My Russian professor drops the name tenderly: Chey-kov. The first syllable is made by pressing teeth very lightly together so that only a little air escapes, the second much more hesitant, as if he were going down dark basement stairs and feeling for the light. Chekhov, Chekhov. Sometimes when he says the name, even in the middle of an otherwise pedestrian sentence, he stops and shakes his head in reverent pleasure at the sound of it. Chekhov, Chekhov.
“It is not on the syllabus.” He says on the first day of class and then leans forward conspiratorially. “But I want you to fall in love with Chekhov. Read between the lines. Fall in love! Write it down.”
Today we’re reading “Misery,” the title of which isn’t really translatable in English, so the professor writes out the Russian title in loopy block letters on the board: TOSKA. And the list of possible English words it might correspond with: melancholy, yearning, blues, anxiety, lugubriousness, wistfulness. Etc, etc. Nabokov says that no one word in English renders all the shades of Toska. “Blues” is the English word I pull from the story: it’s a sketch like the rest of Chekhov’s stories seem to be and you really can’t be sure at the end what the moral is; why the story has stopped where it has or how you feel about it. You tug an end and a beginning out of a certain time of day and there, a story.
My friend offered to lend me all the books from the class, so last week I biked to his house to get them. He and his girlfriend live in an older part of town, one of those apartments in an ancient ivory house full of flaking windows and doors. Their apartment is everything to be charmed by and feel historical about: animal-shaped coat racks, a whiskey bar, lots of candles in heavy candleholders (and the soap in the bathroom looks like Abraham Lincoln, but I don’t think that’s intentional). When I come down the stairs to unlock my bike there is an old woman in the driveway wearing a smock. Also, pearls.
“Did you just move in?” she asks me. Although their function is unclear, she is taking off a pair of gloves.
No, just visiting friends. I ask her if she is an artist.
“One of the bottom floors is my studio.” She says, motioning a hand to the corner apartment. It has good windows: through them you can see stacks of pottery, easels against the wall and the faint smudge of oils. She went to art school in New York, she tells me. She is very selective about students because she wants them to be serious, the way she was taught.
Standing in the driveway it does not appear possible she is from this century. She is thoroughly Chekhovian and out of one of his stories of eager, perhaps lonely older women — or really, anyone you happen upon out of blue whose presence reminds you that there are endless libraries of short-stories you have not lived, characters with textbook white teeth whom you have not chanced meeting. People wandering around in detached narratives and their lives are as richly textured as your own.
And, perhaps, you are only an anecdote in their life; an oafish extra as it were, the person in the play who suddenly bends down to tie their shoe which allows two people standing across the room to catch eyes. That sudden swallow of a feeling — what! No! I’m only an anecdote! — feels you with Toska. But it is only a slender terror. There’s also something enchanting about it. Maybe, out of all the mundane anecdotes in this person’s life — and Chekhov is all about the mundane things, the train stations and bowls of soup — the scene you happen to pass through becomes a classic. What! Great!
Anecdotes are what my professor says are at the heart of Anton Chekhov’s stories, but even an anecdotal coin can have two sides. Maybe more than two sides, if only coins worked that way. The stories are snapshots, like episodes of Seinfield, which can be at once tragic or cheeky.
I ask the artist if I can look around her studio and she leads me past boxwoods and into her studio. She’s the kind of painter who is technically quite good but paints on commission, so half of her paintings are of little girls in Sunday dresses smiling by azalea bushes or oak trees; nature things people pose by in the South. But she is picking up each picture with the same tenderness with which my professor says the name of his favorite Russian writers. I tell her I was an art kid in high school but haven’t taken classes in a while. Seeing her studio has made me want to try again.
Come back, she says. I’m going to Florence for a while but, come back later.
Back out on the driveway. Chance meetings are always at the heart of blockbuster romantic movies. Certainly, they’re at the heart of every single time I make prolonged eye contact with a stranger and rapidly begin imagining montages of inevitable romances that do not end up happening (oh, right, that’s your girlfriend you were looking for in the spice aisle? Carry on, you two!). But what about the other chance encounters, the ones that don’t serve foreseeable purpose? I talked with her for maybe fifteen minutes; I left with a backpack full of plays and she left, presumably to go pack suitcases for Florence. Ordinary, but nice.
It might remain that way or if I see her again the anecdote might also blossom into a story. But is blooming always the point? Is having a fixed end always necessary, where all loose ends are tied up? As with words like Toska, sometimes things aren’t easily translatable. And this is the pleasant start with such things — you begin to treat each unremarkable, fifty-such encounters with people you have each day, not necessarily as the entrance to some sparkling avenue of your life but at least as a moment — in your life, in their life — worth leisurely enjoying. I am only an elementary student in these things, but maybe this is what it means to live a Chekhovian life.
Chey-koff, my professor says in class. I want you to fall in love with Chekhov.