'He had become notoriously an apparent listener who... was given to uttering apparently irrelevant yet gnomic or fantastic comments that killed the subject. He had once interrupted a wrangling discussion on Marxism with the eccentric suggestion: "Everyone should visit a stud farm. It is very interesting."'
This example of Chekhov's sly sense of humour is taken from V.S. Pritchett's Chekhov: A Spirit Set Free, which I have finally got round to reading.
Chekhov, having flirted with various 'systems', became increasingly suspicious of 'general ideas' and shunned them all - no mean achievement, considering the ideological ferment all around him. Retreating from Tolstoyism, he writes:
'Something in me protests... reason and justice tell me that in the electricity and heat of love for man there is something greater than chastity and abstinence from meat. War is an evil and legal justice is an evil; but it does not follow that I ought to wear bark shoes and sleep on the stove with the labourer and so on... But that is not the point, it is not a matter of pro and con; the thing is that... Tolstoy has passed for me, he is not in my soul, and he has departed from me, saying: "I leave this your house empty." I am untenanted. I am sick of theorising of all sorts...'
Pritchett's book is a wonderful and salutary example of how much light can be shed on a large subject in little more than 200 pages. Pritchett has, of course, the special insights of a writer who is writing about a fellow writer - and one with whom he is instinctively in tune. He is particularly sensitive, for example, to Chekhov's use of the telling detail, banal and anticlimactic, that 'makes it true', and to the potency of the closing lines of his stories. Pritchett's focus is more on the short stories than the plays or other writings, but the short stories are surely the best of Chekhov, as they are of Pritchett. What is striking is how deftly and concisely Pritchett extracts the essence from each work he considers, while equally effortlessly progressing the life story pari passu with the works (another advantage of being a writer - a feel for narrative flow). The book is clearly a product of deep, long reading of Chekhov and an equally deep understanding and sympathy. It is, in fact, the kind of book - short, wise, beautifully but unshowily written, and absolutely to the point - that is increasingly rare in a world of stupefying doorstep biographies and unreadable, unilluminating criticism. And Pritchett published it in his 88th year!