Letters of Anton Chekhov, by Anton Chekhov

To A. S. Suvorin.

MELIHOVO, August 15, 1894.

Our trip on the Volga turned out rather a queer one in the end. Potapenko and I went to Yaroslav to take a steamer from there to Tsaritsyn, then to Kalatch, from there by the Don to Taganrog. The journey from Yaroslav to Nizhni is beautiful, but I had seen it before. Moreover, it was very hot in the cabin and the wind lashed in our faces on deck. The passengers were an uneducated set, whose presence was irritating. At Nizhni we were met by N., Tolstoy’s friend. The heat, the dry wind, the noise of the fair and the conversation of N. suddenly made me feel so suffocated, so ill at ease, and so sick, that I took my portmanteau and ignominiously fled to the railway station. . . . Potapenko followed me. We took the train for Moscow, but we were ashamed to go home without having done anything, and we decided to go somewhere if it had to be to Lapland. If it had not been for his wife our choice would have fallen on Feodosia, but . . . alas! we have a wife living at Feodosia. We thought it over, we talked it over, we counted over our money, and came to the Psyol to Suma, which you know. . . . Well, the Psyol is magnificent. There is warmth, there is space, an immensity of water and of greenery and delightful people. We spent six days on the Psyol, ate and drank, walked and did nothing: my ideal of happiness, as you know, is idleness. Now I am at Melihovo again. There is a cold rain, a leaden sky, mud.

* * * * *

It sometimes happens that one passes a third-class refreshment room and sees a cold fish, cooked long before, and wonders carelessly who wants that unappetising fish. And yet undoubtedly that fish is wanted, and will be eaten, and there are people who will think it nice. One may say the same of the works of N. He is a bourgeois writer, writing for the unsophisticated public who travel third class. For that public Tolstoy and Turgenev are too luxurious, too aristocratic, somewhat alien and not easily digested. There is a public which eats salt beef and horse-radish sauce with relish, and does not care for artichokes and asparagus. Put yourself at its point of view, imagine the grey, dreary courtyard, the educated ladies who look like cooks, the smell of paraffin, the scantiness of interests and tasks — and you will understand N. and his readers. He is colourless; that is partly because the life he describes lacks colour. He is false because bourgeois writers cannot help being false. They are vulgar writers perfected. The vulgarians sin together with their public, while the bourgeois are hypocritical with them and flatter their narrow virtue.

MELIHOVO, February 25, 1895.

. . . I should like to meet a philosopher like Nietzsche somewhere in a train or a steamer, and to spend the whole night talking to him. I consider his philosophy won’t last long, however. It’s more showy than convincing. . . .

MELIHOVO, March 16, 1895.

Instead of you, heaven has sent me N., who has come to see me with E. and Z., two young duffers who never miss a single word but induce in the whole household a desperate boredom. N. looks flabby and physically slack; he has gone off, but has become warmer and more good-natured; he must be going to die. When my mother was ordering meat from the butcher, she said he must let us have better meat, as N. was staying with us from Petersburg.

“What N.?” asked the butcher in surprise —“the one who writes books?” and he sent us excellent meat. So the butcher does not know that I write books, for he never sends anything but gristle for my benefit. . . .

Your little letter about physical games for students will do good if only you will go on insisting on the subject. Games are absolutely essential. Playing games is good for health and beauty and liberalism, since nothing is so conducive to the blending of classes, et cetera, as public games. Games would give our solitary young people acquaintances; young people would more frequently fall in love; but games should not be instituted before the Russian student ceases to be hungry. No skating, no croquet, can keep the student cheerful and confident on an empty stomach.

MELIHOVO, March 23, 1895.

I told you that Potapenko was a man very full of life, but you did not believe me. In the entrails of every Little Russian lie hidden many treasures. I fancy when our generation grows old, Potapenko will be the gayest and jolliest old man of us all.

By all means I will be married if you wish it. But on these conditions: everything must be as it has been hitherto — that is, she must live in Moscow while I live in the country, and I will come and see her. Happiness continued from day to day, from morning to morning, I cannot stand. When every day I am told of the same thing, in the same tone of voice, I become furious. I am furious, for instance, in the society of S., because he is very much like a woman (“a clever and responsive woman”) and because in his presence the idea occurs to me that my wife might be like him. I promise you to be a splendid husband, but give me a wife who, like the moon, won’t appear in my sky every day; I shan’t write any better for being married. . . .

Mamin-Sibiryak is a very nice fellow and an excellent writer. His last novel “Bread” is praised; Lyeskov was particularly enthusiastic about it. There are undoubtedly fine things in his work, and in his more successful stories the peasants are depicted every bit as well as in “Master and Man.”

This is the fourth year I have been living at Melihovo. My calves have turned into cows, my copse has grown at least a yard higher, my heirs will make a capital bargain over the timber and will call me an ass, for heirs are never satisfied.

MELIHOVO, March 30, 1895.

