Letters of Anton Chekhov, by Anton Chekhov

To A. S. Suvorin.

MELIHOVO, May 15, 1892.

. . . I have got hold of the peasants and the shopkeepers here. One had a haemorrhage from the throat, another had his arm crushed by a tree, a third had his little daughter sick. . . . It seems they would be in a desperate case without me. They bow respectfully to me as Germans do to their pastor, I am friends with them, and all goes well. . . .

May 28, 1892.

Life is short, and Chekhov, from whom you are expecting an answer, would like it to flash by brilliantly and with dash. He would go to Prince’s Island, to Constantinople, and again to India and Sahalin. . . . But in the first place he is not free, he has a respectable family who need his protection. In the second, he has a large dose of cowardice. Looking towards the future I call nothing but cowardice. I am afraid of getting into a muddle, and every journey complicates my financial position. No, don’t tempt me without need. Don’t write to me of the sea.

It is hot here. There are warm rains, the evenings are enchanting. Three-quarters of a mile from here there is a good bathing place and good sport for picnics, but no time to bathe or go to picnics. Either I am writing and gnashing my teeth, or settling questions of halfpence with carpenters and labourers. Misha was cruelly reprimanded by his superiors for coming to me every week instead of staying at home, and now there is no one but me to look after the farming, in which I have no faith, as it is on a petty scale, and more like a gentlemanly hobby than real work. I have bought three mousetraps, and catch twenty-five mice a day and carry them away to the copse. It is lovely in the copse. . . .

Our starlings, old and young, suddenly flew away. This puzzled us, for it won’t be time for their migration for ever so long; but suddenly we learn that the other day clouds of grasshoppers from the south, which were taken for locusts, flew over Moscow. One wonders how did our starlings find out that on precisely such a day and so many miles from Melihovo these insects would fly past? Who told them about it? Truly this is a great mystery. . . .

June 16.

. . . You want me to write my impressions to you.

My soul longs for breadth and altitude, but I am forced to lead a narrow life spent over trashy roubles and kopecks. There is nothing more vulgar than a petty bourgeois life with its halfpence, its victuals, its futile talk, and its useless conventional virtue; my heart aches from the consciousness that I am working for money, and money is the centre of all I do. This aching feeling, together with a sense of justice, makes my writing a contemptible pursuit in my eyes: I don’t respect what I write, I am apathetic and bored with myself, and glad that I have medicine which, anyway, I practise not for the sake of money. I ought to have a bath in sulphuric acid and flay off my skin, and then grow a new hide. . . .

MELIHOVO, August 1.

My letters chase you, but do not catch you. I have written to you often, and among other places to St. Moritz. Judging from your letters you have had nothing from me. In the first place, there is cholera in Moscow and about Moscow, and it will be in our parts some day soon. In the second place, I have been appointed cholera doctor, and my section includes twenty-five villages, four factories, and one monastery. I am organizing the building of barracks, and so on, and I feel lonely, for all the cholera business is alien to my heart, and the work, which involves continual driving about, talking, and attention to petty details, is exhausting for me. I have no time to write. Literature has been thrown aside for a long time now, and I am poverty-stricken, as I thought it convenient for myself and my independence to refuse the remuneration received by the section doctors. I am bored, but there is a great deal that is interesting in cholera if you look at it from a detached point of view. I am sorry you are not in Russia. Material for short letters is being wasted. There is more good than bad, and in that cholera is a great contrast to the famine which we watched in the winter. Now all are working — they are working furiously. At the fair at Nizhni they are doing marvels which might force even Tolstoy to take a respectful attitude to medicine and the intervention of cultured people generally in life. It seems as though they had got a hold on the cholera. They have not only decreased the number of cases, but also the percentage of deaths. In immense Moscow the cholera does not exceed fifty cases a week, while on the Don it is a thousand a day — an impressive difference. We district doctors are getting ready; our plan of action is definite, and there are grounds for supposing that in our parts we too shall decrease the percentage of mortality from cholera. We have no assistants, one has to be doctor and sanitary attendant at one and the same time. The peasants are rude, dirty in their habits, and mistrustful; but the thought that our labours are not thrown away makes all that scarcely noticeable. Of all the Serpuhovo doctors I am the most pitiable; I have a scurvy carriage and horses, I don’t know the roads, I see nothing by evening light, I have no money, I am very quickly exhausted, and worst of all, I can never forget that I ought to be writing, and I long to spit on the cholera and sit down and write to you, and I long to talk to you. I am in absolute loneliness.

