Reminiscences of Anton Chekhov/A. P. Chekhov
I MADE Chekhov's acquaintance in Moscow, towards the end of '95. We met then at intervals and I should not think it worth mentioning, if I did not remember some very characteristic phrases.
"Do you write much?" he asked me once.
I answered that I wrote little.
"Bad," he said, almost sternly, in his low, deep voice. "One must work . . . without sparing oneself ... all one's life."
And, after a pause, without any visible connection, he added:
"When one has written a story I believe that one ought to strike out both the beginning and the end. That is where we novelists are most inclined to lie. And one must write shortly—as shortly as possible."
Then we spoke of poetry, and he suddenly became excited. "Tell me, do you care for Alexey Tolstoy's poems? To me he is an actor. When he was a boy he put on evening dress and he has never taken it off."'
After these stray meetings in which we touched upon some of Chekhov's favorite topics—as that one must work "without sparing oneself" and must write simply and without the shadow of falsehood—we did not meet till the spring of '99. I came to Yalta for a few days, and one evening I met Chekhov on the quay.
"Why don't you come to see me?" were his first words. "Be sure to come tomorrow."
"At what time?" I asked.
"In the morning about eight."
And seeing perhaps that I looked surprised he added:
"We get up early. Don't you?"
"Yes I do too," I said.
"Well then, come when you get up. We will give you coffee. You take coffee?"
"You ought to always. It's a wonderful drink. When I am working, I drink nothing but coffee and chicken broth until the evening. Coffee in the morning and chicken broth at midday. If I don't, my work suffers."
I thanked him for asking me, and we crossed the quay in silence and sat down on a bench.
"Do you love the sea?" I asked.
"Yes," he replied. "But it is too lonely."
"That's what I like about it," I replied.
"I wonder," he mused, looking through his spectacles away into the distance and thinking his own thoughts. "It must be nice to be a soldier, or a young undergraduate ... to sit in a crowd and listen to the band. . . ."
And then, as was usual with him, after a pause and without apparent connection, he added :
"It is very difficult to describe the sea. Do you know the description that a schoolboy gave in an exercise?: 'The sea is vast.' Only that. Wonderful, I think."
Some people might think him affected in saying this. But Chekhov affected!
"I grant," said one who knew Chekhov well, "that I have met men as sincere as Chekhov. But any one so simple, and so free from pose and affectation I have never known!"
And that is true. He loved all that was sincere, vital, and gay, so long as it was neither coarse nor dull, and could not endure pedants, or book-worms who have got so much into the habit of making phrases that they can talk in no other way. In his writings he scarcely ever spoke of himself or of his views, and this led people to think him a man without principles or sense of duty to his kind. In life, too, he was no egotist, and seldom spoke of his likings and dislikings. But both were very strong and lasting, and simplicity was one of the things he liked best. "The sea is vast." . . . To him, with his passion for simplicity and his loathing of the strained and affected, that was "wonderful." His words about the officer and the music showed another characteristic of his: his reserve. The transition from the sea to the officer was no doubt inspired by his secret craving for youth and health. The sea is lonely. . . . And Chekhov loved life and joy. During his last years his desire for happiness, even of the simplest kind, would constantly show itself in his conversation. It would be hinted at, not expressed.
In Moscow, in the year 1895, I saw a middle-aged man (Chekhov was then 35) wearing pince-nez, quietly dressed, rather tall, and light and graceful in his movements. He welcomed me, but so quietly that I, then a boy, took his quietness for coldness. ... In Yalta, in the year 1899, I found him already much changed; he had grown thin; his face was sadder; his distinction was as great as ever but it was the distinction of an elderly man, who has gone through much, and been ennobled by his suffering. His voice was gentler. ... In other respects he was much as he had been in Moscow; cordial, speaking with animation, but even more simply and shortly, and, while he talked, he went on with his own thoughts. He let me grasp the connections between his thoughts as well as I could, while he looked through his glasses at the sea, his face slightly raised. Next morning after meeting him on the quay I went to his house. I well remember the bright sunny morning that I spent with Chekhov in his garden. He was very lively, and laughed and read me the only poem, so he said, that he had ever written, "Horses, Hares and Chinamen, a fable for children." (Chekhov wrote it for the children of a friend. See Letters.)
