Reading Chekhov Again

By Hadley Hury

In a letter only weeks before his death

Chekhov told a friend:

“I wish you all the best and hope

 you will be happy and have a less complicated view of life,

because life is probably a good deal simpler

than you make it out to be.

Does it truly deserve all the anguished meditation

we Russians waste on it? Nobody knows.”

 

This from a man who spent his life peering

through a pince-nez, prodding gently

at every human nook and nuance,

and who, at forty-four, had been discreetly coughing

blood into a handkerchief for two decades.

 

Critics knew he was up to something

with his delicate obliquity,

but they couldn’t seem to take him at his word:

that the plays were comedies.

“I describe life,” he said, simply.

He never lectured his audience,

he sought their collusion.

They loved the plays but they, too, were uneasy, confused,

spellbound there in the darkness of theMoscowArtTheatre—

yearning with and for these characters, so familiar, on the stage,

crying with and for them,

wanting them to be able to change,

smiling when they could not—

such vision, hope, and longing,

such small-mindedness and sloth—

whom to pity,

whom to condemn?

 

He loved writing

and he loved Olga.

The day before he died he began to improvise for her a story

about guests at a fashionable watering-hole,

how each reacts to the sudden decampment of the chef.

And sitting there beside his bed, wiping the sweat from his forehead

so that it would not trickle down into his beard,

Olga, ripping apart with anguish,

could not help but laugh.

 

In his ongoing arguments—

even with director Stanislavsky—

about the production of the plays,

he kept insisting that they should

be played not as dramas but as

comedies. He knew it was pretty funny

that whenever he sought peace in the country he pined

for the bustle and talk of the city, and when letting

theYaltasun warm his pale skin couldn’t wait to hurry back

to brace his laboring lungs with the icyMoscowair.

 

“You ask me what life is.

That’s like asking what a carrot is.

A carrot is a carrot, and there’s

nothing more to know.”

 

Modesty seems most clearly

to account for his gracefully borne impatience.

He didn’t discount the metaphysical

so much as the presumption and waste

in trying to manipulate it.

In his notebooks he observed

that we only belittle God

by presuming to grasp Him

with our meager intelligence.

 

“The only thing that dies in a man

is what is subject to our five senses.

Everything that lies beyond those senses—

and is most likely immense, unimaginable, sublime—

continues to exist.”

 

It was a dignified acceptance

that there is so very much to life itself,

not the least of which are the questions—

but it wasn’t defeatism.

Just because a script is tragic

doesn’t mean it can’t be acted otherwise.

That irony has come to be the word

most frequently used in considerations of his work

would probably disappoint him—another lazy indulgence.

 

He wrote like the doctor he was.

His course of treatment was simple and constant,

more suggested, gently, than prescribed:

 

Look. See.

 

If you are hungry and you are given a carrot, eat it.

 

___

Hadley Hury has published a novel (2003), a collection of stories (2007), and his short fiction and poetry have appeared in Colorado Review, Green Mountains Review, The Avatar Review, and Image.


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