Anton Chekhov: Fragments of Recollections
Osip Braz, Portrait of Anton Pavlovich Chekhov, 1898
by Maxim Gorky
Once he invited me to the village Kout-chouk-Koy where he had a tiny strip of land and a white, two-storied house. There, while showing me his “estate,” he began to speak with animation: “If I had plenty of money, I should build a sanatorium here for invalid village teachers. You know, I would put up a large, bright building—very bright, with large windows and lofty rooms. I would have a fine library, different musical instruments, bees, a vegetable garden, an orchard. . . . There would be lectures on agriculture, mythology. . . . Teachers ought to know everything, everything, my dear fellow.”
He was suddenly silent, coughed, looked at me out of the corners of his eyes, and smiled that tender, charming smile of his which attracted one so irresistibly to him and made one listen so attentively to his words.
“Does it bore you to listen to my fantasies’? I do love to talk of it. … If you knew how badly the Russian village needs a nice, sensible, educated teacher! We ought in Russia to give the teacher particularly good conditions, and it ought to be done as quickly as possible. We ought to realize that without a wide education of the people, Russia will collapse, like a house built of badly baked bricks. A teacher must be an artist, in love with his calling; but with us he is a journeyman, ill educated, who goes to the village to teach children as though he were going into exile. He is starved, crushed, terrorized by the fear of losing his daily bread. But he ought to be the first man in the village; the peasants ought to recognize him as a power, worthy of attention and respect; no one should dare to shout at him or humilate him personally, as with us every one does—the village constable, the rich shop-keeper, the priest, the rural police commissioner, the school guardian, the councilor, and that official who has the title of school-inspector, but who cares nothing for the improvement of education and only sees that the circulars of his chiefs are carried out. … It is ridiculous to pay in farthings the man who has to educate the people. It is intolerable that he should walk in rags, shiver with cold in damp and draughty schools, catch cold, and about the age of thirty get laryngitis, rheumatism, or tuberculosis. We ought to be ashamed of it. Our teacher, for eight or nine months in the year, lives like a hermit: he has no one to speak a word to; without company, books, or amusements, he is growing stupid, and, if he invites his colleagues to visit him, then he becomes politically suspect—a stupid word with which crafty men frighten fools. All this is disgusting; it is the mockery of a man who is doing a great and tremendously important work. . . . Do you know, whenever I see a teacher, I feel ashamed for him, for his timidity, and because he is badly dressed … it seems to me that for the teacher’s wretchedness I am myself to blame—I mean it.”
He was silent, thinking; and then, waving his hand, he said gently: “This Russia of ours is such an absurd, clumsy country.”
A shadow of sadness crossed his beautiful eyes; little rays of wrinkles surrounded them and made them look still more meditative. Then, looking round, he said jestingly: “You see, I have fired off at you a complete leading article from a radical paper. Come, I’ll give you tea to reward your patience.”
That was characteristic of him, to speak so earnestly, with such warmth and sincerity, and then suddenly to laugh at himself and his speech. In that sad and gentle smile one felt the subtle skepticism of the man who knows the value of words and dreams; and there also flashed in the smile a lovable modesty and delicate sensitiveness. . . .
We walked back slowly in silence to the house. It was a clear, hot day; the waves sparkled under the bright rays of the sun; down below one heard a dog barking joyfully. Chekhov took my arm, coughed, and said slowly: “It is shameful and sad, but true: there are many men who envy the dogs.”
And he added immediately with a laugh: “To-day I can only make feeble speeches … It means that I’m getting old.”
I often heard him say: “You know, a teacher has just come here—he’s ill, married . . . couldn’t you do something for him? I have made arrangements for him for the time being.” Or again: “Listen, Gorky, there is a teacher here who would like to meet you. He can’t go out, he’s ill. Won’t you come and see him? Do.” Or: “Look here, the women teachers want books to be sent to them.”
Sometimes I would find that “teacher” at his house; usually he would be sitting on the edge of his chair, blushing at the consciousness of his own awkwardness, in the sweat of his brow picking and choosing his words, trying to speak smoothly and “educatedly”; or, with the ease of manner of a person who is morbidly shy, he would concentrate himself upon the effort not to appear stupid in the eyes of an author, and he would simply belabor Anton Chekhov with a hail of questions which had never entered his head until that moment.
Anton Chekhov would listen attentively to the dreary, incoherent speech; now and again a smile came into his sad eyes, a little wrinkle appeared on his forehead, and then, in his soft, lusterless voice, he began to speak simple, clear, homely words, words which somehow or other immediately made his questioner simple : the teacher stopped trying to be clever, and therefore immediately became more clever and interesting. . . .
