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Chekhov for the 21st Century. Carol Apollonio and Angela Brintlinger, eds. Bloomington, IN: Slavica Publishers, 2012, 127–47.       Of Interpretation and Stolen Kisses: From Poetics to Metapoetics in Chekhov’s “The Kiss”* Michael Finke [I]t  was  a  method  of  interpretation  which  was  not   tested  by  the  necessity  of  forming  anything  which   had  sharper  collisions  than  an  elaborate  notion  of   Gog  and  Magog:  it  was  as  free  from  interruption   as  a  plan  for  threading  the  stars  together.   —  George  Eliot,  Middlemarch,  Book  5   Many  of  Chekhov’s  works  not  only  manifest,  but  actually  portray  aspects  of   the  creation  and  reception  of  literature  (and  other  art  forms).  A  tendency  to-­‐‑ ward   self-­‐‑reflexivity   was   evident   in   Chekhov’s   very   first   publications,   as   is   apparent  in  the  title  of  his  second  work,  “What  Is  Most  Often  Encountered  in   Novels,  Tales,  and  So  On?”  (“Chto  chashche  vsego  vstrechaetsia  v  romanakh,   povestiakh  i  t.  p.?”  1881);  arguably,  it  persisted  to  the  very  end  of  his  life:  the   humorous   anecdote   he   related   to   his   wife   shortly   before   dying   in   Baden-­‐‑ weiler,  which  involved  a  resort  hotel’s  clientele  waiting  futilely  for  their  even-­‐‑ ing  meal,  unaware  that  the  chef  had  abandoned  his  post,  surely  anticipated   Chekhov’s   own   imminent   departure   from   this   world.1   This   tendency   espe-­‐‑ cially  showed  itself,  in  ways  yet  to  be  fully  investigated,  in  works  written  dur-­‐‑ ing  watershed  moments  in  Chekhov’s  career.2   Therefore,  in  addition  to  analyzing  what  Chekhov  does  in  his  art,  or  col-­‐‑ lecting   the   many   remarks   recorded   in   his   letters   and   by   memoirists   about                                                                                                                             A   longer   version   of   this   article   appeared   in   Acta   Slavica   Iaponica   29   (2011):   27–47;   it   recurs   here   by   permission   of   the   Slavic   Research   Center   of   Hokkaido   University,   which  publishes  the  journal.   1  See  the  discussion  of  this  anecdote  in  Katherine  T.  O’Connor,  “Chekhov’s  Death:  His   Textual   Past   Recaptured,”   in   Studies   in   Poetics:   Commemorative   Volume.   Krystyna   Pomorska  (1928–1986),  ed.  Elena  Semeka-­‐‑Pankratov  et  al.  (Columbus,  OH:  Slavica  Pub-­‐‑ lishers,  1995),  46–47.  The  anecdote,  which  is  known  from  Knipper’s  memoirs,  can  be   found   in   N.   I.   Gitovich,   Letopis’   zhizni   i   tvorchestva   A.   P.   Chekhova   (Moscow:   Khudo-­‐‑ zhestvennaia  literatura,  1955),  815–16,  and  is  discussed  in  Ronald  Hingley,  A  New  Life   of  Anton  Chekhov  (London:  Oxford  University  Press),  314.     2  An  extremely  helpful,  comprehensive  yet  succinct  overview  of  Chekhov’s  career  may   be   found   in   “The   Shape   of   Chekhov’s   Work,”   Appendix   1   of   Hingley,   New   Life   of   Anton  Chekhov,  320–29.   128 MICHAEL FINKE how  one  ought  to  write,3  we  might  well  attend  to  what  some  of  his  own  texts   seem  to  say  about  what  he  does.  Even  when  these  metapoetic  dimensions  are   quite  overt,  however,  this  does  not  mean  that  their  meanings  are  self-­‐‑evident:   we  endlessly  interpret  and  reinterpret  the  metaliterary  themes  of  The  Seagull   (Chaika);  or  the  art-­‐‑exhibition  episode  and  the  treatment  of  one  of  the  charac-­‐‑ ters  as  a  would-­‐‑be  novelist  in  Three  Years  (Tri  goda);  or  the  theme  of  storytell-­‐‑ ing  in  the  so-­‐‑called  “Little  Trilogy”  (“Malen’kaia  trilogiia”)4  For  it  is  one  thing   to   identify   the   operation   of   a   metapoetic   function   in   a   work,   to   tease   out   a   self-­‐‑reflexive  dimension  to  a  narrative  or  drama;  it  is  quite  another  to  under-­‐‑ stand  what  it  is  doing  there,  to  interpret  its  meaning.5  And  as  we  well  know,   the  meaning  of  a  work  of  verbal  art  is  also  subject  to  change  with  the  chang-­‐‑ ing  contexts  of  its  reading.                                                                                                                             3  For   such   a   collection,   oriented   toward   the   creative   writing   and   composition   peda-­‐‑ gogy   market,   see   Anton   Chekhov,   How   to   Write   like   Chekhov:   Advice   and   Inspiration,   Straight  from  His  Own  Letters  and  Work,  ed.  Piero  Brunello  and  Lena  Lencek,  trans.  Lena   Lencek  (Philadelphia:  Perseus  Books  Group,  2008).   4  The   cycle   of   stories   known   as   the   “Little   Trilogy”   (1898)   comprises   “Man   in   the   Case,”  “Gooseberries,”  and  “About  Love”  (“Chelovek  v  futliare,”  “Kryzhovnik,”  and   “O  liubvi”).  Vladimir  Nabokov’s  lecture  on  The  Seagull  is  quite  sensitive  to  the  way  the   play’s  overt  metaliterary  themes  reflect  back  on  Chekhov’s  own  poetics;  see  Vladimir   Nabokov,   Lectures   on   Russian   Literature,   ed.   Fredson   Bowers   (New   York:   Harcourt   Brace  Jovanovich,  1981),  282–95.  On  metaliterary  aspects  of  The  Seagull,  see  also  Z.  S.   Papernyi,  "ʺChaika"ʺ  A.  P.  Chekhova  (Moscow:  Khudozhestvennaia  literatura,  1980),  18– 32;  James  M.  Curtis,  “Ephebes  and  Precursors  in  Chekhov’s  The  Seagull,”  Slavic  Review   44,  no.  3  (Autumn  1985):  423–37.  See  my  own  discussion  of  the  episode  from  “Three...


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