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Sunday, 26 May 2013





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Re-reading Anton Chekhov, the doctor and writer

Palitha Ganewatta has just brought out a book on the celebrated Russian writer titled, Dosthara Chekhov. Apart from being a writer, Chekhov was a trained medical doctor and Ganewatta's book deals with the influence of his medical profession on his creative endeavours. Robert Carver, the distinguished American short story writer, once claimed that Anton Chekhov was the greatest short story writer who ever lived.

This is indeed a sentiment shared by many writers and critics, although by no means by all. Chekhov gained worldwide recognition as a short story writer and playwright; in addition he was a compulsive letter writer who penned thousands of letters.

Many of them have now been gathered and edited into important and highly readable volumes. Anton Chekhov has had a profound impact on modern Sinhala literature. Eminent writers such as Martin Wickremasinghe and Gunadasa Amarasekera as well as a number of other younger writers clearly manifest in their work their indebtedness to Chekhov. Gunadasa Amarasekera, through his creative and critical writings, has highlighted the importance and continuing relevance of Chekhov for us in Sri Lanka. A large number of Chekhov's stories have been translated into Sinhala and some have even been prescribed as texts for University examinations.


Chekhov was also a distinguished playwright who has had a profound impact on the theatrical imagination throughout the world. His plays such as Ivanov - Cherry Orchard - Three Sisters - Uncle Vanya and The Seagull have exercised a far-reaching influence on dramatists on all continents. Many of his plays have been translated into Sinhala and some have been performed in translation and as adaptations. There are several translations of some of his plays.

Anton Chekhov

For example, his one-act farce The Bear has been translated many times into Sinhala by diverse hands and one among them is the translation completed by Prof. Sarachchandra and myself (I was a final year student at Peradeniya then) in the 1960s.

It is interesting to note that this eminent writer visited Sri Lanka in November 1890, and he stayed for three days, spending one night in Colombo and the other in Kandy. It is believed that he traveled by train to Kandy. In one of his letters, he says the following. 'I don't remember much of Singapore, because while driving round the island I became sad for some reason and almost burst into tears.

After that came Ceylon, which was paradise. I traveled more than seventy miles by train, and enjoyed my fill of palm groves and bronze-skinned women' He then goes on to describe a physical relationship he had with a 'black-eyed Hindu woman' in 'a coconut grove by the light of the moon.' He can be counted among a group illustrious and internationally acclaimed writers such as D.H. Lawrence and Pablo Neruda who had visited Sri Lanka or spent some time here.

His short stories such as Ward No 6, Doctor's Visit, Doctor Ionich, the Grasshopper display the intersection of the medical and literary interests of Chekhov and Ganewatta has translated a few of these stories from the original Russian.

What his book has done, among other things, is to provoke us to re-read Chekhov, who as I stated earlier, has exercised a profound influence on Modern Sri Lankan writing,

Palitha Ganewatta, the author of Dosthara Chekhov spent many years in Russia. He knows his Russian well and is deeply familiar with Russian society and culture.

This is not his first book on Chekhov; some yeas ago, he brought out a volume consisting of translations of some of Chekhov's most important stories.

His latest book explores the creative interaction between Chekhov the doctor and Chekhov the literary artist.


Ganewatta discusses the biography of Chekhov paying close attention to this literature-medicine nexus and offers us in translation a few of his stories that underscore this interaction. His short stories such as Ward No.6, Doctor Ionich, The Grasshopper, Doctor's Visit,, Intrigues, Malingerers, Excellent People, Anyuta, Darkness, Enemies, The Princess, A Nervous Breakdown display this intersection of medical and literary interests of Chekhov, and Ganewatta has translated a few of them from the original Russian into lucid and idiomatic Sinhala.

What Ganewatta's book does, among other things, is to urge us to re-engage Chekhov in the light of cotemporary theoretical advances and social developments.

To be sure, Chekhov's relevance to us has been demonstrated repeatedly since the 1950s.And each age needs to re-find that relevance.

There have been a few books published in recent times that have sought to address the issue of the medical influences on Chekhov's creative writings. Jack Coulehan's' Chekhov's Doctors' is one such book, and Palitha Ganewatta cites it in his bibliography. Another book that I found useful is John Tulloch's Chekhov: A Structuralist Study.

