sat 15/06/2024

Extract: Are You There, Crocodile? | reviews, news & interviews

Extract: Are You There, Crocodile?

Extract: Are You There, Crocodile?

From Michael Pennington's acclaimed study of Anton Chekhov

'It is impossible to lie in art': Anton Chekhov

In a life so short it is always a shock to remember the fact. Chekhov lost more friends than most people do by 60, but he has gained hundreds of thousands who love that fugitive figure, its guardedly attentive attitude, the merciless word in the right place, the moral force lightly carried: one thinks of him in the most unexpected corners of life.

Unavailable to account for himself, he has become the invention of his admirers, who may prefer him wary or exuberant, skittishly lyrical, coldly severe, charming or implacable, walking like a girl or tough as old boots. Some get excited by the new Chekhov, now those old-maidish Soviets have got their hands off him to reveal warts on the familiar face: all this does to others is prompt a smile. For what could be more natural for a man with delicate physical difficulties in a barbarous age than to complain daily to his sister about the water closets; and for a consumptive whose euphoria turned erotic at inconvenient times, what more natural than to exploit his new-found fame in Moscow’s green rooms or to turn down an alley in a Siberian town? None of this affects our enthusiastic co-opting of his spirit.

CrocodileIt certainly is the case that in Chekhov’s company it becomes easier to live something like a good life, in which his responses – tactful, candid or tolerant – become your own. His voice doesn’t need to be loud or consistent: he believed that life demands constant work, day and night, and to hell with the rest, but he also, asked for its meaning, said it was the same as with a carrot – it’s just a carrot, and that’s all we know. He passionately believed in his profession, and that man would only improve when he was shown what he was really like:

Most of all, dear friend, you must not lie, it’s impossible to lie in art. You can lie in politics, even in medicine; you can deceive other people and even the good Lord himself, but it is impossible to lie in art.

But he is equally inspiring in a whisper:

Please greet the lovely hot sun from me, and the quiet sea. Enjoy yourselves, be happy, don’t think about illness and write often to your friends.

In Chekhov’s company it becomes easier to live something like a good life, in which his responses – tactful, candid or tolerant – become your own

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