Our farming labours have been crowned with complete success. The harvest is considerable, and when we sell the corn Melihovo will bring us more than a thousand roubles. The kitchen garden is magnificent. There are perfect mountains of cucumbers and the cabbage is wonderful. If it were not for the accursed cholera I might say that I have never spent a summer so happily as this one.

Nothing has been heard of cholera riots yet. There is talk of some arrests, some manifestoes, and so on. They say that A., the writer, has been condemned to fifteen years’ penal servitude. If the socialists are really going to exploit the cholera for their own ends I shall despise them. Revolting means for good ends make the ends themselves revolting. Let them get a lift on the backs of the doctors and feldshers, but why lie to the peasants? Why persuade them that they are right in their ignorance and that their coarse prejudices are the holy truth? If I were a politician I could never bring myself to disgrace my present for the sake of the future, even though I were promised tons of felicity for an ounce of mean lying. Write to me as often as possible in consideration of my exceptional position. I cannot be in a good mood now, and your letters snatch me away from cholera concerns, and carry me for a brief space to another world. . . .

August 16.

I’ll be damned if I write to you again. I have written to Abbazzio, to St. Moritz. I have written a dozen times at least, so far you have not sent me one correct address, and so not one of my letters has reached and my long description and lectures about the cholera have been wasted. It’s mortifying. But what is most mortifying is that after a whole series of letters from me about our exertions against the cholera, you all at once write me from gay Biarritz that you envy my leisure! Well, Allah forgive you!

Well, I am alive and in good health. The summer was a splendid one, dry, warm, abounding in the fruits of the earth, but its whole charm was from July onwards, spoilt by news of the cholera. While you were inviting me in your letters first to Vienna, and then to Abbazzio I was already one of the doctors of the Serpuhovo Zemstvo, was trying to catch the cholera by its tail and organizing a new section full steam. In the morning I have to see patients, and in the afternoon drive about. I drive, I give lectures to the natives, treat them, get angry with them, and as the Zemstvo has not granted me a single kopeck for organizing the medical centres I cadge from the wealthy, first from one and then from another. I turn out to be an excellent beggar; thanks to my beggarly eloquence, my section has two excellent barracks with all the necessaries, and five barracks that are not excellent, but horrid. I have saved the Zemstvo from expenditure even on disinfectants. Lime, vitriol, and all sorts of stinking stuff I have begged from the manufacturers for all my twenty-five villages. In fact Kolomin ought to be proud of having been at the same high school with me. My soul is exhausted. I am bored. Not to belong to oneself, to think about nothing but diarrhoea, to start up in the night at a dog’s barking and a knock at the gate (“Haven’t they come for me?”), to drive with disgusting horses along unknown roads; to read about nothing but cholera, and to expect nothing but cholera, and at the same time to be utterly uninterested in that disease, and in the people whom one is serving — that, my good sir, is a hash which wouldn’t agree with anyone. The cholera is already in Moscow and in the Moscow district. One must expect it from hour to hour. Judging from its course in Moscow one must suppose that it is already declining and that the bacillus is losing its strength. One is bound to think, too, that it is powerfully affected by the measures that have been taken in Moscow and among us. The educated classes are working vigorously, sparing neither themselves nor their purses; I see them every day, and am touched, and when I remember how Zhitel and Burenin used to vent their acrid spleen on these same educated people I feel almost suffocated. In Nizhni the doctors and the cultured people generally have done marvels. I was overwhelmed with enthusiasm when I read about the cholera. In the good old times, when people were infected and died by thousands, the amazing conquests that are being made before our eyes could not even be dreamed of. It’s a pity you are not a doctor and cannot share my delight — that is, fully feel and recognize and appreciate all that is being done. But one cannot tell about it briefly.

