Roving thoughts and provocations

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Memories of Chekhov

Chekhov Museum, Badenweiler
Anton Chekhov, reading “The Seagull” to the ensemble of the Moscow Art Theater, May, 1899

Memories of Chekhov, from which this excerpt is drawn, is the first documentary biography of Anton Chekhov to be based on primary sources: the letters, diaries, essays, and memories of Chekhov’s family, friends, and contemporaries that I collected from Chekhov archives in Yalta and Moscow, as well as the New York Public Library, the Russian State Library, and the Library of Congress. All of this material appears in English translation for the first time. My favorite discovery was a rare editorial by Chekhov dedicated to the life of Nikolai Przhevalsky, a famous Russian geographer. At the very end of the nineteenth century Chekhov wrote, “Reading this biography, we do not ask: ‘Why did he do this?’ or ‘What did he accomplish?’ but we say, ‘He was right!’” These words also describe Chekhov’s own life.

—Peter Sekirin, Editor, Memories of Chekhov

*

Ivan Bunin, “Chekhov,” from The Russian Word (1904)

I got to know Chekhov in Moscow at the end of 1895. I remember a few specifically Chekhovian phrases that he often said to me back then.

“Do you write? Do you write a lot?” he asked me one day.

I told him, “Actually, I don’t write all that much.”

“That’s a pity,” he told me in a rather gloomy, sad voice which was not typical of him. “You should not have idle hands, you should always be working. All your life.”

And then, without any discernible connection, he added, “It seems to me that when you write a short story, you have to cut off both the beginning and the end. We writers do most of our lying in those spaces. You must write shorter, to make it as short as possible.”

Sometimes Chekhov would tell me about Tolstoy: “I admire him greatly. What I admire the most in him is that he despises us all; all writers. Perhaps a more accurate description is that he treats us, other writers, as completely empty space. You could argue that from time to time, he praises Maupassant, or Kuprin, or Semenov, or myself. But why does he praise us? It is simple: it’s because he looks at us as if we were children. Our short stories, or even our novels, all are child’s play in comparison with his works. However, Shakespeare… For him, the reason is different. Shakespeare irritates him because he is a grown-up writer, and does not write in the way that Tolstoy does.”

*

Peter Gnedich, “Memories,” from The Book of Life (1922)

Lev Tolstoy sincerely loved Chekhov, but did not like his plays. He told Chekhov once, “A playwright should take the theater-goer by the hand, and lead him in the direction he wants him to go. And where can I follow your character? To the couch in the living-room and back—because your character has no other place to go.” They both—Tolstoy and Chekhov—laughed at these words.

Chekhov told me later, “When I am writing a new play, and I want my character to exit the stage, I remember those words of Lev Nikolaevich, and I think ‘Where will my character go?’ I feel both funny and angry.” Chekhov’s only consolation was that Tolstoy also did not like the plays of Shakespeare.

Chekhov told me once, “You know, I recently visited Tolstoy in Gaspra. He was bedridden due to illness. Among other things, he spoke about me and my works. Finally, when I was about to say goodbye he took my hand and said, ‘Kiss me goodbye.’ While I bent over him and he was kissing me, he whispered in my ear in a still energetic, old man’s voice, ‘You know, I hate your plays. Shakespeare was a bad writer, and I consider your plays even worse than his.’”

*

Ivan Belousov, “About A.P. Chekhov,” from Thirty Days (1929)

Anton Pavlovich sat in front of a fire-place, looking at the flames. From time to time, he tore a piece of bark from the birch log in front of him, and threw it in the fireplace, obviously thinking intently about something.

His maid called him from outside. He left for some time. Finally, he returned, and when we asked him why he was delayed, he reluctantly replied, “I had a medical patient waiting for me.”

I was surprised, “So late? Was it a friend?”

Chekhov replied, “Not at all. I saw her for the first time in my life. She needed a prescription for a medicine that can be poisonous. They can only dispense it from a pharmacy with a prescription.”

“You did not write it, did you?”

Anton Pavlovich did not answer anything. He sat at the fire-place, and threw in some more fire-wood. Then, after a long silence, he said quietly, “Maybe this is better for her. I looked into her eyes, and understood that she had made a decision. There is a big river not far from here, and the Stone Bridge. If she jumps, she would be in great pain before she died. With the poison, she would be better off.”

He was silent. We grew silent as well. Then, to change the subject, we began a conversation about literature.

*

Nikolai Panov “About the Chekhov’s Portrait,” from Art Review (1904)

“Please come tomorrow. I’ll spend the day thinking over my future work, and you can paint my portrait,” Anton Pavlovich told me.

It was a hot and suffocating day. The windows were all flung open, but there wasn’t even the hint of a breeze, not even the slightest wind coming in from outside.

Chekhov sat at his writing desk, immersed in his thoughts.

I gazed at his tired, mournful eyes, trying to make a sketch of his head tilting to one side.

His mind was on his work, but his face looked drawn, and his features—it seemed to me— were dissolving into the air. He had a kind of curve in his spine, and his entire posture indicated that he was exhausted. He had lost a lot of weight, and he looked gaunt.

His posture, including his tilted head, his tired face, the tense movements of his thick hands – all this asserted that this was a person listening to his inner voice, to a voice which a strong, healthy man would never hear, due to the process of the illness going on inside of him.

It was very difficult for me to look upon the features of a person so very sick. Yet, at the same time, the experience was invaluable for the entire country.

“Have you found anything worth painting?” he asked me about his portrait.

I looked at his somber face and replied, “No. It does not look anything like what I wanted to depict. You seem too sad and tired in this portrait.”

“Then let us leave it as it is. Please, do not change anything. The first impression is always the most truthful.”

Ivan Bunin (1870-1953) was a prominent Russian writer and winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1933. He and Chekhov were close friends in the years 1900 to 1904; Peter Gnedich (1855-1925) was a novelist, playwright, translator, and historian of literature who knew many Russian writers of the 1900s-1920s and left lengthy accounts of the lives of his contemporaries; Ivan Belousov (1870-1953) was a poet and children’s book writer. He gave Chekhov his book with the inscription “To the writer Colossus, from a pigmy writer: To Chekhov from Belousov.” In March 1903 Chekhov replied “I read your book with great pleasure”; Nikolai Panov (1871-1916) was a Russian painter who lived in Yalta. On August 10, 1903, he sketched a portrait of Checkhov and wrote down his impressions that day. The portrait was given to Chekhov as a gift.

Memories of Chekhov, edited by Peter Sekirin, will be published this summer.

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