In Are You There, Crocodile?: Inventing Anton Chekhov, Michael Pennington lovingly describes his visit to Melikhovo, the estate Chekhov bought in 1892 after his return from Sakhalin Island. He’s thrilled to have stood on the steps where the dandyish-looking Chekhov was famously photographed holding Quinine, his dachshund:
“He wears a double-breasted coat and a cap even though it is May, but he looks healthy enough: his face is open and friendly and far more relaxed than it would have been for Braz [Josef Braz, who painted his portrait, which Chekhov said made him look as though he had been “eating grated horseradish”]. Whoever took the picture was trusted, or perhaps a lover of dogs: It is hard to imagine a great writer looking more easy and natural.”
Chekhov was a physician and named his dog after a drug used in his day to treat advanced cases of tuberculosis, the disease that had killed his brother Nikolai in 1889 and would take his life in 1904. Chekhov always fancied dachshunds, and named Quinine’s brother Bromide (a sedative as well as a cliché). Here’s where the story Pennington tells gets especially interesting and turns into oblique literary criticism. Bromide had a grandson named Box II (for unexplained reasons) that a few years later became the pet of Vladimir Nabokov. Box II ended his days in Prague with Nabokov’s widowed mother. In Speak, Memory, Nabokov describes his dachshund in his final days as “an émigré dog in a patched and ill-fitting coat.” Pennington picks up the Chekhov/Nabokov connection:
“In a way the two writers represent extremes in Russian sensibility – Nabokov, the privileged intellectual from western-looking Petersburg (he never once visited Moscow) and Chekhov, who rather disliked Petersburg, from the peasant stock to which intellectuals owed an obligation. Nabokov shares with Chekhov a fanatical eye for detail and a gift for letting it bloom on the page, but he is a far more self-conscious, more Proustian writer, working in complex English, while Chekhov perfects native understatement.”
Pennington speculates that Chekhov would have appreciated Nabokov’s “ability to find comedy in the cruelest situation,” but would have disapproved of the lepidopterist killing so many butterflies. We know how Nabokov felt about Chekhov:
“… in spite of his tolerating flaws which a bright beginner would have avoided, in spite of his being quite satisfied with the man-in-the-street among words, the word-in-the-street, so to say, Chekhov managed to convey an impression of artistic beauty far surpassing that of many writers who thought they knew what rich beautiful prose was.”
“Most connections between the two great stylists are as quaintly circumstantial as the matter of the dog: as a boy of five Nabokov was on holiday with his parents in Wiesbaden while further up the Rhine Chekhov was dying at Badenweiler. More to the point, Nabokov records a meeting between his great aunt Praskovia, one of the earliest women doctors in Russia, and Chekhov, at which the latter was surprisingly uncouth: Praskovia, a pioneer of psychiatry and women’s education, was later dismissed by him as not only `a non-doctor’ but `a lump of meat – if you stripped her and painted her green she’d look like a frog.’”
Such connections, however attenuated, ought to be cherished. They remind us that coincidences, however abhorrent in art, are reality’s consolation prizes.