Beauty of Soul: Oscar Wilde & Anton Chekhov

Everything we know about people is wrong.

Well, perhaps that’s going a little far. But, really. Take Oscar. Oscar Wilde. He stands for one thing and one thing only. Wit. Sharp wit. Glittering wit. Keen, wicked, penetrating wit. Camp. Clever. Crushing. Proud, peacocky and impertinent.

Recording Oscar Wilde and Anton Chekhov. © Samfry Ltd 2008

Recording Oscar Wilde and Anton Chekhov. © Samfry Ltd 2008

Wrong. Wrong, wronger, wrongest.

Certainly Wilde was witty, certainly he is remembered for firing off epigrams like a belt-fed mortar. But look properly at the man and his works and you will see that the spirits that most animated him were in fact those of sympathy and imagination., which are really one spirit. Wilde was an artist; he was of course prince among artists in his time. He championed art above everything. But that is because he understood that art is the product, not of intellect, wit or superior faculties of understanding, but of imagination. As it happens he had intellect, wit and superior faculties of understanding and he had them in spades. Such qualities can make a critic, a businessman, a lawyer, a politician, a scholar or a general. They can fit a person to be almost anything; anything, that is, but an artist. To be sure they are fine qualities for an artist to have, but they are not necessary or sufficient for the making of an artist. For that what is needed is imagination.

We know that imagination is about making things up. About pretending. About creating worlds, pictures, situations and characters all out of our head.

Everything we know is wrong.

Wrong. Wrong, wronger, wrongest.

It is fantasy that makes things up and fantasy is quite another thing. Imagination is the ability to enter someone else’s mind. To penetrate another’s experience. To feel what another feels: to see the world as they see it, to suffer their pain, participate in their sins and in their triumphs, loves, fears and hopes. Imagination is a product of memory and sympathy. Some have it, just as some have perfect pitch or athletic hand-eye coordination. Or maybe some can be trained to have it, I don’t know. A paradox is that it seems harder to penetrate one’s own mind, participate in one’s own experience and discover one’s own feelings than those of another. You might find it easier genuinely to imagine what it is to be a Guatemalan coffee grower or a Siberian oil-pipe welder, really to see the world as they see it, smell it, understand it and experience it, than to imagine what is like to be yourself, the reader of this sentence, the owner of your own eyes and personality. But that’s a whole nother question and you haven’t bustled out of the cold real world and into the warm glow of my cosy cyber cabin just to be regaled by improbable verbal surds and untenable ontological curlicues. And if you have, you’re silly and must stop it right now please.

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Stephen Fry reads a selection of Oscar Wilde’s short stories. © Samfry Ltd 2008

Oscar Wilde’s Fairy Stories are, in a true sense then, triumphs of the imagination. His wit was always the triumph of the imagination. That is why he is still so venerated around the world. Not because he was the master of the clever aside and lord of the titter-worthy bon mot, not because he was a gay martyr or an Irish hero. His wit endures because it is the kind of wit that has been inside our heads and hearts and discovered for us what we think and feel before we knew it ourselves. His stories endure for that reason also. The eponyms of The Happy Prince and The Young King, for instance, are both granted artistic visions, one through a bird, one through a dream. They both imagine, see and feel what most of us fail to, as even the swallow fails, and he physically sees what the prince cannot. In the case of the Nightingale and the Rose it is the scholar who is without imagination while the nightingale bleeds her own heart’s blood in a kind of parable of art, love, sacrifice and suffering.

Because Wilde was an artist he saw the artist in everyone. He believed that Christ was an artist and that Satan was an artist. He believes that you and I are artists too.

Everything we think we know about people is wrong.

