, shivering in her muslin frock in the autumn night and the “I” of the story putting his coat on her thin shoulders—and then her lighted window and then romance somehow fizzling out. There is the old peasant in “The New Villa” who misunderstands in the most atrocious way the futile and lukewarm kindness of an eccentric squire, but at the same time blesses him from all his heart; and when the master’s doll-like pampered little girl bursts into tears as she feels the hostile attitude of the other villagers, he produces from his pocket a cucumber with crumbs sticking to it and thrusts it into her hand, saying to that pampered bourgeois child, “Now don’t cry, lassy, or else Mummy will tell Daddy, and Daddy will give you a thrashing” —which suggests the exact habits of his own life without having them stressed or explained. There is in the story “In the Cart” that village school mistress whose pathetic day-dreaming is broken by the accidents of a rough road and the vulgar though good-natured nickname by which the driver addresses her. And in his most astounding story “In the Ravine” there is the tender and simple young peasant mother Lipa whose naked red baby is murdered with one splash of boiling water by another woman. And how wonderful the preceding scene when the baby was still healthy and gay and the young mother played with it—would go to the door, return, respectfully bow to the child from afar, saying good-morning Mister Nikifor, and then would rush to it and hug it with a scream of love. And in the same wonderful tale there is the wretched peasant bum telling the girl of his wanderings over Russia. One day a gentleman, probably exiled from Moscow for his political views, meeting him somewhere on the Volga, and casting a glance at his rags and face, burst into tears and said aloud, so the peasant relates, “Alas,” said the gentleman to me, “black is your bread, black is your life.”

Chekhov was the first among writers to rely so much upon the undercurrents of suggestion to convey a definite meaning.

In the same story of Lipa and the child there is her husband, a certain swindler, who is condemned to hard labor. Before that, in the days when he was still successfully engaged in his shady business, he used to write letters home in a beautiful hand, not his own. He casually remarks one day that it is his good friend Samorodov who pens those letters for him. We never meet that friend of his ; but when the husband is condemned to hard labor, his letters come from Siberia in the same beautiful hand. That is all, but it is perfectly clear that the good Samorodov, whoever he was, had been his partner in crime and is now undergoing the same punishment.

A publisher once remarked to me that every writer had somewhere in him a certain numeral engraved, the exact number of pages which is the limit of any one book he would ever write. My number, I remember, was 385. Chekhov could never write a good long novel—he was a sprinter, not a stayer. He could not, it seems, hold long enough in focus the pattern of life that his genius perceived here and there: he could retain it in its patchy vividness just long enough to make a short story out of it, but it refused to keep bright and detailed as it should keep if it had to be turned into a long and sustained novel. His qualities as a playwright are merely his qualities as a writer of long short stories: the defects of his plays are the same that would have been obvious had he attempted to write full-bodied novels. Chekhov has been compared to the second-rate French writer Maupassant (called for some reason de Maupassant); and though this comparison is detrimental to Chekhov in the artistic sense, there is one feature common to both writers: they could not afford to be long-winded.

When Maupassant forced his pen to run a distance that far outreached his natural inclination and wrote such novels as Bel Ami {Sweet Friend) or Une Vie {A Woman’s Life), they proved to be at the best a series of rudimental short stories more or less artificially blended, producing a kind of uneven impression with none of that inner current driving the theme along that is so natural to the style of such born novelists as Flaubert or Tolstoy. Except for one faux-pas in his youth, Chekhov never attempted to write a fat book. His longest pieces, such as “The Duel” or “Three Years,” are still short stories.

Chekhov’s books are sad books for humorous people; that is, only a reader with a sense of humor can really appreciate their sadness. There exist writers that sound like something between a titter and a yawn—many of these are professional humorists, for instance. There are others that are something between a chuckle and a sob—Dickens was one of these.

There is also that dreadful kind of humor that is consciously introduced by an author in order to give a purely technical relief after a good tragic scene—but this is a trick remote from true literature. Chekhov’s humor belonged to none of these types ; it was purely Chekhovian. Things for him were funny and sad at the same time, but you would not see their sadness if you did not see their fun, because both were linked up.

Russian critics have noted that Chekhov’s style, his choice of words and so on, did not reveal any of those special artistic preoccupations that obsessed, for instance, Gogol or Flaubert or Henry James. His dictionary is poor, his combination of words almost trivial—the purple patch, the juicy verb, the hothouse adjective, the creme-de-menthe epithet, brought in on a silver tray, these were foreign to him. He was not a verbal inventor in the sense that Gogol was; his literary style goes to parties clad in its everyday suit. Thus Chekhov is a good example to give when one tries to explain that a writer may be a perfect artist without being exceptionally vivid in his verbal technique or exceptionally preoccupied with the way his sentences curve. When Turgenev sits down to discuss a landscape, you notice that he is concerned with the trouser-crease of his phrase; he crosses his legs with an eye upon the color of his socks. Chekhov does not mind, not because these matters are not important—for some writers they are naturally and very beautifully important when the right temperament is there—but Chekhov does not mind because his temperament is quite foreign to verbal inventiveness. Even a bit of bad grammar or a slack newspaperish sentence left him unconcerned.* The magical part of it is that in spite of his tolerating flaws which a bright beginner would have avoided, in spite of his being quite satisfied with the man-in-thestreet among words, the word-in-the-street, so to say, Chekhov managed to convey an impression of artistic beauty far surpassing that of many writers who thought they knew what rich beautiful prose was. He did it by keeping all his words in the same dim light and of the same exact tint of gray, a tint between the color of an old fence and that of a low cloud. The variety of his moods, the flicker of his charming wit, the deeply artistic economy of characterization, the vivid detail, and the fade-out of human life—all the peculiar Chekhovian features—are enhanced by being suffused and surrounded by a faintly iridescent verbal haziness.