I remember one teacher, a tall, thin man with a yellow, hungry face and a long, hooked nose which drooped gloomily towards his chin. He sat opposite Anton Chekhov and, looking fixedly into Chekhov’s face with his black eyes, said in a melancholy bass voice :
“From such impressions of existence within the space of the tutorial session there comes a psychical conglomeration which crushes every possibility of an objective attitude towards the surrounding universe. Of course, the universe is nothing but our presentation of it. …”
And he rushed headlong into philosophy, and he moved over its surface like a drunkard skating on ice.
“Tell me,” Chekhov put in quietly and kindly, “who is that teacher in your district who beats the children?”
The teacher sprang from his chair and waved his arms indignantly: “Whom do you nean? Me? Never! Beating?”
He snorted with indignation.
“Don’t get excited,” Anton Chekhov went on, smiling reassuringly; “I’m not speaking of you. But I remember—I read it in the newspapers—there is some one in your district who beats the children.”
The teacher sat down, wiped his perspiring face, and, with a sigh of relief, said in his deep bass:—
“It’s true . . . there was such a case . . . it was Makarov. You know, it’s not surprising. It’s cruel, but explicable. He’s married . . . has four children . . . his wife is ill … himself consumptive … his salary is 20 roubles, the school like a cellar, and the teacher has but a single room under such circumstances you will give a thrashing to an angel of God for no fault . . . and the children—they’re far from angels, believe me.”
And the man, who had just been mercilessly belaboring Chekhov with his store of clever words, suddenly, ominously wagging his hooked nose, began to speak simple, weighty, clear-cut words, which illuminated, like a fire, the terrible, accursed truth about the life of the Russian village.
When he said good-bye to his host, the teacher took Chekhov’s small, dry hand with its thin fingers in both his own, and, shaking it, said:—
“I came to you as though I were going to the authorities, in fear and trembling . . . I puffed myself out like a turkey-cock . . . I wanted to show you that I was no ordinary mortal. . . . And now I’m leaving you as a nice, close friend who lunderstands everything. . . . It’s a great thing to understand everything! Thank you! Im taking away with me a pleasant thought: big men are simpler and more understandable . . . -and nearer in soul to us fellow men than all those wretches among whom we live. . . . Good-bye; I will never forget you.”
His nose quivered, his lips twisted into a good-natured smile, and he added suddenly:
“To tell the truth, scoundrels too are unhappy—the devil take them.”
When he went out, Chekhov followed him with a glance, smiled, and said :
“He’s a nice fellow. . . . He won’t be a teacher long.”
“They will run him down—whip him off.”
He thought for a bit, and added quietly: “In Russia an honest man is rather like the chimney-sweep with whom nurses frighten children.”
I think that in Anton Chekhov’s presence every one involuntarily felt in himself a desire to be simpler, more truthful, more one’s self; I often saw how people cast off the motley finery of bookish phrases, smart words, and all the other cheap tricks with which a Russian, wishing to figure as a European, adorns himself, like a savage with shells and fish’s teeth. Anton Chekhov disliked fish’s teeth and cock’s feathers; anything “brilliant” or foreign, assumed by a man to make himself look bigger, disturbed him; I noticed that, whenever he saw any one dressed up in this way, he had a desire to free him from all that oppressive, useless tinsel and to find underneath the genuine face and living soul of the person. All his life Chekhov lived on his own soul; he was always himself, inwardly free, and he never troubled about what some people expected and others—coarser people—demanded of Anton Chekhov. He did not like conversations about deep questions, conversations with which our dear Russians so assiduously comfort themselves, forgetting that it is ridiculous, and not at all amusing, to argue about velvet costumes in the future when in the present one has not even a decent pair of trousers.
Beautifully simple himself, he loved everything simple, genuine, sincere, and he had a peculiar way of making other people simple.
Once, I remember, three luxuriously dressed ladies came to see him; they filled his room with the rustle of silk skirts and the smell of strong scent; they sat down politely opposite their host, pretended that they were interested in politics, and began “putting questions”:—
Anton Pavlovitch, what do you think? How will the war end?”
Anton Pavlovitch coughed, thought for a while, and then gently, in a serious and kindly voice, replied:
“Probably in peace.”
“Well, yes . . . certainly. But who will win? The Greeks or the Turks’?”
“It seems to me that those will win who are the stronger.”
