Chekhov’s Rabbits

The first time I fell in love with Anton Chekhov was when I read “The Darling” and other short stories. The second time was when I saw Wallace Shawn play Uncle Vanya in a movie. And the third time was when, on a whim, I read some biographical notes about him. When he was young, Chekhov submitted stories to newspapers and got paid. He got better and better at it, and eventually supported his whole family. At the same time he was a medical student.

At one point a famous writer was impressed by some of Chekhov’s more mature work, and encouraged him to keep writing. But this writer said Chekhov should decide between writing and medicine. “A hound cannot chase two rabbits.”

It turned out that Chekhov was that one in a million anomaly: instead of his medical career financing his writing, his writing financed his medical career. He continued to write and became a physician. Eventually he made enough money to build a clinic in Melikhovo, outside Moscow, where he treated people too poor to go anywhere else.

I’m sure that being a physician informed Chekhov’s writing, like the poet William Carlos Williams who was a country doctor.

“Chase only one rabbit” seems like good advice if you want to catch a rabbit. But what if you’re a hound who likes to chase?

In the end, Chekhov caught a few rabbits anyway. The TB bacillus took him too soon, but he left behind some beautiful things.

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