Letters of Anton Chekhov, by Anton Chekhov

To A. S. Suvorin.

SUMY, MADAME LINTVARYOV’S ESTATE, May 30, 1888.

. . . I am staying on the bank of the Psyol, in the lodge of an old signorial estate. I took the place without seeing it, trusting to luck, and have not regretted it so far. The river is wide and deep, with plenty of islands, of fish and of crayfish. The banks are beautiful, well-covered with grass and trees. And best of all, there is so much space that I feel as if for my one hundred roubles I have obtained a right to live on an expanse of which one can see no end. Nature and life here is built on the pattern now so old-fashioned and rejected by magazine editors. Nightingales sing night and day, dogs bark in the distance, there are old neglected gardens, sad and poetical estates shut up and deserted where live the souls of beautiful women; old footmen, relics of serfdom, on the brink of the grave; young ladies longing for the most conventional love. In addition to all these things, not far from me there is even such a hackneyed cliche as a water-mill (with sixteen wheels), with a miller, and his daughter who always sits at the window, apparently waiting for someone. All that I see and hear now seems familiar to me from old novels and fairy-tales. The only thing that has something new about it is a mysterious bird, which sits somewhere far away in the reeds, and night and day makes a noise that sounds partly like a blow on an empty barrel and partly like the mooing of a cow shut up in a barn. Every Little Russian has seen this bird in the course of his life, but everyone describes it differently, which means that no one has seen it. . . . Every day I row to the mill, and in the evening I go to the islands to fish with fishing maniacs from the Haritovenko factory. Our conversations are sometimes interesting. On the eve of Whit Sunday all the maniacs will spend the night on the islands and fish all night; I, too. There are some splendid types.

My hosts have turned out to be very nice and hospitable people. It is a family worth studying. It consists of six members. The old mother, a very kind, rather flabby woman who has had suffering enough in her life; she reads Schopenhauer and goes to church to hear the Song of Praise; she conscientiously studies every number of the Vyestnik Evropi and Syeverny Vyestnik, and knows writers I have not dreamed of; attaches much importance to the fact that once the painter Makovsky stayed in her lodge and now a young writer is staying there; talking to Pleshtcheyev she feels a holy thrill all over and rejoices every minute that it has been “vouchsafed” to her to see the great poet.

Her eldest daughter, a woman doctor — the pride of the whole family and “a saint” as the peasants call her — really is remarkable. She has a tumour on the brain, and in consequence of it she is totally blind, has epileptic fits and constant headaches. She knows what awaits her, and stoically with amazing coolness speaks of her approaching death. In the course of my medical practice I have grown used to seeing people who were soon going to die, and I have always felt strange when people whose death was at hand talked, smiled, or wept in my presence; but here, when I see on the verandah this blind woman who laughs, jokes, or hears my stories read to her, what begins to seem strange to me is not that she is dying, but that we do not feel our own death, and write stories as though we were never going to die.

The second daughter, also a woman doctor, is a gentle, shy, infinitely kind creature, loving to everyone. Patients are a regular torture to her, and she is scrupulous to morbidity with them. At consultations we always disagree: I bring good tidings where she sees death, and I double the doses which she prescribes. But where death is obvious and inevitable my lady doctor feels quite in an unprofessional way. I was receiving patients with her one day at a medical centre; a young Little Russian woman came with a malignant tumour of the glands in her neck and at the back of her head. The tumour had spread so far that no treatment could be thought of. And because the woman was at present feeling no pain, but would in another six months die in terrible agony, the doctor looked at her in such a guilty way as though she were asking forgiveness for being well, and ashamed that medical science was helpless. She takes a zealous part in managing the house and estate, and understands every detail of it. She knows all about horses even. When the side horse does not pull or gets restless, she knows how to help matters and instructs the coachman. I believe she has never hurt anyone, and it seems to me that she has not been happy for a single instant and never will be.

The third daughter, who has finished her studies at Bezstuzhevka, is a vigorous, sunburnt young girl with a loud voice. Her laugh can be heard a mile away. She is a passionate Little Russian patriot. She has built a school on the estate at her own expense, and teaches the children Krylov’s fables translated into Little Russian. She goes to Shevtchenko’s grave as a Turk goes to Mecca. She does not cut her hair, wears stays and a bustle, looks after the housekeeping, is fond of laughing and singing.

The eldest son is a quiet, modest, intelligent, hardworking young man with no talents; he has no pretensions, and is apparently content with what life has given him. He has been dismissed from the University [Translator’s Note: On political grounds, of course, is understood.] just before taking his degree, but he does not boast of it. He speaks little. He loves farming and the land and lives in harmony with the peasants.

The second son is a young man mad over Tchaikovsky’s being a genius. He dreams of living according to Tolstoy.

* * * * *

Pleshtcheyev is staying with us. They all look upon him as a demi-god, consider themselves happy if he bestows attention on somebody’s junket, bring him flowers, invite him everywhere, and so on. . . . And he “listens and eats,” and smokes his cigars which give his admirers a headache. He is slow to move, with the indolence of old age, but this does not prevent the fair sex from taking him about in boats, driving with him to the neighbouring estates, and singing songs to him. Here he is by way of being the same thing as in Petersburg — i.e., an ikon which is prayed to for being old and for having once hung by the side of the miracle-working ikons. So far as I am concerned I regard him — not to speak of his being a very good, warm-hearted and sincere man — as a vessel full of traditions, interesting memories, and good platitudes.

. . . What you say about “The Lights” is quite just. You say that neither the conversation about pessimism nor Kisotcha’s story in any way help to solve the question of pessimism. It seems to me it is not for writers of fiction to solve such questions as that of God, of pessimism, etc. The writer’s business is simply to describe who has been speaking about God or about pessimism, how, and in what circumstances. The artist must be not the judge of his characters and of their conversations, but merely an impartial witness. I have heard a desultory conversation of two Russians about pessimism — a conversation which settles nothing — and I must report that conversation as I heard it; it is for the jury, that is, for the readers, to decide on the value of it. My business is merely to be talented — i.e., to know how to distinguish important statements from unimportant, how to throw light on the characters, and to speak their language. Shtcheglov-Leontyev blames me for finishing the story with the words, “There’s no making out anything in this world.” He thinks a writer who is a good psychologist ought to be able to make it out — that is what he is a psychologist for. But I don’t agree with him. It is time that writers, especially those who are artists, recognized that there is no making out anything in this world, as once Socrates recognized it, and Voltaire, too. The mob thinks it knows and understands everything; and the more stupid it is the wider it imagines its outlook to be. And if a writer whom the mob believes in has the courage to say that he does not understand anything of what he sees, that alone will be something gained in the realm of thought and a great step in advance.

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 13:06