I don’t reread my earlier books, don’t think about them much. But recently walking past my bookshelf I was reminded—partly because of its striking cover and partly because of the January 6 Capitol insurrection—that in 2005 I had published a novel, A Changed Man, about a neo-Nazi.
The “research” had been harrowing. Searching Aryan brought up 75,000 web sites, very few concerning early Indo-European civilizations. But for some reason it seemed important to me to try and see the world through the eyes of a reformed (well, semi-reformed) skinhead.
The key to getting inside my character was language. In the first scene, he’s walking through Times Square in the summer at lunch hour, totally alienated. He thinks, “While he and his friends had been off in the boondocks with their Aryan Homeland wet dream, an alien species had been bred to survive on dog piss and carbon monoxide.” Right then, with that line, I knew who he was, though I remember having trouble explaining why, exactly.
In any case, it seems strange to me now, not because you could say I was ahead of my time, which I wasn’t. It just took more time and a new president for the Charlottesville torchlight parade. What’s strange is that whenever I hear new rules about what should and shouldn’t be read, what should and shouldn’t be taught in the classroom, I think, The last thing that anyone wants is a book from the point of view of a neo-Nazi. What had I thought I was doing?
My parents wanted me to be a scientist, but that wasn’t going to happen. Still, I’ve always thought of writers as scientists, naturalists with two research interests. One, the imagination. And two, human beings. Part of our job is to describe what humans are like in a language that is as much our own as a fingerprint, to weave our fantasies and observations into some sort of coherent narrative. My job as a teacher is vaguely similar: introducing students to literary texts that are well written and that get beneath the surface of every kind of human being including many (or all) we have never met and don’t approve of.
When I’m asked those questions—What texts should and shouldn’t we read and teach? What is the writer/teacher’s obligation to write and teach books that address or redress the historical injustices and the inequities that exist? How closely should the characters in a literary work resemble its readers? What do we do about texts marred by the stereotypes and clichés of a more ignorant age? What is our responsibility to help students think more correctly and helpfully about justice, racism, income inequality etc.?—whenever I hear those questions, I make Chekov answer for me.
In his stories, he wasn’t much of an explainer, moralist or preacher; that’s part of their beauty. But sometimes, in letters, he wrote about what now would be called (that gross term) his “process.” In a passage like this: “It seems to me that the writer should not try to solve such questions as those of God, pessimism, etc. His business is but to describe those who have been speaking about God and pessimism, how and under what circumstances. The artist should not be the judge of his characters and his conversations, but only an unbiased observer.” What happens if we substitute race, poverty, sexism, gender discrimination, for “God and pessimism”? And what do we do about the notion that there is no objectivity, that however Chekov may seem like a magical being, he was seeing the world through the eyes of a successful white male Russian writer-doctor?
One well known passage comes from his April 1, 1890 letter to Alexei Suvorin, who had written him about his story, “The Horse-Thieves.” “You scold me for my objectivity, calling it indifference to good and evil, lack of ideas and ideals and so on. When I portray horse thieves, you want me to say that stealing horses is an evil. But certainly this has been obvious without my saying so. Let the jury pass judgment on them; it is my business to show them solely as they are.”
I’ve copied these words into so many class notes that I know them almost by heart, but this time—I should say, after all this time—it occurred to me that I had absolutely no memory of “The Horse-Thieves.” Had I even read it? I’d assumed I’d read all of Chekov’s stories, but perhaps I hadn’t.
Reading it now, I knew: I’d never read it. If I’d read it, I would have remembered.
Among Chekov’s stories, it’s a complete outlier, with none of the things we expect to happen and count on Chekov to do. No last-minute spiritual transformations, no awakening, in the reader, a brimming heart for someone who’d previously left us cold.
The main character—a hospital assistant, Yergunov–is described, early on, as a braggart and a drunkard, and he’s all that and more: a liar, a coward, a fool, a would-be rapist. He longs to be like the horse-thieves at the inn where he finds refuge in a snowstorm, but, unlike many Chekov characters, his desire for a different life never earns him a place in our hearts. His glimpse of nature in its glory—"Far away in the sky a beautiful crimson glow lay quivering over the horizon"—is not a call to change his life , but rather to wonder why he doesn’t steal somebody’s samovar. In a final plot twist (unusual for Chekov) we realize: The horse thieves too are worse than we’d thought, though Yergunov still wishes he was one.
When you’ve read enough Chekov and come to rely on a certain empathy and mildness (I can think of only one other pure villain in his stories, Aksinia, in “In the Ravine”) reading “The Horse-Thieves” is like watching your most saintly friend’s head explode in a frenzy of murderous rage.
It’s a shock, but a memorable one. This story, just over 20 pages, includes almost everything we are told to avoid when we’re steered toward texts that model healthy relationships, good values, positive attitudes towards race, gender and justice. Yergunov decides that a dark-skinned peasant is a gypsy, and a horse-thief uses the phrase, “haggles like a Jew.” A woman is almost raped and (presumably) murdered, though in fact she’s not much better than the men. Yet something about the story seems real, important, artful, a mysteriously coded message about the world that we can’t entirely decipher.
It’s true that our jobs as teachers is to sort out the accurate and nuanced from the stereotype, to help students tell the difference. But if we limit our work, our reading, and our students’ reading to books in which the characters are what we want our fellow humans to be, heroes who suffer and triumph in the heroic way we want them to suffer and triumph, we’ll be reading and writing science fiction.
And our students will be forever puzzled by how stubbornly reality refuses to follow the rules of the genre.