Genius, like religious faith, is no guarantee of common sense or even simple decency. Quite the opposite, in fact. Take Tolstoy. The author of War and Peace took himself and his opinions very seriously. As Anthony Daniels (aka Theodore Dalrymple) writes in “Chekhov and Tolstoy”: “Tolstoy yearned for love but was a first-class hater—one who proclaimed God while having difficulty accepting the authority of anything other than his own ego . . .” On Jan. 24, 1900, Tolstoy attended a production of Uncle Vanya at the Moscow Art Theater and found its morals “repellent.” He later told Chekhov: “You know I can’t stand Shakespeare, but your plays are even worse than his.”
Four days after Tolstoy’s visit to the theater, in a letter to the journalist Mikhail Osipovich, Chekhov expresses concern about newspaper accounts of the older writer’s illness. In fact, Tolstoy was quite healthy and would outlive Chekhov by six years. In Letters of Anton Chekhov (trans. Michael Henry Heim and Simon Karlinsky, 1973), he writes:
“I fear Tolstoy’s death. His death would leave a large empty space in my life. First, I have loved no man the way I have loved him. I am not a believer, but of all beliefs I consider his the closest to mine and most suitable for me. Second, when literature has a Tolstoy, it is easy and gratifying to be a writer. Even if you are aware that you have never accomplished anything and are still not accomplishing anything, you don’t feel so bad, because Tolstoy accomplished enough for everyone.”
If the Church sought to select a patron saint of writers, I would nominate Chekhov for beatification. With Shakespeare, contra Tolstoy, he is my essential writer (as is Tolstoy). Chekhov had every reason to suffer the “anxiety of influence” (a ridiculous notion) and resent the great man, but he is respectful, almost worshipful, and Chekhov seldom suffered fools gladly. He goes on:
“Tolstoy stands firm, his authority is enormous, and as long as he is alive bad taste in literature, all vulgarity in its brazen-faced or lachrymose varieties, all bristly or resentful vanity will remain far in the background. His moral authority alone is enough to maintain what we think of as literary trends and schools at a certain minimal level. If not for him, literature would be a flock without a shepherd or an unfathomable jumble.”
We are fortunate. We can read Tolstoy the writer and ignore the pitiable man. That two such geniuses should have been at work in the same age, in the same language, is miraculous. In 1985 (the year Mikhail Gorbachev was elected General Secretary by the Politburo), Clarence Brown edited The Portable Twentieth-Century Russian Reader, a selection ranging from Tolstoy and Chekhov to Vladimir Voinovich and Sasha Sokolov. In his introduction, Brown says provocatively and rightly:
“I now look back on this banquet of words with much pleasure, which I hope nothing will prevent your sharing. These writers, after all, continue in our time the tradition that has made Russian, along with English and classical Greek, one of the three supreme literatures of the world.”
Chekhov was born on this date, Jan. 29, in 1860.