- Once walked over a bridge
- Fat Chinamen,
- In front of them, with their tails up,
- Hares ran quickly.
- Suddenly the Chinamen shouted :
- "Stop! Whoa! Ho! Ho!"
- The hares raised their tails still higher
- And hid in the bushes.
- The moral of this fable is clear:
- He who wants to eat hares
- Every day getting out of bed
- Must obey his father.
After that visit I went to him more and more frequently. Chekhov's attitude towards me therefore changed. He became more friendly and cordial. . . . But he was still reserved, yet, as he was reserved not only with me but with those who were most intimate with him, it rose, I believed, not from coldness, but from something much more important.
The charming white stone house, bright in the sun; the little orchard, planted and tended by Chekhov himself who loved all flowers, trees, and animals; his study, with its few pictures, and the large window which looked out onto the valley of the river Utchan-Spo, and the blue triangle of the sea; the hours, days, and even months which I spent there, and my friendship with the man who fascinated me not only by his genius but also by his stern voice and his child-like smile all this will always remain one of the happiest memories of my life. He was friendly to me and at times almost tender. But the reserve which I have spoken of never disappeared even when we were most intimate. He was reserved about everything.
He was very humorous and loved laughter, but he only laughed his charming infectious laugh when somebody else had made a joke: he himself would say the most amusing things without the slightest smile. He delighted in jokes, in absurd nicknames, and in mystifying people. . . . Even towards the end when he felt a little better his humor was irrepressible. And with what subtle humor he would make one laugh! He would drop a couple of words and wink his eye above his glasses. . . .
His letters too, though their form is perfect, are full of delightful humor.
But Chekhov's reserve was shown in a great many other ways which proved the strength of his character. No one ever heard him complain, though no one had more reason to complain. He was one of a large family, which lived in a state of actual want. He had to work for money under conditions which would have extinguished the most fiery inspiration. He lived in a tiny flat, writing at the edge of a table, in the midst of talk and noise with the whole family and often several visitors sitting round him. For many years he was very poor. . . . Yet he scarcely ever grumbled at his lot. It was not that he asked little of life : on the contrary, he hated what was mean and meager though he was nobly Spartan in the way he lived. For fifteen years he suffered from an exhausting illness which finally killed him, but his readers never knew it. The same could not be said of most writers. Indeed, the manliness with which he bore his sufferings and met his death was admirable. Even at his worst he almost succeeded in hiding his pain.
"You are not feeling well, Antosha?" his mother or sister would say, seeing him sitting all day with his eyes shut.
"I?" he would answer, quietly, opening the eyes which looked so clear and mild without his glasses. "Oh, it's nothing. I have a little headache."
He loved literature passionately, and to talk of writers and to praise Maupassant, Flaubert, or Tolstoy was a great joy to him. He spoke with particular enthusiasm of those just mentioned and also of Lermontov's "Taman."
"I cannot understand," he would say, "how a mere boy could have written Taman! Ah, if one had written that and a good comedy—then one would be content to die!"
But his talk about literature was very different from the usual shop talked by writers, with its narrowness, and smallness, and petty personal spite. He would only discuss books with people who loved literature above all other arts and were disinterested and pure in their love of it.
"You should not read your writing to other people before it is published," he often said. "And it is most important never to take any one's advice. If you have made a mess of it, let the blood be on your own head. Maupassant by his greatness has so raised the standard of writing that it is very hard to write; but we have to write, especially we Russians, and in writing one must be courageous. There are big dogs and little dogs, but the little dogs should not be disheartened by the existence of the big dogs. All must bark—and bark with the voice God gave them."
All that went on in the world of letters interested him keenly, and he was indignant with the stupidity, falsehood, affectation and charlatanry which batten upon literature. But though he was angry he was never irritable and there was nothing personal in his anger. It is usual to say of dead writers that they rejoiced in the success of others, and were not jealous of them. If, therefore, I suspected Chekhov of the least jealousy I should be content to say nothing about it. But the fact is that he rejoiced in the existence of talent, spontaneously. The word "talentless" was, I think, the most damaging expression he could use.