He is an Australian literary scholar and a good friend of mine. In the second chapter of his book titled Chekhov the Doctor there are a number of important and insightful observations regarding Chekhov, the medical profession and literary creativity.

Anton Pavlovich Chekhov was born in 1860 in Taganrog, a port in the sea of Azov in southern Russia.

His father was a grocer who was a former serf. It is recorded that Chekhov received a classical education at the Taganrog secondary school.

There were seven in the family and Anton was the third child, his father, Pavel Egorovich Chekhov, was a strict disciplinarian and often terrorized his children. At the same time he encouraged them to pursue education with dedication. At the age of nineteen Anton went to Moscow and enrolled in the faculty of medicine at the university. Five years later he graduated.

Humorous sketches

It is said that during his undergraduate days he supported his family through the earnings he made by contributing humorous sketches to magazines. He had a prodigious gift for comedy; his wonderful comical imagination and his knack for mimicry were recognized by many; these attributes, no doubt, proved to be of immense value later in life when he blossomed as a highly gifted writer. Chekhov published his first collection of short stories in 1886, and was given the title Motley Stories; in 1887, his second volume of stories, In the Twilight was published, which won for him the Pushkin prize. The same year his first full length play Ivanov was produced in Moscow. For about five years, he lived in a country house near Moscow; it was not particularly large but adequate for his purposes.

While practising medicine he assiduously pursued his literary interests. At this time there were signs that his health had begun to fail and he moved to Crimea. After the age of forty, he spent his life at Yalta and there he had occasion to entertain visits by Leo Tolstoy and Maxim Gorki. It was during this period that Chekhov composed his best plays like Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters, The Cherry Orchard and The Seagull. In 1901 Anton Chekhov married the leading actress of the Moscow arts theatre, Olga Knipper. Chekov had been diagnosed with tuberculosis some years ago, and he died in 1904 at the relative young age of forty four.

What I would like to do in this short essay is to comment briefly on three areas that he excelled in and make some general observations on his relevance to us in Sri Lanka. The three areas are the short stories, the plays and his letters. As a short story writer, it is no hyperbole to state that he has captured the imagination of writers and critics the world over. As I mentioned earlier, Raymond Carver, one of the foremost American short story writers, said unequivocally that Chekhov was the 'greatest short story writer who has ever lived.'

He went on to observe, 'Chekhov's stories are as wonderful (and necessary) now as when they first appeared; it is not only the immense number of stories he wrote, for few, if any, writers have ever done more - it is the awesome frequency with which he produced masterpieces, stories that shrive us as well as delight and move us, that lay bare our emotions in a way only true art can accomplish.' The luminous techniques, the pervasive melancholy, acute observations of character and he avoidance of thundery events mark his literary agenda.

Anton Chekhov was quickly regarded as the great short story writer that he was by the master practitioners of this form like James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield and later V.S. Pritchett and Raymond Carver. Chekhov evolved, over time; he graduated from being a writer of short tales, ranging from comic episodes to melodramatic events, to a serious literary artist able to reconfigure subtle interactions, unstated emotions, suggested melancholies with a remarkable degree of adroitness and sophistication. He was able, in his stories, to capture life as it flows on; often, there is no closure or finality or certitude to the story- endings. They rest on a creative ambiguity. In his stories, which are subtle and poetic and replete with telling details, Chekhov explores alienation, hypocrisy, inertia as well as religious fanaticism, egomania, sectarianism. And the tedium and philistinism associated with provincial life that he knew so intimately well formed an important part of his narrative discourse.


A distinctive feature of his short stories is the avoidance, for the most part, of subjective and abstract generalizations about the mental states of his characters, and the allowance of the actions to suggest those mental states. As Chekhov once remarked, 'suffering should be presented as it is expressed in life; not via arms and legs but through tone and expression; and subtly, mot through generalisations. Subtle emotion of the spirit, as experienced by people of education, must be expressed subtly, through external behavior.' Here he is talking of about plays, but these observations, I contend, can be usefully extended to understand the texture of his prose narratives as well.