The treatment of cholera requires of the doctor deliberation before all things — that is, one has to devote to each patient from five to ten hours or even longer. As I mean to employ Kantani’s treatment — that is clysters of tannin and sub-cutaneous injection of a solution of common salt — my position will be worse than foolish; while I am busying myself over one patient, a dozen can fall ill and die. You see I am the only man for twenty-five villages, apart from a feldsher who calls me “your honour,” does not venture to smoke in my presence, and cannot take a step without me. If there are isolated cases I shall be capital; but if there is an epidemic of only five cases a day, then I shall do nothing but be irritable and exhausted and feel myself guilty.

Of course there is no time even to think of literature. I am writing nothing. I refused remuneration so as to preserve some little freedom of action for myself, and so I have not a halfpenny. I am waiting till they have threshed and sold the rye. Until then I shall be living on “The Bear” and mushrooms, of which there are endless masses here. By the way, I have never lived so cheaply as now. We have everything of our own, even our own bread. I believe in a couple of years all my household expenses will not exceed a thousand roubles a year.

When you learn from the newspapers that the cholera is over, you will know that I have gone back to writing again. Don’t think of me as a literary man while I am in the service of the Zemstvo. One can’t do two things at once.

You write that I have given up Sahalin. I cannot abandon that child of mine. When I am oppressed by the boredom of belles-lettres I am glad to turn to something else. The question when I shall finish Sahalin and when I shall print does not strike me as being important. While Galkin-Vrasskoy reigns over the prison system I feel very much disinclined to bring out my book. Of course if I am driven to it by need, that is a different matter.

In all my letters I have pertinaciously asked you one question, which of course you are not obliged to answer: “Where are you going to be in the autumn, and wouldn’t you like to spend part of September and October with me in Feodosia or the Crimea?” I have an impatient desire to eat, drink, and sleep, and talk about literature — that is, do nothing, and at the same time feel like a decent person. However, if my idleness annoys you, I can promise to write with or beside you, a play or a story. . . . Eh? Won’t you? Well, God be with you, then.

The astronomer has been here twice. I felt bored with her on both occasions. Svobodin has been here too. He grows better and better. His serious illness has made him pass through a spiritual metamorphosis.

See what a long letter I have written, even though I don’t feel sure that the letter will reach you. Imagine my cholera-boredom, my cholera-loneliness, and compulsory literary inactivity, and write to me more, and oftener. Your contemptuous feeling for France I share. The Germans are far above them, though for some reason they are called stupid. And the Franco-Russian Entente Cordiale I am as fond of as Tolstoy is. There’s something nastily suggestive about these cordialities. On the other hand I was awfully pleased at Virchow’s visit to us.

We have raised a very nice potato and a divine cabbage. How do you manage to get on without cabbage-soup? I don’t envy you your sea, nor your freedom, nor the happy frame of mind you are in abroad. The Russian summer is better than anything. And by the way, I don’t feel any great longing to be abroad. After Singapore, Ceylon, and perhaps even our Amur, Italy and even the crater of Vesuvius do not seem fascinating. After being in India and China I did not see a great difference between other European countries and Russia.

A neighbour of ours, the owner of the renowned Otrad, Count X, is staying now at Biarritz, having run away from the cholera; he gave his doctor only five hundred roubles for the campaign against the cholera. His sister, the countess, who is living in my section, when I went to discuss the provision of barracks for her workmen, treated me as though I had come to apply for a situation. It mortified me, and I told her a lie, pretending to be a rich man. I told the same lie to the Archimandrite, who refuses to provide quarters for the cases which may occur in the monastery. To my question what would he do with the cases that might be taken ill in his hostel, he answered me: “They are persons of means and will pay you themselves. . . . ” Do you understand? And I flared up, and said I did not care about payment, as I was well off, and that all I wanted was the security of the monastery. . . . There are sometimes very stupid and humiliating positions. . . . Before the count went away I met his wife. Huge diamonds in her ears, wearing a bustle, and not knowing how to hold herself. A millionaire. In the company of such persons one has a stupid schoolboy feeling of wanting to be rude.

The village priest often comes and pays me long visits; he is a very good fellow, a widower, and has some illegitimate children.

Write or there will be trouble. . . .

MELIHOVO, October 10, 1892.

