Anton Chekhov in Yalta, 1900; Charles Dickens at Antoine Francois Jean Claudet’s London studio, circa 1852
Why do we categorize novels? Fantasy, Chick Lit, Crime, Romance, Literary, Gothic, Feminist… Is it the better to find what we want, on the carefully labelled shelves of our bookshops? So that the reading experience won’t, after all, be too novel.
Or is it simply for the pleasure of putting the world in order? French Literature, German Literature, American, South American, Korean. Or again, Renaissance, Eighteenth-Century, Postwar. In line with the notion of a body of knowledge—such that the more you read from one area, the more you can claim to be an expert, or at least a buff. There is even World Literature, which is not quite the catch-all it seems; rather, those novels that have appealed to many nations over the centuries, or that do so today. One chooses them to be a citizen of the world, perhaps, suggesting that behind the category is the desire to categorize oneself, the pursuit of identity.
In any event, I want to propose a different way of categorizing novels, or at least arranging the ones you have read on your shelves: something that came to me after reading Dickens and Chekhov in quick succession.
At first glance, it might be hard to think of two writers who are more different. Dickens so expansive (I had read, reread, David Copperfield, Great Expectations, Little Dorrit); Chekhov so economical—story after story unfolding in a few pages, sometimes only a few paragraphs. Cut, cut, cut, he told friends who showed their unpublished work to him.
Yet reading Chekhov’s stories, right after Dickens, I was surprised to find myself sensing a deep affinity between the two authors. As if Londoner and Muscovite (though neither was born in those respective cities) came from the same family and moved in the same emotional atmosphere. The way some families are voluble, boisterous, others are secretive and resistant, still others all quiet practicality and good cheer.
What was it that I was noticing? Reading biographies of the writers, I was struck by this similarity: both set up households with numerous family members and both kept open house for friends. They loved to be the center of conversation and attention. At the same time, both had the habit of fleeing society in order to be alone, whether to work or simply to walk. And both finally reached the same curious compromise: each kept a large house but had a sort of annex or outhouse built nearby, where he could retreat and work. Their houses were filled with people waiting for them to appear and play master of ceremonies, then accepting their disappearance, rather as readers patiently wait for a favorite author’s next book.