Anton Chekhov was the best-loved Russian author in the modern period. A well-known commentator gives reasons for this. 'The qualities which first endeared him to Russian readers back in the1880s are the same ones which explain his appeal today. He wrote no vast novels in which he attempted to solve the problem of existence or fathom the forces of world history. He had no particular axe to grind about how people should live their live, but, like the good doctor he was, he had a superb ability to diagnose what it was that prevented people from finding happiness and fulfillment and a unique talent for pinpointing it in clear-sighted way that was at the same time immensely gentle and compassionate.' He then goes on to make the observation that Chekhov had an infectious sense of humor and uncanny sense of irony associated with life; this served to save his writing from becoming too sentimental or ponderous. It was Chekhov's great strength that he was able to write about people that readers could readily relate to and who mirrored the thoughts and feelings and reactions of the vast body of readers.

The kinds of characters that Chekhov presented in his stories and plays were not larger-than-life figures. They did not face extraordinary situations. They were average people dealing with ordinary problems. It is the sympathy and understanding with which he depicted their problems and the subtlety of articulation that characterized these efforts that endeared him to the generality of readers.

He avoided pretentiousness and high-handedness. A strong moral imagination informs his work, but it is never allowed to descend into sententiousness and posturing. His style is marked by a lucidity, precision, closeness to living speech and poise. Many critics have advanced the notion that his medical training has something to do with it. Chekhov agreed; he said that, 'I have no doubt that my involvement in medical science has had a strong influence on my literary activities.' There is a curious indistinguishable blending of comedy and tragedy in his work; in his textual productions comedy and tragedy appear as both intimate friends and sworn enemies who are willing to exchange their roles. Anton Chekhov, then, was a supremely important short story writer. But he was an equally important and sought-after playwright.

His five four-act plays, Ivanov - The Seagull - Uncle Vanya- Three Sisters and the Cherry Orchid are regarded as masterpieces of modern drama. Similarly his one-act farces like The Bear - The Proposal - A Tragic Role - The Wedding and The Anniversary have garnered international plaudits and are frequently staged throughout the world. Many of these plays of Chekhov have been translated or adapted into Sinhala, some more than once.

As a playwright, Chekhov was not interested in strong action and powerful emotion expressive exuberance as was common at the time. His plays are mostly not plays of action but plays of ideas, plays of mood and atmosphere. They are marked by a certain creative ambiguity.

Are they works of loss, dispossession and disenfranchisement? Or are they light-hearted and comic send-ups of incongruities and anomalies of society? Chekhov never seeks to answer these questions or clarify them. Clearly, his intention has been to involve his readers and spectators in emotional experiences that grow out of the quests of characters seeking to impose order and meaning and coherence on their chaotic lives.

There is an important connection between his plays and short stories. Some of the longer plays like Ivanov and Uncle Vanya grew out of his short stories. In addition, understatement, the location of meaning in between the lines and what is unsaid by characters being more important than what is said on stage, are also vital signposts to follow in reaching a true understanding of his work.

There are many significant facets to Chekov's stage plays all of which cannot be described in a short column of this nature. Ronald Hingley, who has done so much to popularise Anton Chekhov in the Anglophone world, says that, 'to probe the nature of Chekhov's mature drama is to be forced more and more into negative statements. It has been easier to say what the plays are not than to say what they are; easier, also, to analyse what does not happen to the characters than what does.

And we are now, alas, forced back to the supremely unoriginal and time-worn conclusion that Chekhov's drama is essentially a study in moods; moods desultory, sporadically inter-reacting, half-hearted, casual, yet somehow profoundly moving.'

Anton Chekhov, in addition to being a word-class sort story writer and playwright was also a world-class letter writer.

He started writing letters as a conscious and calculated literary effort as a teenager; he wrote thousands of them to various correspondents. He did not write an autobiography, and these letters, taken in their collectivity, come close to such an autobiography. Because of these letters we are able to form a clearer idea of the distinctiveness of Chekhov as both a man and a writer.

These letters range from personal family matters to perceptive discussions of literature with editors and publishers and theatre directors. Among these letters are his correspondences with his actress wife.

As we read them we become more and more impressed by his ability to capture a landscape or give permanent shape to fleeing memories or his struggle with tuberculosis or manage his divided loyalties between medicine and literature. The image of Chekhov that rises from these letters is one of generous, caring sympathetic, life-affirming person.