“And who, do you think, are the stronger?” all the ladies asked together.
“Those who are the better fed and the better educated.”
“Ah, how clever,” one of them exclaimed.
“And whom do you like best?” another asked.
Anton Pavlovitch looked at her kindly, and answered with a meek smile :
“I love candied fruits . . . don’t you?”
“Very much,” the lady exclaimed gayly.
“Especially Abrikossov’s,” the second agreed solidly. And the third, half closing her eyes, added with relish:
“It smells so good.”
And all three began to talk with vivacity, revealing, on the subject of candied fruit, great erudition and subtle knowledge. It was obvious that they were happy at not having to strain their minds and pretend to be seriously interested in Turks and Greeks, to whom up to that moment they had not given a thought.
When they left, they merrily promised Anton Pavlovitch:
“We will send you some candied fruit.”
“You managed that nicely,” I observed when they had gone.
Anton Pavlovitch laughed quietly and said:
“Every one should speak his own language.”
On another occasion I found at his house a young and prettyish crown prosecutor. He was standing in front of Chekhov, shaking his curly head, and speaking briskly :
“In your story, The Conspirator,’ you, Anton Pavlovitch, put before me a very complex case. If I admit in Denis Grigoriev a criminal and conscious intention, then I must, without any reservation, bundle him into prison, in the interests of the community. But he is a savage ; he did not realize the criminality of his act. … I feel pity for him. But suppose I regard him as a man who acted without understanding, and suppose I yield to my feeling of pity, how can I guarantee the community that Denis will not again unscrew the nut in the sleepers and wreck a train? That’s the question. What’s to be done?”
He stopped, threw himself back, and fixed an inquiring look on Anton Pavlovitch’s face. His uniform was quite new, and the buttons shone as self-confidently and dully on his chest as did the little eyes in the pretty, clean, little face of the youthful enthusiast for justice.
“If I were judge,” said Anton Pavlovitch gravely, “I would acquit Denis.”
“On what grounds’?”
“I would say to him: you, Denis, have not yet ripened into the type of the deliberate criminal; go and ripen.”
The lawyer began to laugh, but instantly again became pompously serious and said:
“No, sir, the question put by you must be answered only in the interests of the community whose life and property I am called upon to protect. Denis is a savage, but he is also a criminal—that is the truth.”
“Do you like gramophones’?” suddenly asked Anton Pavlovitch in his soft voice.
“O yes, very much. An amazing invention !” the youth answered gayly.
“And I can’t stand gramophones,” Anton Pavlovitch confessed sadly.
“They speak and sing without feeling. Everything seems like a caricature . . . dead. Do you like photography?”
It appeared that the lawyer was a passionate lover of photography; he began at once to speak of it with enthusiaism, completely uninterested, as Chekhov had subtly and truly noticed, in the gramophone, despite his admiration for that “amazing invention.” And again I observed how there looked out of that uniform a living and rather amusing little man, whose feelings towards life were still those of a puppy hunting.
When Anton Pavlovitch had seen him out, he said sternly:
“They are like pimples on the seat of justice—disposing of the fate of people.”
And after a short silence:
“Crown prosecutors must be very fond of fishing . . . especially for little fish.”
HE had the art of revealing everywhere and driving away banality, an art which is only possible to a man who demands much from life and which comes from a keen desire to see men simple, beautiful, harmonious. Banality always found in him a discerning and merciless judge.
Some one told in his presence how the editor of a popular magazine, who was always talking of the necessity of love and pity, had, for no reason at all, insulted a railway guard, and how he usually acted with extreme rudeness towards his inferiors.
“Well,” said Anton Pavlovitch with a gloomy smile, “but isn’t he an aristocrat, an educated gentleman*? He studied at the seminary. His father wore bast shoes, and he wears patent-leather boots.”
And in his tone there was something which at once made the “aristocrat” trivial and ridiculous.
“He’s a very gifted man,” he said of a certain journalist. “He always writes so nobly, humanely, . . . lemonadely. Calls his wife a fool in public … the servants’ rooms are damp and the maids constantly get rheumatics.”
“Don’t you like N. N., Anton Pavlovitch?”
“Yes, I do—very much. He’s a pleasant fellow,” Anton Pavlovitch agrees, coughing. “He knows everything . . . reads a lot . . . he hasn’t returned three of my books . . . he’s absent-minded. To-day he will tell you that you’re a wonderful fellow, and to-morrow he will tell somebody else that you cheat your servants, and that you have stolen! from your mistress’s husband his silk socks . . . the black ones with the blue stripes.”