Your telegram telling me of Svobodin’s death caught me just as I was going out of the yard to see patients. You can imagine my feelings. Svobodin stayed with me this summer; he was very sweet and gentle, in a serene and affectionate mood, and became very much attached to me. It was evident to me that he had not very long to live, it was evident to him too. He had the thirst of the aged for everyday peace and quiet, and had grown to detest the stage and everything to do with the stage and dreaded returning to Petersburg. Of course I ought to go to the funeral, but to begin with, your telegram came towards evening, and the funeral is most likely tomorrow, and secondly the cholera is twenty miles away, and I cannot leave my centre. There are seven cases in one village, and two have died already. The cholera may break out in my section. It is strange that with winter coming on the cholera is spreading over a wider and wider region.

I have undertaken to be the section doctor till the fifteenth of October — my section will be officially closed on that day. I shall dismiss my feldsher, close the barracks, and if the cholera comes, I shall cut rather a comic figure. Add to that the doctor of the next section is ill with pleurisy and so, if the cholera appears in his section, I shall be bound, from a feeling of comradeship, to undertake his section.

So far I have not had a single case of cholera, but I have had epidemics of typhus, diphtheria, scarlatina, and so on. At the beginning of summer I had a great deal of work, then towards the autumn less and less.

* * * * *

The sum of my literary achievement this summer, thanks to the cholera, has been almost nil. I have written little, and have thought about literature even less. However, I have written two small stories — one tolerable, one bad.

Life has been hard work this summer, but it seems, to me now that I have never spent a summer so well as this one. In spite of the turmoil of the cholera, and the poverty which has kept tight hold of me all the summer, I have liked the life and wanted to live. How many trees I have planted! Thanks to our system of cultivation, Melihovo has become unrecognizable, and seems now extraordinarily snug and beautiful, though very likely it is good for nothing. Great is the power of habit and the sense of property. And it’s marvellous how pleasant it is not to have to pay rent. We have made new acquaintances and formed new relations. Our old terrors in facing the peasants now seem ludicrous. I have served in the Zemstvo, have presided at the Sanitary Council and visited the factories, and I liked all that. They think of me now as one of themselves, and stay the night with me when they pass through Melihovo. Add to that, that we have bought ourselves a new comfortable covered carriage, have made a new road, so that now we don’t drive through the village. We are digging a pond. . . . Anything else? In fact hitherto everything has been new and interesting, but how it will be later on, I don’t know. There is snow already, it is cold, but I don’t feel drawn to Moscow. So far I have not had any feeling of dulness.

* * * * *

The educated people here are very charming and interesting. What matters most, they are honest. Only the police are unattractive.

We have seven horses, a broad-faced calf, and puppies, called Muir and Merrilees. . . .

November 22, 1892.

Snow is falling by day, while at night the moon is shining its utmost, a gorgeous amazing moon. It is magnificent. But nevertheless, I marvel at the fortitude of landowners who spend the winter in the country; there’s so little to do that if anyone is not in one way or another engaged in intellectual work, he is inevitably bound to become a glutton or a drunkard, or a man like Turgenev’s Pigasov. The monotony of the snowdrifts and the bare trees, the long nights, the moonlight, the deathlike stillness day and night, the peasant women and the old ladies — all that disposes one to indolence, indifference, and an enlarged liver. . . .

November 25, 1892.

