Anton Chekhov, reading "The
Seagull" to the ensemble of the Moscow Art Theater, May, 1899
Chekhov, from which this excerpt is drawn, is the first documentary
of Anton Chekhov to be based on primary sources: the letters, diaries,
and memories of Chekhov’s family, friends, and contemporaries that I
from Chekhov archives in Yalta and Moscow, as well as the New York
Library, the Russian State Library, and the Library of Congress. All of
material appears in English translation for the first time. My favorite
discovery was a rare editorial by Chekhov dedicated to the life of
Przhevalsky, a famous Russian geographer. At the very end of the
century Chekhov wrote, “Reading this biography, we do not ask: ‘Why did
this?’ or ‘What did he accomplish?’ but we say, ‘He was right!’” These
also describe Chekhov’s own life.
Sekirin, Editor, Memories of Chekhov
“Chekhov,” from The Russian Word (1904)
I got to
know Chekhov in Moscow at the end of 1895. I remember a few
Chekhovian phrases that he often said to me back then.
write? Do you write a lot?” he asked me one day.
I told him,
“Actually, I don’t write all that much.”
pity,” he told me in a rather gloomy, sad voice which was not typical
“You should not have idle hands, you should always be working. All your
without any discernible connection, he added, “It seems to me that when
write a short story, you have to cut off both the beginning and the
writers do most of our lying in those spaces. You must write shorter,
it as short as possible.”
Chekhov would tell me about Tolstoy: “I admire him greatly. What I
most in him is that he despises us all; all writers. Perhaps a more
description is that he treats us, other writers, as completely empty
could argue that from time to time, he praises Maupassant, or Kuprin,
Semenov, or myself. But why does he praise us? It is simple: it’s
looks at us as if we were children. Our short stories, or even our
are child’s play in comparison with his works. However, Shakespeare…
the reason is different. Shakespeare irritates him because he is a
writer, and does not write in the way that Tolstoy does.”
Gnedich, “Memories,” from The Book of Life (1922)
Lev Tolstoy sincerely
loved Chekhov, but did not like his plays. He told Chekhov once, “A
should take the theater-goer by the hand, and lead him in the direction
wants him to go. And where can I follow your character? To the couch in
living-room and back—because your character has no other place to go.”
both—Tolstoy and Chekhov—laughed at these words.
me later, “When I am writing a new play, and I want my character to
stage, I remember those words of Lev Nikolaevich, and I think ‘Where
character go?’ I feel both funny and angry.” Chekhov’s only consolation
that Tolstoy also did not like the plays of Shakespeare.
me once, “You know, I recently visited Tolstoy in Gaspra. He was
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.’
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.’”
Belousov, “About A.P. Chekhov,” from Thirty Days (1929)
Pavlovich sat in front of a fire-place, looking at the flames. From
time, he tore a piece of bark from the birch log in front of him, and
in the fireplace, obviously thinking intently about something.
called him from outside. He left for some time. Finally, he returned,
we asked him why he was delayed, he reluctantly replied, “I had a
patient waiting for me.”
surprised, “So late? Was it a friend?”
replied, “Not at all. I saw her for the first time in my life. She
prescription for a medicine that can be poisonous. They can only
from a pharmacy with a prescription.”
“You did not
write it, did you?”
Pavlovich did not answer anything. He sat at the fire-place, and threw
more fire-wood. Then, after a long silence, he said quietly, “Maybe
better for her. I looked into her eyes, and understood that she had
decision. There is a big river not far from here, and the Stone Bridge.
jumps, she would be in great pain before she died. With the poison, she
be better off.”
He was silent.
We grew silent as well. Then, to change the subject, we began a
Panov “About the Chekhov’s Portrait,” from Art Review (1904)
tomorrow. I’ll spend the day thinking over my future work, and you can
portrait,” Anton Pavlovich told me.
It was a hot
and suffocating day. The windows were all flung open, but there wasn’t
hint of a breeze, not even the slightest wind coming in from outside.
at his writing desk, immersed in his thoughts.
I gazed at
his tired, mournful eyes, trying to make a sketch of his head tilting
His mind was
on his work, but his face looked drawn, and his features—it seemed to
dissolving into the air. He had a kind of curve in his spine, and his
posture indicated that he was exhausted. He had lost a lot of weight,
including his tilted head, his tired face, the tense movements of his
hands – all this asserted that this was a person listening to his inner
to a voice which a strong, healthy man would never hear, due to the
the illness going on inside of him.
It was very
difficult for me to look upon the features of a person so very sick.
the same time, the experience was invaluable for the entire country.
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
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
always the most truthful.”
(1870-1953) was a prominent Russian writer and winner of the Nobel
Literature in 1933. He and Chekhov were close friends in the years 1900
1904; Peter Gnedich (1855-1925) was a novelist, playwright, translator,
historian of literature who knew many Russian writers of the
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
with the inscription “To the writer Colossus, from a pigmy writer: To
from Belousov.” In March 1903 Chekhov replied “I read your book with
pleasure”; Nikolai Panov (1871-1916) was a Russian painter who lived in
On August 10, 1903, he sketched a portrait of Checkhov and wrote down
impressions that day. The portrait was given to Chekhov as a gift.
Chekhov, edited by Peter Sekirin, will be published this summer.
July 5, 2011