I’ve written before about Shelby Foote’s literary tastes as expressed in his letters to lifelong friend Walker Percy, but a recent reading of C. Stuart Chapman’s Shelby Foote: A Writer’s Life (2003) fills in some of the human context. Among fiction writers, Foote most admired Proust and Chekhov. Proust he first read as a teenager, and followed a ritual of rewarding himself after completing each of his own books with a rereading of À la recherche du temps perdu.
Chekhov, like Percy, was a doctor. Both suffered from tuberculosis, Chekhov fatally. In 1989, when Percy was already being treated for the cancer that would kill him the following year, Foote found it difficult to address his friend’s illness directly. Chambers writes:
“Foote even struggled with what to say to his dying friend, and as always, denial was his better form of valor. Even though Percy had little problem talking about his illness [unlike Chekhov], Foote’s letters continued to focus on artistic issues, even while his friend grew sicker.”
Thus, Foote, in one of his final letters to Percy, extolled Chekhov’s stories and urged his friend to read them:
“My God, my God, what a writer! How he does it is a mystery you cant [sic] solve by analyzing it – he just does it; does it out of being Chekhov…he landed running and never looked back, a highly individual man with his own particular fond absurdity that enabled him to see it in others when he wrote about them.”
Chambers writes: “Almost insensitively, Foote droned on, talking about a number of Chekhov stories; but by the end of the letter, it became clear that contained within his monologue on Chekhov’s talent lay his cryptic efforts to reach out to his friend.”
Chambers is wrong about Foote’s near-insensitivity. Foote and Percy met in 1930 and had been each other’s closest friend for almost 60 years. Though dramatically different temperaments, they understood each other better than many spouses. Percy took no offense at his old friend’s literary foot-dragging, and probably welcomed the letter’s enthusiasm for something other than his imminent mortality. Foote urged him to read “The Bishop,” written in 1902, two years before Chekhov’s death, and continued in his letter:
“He was researching dying while he wrote it; that is, he was dying himself, and Lord, Lord, what a job he did. It takes the mystery out of dying, makes it almost an ordinary occurrence, and in the course of doing it, makes dying more of a mystery than ever.”
Percy read “The Bishop” (which I wrote about here) and replied: “It’s all you say. Nothing short of miraculous.” Fully understanding his friend, Percy saw himself in the character of the dying bishop and writes: “The Bishop is in poor shape, dying in fact.” In a remarkably tactful gesture, Percy the Roman Catholic says of the story to Foote the agnostic: “What’s so good about it is that it doesn’t matter in the least that Chekhov was, apparently, an unbeliever.”
Percy died on May 10, 1990. Ten years later Foote wrote an introduction to Anton Chekhov: Longer Stories from the Last Decade, published by the Modern Library. In it he writes:
“Moreover, like most good writers, his work is even better on rereading, since then you can better appreciate how he goes about getting where he's going. Often, after a stretch of such rereading, I wax enthusiastic beyond all bounds. (Like Hemingway, I sometimes play the fool, but in the opposite direction.) Walker Percy and I shared this reaction, and once, in the course of a discussion, I asked him if he had read `In the Ravine.’ He said he hadn't, and I said: `I'd rather have written “In the Ravine” than Moby-Dick.’ His eyebrows rose at this, as well they might, but he went home and read that great last long story-in which all the author's talents seem to be gathered together as naturally as a hand closing into a fist-and wound up in a state of exaltation similar to my own. Echoing Nabokov on Chekhov's near-miraculous combination of the funny and the sad, he shook his head in wonder. `I don't know how it can be so pitiful and funny,’ he wrote me later. `I have to laugh out loud.’”
Foote died June 27, 2005.