Letters of Anton Chekhov, by Anton Chekhov

To Gorky.

YALTA, December 3, 1898.

Your last letter has given me great pleasure. I thank you with all my heart. “Uncle Vanya” was written long, long ago; I have never seen it on the stage. Of late years it has often been produced at provincial theatres. I feel cold about my plays as a rule; I gave up the theatre long ago, and feel no desire now to write for the stage.

You ask what is my opinion of your stories. My opinion? The talent is unmistakable and it is a real, great talent. For instance, in the story “In the Steppe” it is expressed with extraordinary vigour, and I actually felt a pang of envy that it was not I who had written it. You are an artist, a clever man, you feel superbly, you are plastic — that is, when you describe a thing you see it and you touch it with your hands. That is real art. There is my opinion for you, and I am very glad I can express it to you. I am, I repeat, very glad, and if we could meet and talk for an hour or two you would be convinced of my high appreciation of you and of the hopes I am building on your gifts.

Shall I speak now of defects? But that is not so easy. To speak of the defects of a talent is like speaking of the defects of a great tree growing in the garden; what is chiefly in question, you see, is not the tree itself but the tastes of the man who is looking at it. Is not that so?

I will begin by saying that to my mind you have not enough restraint. You are like a spectator at the theatre who expresses his transports with so little restraint that he prevents himself and other people from listening. This lack of restraint is particularly felt in the descriptions of nature with which you interrupt your dialogues; when one reads those descriptions one wishes they were more compact, shorter, put into two or three lines. The frequent mention of tenderness, whispering, velvetiness, and so on, give those descriptions a rhetorical and monotonous character — and they make one feel cold and almost exhaust one. The lack of restraint is felt also in the descriptions of women (“Malva,” “On the Raft”) and love scenes. It is not vigour, not breadth of touch, but just lack of restraint. Then there is the frequent use of words quite unsuitable in stories of your type. “Accompaniment,” “disc,” “harmony,” such words spoil the effect. You often talk of waves. There is a strained feeling and a sort of circumspection in your descriptions of educated people; that is not because you have not observed educated people sufficiently, you know them, but you don’t seem to know from what side to approach them.

How old are you? I don’t know you, I don’t know where you came from or who you are, but it seems to me that while you are still young you ought to leave Nizhni and spend two or three years rubbing shoulders with literature and literary people; not to learn to crow like the rest of us and to sharpen your wits, but to take the final plunge head first into literature and to grow to love it. Besides, the provinces age a man early. Korolenko, Potapenko, Mamin, Ertel, are first-rate men; you would perhaps at first feel their company rather boring, but in a year or two you would grow used to them and appreciate them as they deserve, and their society would more than repay you for the disagreeableness and inconvenience of life in the capital. . . .

YALTA, January 3, 1899.

. . . Apparently you have misunderstood me a little. I did not write to you of coarseness of style, but only of the incongruity of foreign, not genuinely Russian, or rarely used words. In other authors such words as, for instance, “fatalistically,” pass unnoticed, but your things are musical, harmonious, and every crude touch jars fearfully. Of course it is a question of taste, and perhaps this is only a sign of excessive fastidiousness in me, or the conservatism of a man who has adopted definite habits for himself long ago. I am resigned to “a collegiate assessor,” and “a captain of the second rank“ in descriptions, but “flirt“ and “champion“ when they occur in descriptions excite repulsion in me.

Are you self-educated? In your stories you are completely an artist and at the same time an “educated” man in the truest sense.

Nothing is less characteristic of you than coarseness, you are clever and subtle and delicate in your feelings. Your best things are “In the Steppe,” and “On the Raft,”— did I write to you about that? They are splendid things, masterpieces, they show the artist who has passed through a very good school. I don’t think that I am mistaken. The only defect is the lack of restraint, the lack of grace. When a man spends the least possible number of movements over some definite action, that is grace. One is conscious of superfluity in your expenditure.

The descriptions of nature are the work of an artist; you are a real landscape painter. Only the frequent personification (anthropomorphism) when the sea breathes, the sky gazes, the steppe barks, nature whispers, speaks, mourns, and so on — such metaphors make your descriptions somewhat monotonous, sometimes sweetish, sometimes not clear; beauty and expressiveness in nature are attained only by simplicity, by such simple phrases as “The sun set,” “It was dark,” “It began to rain,” and so on — and that simplicity is characteristic of you in the highest degree, more so perhaps than of any other writer. . . .

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