The last time I set up a website I had to use actual webs, along, of course, with the usual hammer and chisel, and the antelope I claimed to have hunted and bulls I had coached were even harder to draw than they were to count. The webs were mostly for decoration, and the spider did not come cheap and she took long breaks for “lunch.” As for tweets, my mynah bird kept going over the limit.
So it’s been a while since I’ve done this.
During lockdown in my present Brooklyn cave, Chekhov’s letters, even though none of them were sent to me, provided the friendliest reading. It’s always good to encounter a great writer who is not only not a jerk but actually some kind of paragon. I don’t mean just inventing the modern short story and, in a different, more musical mode of invention, the plupart of modern drama. I do mean a guy who lived only to the age of 44, published over 4,500 pages of sketches, stories, plays, and his extraordinary survey of the Russian penal colony on Sakhalin Island—the letters chronicle his eye-widening journey across Russia in late winter—and found time, when a cholera epidemic hit his region, to get on the road with horse and cart, a good country doctor—never mind that he was in increasingly tubercular health—looking after his neighbors and also raising funds so that the local landsmen wouldn’t sell their livestock and seed-grain, and they’d have the means of surviving once the epidemic passed. Timely, huh?
And he wrote in fairly simple sentences, one after another, without exaggeration, so that we see the truth. Okay, he was opportunistic and elusive with the women who fell in love with him, and only let one tie him down when he was on his last legs, so, absolutely perfect he was not. But if you don’t know his letters and if, as I assume by your presence here, you’re into writers and writing, you’ll find him more upbeat among his friends—you’ll soon be one of them—than in most of his published work.
I had two collections to work with. One, edited by Simon Karlinsky, frames an acute selection of letters with biographical and personal commentary, and is a smooth, authoritative read. The other, a sprawling compendium chocked by Avrahm Yarmolinsky with wonderful Chekhovian ramble and flow, can probably be found used via some shop or website or another. All of it will cheer you up about writing, if you need cheering up about writing, and although we can’t all be Chekhov, or for that matter Shakespeare, Tolstoy, or PG Wodehouse, getting to know one of the finest, pleasantest authors in the club will not only improve the prospect ahead but teach you tons.
Let me know if you get in touch with him, and drop by at this address to tell me how he, and you, are doing. I’ll roast a haunch of something for you, if there’s anything left in the cave.