There are many aspects of Anton Chekhov's art and vision that invite detailed discussion. In this column, I wish to focus on four of them that should attract more attention than thy have. First, let us consider what I term his Christian humanism.

Chekhov was an atheist but at the same time was deeply attracted to the rituals associated with the Orthodox Christian Church. In many of his stories there are constant references to these. What is interesting about his writings is that there is a kind of Christian humanism that arises out of his desire for redemption, the experience of melancholy, and the need for sympathetic understanding of fellow beings and spiritual growth. This aspect of Chekhov's writing has stirred the interest of scholars outside the field of literature as well.

For example, Cornell West, the well-known African-American scholar of philosophy and religion and an influential public intellectual states that,' I am a Chekhovian Christian. By this I mean that I am obsessed with confronting the pervasive evil of unjustified suffering and unnecessary social misery.'

He went on to assert that, the magisterial depictions by Chekhov of cold Cosmos, indifferent Nature, uncertain Fate and the cruel histories that desperate, bored, confused and anxiety-ridden yet people looking out for human warmth try to endure against hardships ring true to him. Interestingly he sees a parallel between Chekhov's attempt to engage human suffering and melancholy and the same impulse present in American Blues music.

Second, the way that the phenomenon of memory informs Chekhov's writings deserves careful study. Indeed, this is also an aspect of Chekhov that in my judgment has yet to receive the kind of sustained attention it richly deserves.

When one examines his prose carefully it would become apparent that memory is one of the most powerful and determinative motifs in his writing. Memory is an influential theme in many of his stories; more importantly, it can be regarded as an organizational impulse that inflects the representation of time and space as well as his general poetics. In stories such as The Lady with the Little Dog, The Bishop, The Black Monk and House with a Mezzanine, which are among my favorites, the complex presence of diverse forms of memory is clearly evident. In his writings, the techniques, no less than the content, which carry a poetic shimmer reflect the animating presence of memory

What is needed, then, is to examine how the phenomenon of memory informs both the content and representational strategies of Chekhov's short stories. Any attempt to decode Chekhov's aesthetics must come to grips with this complex presence of memory. And this memory is vitally connected with Chekhov's ideas of redemption and the capacity of the individual for spiritual growth.

In many of his short stories, there is an interesting interplay between the past that has disappeared and its constant return through the power of memory. In a story like My Life this is most clearly evident.

Third, Chekhov never saw himself as a problem-solver; he thought of himself as an intelligent and sensitive problem-presenter. On one occasion, he told his publisher Suvorin, 'you confuse two things; solving a problem and stating a problem correctly. It is only the second that is obligatory for the artist.

In Anna Karenina and Eugene Onegin not a single problem is solved, but they satisfy you completely because all the problems are correctly stated in them.' He also claimed that, 'the artist should be, not the judge of his characters and their conversations, but only an unbiased witness.' and he emphatically stated that, 'an artist observes, selects, guesses, combines - an this in itself presupposes a problem.' These indeed are flashes of insights well worth pursuing.

Fourth, the idea of music, I wish to argue, is central to a proper understanding of Chekhov's short stories and plays. Chekhov was, of course, interested in music from his young days. And his sensitivity to music is connected to his deep sense of melancholy.

A narrator in one of his stories says, 'The subtle and elusive beauty of human grief, which it will take men long to understand and describe, and only music, it seems to me, is able to express.' This statement captures effectively the vision of Chekhov. D.S. Mirsky, who has been a most influential critic of Russian literature stated that the construction of a Chekhov story 'is not a narrative construction - it might rather be called musical; not, however, in the sense that the prose is melodious, for it is not.

But his method of constructing a story is akin to the methods used in music.' There is a fluidity and precision to his stories that remind one of music, and the ending of some stories such as 'Gusev' has a clear musical resolution.

What I have aimed to do in this column is to make use of Palitha Ganewatta's book as the point of departure for some brief reflections on Chekhov's art and vision. Anton Chekhov has guided us, inspired us, in interesting ways. He has already exercised a profound influence on Sri Lankan literatures; he could do more and we should not look for any less.


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