It is easy to understand you, and there is no need for you to abuse yourself for obscurity of expression. You are a hard drinker, and I have regaled you with sweet lemonade, and you, after giving the lemonade its due, justly observe that there is no spirit in it. That is just what is lacking in our productions — the alcohol which could intoxicate and subjugate, and you state that very well. Why not? Putting aside “Ward No. 6” and myself, let us discuss the matter in general, for that is more interesting. Let ms discuss the general causes, if that won’t bore you, and let us include the whole age. Tell me honestly, who of my contemporaries — that is, men between thirty and forty-five — have given the world one single drop of alcohol? Are not Korolenko, Nadson, and all the playwrights of to-day, lemonade? Have Ryepin’s or Shishkin’s pictures turned your head? Charming, talented, you are enthusiastic; but at the same time you can’t forget that you want to smoke. Science and technical knowledge are passing through a great period now, but for our sort it is a flabby, stale, and dull time. We are stale and dull ourselves, we can only beget gutta-percha boys, [Footnote: An allusion to Grigorovitch’s well-known story.] and the only person who does not see that is Stassov, to whom nature has given a rare faculty for getting drunk on slops. The causes of this are not to be found in our stupidity, our lack of talent, or our insolence, as Burenin imagines, but in a disease which for the artist is worse than syphilis or sexual exhaustion. We lack “something,” that is true, and that means that, lift the robe of our muse, and you will find within an empty void. Let me remind you that the writers, who we say are for all time or are simply good, and who intoxicate us, have one common and very important characteristic; they are going towards something and are summoning you towards it, too, and you feel not with your mind, but with your whole being, that they have some object, just like the ghost of Hamlet’s father, who did not come and disturb the imagination for nothing. Some have more immediate objects — the abolition of serfdom, the liberation of their country, politics, beauty, or simply vodka, like Denis Davydov; others have remote objects — God, life beyond the grave, the happiness of humanity, and so on. The best of them are realists and paint life as it is, but, through every line’s being soaked in the consciousness of an object, you feel, besides life as it is, the life which ought to be, and that captivates you. And we? We! We paint life as it is, but beyond that — nothing at all. . . . Flog us and we can do no more! We have neither immediate nor remote aims, and in our soul there is a great empty space. We have no politics, we do not believe in revolution, we have no God, we are not afraid of ghosts, and I personally am not afraid even of death and blindness. One who wants nothing, hopes for nothing, and fears nothing, cannot be an artist. Whether it is a disease or not — what it is does not matter; but we ought to recognize that our position is worse than a governor’s. I don’t know how it will be with us in ten or twenty years — then circumstances may be different, but meanwhile it would be rash to expect of us anything of real value, apart from the question whether we have talent or not. We write mechanically, merely obeying the long-established arrangement in accordance with which some men go into the government service, others into trade, others write. . . . Grigorovitch and you think I am clever. Yes, I am at least so far clever as not to conceal from myself my disease, and not to deceive myself, and not to cover up my own emptiness with other people’s rags, such as the ideas of the sixties, and so on. I am not going to throw myself like Garshin over the banisters, but I am not going to flatter myself with hopes of a better future either. I am not to blame for my disease, and it’s not for me to cure myself, for this disease, it must be supposed, has some good purpose hidden from us, and is not sent in vain. . . .

February, 1893.

My God! What a glorious thing “Fathers and Children” is! It is positively terrifying. Bazarov’s illness is so powerfully done that I felt ill and had a sensation as though I had caught the infection from him. And the end of Bazarov? And the old men? And Kukshina? It’s beyond words. It’s simply a work of genius. I don’t like the whole of “On the Eve,” only Elena’s father and the end. The end is full of tragedy. “The Dog” is very good, the language is wonderful in it. Please read it if you have forgotten it. “Acia” is charming, “A Quiet Backwater” is too compressed and not satisfactory. I don’t like “Smoke” at all. “The House of Gentlefolk” is weaker than “Fathers and Children,” but the end is like a miracle, too. Except for the old woman in “Fathers and Children”— that is, Bazarov’s mother — and the mothers as a rule, especially the society ladies, who are, however, all alike (Liza’s mother, Elena’s mother), and Lavretsky’s mother, who had been a serf, and the humble peasant woman, all Turgenev’s girls and women are insufferable in their artificiality, and — forgive my saying it — falsity. Liza and Elena are not Russian girls, but some sort of Pythian prophetesses, full of extravagant pretensions. Irina in “Smoke,” Madame Odintsov in “Fathers and Children,” all the lionesses, in fact, fiery, alluring, insatiable creatures for ever craving for something, are all nonsensical. When one thinks of Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenin,” all these young ladies of Turgenev’s, with their seductive shoulders, fade away into nothing. The negative types of women where Turgenev is slightly caricaturing (Kukshina) or jesting (the descriptions of balls) are wonderfully drawn, and so successful, that, as the saying is, you can’t pick a hole in it.

The descriptions of nature are fine, but . . . I feel that we have already got out of the way of such descriptions and that we need something different. . . .

April 26, 1893.

