Memories of Chekhov by Peter Sekirin

Memories of Chekhov, from which this excerpt is drawn, is the first documentary biography of Anton Chekhov to be based on primary sources: the letters, diaries, essays, and memories of Chekhov’s family, friends, and contemporaries that I collected from Chekhov archives in Yalta and Moscow, as well as the New York Public Library, the Russian State Library, and the Library of Congress. All of this material appears in English translation for the first time. My favorite discovery was a rare editorial by Chekhov dedicated to the life of Nikolai Przhevalsky, a famous Russian geographer. At the very end of the nineteenth century Chekhov wrote, “Reading this biography, we do not ask: ‘Why did he do this?’ or ‘What did he accomplish?’ but we say, ‘He was right!’” These words also describe Chekhov’s own life.

—Peter Sekirin, Editor, Memories of Chekhov


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Ivan Bunin, “Chekhov,” from The Russian Word (1904)

I got to know Chekhov in Moscow at the end of 1895. I remember a few specifically Chekhovian phrases that he often said to me back then.

“Do you write? Do you write a lot?” he asked me one day.

I told him, “Actually, I don’t write all that much.”

“That’s a pity,” he told me in a rather gloomy, sad voice which was not typical of him. “You should not have idle hands, you should always be working. All your life.”

And then, without any discernible connection, he added, “It seems to me that when you write a short story, you have to cut off both the beginning and the end. We writers do most of our lying in those spaces. You must write shorter, to make it as short as possible.”

Sometimes Chekhov would tell me about Tolstoy: “I admire him greatly. What I admire the most in him is that he despises us all; all writers. Perhaps a more accurate description is that he treats us, other writers, as completely empty space. You could argue that from time to time, he praises Maupassant, or Kuprin, or Semenov, or myself. But why does he praise us? It is simple: it’s because he looks at us as if we were children. Our short stories, or even our novels, all are child’s play in comparison with his works. However, Shakespeare… For him, the reason is different. Shakespeare irritates him because he is a grown-up writer, and does not write in the way that Tolstoy does.”

Peter Gnedich, “Memories,” from The Book of Life (1922)

Lev Tolstoy sincerely loved Chekhov, but did not like his plays. He told Chekhov once, “A playwright should take the theater-goer by the hand, and lead him in the direction he wants him to go. And where can I follow your character? To the couch in the living-room and back—because your character has no other place to go.” They both—Tolstoy and Chekhov—laughed at these words.

Chekhov told me later, “When I am writing a new play, and I want my character to exit the stage, I remember those words of Lev Nikolaevich, and I think ‘Where will my character go?’ I feel both funny and angry.” Chekhov’s only consolation was that Tolstoy also did not like the plays of Shakespeare.

Chekhov told me once, “You know, I recently visited Tolstoy in Gaspra. He was bedridden due to illness. Among other things, he spoke about me and my works. Finally, when I was about to say goodbye he took my hand and said, ‘Kiss me goodbye.’ While I bent over him and he was kissing me, he whispered in my ear in a still energetic, old man’s voice, ‘You know, I hate your plays. Shakespeare was a bad writer, and I consider your plays even worse than his.’”

The New York Review of Books

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