Maugham wrote introductions for both volumes, and in each he takes great pains to disparage Chekhov. He also manages to get some digs at Chekhov in one or two of his stories where the narrator is a writer. His basic complaint about Chekhov is that nothing happens in his stories. In his introduction to Volume I, for example, Maugham says,
On the face of it, it is easier to write stories like Chekov’s than stories like Maupassant’s. To invent a story interesting in itself apart from the telling is a difficult thing, the power to do it is a gift of nature, it cannot be acquired by taking thought, and it is a gift that very few people have. Chekov’s had many gifts, but not this one. If you try to tell one of his stories you will find that there is nothing to tell. The anecdote, stripped of its trimmings, is insignificant and often inane. It was grand for people who wanted to write a story and couldn’t think of a plot to discover that you could very well manage without one. If you could take two of three persons, describe their mutual relations and leave it at that, why then it wasn’t so hard to write a story; and if you could flatter yourself that this really was art, what could be more charming?
But I am not quite sure that it is wise to found a technique on a writer’s defects. I have little doubt that Chekov would have written stories with ingenious, original and striking plot if he had been able to think of them. It was not in his temperament. Like all good writers he made a merit of his limitations. Was it not Goethe who said that an artist only achieves greatness when he recognises them?
Does Maugham simply have a shallow view of Chekhov’s stories? I detect more than that, a genuine malice – for example, in the phrase if he had been able to think of them in the paragraph above. Except in the case of a few brief feuilletons, the characters in Chekhov’s stories fall in and out of love, tragically or comically misunderstand each other, are brave or are cowardly, are villains or fall prey to villains, make life-changing decisions, behave foolishly or heroically, succeed or fail, and die, just as do the characters in Maugham’s stories.
When it comes to finding a reason for Maugham’s almost obsessive animosity towards Chekhov, there is the telling fact that Maugham’s stories are more Chekhovian than those of most of the other well-known short story writers of the first half of the 20th century. Like most of Chekhov’s, most of Maugham’s stories are slice-of-life stories, as the stories of Greene, Pritchett, Saki, Mansfield (off the top of my head) are not. (Superficially, many of Hemingway’s stories can be seen as slice-of-life stories, but their intensity of language and their small store of carefully chosen details makes them more framed moments, with nothing implied beyond that frame, instead of slices out of a large pie of life.) Because of the way he protests that Chekhov’s stories are not slice-of-life stories, I assume Maugham understands that his own stories were.
I do not understand the people who say of Chekov’s stories that they are slices of life, I do not understand, that is, if they mean that they offer a true and typical picture of life. I do not believe they do that, nor do I think they ever did. I think they are marvellously lifelike, owing to the writer’s peculiar talent, I think they are deliberately chosen to square with the prepossessions of a sick, sad and overworked, gray-minded man. I do not blame them for that. Every writer sees the world in his own way and gives you his own picture of it. The imitation of life is not a reasonable aim of art; it is a discipline to which the artist from time to time subjects himself when the stylization of life has reached an extravagance that outrages common sense... his chief characters [are] somewhat indistinct. He can give a striking portrait of a man in two lines, as much as can be said of anyone in two lines to set before you a living person, but with elaboration he seems to lose his grasp of the individual. His men are shadowy creatures, with vague impulses to good, but without will-power, shiftless, untruthful, fond of fine words, often with great ideals, but with no power of action. His women are lachrymose, slatternly and feeble-minded. Though they think it a sin they will commit fornication with anyone who asks them, not because they have passion, not even because they want to, but because it is too much trouble to refuse. It is only in his description of young girls that he seems touched with a tender indulgence.
But if I have ventured to make these observations I beg the reader not to think that I have anything but a very great admiration of Chekov. [!] No writer, I repeat, is faultless. It is well to admire him for his merits. Not to recognize his imperfections, but rather to insist that they are excellences, can in the long run only hurt his reputation. Chekov is extremely readable. That is a writer’s supreme virtue and one upon which sufficient stress is often not laid. He shared it with Maupassant. Both of them were professional writers who turned out stories at more or less regular intervals to earn their living. They wrote as a doctor visits his patients or a solicitor sees his clients. It was part of the day’s work. They had to please their readers. They were not always inspired, it was only now and then that they produced a masterpiece, but it is very seldom that they wrote anything that did not hold the reader’s attention to the last line. They both wrote for papers and magazines. Sometimes a critic will describe a book of short stories as magazine stories and thus in his own mind damn them. That is foolish. No form of art is produced unless there is a demand for it and if newspapers and magazines did not publish stories they would not be written. All stories are magazines stories or newspaper stories. The writers must accept certain (but constantly changing) conditions; it has never been known yet that a good writer was unable to write his best owing to the conditions under which alone he could gain a public for his work. That has never been anything but an excuse of the second-rate. I suspect that Chekov’s great merit of concision is due to the fact that the newspapers for which he habitually wrote could only give him a certain amount of space.
Trying to analyze Maugham’s animus towards Chekhov, I’ve come to the conclusion that its origin was in envy. Almost all of Maugham’s stories were written for popular magazines; for many years he was under contract to Cosmopolitan to write a very short (two facing magazine pages) story for every issue. (Cosmopolitan back in the day was not the stylishly prurient rag it is today, but was more like our – rather, your – Vanity Fair.) In this, Maugham was very much like Chekhov – a physician (although Maugham never practiced) writing stories on demand for a middle-brow audience. The difference in quality between Chekhov’s work and Maugham’s was no doubt palpable to Maugham, and it rankled.
To copy-and-paste a passage from the Maugham quote above:
His men are shadowy creatures, with vague impulses to good, but without will-power, shiftless, untruthful, fond of fine words, often with great ideals, but with no power of action. His women are lachrymose, slatternly and feeble-minded. Though they think it a sin they will commit fornication with anyone who asks them, not because they have passion, not even because they want to, but because it is too much trouble to refuse. It is only in his description of young girls that he seems touched with a tender indulgence.
That really makes you wonder what was going on with Maugham. Allowing for some modifications because of the distinct role played by each sex in those benighted times before people were free to choose their gender, Maugham’s descriptions of Chekhov’s men and of Chekhov’s women are interchangeable – and somewhat unfair. Not all of Chekhov’s men are untruthful; not all of his women are slatternly. However, as a generalization, Maugham’s description of a typical Chekhov character is fairly accurate.
Like all realist fiction writers, Chekhov was seeking the holy grail of describing the human condition. In Balzac’s time that condition was best illustrated by characters who were greedy, hypocritical, intolerant, and prone to subtle or not so subtle cruelty. Chekhov’s characters are products of their time, in which what were verities for Balzac’s generation had been found, after all, not to be verities. The confusion caused by one’s having to puzzle over what was true, what was correct, what was right, in every situation that arises, is why Chekhov’s people are the way they are, not because of some perversity or ill-humor of Chekhov’s.
Unlike Maugham – unlike Balzac, for that matter (but like Zola) – Chekhov empathizes with his characters and sympathizes with their frailties. It is this trait which makes a Chekhov story heart-rendering, while our reaction to a Maugham story (with a few exceptions) is similar to the interest and excitement we feel when we hear juicy gossip. Maugham inadvertently reveals his failure of empathy in the last sentence of the quote above: “It is only in his description of young girls that he seems touched with a tender indulgence.”
Now imagine the sympathy and objectivity with which Chekhov would portray that poor guy, and the wit and scorn that would go into Maugham’s depiction of him.