Tuesday, August 08, 2017

`The Natural Coloration of His Talent'

Chekhov stayed with Tolstoy at his estate on Aug. 8 and 9, 1895. On Aug. 11 he wrote to his brother Alexander:

“The day before yesterday, I was at Yasnaya Polyana when a man with a knapsack on his back came to see Lev Tolstoy begging for alms. This man has a cornea problem in both eyes and can see very little, so has to feel his way around. He’s not fit for work. Tolstoy asked me to write and find out if there isn’t a home the blind old wander could be packed off to?”

During his visit, Chekhov attended Tolstoy’s reading of his work-in-progress, Resurrection, his final novel. He told the elder writer the novel’s heroine, the maid-turned-prostitute Maslova, was unlikely to have received a sentence of two years’ hard labor for murdering a john by poisoning him. Chekhov based his criticism on what he had learned during his 1890 visit to Sakhalin, the prison colony in Siberia. His sole work of nonfiction, the great Sakhalin Island was published in 1895. Tolstoy listened to the younger writer (Chekhov was then thirty-five; Tolstoy, seventy-six) and corrected his manuscript accordingly.

The passage from the letter to Chekhov’s brother quoted above comes from Anton Chekhov: A Life in Letters (trans. Rosamund Bartlett and Anthony Phillips, 2004). It continues:

“Since you are a specialist in blind matters [Chekhov’s oldest brother was an alcoholic], please don’t refuse my request to write to the said wanderer telling him where he can apply and what to say in his application.  His particulars are: former soldier Sergey Nikiforov Kireyev, fifty-nine years of age, lost the sight of both eyes ten years ago, residing at the Kireyev house in Kashira. You can write to him at Kashira.”

Chekhov was no poseur, politically, artistically or otherwise. This consumptive who died at age forty-four was a “man of action” in the truest sense. There is a peculiar unity to his life as a doctor and writer. Details matter. Compassion and a desire for justice are not matters of words merely, or meaningless, self-gratifying gestures. Virtue is often mundane – writing to an often unreliable brother, for instance. As Nabokov puts it: “This great kindness pervades Chekhov’s literary work, but it is not a matter of program, or of literary message with him, but simply the natural coloration of his talent.” 

[Go here for another Chekhov/Tolstoy anecdote.]

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