At about 3am on 15 July 1904, in the sunny spa of Badenweiler, south Germany, Anton Chekhov died of advanced tuberculosis. He was 44. British commemorations of the centenary of his death will be strange, I think, because we have never really understood Chekhov, regarding him as a playwright and tragedian. British theatre is to blame. He is ingrained in the repertoire and, on the British stage, is often impossible to enjoy – David Hare’s excellent 1997 Ivanov excepted. The plays are overwhelmed by the histrionics of actresses of a certain age, and the fretful, transitory atmosphere of 1890s Russia is played as though it were a disintegrating Edwardian house party. This is not Russia’s Chekhov. It is not the author of more than 600 stories. Nor is it the doctor-writer of many of the best case notes we have about the terminal human condition, the stylist whose sense of point of view surpasses Henry James’s, the doctor-educator who built schools and clinics wherever he lived, and fought for the peasants’ interests in the famines of the 1890s.
Two events made me think about Chekhov’s centenary prematurely. The first was a new book by the American Janet Malcolm, Reading Chekhov (Granta, £13.99), a literate, exceptionally charming jeu d’esprit that merits a place on the bookshelf ahead of most of the conventional lives. The other event was the murder of a little girl, reported in our pre-Christmas newspapers. Ainlee Walker, who was two, was murdered by her parents Dennis Henry and Leanne Labonte in January 2002. What happened to her resembles in vileness the death of the infant Nikifor, scalded to death by his mother’s rival Aksinya in Chekhov’s “In the Ravine”, and in casual cruelty the near-fatal whipping of Mashenka in “Peasant Wives”.
Just before Christmas, an independent review of the Ainlee Walker case was published. It outlined how social workers in east London knew of her ill-treatment, but failed to remove her from harm because of “personal safety issues”. The same word recurs in the statement of Newham Council’s spokesman, who spoke of “a breakdown in communication. There were issues around supervision and training.”
What does this mean? I ask because, from time to time, it is worth questioning the words we use: the strength of what we say is always indicated by the way we say it. Most people (one hopes) would equate the dire weakness of the council spokesman’s explanation with its abstraction. Contrast this with a statement by a neighbour, Gwen Veale, who many times tried to alert the social services to the torture that was going on in the flat upstairs. “It just didn’t matter who I called, what I did: nothing happened.” (Apart from anything else, that is a line Chekhov might have been pleased to write.) In the case of Ainlee Walker’s death, a “breakdown in communication” existed; but it was not what the spokesman was talking about. It was a breakdown, a total loss, of the words necessary to convey the danger to an infant girl.
Question that loss – why such words, and not others that may have summoned those responsible to action? – and I find that we make the words, then the words remake us. This reciprocity is well exemplified in the case of the word “issues”, which, in singular and plural forms, is a fashionable trope today, in both fact and fiction. As readers, we are too often encouraged to seek out the “big issue”. Embodied in the feeble comic novels of Ben Elton, who in the past decade has treated of a production line of issues, from global warming to infertility treatment, the approach is repeated in the work of novelists such as Nick Hornby and Tony Parsons, writers who make little effort to extract their characters’ relationships from a tick list of issues – single parenthood, splitting up, urban anger, family illness, multiculturalism, and so on.
In novels, this matters as much as in life, because an issue substitutes a fixed idea for an unpredictable world. Characters fit the idea, and enact it. An issue is not an open ground on which motivation can appear, actions be examined and a story told. An issue (in contradiction of its original meaning) has no children: it describes nothing, uncovers nothing. An issue is a mask over real feelings, events and truths. All an issue does, in fictional terms, is commodify. But start describing the world – whether as a council spokesman or a writer of fiction – in terms of issues, instead of simply describing it as honestly as you can, and as with every other consumable offered for sale, you start to shrink the world itself.
Chekhov did not believe in issues. As a writer, he was fearless, restricting himself to what was important in a story. As a doctor, he was an activist. The last time I was in Yalta, a couple of years ago, I paid a visit to School No 5. This was the former Gymnasium that Chekhov had built by private subscription. Every week, the school director said, Chekhov came to visit. He would sit in an armchair outside the door of her office and talk to the students. I have heard it said that modern Britain is too thin for fiction now, too drab, homogeneous and restricted. But reality was never too ordinary for Chekhov. He proved, through his attention to ordinary reality and his ability to give it artistic form, that there are no minor events in life; only minor writers.