Anton Chekhov is a case in point. Grim. Russian. Gloomy. Stark. Bleak. Melancholic. Sorrowful. Suicidal. Tragic. Well, I’ll give you Russian. He was that all right. As for the rest. Grim? Chekhov? Bleak? No, no. Chekhov was the foremost comic artist of his age. If by comic we mean something more than slapstick, farce or revue. There are satirists, like Swift, who cannot hide the fact that they believe humanity in all its forms from the grandest king to the lowliest serf to be nothing short of pathetic, ludicrous and disgusting; there are others, like Chekhov who find it just as hard to conceal their sympathy, kinship and fellow feeling. Of course there are many who share that feeling – indeed I like to think I am one of their number – but ninety-nine percent of us are sentimentalists. Chekhov is almost unique in that his optimism, humanity and sympathy are never sentimental. His gaze is apparently pitiless and yet the effect of his stories is the opposite. Perhaps that is because Chekhov was a doctor. Indeed so far as he was concerned he was a doctor first and a writer second. Doctors are very often merciless to the point of callous indifference and yet the purpose and outcome of their work is the opposite of merciless. It is one of the characteristics that marks out the artist too: pitiless truth that might seem hurtful but which heals.

Perhaps what connects the works of these two extraordinary writers is a quality that was once called, without embarrassment, Beauty of Soul.

Oscar Wilde’s Fairy Tales continue to exert the same pull over the imagination and emotions as they did when he first read them to his children in the 1880s. Written with inspired poetic intensity and sudden flowerings of the matchless wit for which he is so well remembered, the stories combine the wisdom of parables with the impact of drama. I have loved them since I was a child: indeed they continue to make a child of me. I do not mind admitting that at the recording some passages were hard to read out loud without choking. I hope you will be as entranced by them as I have always been.

Chekhov is probably better known in Britain for his plays than for his prose. For many, however, it was his short stories that mark the high water of his genius. It might at first glance be hard for those not used to his style of narrative to see what the fuss is about (and fuss there is: for most authors and lovers of literature Chekhov is incomparably the greatest short story writer there ever was): these tales appear to be about nothing. Some are shockingly short and seemingly inconsequential. They often fail to provide that sting in the tail or punch in the gut that we associate with the kind of popular Roald Dahl, Somerset Maugham story. But if you let the character, observation and language do its work I hope you will agree with me that no writer captured, mood, moral entanglement, familial love and the pains and joys of humanity quite as well and with quite so much sympathy and fellow-feeling as Anton Chekhov.

Reading these stories aloud is a sensuous and sensual pleasure. Wilde’s words are like luscious fruits. His sometimes biblical orotundity is counterpointed by little stabs of contemporaneity, bathos and surprise. But how I kept myself from choking and sobbing when reading The Happy Prince and the Nightingale and the Rose is no mystery. I didn’t.

Chekhov’s stories demand I suppose, as do his plays, a rather different vocal thread to be unwound. These delicate, located slices of life require a simpler narrative style than Wilde’s fables which inhabit the neverland that is the alwaysland of fairytales. There remains, of course, the problem that one is reading Chekhov in English sentences that he wrote in Russian. The translations I chose are long-established (let’s be honest, they are old enough to be out of copyright) and not uninfected with uncomfortable instances of ‘translationese’. But to be inside a Chekhov short story is an experience I wouldn’t exchange for a wilderness of monkeys.

Everything we know may be wrong, but art helps us believe that…

Everything we feel is right.

It is odd that we value knowledge above feeling and persuade ourselves too that knowledge is more difficult than feeling But that is a thought for another day and another pair of pyjamas.

