Letters of Anton Chekhov, by Anton Chekhov

To A. S. Suvorin.

BOGIMOVO, July 24, 1891.

. . . Thanks for the five kopecks addition. Alas, it will not settle my difficulties! To save up a reserve, as you write, and extricate myself from the abyss of halfpenny anxieties and petty terrors, there is only one resource left me — an immoral one. To marry a rich woman or give out Anna Karenin as my work. And as that is impossible I dismiss my difficulties in despair and let things go as they please.

You once praised Rod, a French writer, and told me Tolstoy liked him. The other day I happened to read a novel of his and flung up my hands in amazement. He is equivalent to our Matchtet, only a little more intelligent. There is a terrible deal of affectation, dreariness, straining after originality, and as little of anything artistic as there was salt in that porridge we cooked in the evening at Bogimovo. In the preface this Rod regrets that he was in the past a “naturalist,” and rejoices that the spiritualism of the latest recruits of literature has replaced materialism. Boyish boastfulness which is at the same time coarse and clumsy. . . . “If we are not as talented as you, Monsieur Zola, to make up for it we believe in God.” . . .

July 29.

Well, thank God! To-day I have received from the bookshop notice that there is 690 roubles 6 kopecks coming to me. I have written in answer that they are to send five hundred roubles to Feodosia and the other one hundred and ninety to me. And so I am left owing you only one hundred and seventy. That is comforting, it’s an advance anyway. To meet the debt to the newspaper I am arming myself with an immense story which I shall finish in a day or two and send. I ought to knock three hundred roubles off the debt, and get as much for myself. Ough! . . .

August 6.

. . . The death of a servant in the house makes a strange impression, doesn’t it? The man while he was alive attracted attention only so far as he was one’s “man”; but when he is dead he suddenly engrosses the attention of all, lies like a weight on the whole house, and becomes the despotic master who is talked of to the exclusion of everything.

. . . I shall finish my story to-morrow or the day after, but not to-day, for it has exhausted me fiendishly towards the end. Thanks to the haste with which I have worked at it, I have wasted a pound of nerves over it. The composition of it is a little complicated. I got into difficulties and often tore up what I had written, and for days at a time was dissatisfied with my work — that is why I have not finished it till now. How awful it is! I must rewrite it! It’s impossible to leave it, for it is in a devil of a mess. My God! if the public likes my works as little as I do those of other people which I am reading, what an ass I am! There is something asinine about our writing. . . .

To my great pleasure the amazing astronomer has arrived. She is angry with you, and calls you for some reason an “eloquent gossip.” To begin with, she is free and independent; and then she has a poor opinion of men; and further, according to her, everyone is a savage or a ninny — and you dared to give her my address with the words “the being you adore lives at . . .,” and so on. Upon my word, as though one could suspect earthly feelings in astronomers who soar among the clouds! She talks and laughs all day, is a capital mushroom-gatherer, and dreams of the Caucasus to which she is departing today.

August 18.

At last I have finished my long, wearisome story [Footnote: “The Duel.”] and am sending it to you in Feodosia. Please read it. It is too long for the paper, and not suitable for dividing into parts. Do as you think best, however. . . .

There are more than four signatures of print in the story. It’s awful. I am exhausted, and dragged the end, like a train of waggons on a muddy night in autumn, at a walking pace with halts — that is why I am late with it. . . .

August 18.

Speaking of Nikolay and the doctor who attends him, you emphasize that “all that is done without love, without self-sacrifice, even in regard to trifling conveniences.” You are right, speaking of people generally, but what would you have the doctors do? If, as your old nurse says, “The bowel has burst,” what’s one to do, even if one is ready to give one’s life to the sufferer? As a rule, while the family, the relations, and the servants are doing “everything they can” and are straining every nerve, the doctor sits and looks like a fool, with his hands folded, disconsolately ashamed of himself and his science, and trying to preserve external tranquillity. . . .

Doctors have loathsome days and hours, such as I would not wish my worst enemy. It is true that ignoramuses and coarse louts are no rarity among doctors, nor are they among writers, engineers, people in general; but those loathsome days and hours of which I speak fall to the lot of doctors only, and for that, truly, much may be forgiven them. . . .

The amazing astronomer is at Batum now. As I told her I should go to Batum too, she will send her address to Feodosia. She has grown cleverer than ever of late. One day I overheard a learned discussion between her and the zoologist Wagner, whom you know. It seemed to me that in comparison with her the learned professor was simply a schoolboy. She has excellent logic and plenty of good common sense, but no rudder, . . . so that she drifts and drifts, and doesn’t know where she is going. . . .