. . . I am reading Pisemsky. His is a great, very great talent! The best of his works is “The Carpenters’ Guild.” His novels are exhausting in their minute detail. Everything in him that has a temporary character, all his digs at the critics and liberals of the period, all his critical observations with their assumption of smartness and modernity, and all the so-called profound reflections scattered here and there — how petty and naive it all is to our modern ideas! The fact of the matter is this: a novelist, an artist, ought to pass by everything that has only a temporary value. Pisemsky’s people are living, his temperament is vigorous. Skabitchevsky in his history attacks him for obscurantism and treachery, but, my God! of all contemporary writers I don’t know a single one so passionately and earnestly liberal as Pisemsky. All his priests, officials, and generals are regular blackguards. No one was so down on the old legal and military set as he.

By the way, I have read also Bourget’s “Cosmopolis.” Rome and the Pope and Correggio and Michael Angelo and Titian and doges and a fifty-year-old beauty and Russians and Poles are all in Bourget, but how thin and strained and mawkish and false it is in comparison even with our coarse and simple Pisemsky! . . .

What a good thing I gave up the town! Tell all the Fofanovs, Tchermnys, et tutti quanti who live by literature, that living in the country is immensely cheaper than living in the town. I experience this now every day. My family costs me nothing now, for lodging, bread, vegetables, milk, butter, horses, are all our own. And there is so much to do, there is not time to get through it all. Of the whole family of Chekhovs, I am the only one to lie down, or sit at the table: all the rest are working from morning till night. Drive the poets and literary men into the country. Why should they live in starvation and beggary? Town life cannot give a poor man rich material in the sense of poetry and art. He lives within four walls and sees people only at the editors’ offices and in eating-shops. . . .

MELIHOVO, January 25, 1894.

I believe I am mentally sound. It is true I have no special desire to live, but that is not, so far, disease, but something probably passing and natural. It does not follow every time that an author describes someone mentally deranged, that he is himself deranged. I wrote “The Black Monk” without any melancholy ideas, through cool reflection. I simply had a desire to describe megalomania. The monk floating across the country was a dream, and when I woke I told Misha about it. So you can tell Anna Ivanovna that poor Anton Pavlovitch, thank God! has not gone out of his mind yet, but that he eats a great deal at supper and so he dreams of monks.

I keep forgetting to write to you: read Ertel’s story “The Seers” in “Russkaya Mysl.” There is poetry and something terrible in the old-fashioned fairy-tale style about it. It is one of the best new things that has come out in Moscow. . . .

YALTA, March 27, 1894.

I am in good health generally, ill in certain parts. For instance, a cough, palpitations of the heart, haemorrhoids. I had palpitations of the heart incessantly for six days, and the sensation all the time was loathsome. Since I have quite given up smoking I have been free from gloomy and anxious moods. Perhaps because I am not smoking, Tolstoy’s morality has ceased to touch me; at the bottom of my heart I take up a hostile attitude towards it, and that of course is not just. I have peasant blood in my veins, and you won’t astonish me with peasant virtues. From my childhood I have believed in progress, and I could not help believing in it since the difference between the time when I used to be thrashed and when they gave up thrashing me was tremendous. . . . But Tolstoy’s philosophy touched me profoundly and took possession of me for six or seven years, and what affected me was not its general propositions, with which I was familiar beforehand, but Tolstoy’s manner of expressing it, his reasonableness, and probably a sort of hypnotism. Now something in me protests, reason and justice tell me that in the electricity and heat of love for man there is something greater than chastity and abstinence from meat. War is an evil and legal justice is an evil; but it does not follow from that that I ought to wear bark shoes and sleep on the stove with the labourer, and so on, and so on. But that is not the point, it is not a matter of pro and con; the thing is that in one way or another Tolstoy has passed for me, he is not in my soul, and he has departed from me, saying: “I leave this your house empty.” I am untenanted. I am sick of theorizing of all sorts, and such bounders as Max Nordau I read with positive disgust. Patients in a fever do not want food, but they do want something, and that vague craving they express as “longing for something sour.” I, too, want something sour, and that’s not a mere chance feeling, for I notice the same mood in others around me. It is just as if they had all been in love, had fallen out of love, and now were looking for some new distraction. It is very possible and very likely that the Russians will pass through another period of enthusiasm for the natural sciences, and that the materialistic movement will be fashionable. Natural science is performing miracles now. And it may act upon people like Mamay, and dominate them by its mass and grandeur. All that is in the hands of God, however. And theorizing about it makes one’s head go round.


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