The Russian spring

It’s Saturday. Blizzard day. It’s also Chekhov‘s birthday.

Janet Malcolm, who died last year, was such a fan of Chekhov that she made a pilgrimage to his hometown of Taganrog and wrote a book about the trip—and about her love of Chekhov. In this New Yorker article, she writes about Chekhov’s own long trip east to Sakhalin Island and considers lessons from his work.

Russian winters are long and hard and many of Chekhov’s best stories are set at the end of the season, in the early spring. A hopeful time. The Bishop, one of his best, and one of his last stories, is set on Palm Sunday. There’s also Easter Eve. And there’s The Student. The Student might be my favorite Chekhov story. It’s set on Good Friday. A religious student is walking home in the early evening. It’s cold and he stops to warm himself by a fire kept by two widows in a garden. That’s pretty much the plot. The rest is conversation and inner dialog. It’s short and simple but I always take something new away when I read it. It’s a masterfully subtle take on nature and human nature.

There is no shortage of great Russian writers. Turgenev, Pushkin, Gogol, Gorky and of course, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. How does Chekhov rate in this company? I happen to agree with Nabokov who rated Chekhov with Tolstoy and wrote that “the person who prefers Dostoevsky to Chekhov will never be able to grasp the essentials of Russian literature and Russian life.” There you go.

Boris Fishman grew up in Russia and knows the landscape. He writes that “Everything You Think You Know About Chekhov is Wrong.” (I guess that would depend on what you know about Chekhov.)

And Kashtanka is a dog and she is the protagonist of the story of the same name. It was one of Chekhov’s early, throw-away stories, But it’s fun. It’s hilarious, sad and true all at the same time.

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