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Oscar Wilde read by Stephen is available here on iTunes Store and good digital retailers.
© Samfry Ltd 2008

Stories read are:
THE YOUNG KING (Duration 33:59)
THE SELFISH GIANT (Duration 10:56)
THE REMARKABLE ROCKET (Duration 27:49)
THE NIGHTINGALE AND THE ROSE (Duration 15:30)
THE HAPPY PRINCE (Duration 20:56)
THE DEVOTED FRIEND (Duration 24:34)

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Anton Chekhov read by Stephen is available here on iTunes Store on and good digital retailers.
© Samfry Ltd 2008

Stories read are:
THE LADY WITH THE DOG (Duration 40:37)
THE HUNTSMAN (Duration 10:49)
OYSTERS (Duration 9:56)
MISERY (Duration 13:30)
BOYS (Duration 15:37)
AN AVENGER (Duration 12:27)
A BLUNDER (Duration 4:57)

So. There they are, residing on the servers and patiently awaiting your inspection. Click here for Oscar Wilde and Click here for Anton Chekhov. I’m sorry I can’t bring them to you free: see the books on the store, see my blog here or hear my podgram here for a fuller explanation of that, but I hope you will agree that they are good value. My advice is to load them into your favourite MP3 player and go for a good long walk. You will be in the company of masters. Well, two masters and your obedient servant

Stephen x

* Available on iTunes globally. Also available on alternative digital retailers including Audible and Go Spoken.

This blog was posted in Blessays

53 comments on “Beauty of Soul: Oscar Wilde & Anton Chekhov”

  1. Lucozade says:

    Thank you for your narration of Wilde’s fairy tales, the sheer breathless beauty of them makes my voice catch in my throat, so my poor boys have never had them read without my turning into a blubbering wreck, they now have the opportunity to not only hear them without accompanying tears, but also in your dulcet tones.

  2. pariscolin says:

    Dear Mr. Fry,

    I don’t know if this will actually get to you, but I thought it’s worth a try.
    I’m a classical violinist and composer living in Paris for the past 11 years, originally from New York.
    Recently reunited with an opera-singer friend after 14 years, I was telling her about my most recent projects. And then she forwarded me this entry on the blog about Wilde and Chekhov. I work a lot in the theatre in France and love the relationship between literature and music. The last few years I’ve been working with an older actor who had been with Jean-Louis Barrault’s and Madeleine Renaud’s Company for 10 years, the Comédie Française for 25 and made 5 films with Alain Resnais. I have composed a piece for two violins and narrator based on The Happy Prince that we’ve performed with him in France and we’ve performed also in New York in English. This last year I’ve created “Chekhov Tryptich” a piece for violin, viola and narrator based on three Chekhov short stories. My singer friend was amazed by the coincidence. It seems like you too have been drawn to Wilde and Chekhov. The other musician I work with lives in London most of the time and we’ve been looking to do the piecer in the UK. (he’s currently preparing for Every Good Boy Deserves Favour at the National Theatre) I don’t normally do this, but as I read your entry on Wilde and Chekhov and I saw “Leave a reply” I thought “Why not!”. We’re looking for someone to work with and opportunity to do these works. If you actually get this message and would be interested in knowing more, I would love to share more with you. You can see a little clip of the Chekhov work in french at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZxyLU4iRn80 I’ve conceived of these pieces as chamber music – the music is not an illustration or an accompaniment, it is another character, the scenery, the inner life, etc. All born (I hope) out of the stories of these great masters.

    Thank you for all that you do.
    All my best,
    Colin Pip Dixon

  3. Darwin Prophet says:

    I have recently completed recording of a song cycle of which I have composed music to 12 of Oscar’s poems, with another being a paraphrasing of “Nightingale and the Rose”, I am in the midst of mixing, and making the proper introductions to those who need to be notified of these new creations inspired by our muse. I once befriended your producer Peter Samuelson online, long before the fashion of such connections was mainstream (previous to the release of the film upon which you honored Oscar in your portrayal). I had a band at the time who recorded “Nightingale and the Rose” and a song I wrote for Constance Lloyd-Wilde, named “Spider” that i sent to him. He was quite kind to me in missives, and I hope that these strings shall one day weave a tapestry where a conversation of interconnecting Wilde creations will once again ignite the imagination. I am forever in your debt for your art and your essence that, for me, creates a more satisfying earth upon which to inhabit.

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