A 1962 Greek edition of Chekhov’s short stories has been my company at my flash visits to Athens the previous year. It is paper bound, yellowed by the time and almost dismantled. I cannot hold the book too close while reading because its dusty smell gets stuck to my throat. But what a pleasure reading these stories, short indeed, that often end more abruptly than desired. The plot is simple, the dialogues insignificant; it is the irony and the hardship on the characters despite the somehow mellow style that makes them a delightful read. The look on people touches the basics: stupid, arrogant and after all hopeless as much as any nowadays book hero.This is a masterly styled expression of anti-life embellishment; my favorite.
Then during my last visit I fell on a biography of Chekhov written by the Russian/French writer Irène Némirovsky. It is a fantastic book, written as a literary text but giving a complete view of the life of Chekhov and his environment. Némirovsky wrote it less than 50 years after his death , so Chekhov was not yet a classic like now. What attracted me the most – accounted on my special sensitivity to this subject – is the professional life of Chekhov. It seems that it happened more often in the 19th century, to start up with writing and publishing only for securing one’s financial survival. Chekhov, just like Dickens, had a big burden to carry through his whole life: his family, parents included. He studied medicine and considered himself a doctor by profession. However, he was offering his medicinal help for free and depended on his writings for earning a living. The exact opposite to Dickens in energy and self-confidence, he walked a long way to finally accept his identity as writer.
The short length of his stories, especially the early ones, is due to the fact that he had to deliver fast content for magazines. The -at that time- famous writer Dmitry Vasilyevich Grigorovich was telling him “write less, starve if necessary”, with the idea that the quality of his work was affected by his writing frenzy; and it was. Of course Chekhov knew better about being hungry and did not follow the advice. His undistracted job idea runs parallel to our contemporary perception expressed clearly in the statement of Jessica Ennis, the golden girl of the London Olympics, at one of her tv spots: “it is not about the atmosphere and the honor of the Olympics anymore; I have to get in the stadium and do my job”.
Chekhov also did his job. His art flourished under amateur conscience aligned to professional involvement. In the end what made him a writer was not the money he was earning but the time and talent that he invested on his writings. Investment of time and talent (talent as a comfortable understanding of your language, skill and personal investment in one): that is what signifies a professional. Money comes after time and talent; to feed the family.