Sunday, July 24, 2016

`I Am Alive and Well'

In the era before antibiotics, the city of Nice on the French Riviera was to Europe as New Mexico was to North America – an open-air sanitarium for patients seeking a cure for tuberculosis. Maupassant took note of the “lungers” in Sur l’eau (1888; translated as Afloat), set along the Mediterranean coast. Chekhov left Melikhovo for Nice in September 1897, and spent eight months there at the urging of his doctors. On Oct. 4 he wrote to his mother from Nice, sounding very much like a dutiful son (he was thirty-seven):

“I am alive and well and lack for nothing; I eat and sleep a lot. It’s warm here, and when
I go out of doors I don’t need an overcoat. I’m staying in a Russian pension, by which I mean a hotel run by a Russian lady. . . . There are orange and Seville orange trees in the garden, as well as palm trees and oleanders as tall as our linden trees. The oleanders are all in bloom. The dogs wear muzzles, and there are all kinds of breeds. A day or two ago I saw a long-haired dachshund, an elongated beast a bit like a hairy caterpillar. The cooks all wear hats; domestic carriages are pulled by donkeys, which are quite small, about the size of our Kazachok [one of Chekhov’s ponies at Melikhovo]. It’s very cheap to have laundry done here, and they do it very well.” [trans. Rosamund Bartlett and Anthony Phillips, Anton Chekhov: A Life in Letters, 2004]

Even in a letter to his mother, Chekhov is Chekhovian. In his notes to Letters of Anton Chekhov (trans. Michael Henry Heim and Simon Karlinsky, 1973), Karlinksy tells us Chekhov settled in the Pension Russe, a boarding house for visiting Russians on Rue Gounod, and that Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin, author of The Golovlyov Family (1876), had once lived there. He paid eleven francs a day for a spacious room with a southern exposure. Karlinsky says: “It was owned by a Russian lady and was especially celebrated for its elegant Russian-style cuisine (a typical dinner was: borscht, poisson glace, squab, veal, salad greens, ice cream and fruit).” In the letter to his mother translated by Bartlett and Philips, Chekhov says: “We have a Russian cook, Evgenia; her cooking is like a French chef’s (she has been living in Nice for thirty years) but every so often we have borscht or fried mushrooms.”

Chekhov kept busy in Nice. He wrote “In the Cart,”Home," “Ionych,’ and three masterpieces: “The Man in a Shell,” “Gooseberries” and “About Love.” He renewed his commitment to Alfred Dreyfus and support for Emile Zola, and found time to improve his French. Chekhov argued with his friend and editor Alexi Suvorin, a notorious anti-Semite and anti-Dreyfusard. On Jan. 4, 1898 he wrote:

“The Dreyfus case has gotten up steam and is on its way, but it’s still not going full power yet. Zola is a noble soul, and I (I belong to the syndicate and have already received a hundred francs from the Jews) am delighted by his outburst. France is a wonderful country and has wonderful writers.”

Here is Karlinsky’s footnote to the second sentence: “A sarcastic reference to the repeated assertions of New Times [Suvorin’s newspaper] that anyone offering proof of the innocence of Dreyfus was in the pay of an international Jewish syndicate.”    

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