His quiet and subtle humor pervades the grayness of the lives he creates. For the Russian philosophical or social-minded critic he was the unique exponent of a unique Russian type of character. It is rather difficult for me to explain what that type was or is, because it is all so linked up with the general psychological and social history of the Russian nineteenth century. It is not quite exact to say that Chekhov dealt in charming and ineffectual people. It is a little more true to say that his men and women are charming because they are ineffectual. But what really attracted the Russian reader was that in Chekhov’s heroes he recognized the type of the Russian intellectual, the Russian idealist, a queer and pathetic creature that is little known abroad and cannot exist in the Russia of the Soviets. Chekhov’s intellectual was a man who combined the deepest human decency of which man is capable with an almost ridiculous inability to put his ideals and principles into action; a man devoted to moral beauty, the welfare of his people, the welfare of the universe, but unable in his private life to do anything useful; frittering away his provincial existence in a haze of Utopian dreams; knowing exactly what is good, what is worth while living for, but at the same time sinking lower and lower in the mud of a humdrum existence, unhappy in love, hopelessly inefficient in everything —a good man who cannot make good. This is the character that passes —in the guise of a doctor, a student, a village teacher, many other professional people—all through Chekhov’s stories.

What rather irritated his politically minded critics was that nowhere does the author assign this type to any definite political party or give him any definite political program. But that is the whole point. Chekhov’s inefficient idealists were neither terrorists, nor Social Democrats, nor budding Bolsheviks, nor any of the numberless members of numberless revolutionary parties in Russia. What mattered was that this typical Chekhovian hero was the unfortunate bearer of a vague but beautiful human truth, a burden which he could neither get rid of nor carry. What we see is a continuous stumble through all Chekhov’s stories, but it is the stumble of a man who stumbles because he is staring at the stars. He is unhappy, that man, and he makes others unhappy; he loves not his brethren, not those nearest to him, but the remotest.


* VN first wrote “less concerned” and then continued with a passage worth preserving for its interest, though he deleted it: “less concerned than for instance Conrad was when (according to Ford Madox Ford) he tried to find a word of two syllables and a half—not merely two and not merely three, but exactly two and a half—which he felt was absolutely necessary to end a certain description. And being Conrad he was perfectly right, for that was the nature of his talent. Chekhov would have ended that sentence with an “out” or an “in” and never have noticed his ending — and Chekhov was a much greater writer than good old Conrad.” Ed.


The plight of a negro in a distant land, of a Chinese coolie, of a workman in the remote Urals, affects him with a keener pang of moral pain than the misfortunes of his neighbor or the troubles of his wife. Chekhov took a special artistic pleasure in fixing all the delicate varieties of that pre-war, pre-revolution type of Russian intellectual. Those men could dream; they could not rule. They broke their own lives and the lives of others, they were silly, weak, futile, hysterical; but Chekhov suggests, blessed be the country that could produce that particular type of man. They missed opportunities, they shunned action, they spent sleepless nights in planning worlds they could not build; but the mere fact of such men, full of such fervor, fire of abnegation, pureness of spirit, moral elevation, this mere fact of such men having lived and probably still living somewhere somehow in the ruthless and sordid Russia of to-day is a promise of better things to come for the world at large—for perhaps the most admirable among the admirable laws of Nature is the survival of the weakest.

It is from this point of view that those who were equally interested in the misery of the Russian people and in the glory of Russian literature, it is from this point of view that they appreciated Chekhov. Though never concerned with providing a social or ethical message, Chekhov’s genius almost involuntarily disclosed more of the blackest realities of hungry, puzzled, servile, angry peasant Russia than a multitude of other writers, such as Gorki for instance, who flaunted their social ideas in a procession of painted dummies. I shall go further and say that the person who prefers Dostoevski or Gorki to Chekhov will never be able to grasp the essentials of Russian literature and Russian life, and, which is far more important, the essentials of universal literary art. It was quite a game among Russians to divide their acquaintances into those who liked Chekhov and those who did not. Those who did not were not the right sort.

I heartily recommend taking as often as possible Chekhov’s books (even in the translations they have suffered) and dreaming through them as they are intended to be dreamed through. In an age of ruddy Goliaths it is very useful to read about delicate Davids. Those bleak landscapes, the withered sallows along dismally muddy roads, the gray crows flapping across gray skies, the sudden whiff of some amazing recollection at a most ordinary corner—all this pathetic dimness, all this lovely weakness, all this Chekhovian dove-gray world is worth treasuring in the glare of those strong, self-sufficient worlds that are promised us by the worshippers of totalitarian states.