A woman was carting rye, and she fell off the waggon head downwards. She was terribly injured: concussion of the brain, straining of the vertebrae of the neck, sickness, fearful pains, and so on. She was brought to me. She was moaning and groaning and praying for death, and yet she looked at the man who brought her and muttered: “Let the lentils go, Kirila, you can thresh them later, but thresh the oats now.” I told her that she could talk about oats afterwards, that there was something more serious to talk about, but she said to me: “His oats are ever so good!” A managing, vigilant woman. Death comes easy to such people. . . .

August 28.

I send you Mihailovsky’s article on Tolstoy. Read it and grow perfect. It’s a good article, but it’s strange; one might write a thousand such articles and things would not be one step forwarder, and it would still remain unintelligible why such articles are written. . . .

I am writing my Sahalin, and I am bored, I am bored. . . . I am utterly sick of life.

Judging from your telegram I have not satisfied you with my story. You should not have hesitated to send it back to me.

Oh, how weary I am of sick people! A neighbouring landowner had a nervous stroke and they trundled me off to him in a scurvy jolting britchka. Most of all I am sick of peasant women with babies, and of powders which it is so tedious to weigh out.

There is a famine year coming. I suppose there will be epidemics of all sorts and risings on a small scale. . . .

August 28.

So you like my story? [Footnote: “The Duel.”] Well, thank God! Of late I have become devilishly suspicious and uneasy. I am constantly fancying that my trousers are horrid, and that I am writing not as I want to, and that I am giving my patients the wrong powders. It must be a special neurosis.

If Ladzievsky’s surname is really horrible, you can call him something else. Let him be Lagievsky, let von Koren remain von Koren. The multitude of Wagners, Brandts, and so on, in all the scientific world, make a Russian name out of the question for a zoologist — though there is Kovalevsky. And by the way, Russian life is so mixed up nowadays that any surnames will do.

Sahalin is progressing. There are times when I long to sit over it from three to five years, and work at it furiously; but at times, in moments of doubt, I could spit on it. It would be a good thing, by God! to devote three years to it. I shall write a great deal of rubbish, because I am not a specialist, but really I shall write something sensible too. It is such a good subject, because it would live for a hundred years after me, as it would be the literary source and aid for all who are studying prison organization, or are interested in it.

You are right, your Excellency, I have done a great deal this summer. Another such summer and I may perhaps have written a novel and bought an estate. I have not only paid my way, but even paid off a thousand roubles of debt.

. . . Tell your son that I envy him. And I envy you too, and not because your wives have gone away, but because you are bathing in the sea and living in a warm house. I am cold in my barn. I should like new carpets, an open fireplace, bronzes, and learned conversations. Alas! I shall never be a Tolstoyan. In women I love beauty above all things; and in the history of mankind, culture, expressed in carpets, carriages with springs, and keenness of wit. Ach! To make haste and become an old man and sit at a big table! . . .

P.S. — If we were to cut the zoological conversations out of “The Duel” wouldn’t it make it more living? . . .

MOSCOW, September 8.

I have returned to Moscow and am keeping indoors. My family is busy trying to find a new flat but I say nothing because I am too lazy to turn round. They want to move to Devitchye Polye for the sake of cheapness.

The title you recommend for my novel —“Deception”— will not do: it would only be appropriate if it were a question of conscious lying. Unconscious lying is not deception but a mistake. Tolstoy calls our having money and eating meat lying — that’s too much. . . .

Death gathers men little by little, he knows what he is about. One might write a play: an old chemist invents the elixir of life — take fifteen drops and you live for ever; but he breaks the phial from terror, lest such carrion as himself and his wife might live for ever. Tolstoy denies mankind immortality, but my God! how much that is personal there is in it! The day before yesterday I read his “Afterword.” Strike me dead! but it is stupider and stuffier than “Letters to a Governor’s Wife,” which I despise. The devil take the philosophy of the great ones of this world! All the great sages are as despotic as generals, and as ignorant and as indelicate as generals, because they feel secure of impunity. Diogenes spat in people’s faces, knowing that he would not suffer for it. Tolstoy abuses doctors as scoundrels, and displays his ignorance in great questions because he’s just such a Diogenes who won’t be locked up or abused in the newspapers. And so to the devil with the philosophy of all the great ones of this world! The whole of it with its fanatical “Afterwords” and “Letters to a Governor’s Wife” is not worth one little mare in his “Story of a Horse. . . . ”

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