. . . We have spring here but there are regular mountains of snow, and there is no knowing when it will thaw. As soon as the sun hides behind a cloud there begins to be a chill breath from the snow, and it is horrible. Masha is already busy in the flower-beds and borders. She tires herself out and is constantly cross, so there is no need for her to read Madame Smirnov’s article. The advice given is excellent; the young ladies will read it, and it will be their salvation. Only one point is not clear: how are they going to get rid of the apples and cabbages if the estate is far from the town, and of what stuff are they going to make their own dresses if their rye does not sell at all, and they have not a halfpenny? To live on one’s land by the labour of one’s own hands and the sweat of one’s brow is only possible on one condition; that is, if one works oneself like a peasant, without regard for class or sex. There is no making use of slaves nowadays, one must take the scythe and axe oneself, and if one can’t do that, no gardens will help one. Even the smallest success in farming is only gained in Russia at the price of a cruel struggle with nature, and wishing is not enough for the struggle, you need bodily strength and grit, you want traditions — and have young ladies all that? To advise young ladies to take up farming is much the same as to advise them to be bears, and to bend yokes. . . .

I have no money, but I live in the country: there are no restaurants and no cabmen, and money does not seem to be needed.

MELIHOVO, April 13, 1895.

I am sick of Sienkiewicz’s “The Family of the Polonetskys.” It’s the Polish Easter cake with saffron. Add Potapenko to Paul Bourget, sprinkle with Warsaw eau-de-Cologne, divide in two, and you get Sienkiewicz. “The Polonetskys” is unmistakably inspired by Bourget’s “Cosmopolis,” by Rome and by marriage (Sienkiewicz has lately got married). We have the catacombs and a queer old professor sighing after idealism, and Leo XIII, with the unearthly face among the saints, and the advice to return to the prayer-book, and the libel on the decadent who dies of morphinism after confessing and taking the sacrament — that is, after repenting of his errors in the name of the Church. There is a devilish lot of family happiness and talking about love, and the hero’s wife is so faithful to her husband and so subtly comprehends “with her heart” the mysteries of God and life, that in the end one feels mawkish and uncomfortable as after a slobbering kiss. Sienkiewicz has evidently not read Tolstoy, and does not know Nietzsche, he talks about hypnotism like a shopman; on the other hand every page is positively sprinkled with Rubens, Borghesi, Correggio, Botticelli — and that is done to show off his culture to the bourgeois reader and make a long nose on the sly at materialism. The object of the novel is to lull the bourgeoisie to sleep in its golden dreams. Be faithful to your wife, pray with her over the prayer-book, save money, love sport, and all is well with you in this world and the next. The bourgeoisie is very fond of so-called practical types and novels with happy endings, since they soothe it with the idea that one can both accumulate capital and preserve innocence, be a beast and at the same time be happy. . . .

I wish you every sort of blessing. I congratulate you on the peace between Japan and China, and hope we may quickly obtain a Feodosia free from ice on the East Coast, and may make a railway to it.

The peasant woman had not troubles enough so she bought a pig. And I fancy we are saving up a lot of trouble for ourselves with this ice-free port. [Footnote: Prophetic of Port Arthur and the Japanese War.] It will cost us dearer than if we were to take it into our heads to wage war on all Japan. However, futura sunt in manibus deorum.

MELIHOVO, October 21, 1895.

Thanks for your letter, for your warm words and your invitation. I will come, but most likely not before the end of November, as I have a devilish lot to do. First in the spring I am going to build a new school in the village where I am school warden; before beginning I have to make a plan and calculations, and to drive off here and there, and so on. Secondly — can you imagine it — I am writing a play which I shall probably not finish before the end of November. I am writing it not without pleasure, though I swear fearfully at the conventions of the stage. It’s a comedy, there are three women’s parts, six men’s, four acts, landscapes (view over a lake); a great deal of conversation about literature, little action, tons of love. [Footnote: “The Seagull.”] I read of Ozerova’s failure and was sorry, for nothing is more painful than failing. . . . I have read of the success of the “Powers of Darkness” in your theatre. . . . When I was at Tolstoy’s in August, he told me, as he was wiping his hands after washing, that he wouldn’t alter his play. And now, remembering that, I fancy that he knew even then that his play would be passed by the censor in toto. I spent two days and a night with him. He made a delightful impression, I felt as much at ease as though I were at home, and our talks were easy. . . .

MOSCOW, October 26, 1895.

Tolstoy’s daughters are very nice. They adore their father and have a fanatical faith in him and that means that Tolstoy really is a great moral force, for if he were insincere and not irreproachable his daughters would be the first to take up a sceptical attitude to him, for daughters are like sparrows: you don’t catch them with empty chaff. . . . A man can deceive his fiancee or his mistress as much as he likes, and, in the eyes of a woman he loves, an ass may pass for a philosopher; but a daughter is a different matter. . . .

MELIHOVO, November 21, 1895.

Well, I have finished with the play. I began it forte and ended it pianissimo — contrary to all the rules of dramatic art. It has turned into a novel. I am rather dissatisfied than satisfied with it, and reading over my new-born play, I am more convinced than ever that I am not a dramatist. The acts are very short. There are four of them. Though it is so far only the skeleton of a play, a plan which will be altered a million times before the coming season, I have ordered two copies to be typed and will send you one, only don’t let anyone read it. . . .

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