To Alexei Suvorin
April 1, 1897
The doctors have diagnosed pulmonary apical lesions and have ordered me to change my way of life. I can understand the former but not the latter, because it is almost impossible. They order me to live in the country, but living permanently in the country presupposes constant fussing about with peasants, animals and the elements in all their forms, and it is as difficult to avoid cares and anxieties in the country as it is to avoid burns in hell. But I will still try to change my way of life as much as possible, and I have already sent word with Masha that I will no longer practice medicine in the country. It will be both a relief and a great disappointment for me. I am giving up all my district duties and buying a dressing gown, and I will bask in the sun and eat and eat. My doctors have ordered me to eat about six times daily, and they are indignant at finding that I eat so little. I am forbidden to do much talking, to go swimming and so on and so forth.
All my organs aside from the lungs were found to be healthy. Until now I felt I had been drinking exactly as much as I could without doing any harm to myself, but it turns out I wasn’t drinking as much as I was entitled to. What a shame!
The author of “Ward Number Six” has been transferred from ward number sixteen to ward number fourteen. It is spacious and has two windows, Potapenko-style lighting, and three tables. I am not losing much blood. After Tolstoy came to see me one evening (we talked at great length), I hemorrhaged violently at four in the morning.
Melikhovo is a healthful spot. It’s right on a watershed and at a good altitude, so it’s free from fever and diphtheria. After taking counsel, we decided that I should continue at Melikhovo and not go off anywhere. All I have to do is make the house more comfortable. When I get tired of Melikhovo, I’ll go to the neighboring estate I’ve rented for my brothers when they come to visit.
I have a constant stream of visitors. They bring me flowers and candy and things to eat. Heaven, in a word.
I read about the performance at Pavlova Hall in the Petersburg Gazette. Tell Nastya that if I had been there I would have definitely presented her with a basket of flowers. My most humble respects and greetings to Anna Ivanova.
By now I can write sitting up instead of lying on my back, but as soon as I finish writing, I go back to reclining on my sickbed.
Yours, A. Chekhov
The letter, like so many others he wrote—apart from the antic jottings of his youth and the ones in which he pontificated to his brother about how to get his act together and become a mensch already; and the short exhausted notes he managed in the runup to his death at forty-four—is remarkably even in tone, considering the extraordinary volume of the hemorrhage he had suffered in the middle of dinner at one of Moscow’s fashionable restaurants on March 21. The only peevish note sounded in the letter is the ironic “Heaven, in a word,” because all these visitors kept asking him questions he felt obliged to answer even though he was under orders not to talk; which explains what happened a few hours after Tolstoy left.
Some data are in order. The letter, hardly an April Fool’s flourish, is dated 1897, when the author, enjoying life on the summit of his creativity, was thirty-seven years old and now had seven years left. He had known that he was tubercular since he was twenty-four after seeing one of his brothers through to his tubercular death and catching the bacillus himself, and although Chekhov spat blood frequently in the years between, and was a doctor besides, he seems to have used extraordinary powers of denial not to know that there was a shadow hanging over his numbered days, and that the crisis would eventually, inevitably descend on him full-force. In 1890, with his tuberculosis already well advanced, he undertook a hazardous cross-Russian journey in late winter, much of it by sledge, in order to do his academic duty and spend months in the prisons of Sakhalin Island in the far east, documenting the lives and conditions of those criminally exiled there.
In his letters, Chekhov is as different from the author of his literary work as his stories are different from his plays. He is documentary, affectionate, humorous, and in the main upbeat. His correspondence only takes the familiar downward turn under the force majeure of a new hemmorhage, or the tedium of Yalta, where he was condemned to winter for his health. In his stories and plays everyone is in some degree of decline, prosaically in the all-seeing tales, more musically when onstage.
At the Moscow Art Theatre they called him “The Inspector of Actresses,” and no wonder. In his short life he engaged in at least twenty-four prolonged love-affairs, many of them running polyphonically, and he stopped evading marriage—he was six foot one in the nineteenth century, handsome, a genius, successful, with a great sense of humor and frequently easing himself with a catlike smile out the door and back to his freedom: in other words, Russian catnip—only when he was weakened by the latter phases of his illness, when the actress Olga Knipper just wouldn’t let go until she landed this most slippery of fish. They lived mostly apart, he in Yalta, frequenting its brothels, they say, when he was well enough, and she conducting, they say, her own affairs in Moscow, and not in secret: Chekhov consoled her after a miscarriage. Well, it might have been his. But she was at his bedside when he died, in Germany, finally admitting that the time had come, asking for a bottle of champagne, sipping a glass or two and speaking his last words before turning to the wall. “It’s a long time since I’ve had champagne.”
He is usually considered a paragon, perhaps even a saint, among major writers; considering the high and low foolishness of the competition we might as well by the scale of the contrast proclaim him, why not, a god. But there is yet a third Chekhov, only fleetingly, fugitively on view: the man who seriously maintained that he had spent years squeezing the last drop of serf’s blood from his veins, by an extraordinary effort of will transforming himself into a free man without rancor toward the mess and squalor of his upbringing, including its author, his alcoholic and hysterically religious father. He succeeded in becoming a doctor, and when that did not provide sufficient rubles to support the not exactly small family, he took to scribbling jokes and short tales in the privy and selling them to the newspapers. After a while, influenced by his closest friend and patron, the Suvorin to whom he addressed his April letter, he began to take his writing more seriously, as it had come to deserve.
