Friday, September 03, 2010

Yours, A. Chekhov

If I were a professional blogger, and thus obligated to post something (or, god forbid, several somethings) every day, you'd see me have recourse to Chekhov's letters much, much more often. They offer the joys of any good letter collection: a familiar, conversational voice and a pleasant hodge-podge of topics and tones, from the quotidian details of ordinary life to the lasting questions of art and culture. But what raises them above the works of other writers of letters is the sense they give of Chekhov himself, and how it jibes with the sense of the man that comes through from his fiction: a kind, affectionate, man who didn't let his remarkable perceptiveness sour into harshness. As Lillian Hellman writes in her introduction to a selection of Chekhov's letters that she edited in 1955,
Chekhov was a pleasant man, witty and wise and tolerant and kind, with nothing wishywashy in his kindness nor self righteous in his tolerance, and his wit was not ill-humored. He would have seen through you, of course, as he did through everybody, but being seen through doesn't hurt too much if it's done with affection. . . . Such an nature is rare at all times, but it is particularly remarkable in a period when maudlin soul-searching was the intellectual fashion. . . . Anton Chekhov was a man of balance, a man of sense.
Any collection you can find will reward your time; I've almost never turned to a page of Chekhov's letters without discovering something of value.

And even better, for a blogger, is that they're all available--and searchable--online through Project Gutenberg! So a busy blogger can search the letters for, say, the word "book," and from the fifty-five instances returned, find passage after passage worth sharing.

Having done so, I'll share two before I turn you loose on your weekend. First, this self-critical account by the twenty-eight-year-old Chekhov of his literary production to that point, sent in a letter to his publisher and friend, Alexei Suvorin, on October 27, 1888:
To tell the truth again, I have not yet begun my literary work, though I have received a literary prize. Subjects for five stories and two novels are languishing in my head. One of the novels was thought of long ago, and some of the characters have grown old without managing to be written. In my head there is a whole army of people asking to be let out and waiting for the word of command. All that I have written so far is rubbish in comparison with what I should like to write and should write with rapture. It is all the same to me whether I write "The Party" or "The Lights," or a vaudeville or a letter to a friend--it is all dull, spiritless, mechanical, and I get annoyed with critics who attach any importance to "The Lights," for instance. I fancy that I deceive him with my work just as I deceive many people with my face, which looks serious or over-cheerful. I don't like being successful; the subjects which sit in my head are annoyed and jealous of what has already been written. I am vexed that the rubbish has been done and the good things lie about in the lumber-room like old books. Of course, in thus lamenting I rather exaggerate, and much of what I say is only my fancy, but there is a part of the truth in it, a good big part of it. What do I call good? The images which seem best to me, which I love and jealously guard lest I spend and spoil them for the sake of some "Party" written against time.... If my love is mistaken, I am wrong, but then it may not be mistaken! I am either a fool and a conceited fellow or I really am an organism capable of being a good writer. All that I now write displeases and bores me, but what sits in my head interests, excites and moves me--from which I conclude that everybody does the wrong thing and I alone know the secret of doing the right one. Most likely all writers think that. But the devil himself would break his neck in these problems.
A bit overplayed, perhaps--it's hard to imagine that even at his lowest point Chekhov really thought his stories no better than "a vaudeville or a letter to a friend," but regardless, I love the image of the characters grown old in his head, waiting for him to get around to writing their story.

I also very much liked the following passage, from a letter of January 21, 1900 to his medical school classmate G. I. Rossolimo:
Dear Grigory Ivanovitch,

. . . I send you in a registered parcel what I have that seems suitable for children--two stories of the life of a dog. And I think I have nothing else of the sort. I don't know how to write for children; I write for them once in ten years, and so-called children's books I don't like and don't believe in. Children ought only to be given what is suitable also for grown-up people. Andersen, "The Frigate Pallada," Gogol, are easily read by children and also by grown-up people. Books should not be written for children, but one ought to know how to choose from what has been written for grown-up people--that is, from real works of art. To be able to select among drugs, and to administer them in suitable doses, is more direct and consistent than trying to invent a special remedy for the patient because he is a child.
I doubt that the past century's remarkable blossoming of children's literature would have changed his mind, given the relative inflexibility implied by his medical metaphor, but I do like imagining him reading the Winnie-the-Pooh stories, say, and appreciating how their gentleness might perfectly suit a child.


  1. I believe that K. Mansfield, having learned just how balanced and wholesome Chekhov was, tried her best to emulate his moral virtues, not to mention his literary/intellectual ones. I'm reading his short stories right now and marvel at how easily he evokes a very complex scene - replete with howling weather, the warmth and comfort of a cottage, and marital delusion and unhappiness - with simple words and simple combinations of words. Some have it; he's got it.... Cheers, Kevin

  2. Going through a major Chekhov phrase right now, myself. Thanks for pointing me toward his letters!