Some one in his presence complained of the heaviness and tediousness of the “serious” sections in thick monthly magazines.
“But you mustn’t read those articles,” said Anton Pavlovitch. “They are friends’ literature—written for friends. They are written by Messrs. Red, Black, and White. One writes an article; the other replies to it; and the third reconciles the contradictions of the other two. It is like playing whist with a dummy. Yet none of them asks himself what good it is to the reader.”
Once a plump, healthy, handsome, well-dressed lady came to him and began to speak a la Chekhov:—
“Life is so boring, Anton Pavlovitch. Everything is so gray: people, the sea, even the flowers seem to me gray. . . . And I have no desires . . . my soul is in pain . . . it is like a disease.”
“It is a disease,” said Anton Pavlovitch with conviction, “it is a disease; in Latin it is called morbus imitatis.”
Fortunately the lady did not seem to know Latin, or, perhaps, she pretended not to know it.
“Critics are like horse-flies which prevent the horse from plowing,” he said, smiling his wise smile. “The horse works, all its muscles drawn tight like the strings on a doublebass, and a fly settles on his flanks and tickles and buzzes . . . he has to twitch his skin and swish his tail. And what does the fly buzz about? It scarcely knows itself; simply because it is restless and wants to proclaim: ‘Look, I too am living on the earth. See, I can buzz, too, buzz about anything.’ For twenty-five years I have read criticisms of my stories, and I don’t remember a single remark of any value or one word of valuable advice. Only once Skabitchevsky wrote something which made an impression on me . . . he said I would die in a ditch, drunk.”
Nearly always there was an ironical smile in his gray eyes, but at times they became cold, sharps hard ; at* such times a harder tone sounded in his soft, sincere voice, and then it appeared that this modest, gentle man, when he found it necessary, could rouse himself vigorously against a hostile force and would not yield.
But sometimes, I thought, there was in his attitude towards people a feeling of hopelessness, almost of cold, resigned despair.
“A Russian is a strange creature,” he said once. “He is like a sieve; nothing remains in him. In his youth he fills himself greedily With anything which he comes across, and after thirty years nothing remains but a kind of gray rubbish. . . . In order to live well and humanly one must work work—with love and with faith. But we, we can’t do it. An architect, having built a couple of decent buildings, sits down to play cards, plays all his life, or else is to be found somewhere behind the scenes of some theatre. A doctor, if he has a practice, ceases to be interested in science, and reads nothing but The Medical Journal, and at forty seriously believes that all diseases have their origin in catarrh. I have never met a single civil servant who had any idea of the meaning of his work : usually he sits in the metropolis or the chief town of the province, and writes papers and sends them off to Zmiev or Smorgon for attention. But that those papers will deprive some one in Zmiev or Smorgon of freedom of movement—of that the civil servant thinks as little as an atheist of the tortures of hell. A lawyer who has made a name by a successful defense ceases to care about justice, and defends only the rights of property, gambles on the Turf, eats oysters, figures as a connoisseur of all the arts. An actor, having taken two or three parts tolerably, no longer troubles to learn his parts, puts on a silk hat, and thinks himself a genius. Russia is a land of insatiable and lazy people: they eat enormously of nice things, drink, like to sleep in the day-time, and snore in their sleep. They marry in order to get their house looked after and keep mistresses in order to be thought well of in society. Their psychology is that of a dog: when they are beaten, they whine shrilly and run into their kennels ; when petted, they lie on their backs with their paws in the air and wag their tails.”
Pain and cold contempt sounded in these words. But, though contemptuous, he felt pity, and, if in his presence you abused any one, Anton, Pavlovitch would immediately defend him.
“Why do you say that? He is an old man . . . he’s seventy.” Or: “But he’s still so young . . . it’s only stupidity.”
And, when he spoke like that, I never saw a sign of aversion in his face.
When a man is young, banality seems only amusing and unimportant, but little by little it possesses a man; it permeates his brain and blood like poison or asphyxiating fumes; he becomes like an old, rusty sign-board: something is painted on it, but what?—You can’t make out.
Anton Pavlovitch in his early stories was already able to reveal in the dim sea of banality its tragic humor; one has only to read his “humorous” stories with attention to see what a lot of cruel and disgusting things, behind the humorous words and situations, had been observed by the author with sorrow and were concealed by him.
