Thursday, September 07, 2017

`But Him That Reads It is a Twit.'

In Chekhov: Scenes from a Life (Free Press, 2004), Rosamund Bartlett, a century after the writer’s death, visits the Chekhov Salon Museum in Badenweiler, Germany, where Chekhov died on July 15, 1904. Opened in 1998, the site bills itself as the first dedicated to Chekhov “in the western world.” He would have appreciated Bartlett’s nicely calibrated tone:

“It is located in the cultural centre built on the site of the original pump-room [a word I haven’t heard in decades], where in former times gentlemen could repair to smoke cigars and play cards, or dance with the ladies (if they had removed their hats).”

On display is a pair of Chekhov’s pince-nez, a visual trademark for the writer, though he only wore them late in life. For Bartlett the comic centerpiece (in the Chekhovian sense) of the museum is the visitors’ book. She records the heartfelt inscription left by a literary pilgrim -- “I am touched to the depths of my soul” – as well as the less reverent sentiment contributed by a German teenager: “I was here and found it dead boring.” A subsequent visitor, “a prim professor doctor from Moscow State University,” writes that the teenager and her ilk “in my opinion should not be allow to visit museums at all.” Bartlett might be recounting an exchange of tantrums on Twitter. Instead, she reminds us of a comic sketch Chekhov wrote the year he turned twenty-four, “The Complaints Book,” which describes the comment book left in the waiting room of a provincial train station. After the introductory paragraph, the story is nothing but a transcription of the ridiculous inscriptions left by visitors. The excerpts are taken from Harvey J. Pitcher’s translation in The Comic Stories (Ivan R. Dee, 1999):

“Dear Sir! Just testing the pen?!”

“Approaching this station and admiring the seenery [sic], my hat blue [sic] off. I. Harmonkin.”

“I know not who it was it was that writ, but him that reads it is a twit.”

“Fobbemoff, Head of Small Claims Office, was here.”

“Nikandroff’s a Socialist!”

“Gentlemen! Teltsovsky’s a card-sharp!”

“The station policeman’s wife took a trip over the river with Kostka the barman yesterday. Good luck to them! Chin up, constable!”

Human nature is unchanging. On this truth Chekhov based his life as a serious and very funny writer.

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