His own failures and successes He took as he alone knew how to take them.
He was writing for twenty-five years and during that time his writing was constantly attacked. Being one of the greatest and most subtle of Russian writers, he never used his art to preach. That being so, Russian critics could neither understand him nor approve of him. Did they not insist that Levitan should "light up" his landscapes—that is paint in a cow, a goose, or the figure of a woman? Such criticism hurt Chekhov a good deal, and embittered him even more than he was already embittered by Russian life itself. His bitterness would show itself momentarily—only momentarily.
"We shall soon be celebrating your jubilee, Anton Pavlovitch!"
"I know your jubilees. For twenty-five years they do nothing but abuse and ridicule a man, and then you give him a pen made of aluminum and slobber over him for a whole day, and cry, and kiss him, and gush!"
To talk of his fame and his popularity he would answer in the same way—with two or three words or a jest.
"Have you read it, Anton Pavlovitch?" one would ask, having read an article about him.
He would look slyly over his spectacles, ludicrously lengthen his face, and say in his deep voice:
"Oh, a thousand thanks! There is a whole column, and at the bottom of it, 'There is also a writer called Chekhov: a discontented man, a grumbler.'"
Sometimes he would add seriously:
"When you find yourself criticized, remember us sinners. The critics boxed our ears for trifles just as if we were schoolboys. One of them foretold that I should die in a ditch. He supposed that I had been expelled from school for drunkenness."
I never saw Chekhov lose his temper. Very seldom was he irritated, and if it did happen he controlled himself astonishingly. I remember, for instance, that he was once annoyed by reading in a book that he was "indifferent" to questions of morality and society, and that he was a pessimist. Yet his annoyance showed itself only in two words:
Nor did I find him cold. He said that he was cold when he wrote, and that he only wrote when the thoughts and images that he was about to express were perfectly clear to him, and then he wrote on, steadily, without interruptions, until he had brought it to an end.
"One ought only to write when one feels completely calm," he said once.
But this calm was of a very peculiar nature. No other Russian writer had his sensibility and his complexity.
Indeed, it would take a very versatile mind to throw any light upon this profound and complex spirit—this "incomparable artist" as Tolstoy called him. I can only bear witness that he was a man of rare spiritual nobleness, distinguished and cultivated in the best sense, who combined tenderness and delicacy with complete sincerity, kindness and sensitiveness with complete candour.
To be truthful and natural and yet retain great charm implies a nature of rare beauty, integrity, and power. I speak so frequently of Chekhov's composure because his composure seems to me a proof of the strength of his character. It was always his, I think, even when he was young and in the highest spirits, and it was that, perhaps, that made him so independent, and able to begin his work unpretentiously and courageously, without paltering with his conscience.
Do you remember the words of the old professor in 'The Tedious Story?"
"I won't say that French books are good and gifted and noble; but they are not so dull as Russian books, and the chief element of creative power is often to be found in them—the sense of personal freedom."
Chekhov had in the highest degree that "sense of personal freedom" and he could not bear that others should be without it. He would become bitter and uncompromising if he thought that others were taking liberties with it.
That "freedom," it is well known, cost him a great deal ; but he was not one of those people who have two different ideals—one for themselves, the other for the public. His success was for a very long time much less than he deserved. But he never during the whole of his life made the least effort to increase his popularity. He was extremely severe upon all the wire-pulling which is now resorted to in order to achieve success.
"Do you still call them writers'? They are cab-men!" he said bitterly.
His dislike to being made a show of at times seemed excessive.
"The Scorpion (a publishing firm) advertise their books badly," he wrote to me after the publication of "Northern Flowers." "They put my name first, and when I read the advertisement in the daily Russkya Vedomosti I swore I would never again have any truck with scorpions, crocodiles, or snakes."
This was the winter of 1900 when Chekhov who had become interested in certain features of the new publishing firm "Scorpion" gave them at my request one of his youthful stories, "On the Sea." They printed it in a volume of collected stories and he many times regretted it.