This same Suvorin characterized him as “a man of flint,” with “enormous amour-propre,” and not in person the unassuming, all-compassionate medico who wrote his collected works, which a couple of years after his Moscow hemorrhage numbered 4,500 pages and not yet done: “The Cherry Orchard” and several major stories were still to come. What kind of man do you think it took to accomplish that? Is it possible that this inventor of the modern short story and of the plupart of modern drama resembled others in the trade in confiding the best of himself to his scribbling and left the hind parts to those who knew him in life? Russian readers seem to know this third, less palatable Chekhov; in general we in the West do not.
A rat with women, a teaser of their souls and exploiter of their bodies. He dropped Lika Mizinova when she gained weight. A Dreyfusard but also an occasional anti-semite. A man all self-will, bubble-wrap protected in the world he ceaselessly authored in himself and on page and stage. Indisputably right about everything, as most successful writers discover themselves to be; although Chekhov did it without shouting.
I don’t entirely believe it.
Only yesterday a Russian friend maintained that the good doctor was a misogynist. The author of “Three Sisters,” “The House With a Mansard” and the lesser-known gem about a provincial schoolteacher whose life flashes past as she helplessly watches “In the Cart”?
No, I don’t entirely believe it. But that “man of flint” line. A telling spark can be struck from it. It’s not so easy to say, but our author’s ease with the hard facts of human decline, so clear-eyed while essentially untroubled by such unmerciful clarity of view . . . and his first wholly mature masterpiece, “A Boring Story” of 1889, about a professor who is coming lucidly to the end of his life and the wearing-out of his heart and mind in view of the fact that nothing has lasted, and all is lost. It’s neither boring nor Dull, as the title is often translated, but oddly radiant in the steady light of truth. Or the intelligent, cultured Jewish man in “Ward Six” who lucidly gives way to persecution mania and remains clearsighted while fixed in a paranoia which the brutal asylum around him is only too ready to confirm and enforce. Even Tolstoy might have blanched, seeing with such an eye and the truth set down in such supple, untroubled prose.
From the beginning of the Covid epoch I was so immersed in the hellbound rollercoaster ride of the virus and the Trump misadministration that it was hard to drag my eyes away from the news-screen and apply them to a book. I did enjoy one new novel, Kevin Barry’s Night Boat To Tangier, or at least the first two-thirds of it, but found Marilynne Robinson’s Jack, so fine in the slim pre-pub filet the New Yorker served up, at length a repetitious bore for re-serving the same filet almost ad infinitum. Chekhov in his letters provided the most nourishing and congenial company. His equanimity in the valley of the shadow, his apparent contentment even when so badly weakened he was able to prune only one rose bush a day. His calm and lack of rancor. If I could only be more like him.
Two days before the New York shutdown in March 2020, a finger of cold damp weather probed my innards through my coat on an uncharacteristically uncrowded corner of midtown, and by the time I took the F Train home I was wheezing with a lower-mid-strength constriction of bronchitis. Because I knew that the coronavirus needed to germinate and multiply for days before showing itself in symptoms, I rationally understood that I was only suffering, a little, from my old congenital weakness. These mild bouts usually don’t last long, although they keep threatening a more serious attack for the duration. This time it hovered on the verge of a greater stranglehold for two and a half months, and although I knew I was safe from the Bad Thing, if dangerously vulnerable to a terminal case if I was unlucky or careless enough to catch even a small dose of it, that sufficed to put my nerves on edge and keep me worried and irritable most of the time.
A muted but insistent pleading note creeps in only during Chekhov’s last, hard years, in letters from Yalta to Olga in Moscow. He has moved from trying to keep her up there—don’t come to Yalta, there are too many flies and nothing to do—to actually missing her, needing her, but even then his sense of and affection for the details of mundane life forestall the oncome of the maudlin. I’m not a Russian who has heard the bad rumors about him since schooldays, so Doctor Chekhov remains my welcome, truthtelling, uplifting, faithful friend, a privilege to have met him, even at this remove.
To Olga Knipper
April 26, 1901
Dog Olga! I shall come early in May. As soon as you get my telegram, go immediately to the Dresden Hotel and inquire if Room 45 is free, in other words, reserve a cheap room.
I often see Nemirovich, he is very nice, does not put on airs; I haven’t yet seen his spouse. I am coming to Moscow chiefly to gallivant and gorge myself. We’ll go to Petrovskoe-Razumovskoe, to Zvenigorod—we’ll go everywhere, provided the weather is good. If you consent to go down the Volga with me, we’ll eat sturgeon.
Kuprin is apparently in love—under an enchantment. He fell in love with a huge, husky woman whom you know and whom you advised me to marry.
If you give me your word that not a soul in Moscow will know about our wedding until it has taken place, I am ready to marry you on the very day of my arrival. For some reason, I am terribly afraid of the wedding ceremony and congratulations and champagne you must hold in your hand while you smile vaguely. I wish we could go straight from church to Zvenigorod. Think, think, darling! You are clever, they say.
The weather in Yalta is rather wretched. A fierce wind. The roses are blooming, but not fully; they will, though. The irises are magnificent.
Everything is all right with me, except for one trifle: my health.
Gorky has not been deported, but arrested, he is held in Nizhny. Posse, too, has been arrested.
I embrace you, Olka.
1 thought on “CHEKHOV AGAIN, IN THE VALLEY OF THE SHADOW”
Thank you for this lovely piece. My grandson turns four today. Perhaps I will get to talk with him about Chekhov around 2035.