He was ingenuously shy; he would not say aloud and openly to people: “Now do be more decent” ; he hoped in vain that they would themselves see how necessary it was that they should be more decent. He hated everything banal and foul, and he described the abominations of life in the noble language of a poet, with the humorist’s gentle smile, and behind the beautiful form of his stories people scarcely noticed the inner meaning, full of bitter reproach.
The dear public, when it reads his “Daughter of Albion,” laughs and hardly realizes how abominable is the well-fed squire’s mockery of a person who is lonely and strange to every one and everything. In each of his humorous stories I hear the quiet, deep sigh of a pure and human heart, the hopeless sigh of sympathy for men who do not know how to respect human dignity, who submit without any resistance to mere force, live like fish, believe in nothing but the necessity of swallowing every day as much thick soup as possible, and feel nothing but fear that some one, strong and insolent, will give them a hiding.
No one understood as clearly and finely as Anton Chekhov, the tragedy of life’s trivialities, no one before him showed men with such merciless truth the terrible and shameful picture of their life in the dim chaos of bourgeois every-day existence.
His enemy was banality; he fought it all his life long; he ridiculed it, drawing it with a pointed and unimpassioned pen, finding the mustiness of banality even where at the first glance everything seemed to be arranged very nicely, comfortably, and even brilliantly—and banality revenged itself upon him by a nasty prank, for it saw that his corpse, the corpse of a poet, was put into a railway truck “For the Conveyance of Oysters.”
That dirty green railway truck seems to me precisely the great, triumphant laugh of banality over its tired enemy; and all the “Recollections” in the gutter press are hypo-critical sorrow, behind which I feel the cold and smelly breath of banality, secretly rejoicing over the death of its enemy.
Reading Anton Chekhov’s stories, one feels oneself in a melancholy day of late autumn, when the air is transparent and the outline of naked trees, narrow houses, grayish people, is sharp. Everything is strange, lonely, motionless, helpless. The horizon, blue and empty, melts into the pale sky and its breath is terribly cold upon the earth which is covered with frozen mud. The author’s mind, like the autumn sun, shows up in hard outline the monotonous roads, the crooked streets, the little squalid houses in which tiny, miserable people are stifled by boredom and laziness and fill the houses with an unintelligible, drowsy bustle. Here anxiously, like a gray mouse, scurries “The Darling,” the dear, meek woman who loves so slavishly and who can love so much. You can slap her cheek and she won’t even dare to utter a sigh aloud, the meek slave. . . . And by her side is Olga of “The Three Sisters” : she too loves much, and submits with resignation to the caprices of the dissolute, banal wife of her good-for-nothing brother; the life of her sisters crumbles before her eyes, she weeps and cannot help any one in anything, and she has not within her a single live, strong word of protest against banality.
And here is the lachrymose Ranevskaya and the other owners of “The Cherry Orchard,” egotistical like children, with the flabbiness of senility. They missed the right moment for dying; they whine, seeing nothing of what is going on around them, understanding nothing, parasites without the power of again taking root in life. The wretched little student, Tronmov, speaks eloquently of the necessity of working—and does nothing but amuse himself, out of sheer boredom, with stupid mockery of Varya who works ceaselessly for the good of the idlers.
Vershinin dreams of how pleasant life will be in three hundred years, and lives without perceiving that everything around him is falling into ruin before his eyes ; Solyony, from boredom and stupidity, is ready to kill the pitiable Baron Tousenbach.
There passes before one a long file of men and women, slaves of their love, of their stupidity and idleness, of their greed for the good things of life; there walk the slaves of the dark fear of life ; they straggle anxiously along, filling life with incoherent words about the future, feeling that in the present there is no place for them.
At moments out of the gray mass of them one hears the sound of a shot: Ivanov or Triepliev has guessed what he ought to do, and has died.
Many of them have nice dreams of how pleasant life will be in two hundred years, but it occurs to none of them to ask themselves who will make life pleasant if we only dream.
In front of that dreary, gray crowd of helpless people there passed a great, wise, and observant man; he looked at all these dreary inhabitants of his country, and, with a sad smile, with a tone of gentle but deep reproach, with anguish in his face and in his heart, in a beautiful and sincere voice, he said to them:
“You live badly, my friends. It is shameful to live like that.”
Essay first published in Reminiscences of Anton Chekhov, by Maxim Gorky, Alexander Kuprin, and I.A. Bunin, 1921
Translation by S. S. Koteliansky and Leonard Woolf
About the Author:
Maxim Gorky (28 March 1868 – 18 June 1936), was a Russian and Soviet writer.