"All this new Russian art is nonsense," he would say. "I remember that I once saw a sign-board in Taganrog: Arfeticial (for 'artificial') mineral waters are sold here! Well, this new art is the same as that."
His reserve came from the loftiness of his spirit and from his incessant endeavor to express himself exactly. It will eventually happen that people will know that he was not only an "incomparable artist," not only an amazing master of language but an incomparable man into the bargain. But it will take many years for people to grasp in its fullness his subtlety, power, and delicacy.
"How are you, dear Ivan Alexeyevitch?" he wrote to me at Nice. "I wish you a happy New Year. I received your letter, thank you. In Moscow everything is safe, sound, and dull. There is no news (except the New Year) nor is any news expected. My play is not yet produced, nor do I know when it will be. It is possible that I may come to Nice in February. . . . Greet the lovely hot sun from me, and the quiet sea. Enjoy yourself, be happy, don't think about illness, and write often to your friends. . . . Keep well, and cheerful, and don't forget your sallow northern countrymen, who suffer from indigestion and bad temper." (8th January, 1904).
"Greet the lovely hot sun and the quiet sea from me" ... I seldom heard him say that. But I often felt that he ought to say it, and then my heart ached sadly.
I remember one night in early spring. It was late. Suddenly the telephone rang. I heard Chekhov's deep voice :
"Sir, take a cab and come here. Let us go for a drive."
"A drive 4 ? At this time of night?" I answered. "What's the matter, Anton Pavlovitch?"
"I am in love."
"That's good. But it is past nine. . . . You will catch cold."
"Young man, don't quibble!"
Ten minutes later I was at Antka. The house, where during the winter Chekhov lived alone with his mother, was dark and silent, save that a light came through the key-hole of his mother's room, and two little candles burnt in the semi-darkness of his study. My heart shrank as usual at the sight of that quiet study, where Chekhov passed so many lonely winter nights, thinking bitterly perhaps on the fate which had given him so much and mocked him so cruelly.
"What a night!" he said to me with even more than his usual tenderness and pensive gladness, meeting me in the doorway. "It is so dull here! The only excitement is when the telephone rings and Sophie Pavlovna asks what I am doing, and I answer: 'I am catching mice/ Come, let us drive to Orianda. I don't care a hang if I do catch cold!"
The night was warm and still, with a bright moon, light clouds, and a few stars in the deep blue sky. The carriage rolled softly along the white road, and, soothed by the stillness of the night, we sat silent looking at the sea glowing a dim gold. . . . Then came the forest cobwebbed over with shadows, but already spring-like and beautiful. . . . Black troops of giant cypresses rose majestically into the sky. We stopped the carriage and walked beneath them, past the ruins of the castle, which were pale blue in the moonlight. Chekhov suddenly said to me:
"Do you know for how many years I shall be read? Seven."
"Why seven?" I asked.
"Seven and a half, then."
"No," I said. "Poetry lives long, and the longer it lives the better it becomes—like wine."
He said nothing, but when we had sat down on a bench from which we could see the sea shining in the moonlight, he took off his glasses and said, looking at me with his kind, tired eyes :
"Poets, sir, are those who use such phrases as 'the silvery distance,' 'accord,' or 'onward, onward, to the fight with the powers of darkness' !"
"You are sad to-night, Anton Pavlovitch," I said, looking at his kind and beautiful face, pale in the moonlight.
He was thoughtfully digging up little pebbles with the end of his stick, with his eyes on the ground. But when I said that he was sad, he looked across at me, humorously.
"It is you who are sad," he answered. "You are sad because you have spent such a lot on the cab."
Then he added gravely :
"Yes, I shall only be read for another seven years; and I shall live for less—perhaps for six. But don't go and tell that to the newspaper reporters."
He was wrong there: he did not live for six years. . . .
He died peacefully without suffering in the stillness and beauty of a summer's dawn which he had always loved. When he was dead a look of happiness came upon his face, and it looked like the face of a very young man. There came to my mind the words of Leconte de Lisle :
- Moi, je l'envie, au fond du tombeau calm et noir
- D'etre affranchi de vivre et de ne plus savoir
- La honte de penser et l'horreur d'etre un homme!