Tuesday, March 27, 2018

`Tolstoy Has Departed from My Life'

“Prudence and justice tell me there is more love for mankind in electricity and steam than in chastity and abstention from meat. War is an evil and the court system is an evil, but it doesn’t follow that I should wear bast shoes and sleep on a stove alongside the hired hand and his wife, and so on and so forth.”

This declaration of independence is from the letter Chekhov wrote to Alexi Suvorin on this date, March 27, in 1894 (Anton Chekhov’s Life and Thought: Selected Letters and Commentary, trans. Michael Henry Heim and Simon Karlinsky, 1973). The subject is Tolstoy. Chekhov is thirty-four; Tolstoy, sixty-five. Chekhov’s father was a shopkeeper, his grandfather a serf. Tolstoy was born to nobility. By the time of Chekhov’s birth in 1860, Tolstoy had already published his autobiographical trilogy and Sebastopol Sketches. Tolstoy’s social-spiritual ideas, a hippie-like mingling of anarchism and pacifism, after he had largely repudiated the art of fiction, became enormously influential in Russia and elsewhere. Even Chekhov, not a notably credulous man, was seduced. By 1894, Chekhov had already written “The Steppe,” “A Boring Story,” “Gusev” “and “Ward No. 6,” and had travelled to the penal colonies of Siberia and would soon publish Sakhalin Island. He writes to Suvorin:

“. . . Tolstoy’s moral philosophy has ceased to move me; down deep I’m hostile to it, which is of course unfair. I have peasant blood flowing in my veins, and I'm not one to be impressed with peasant virtues. I acquired my belief in progress when still a child; I couldn’t help believing in it, because the difference between the period when they flogged me and the period when they stopped flogging me was enormous.”

Chekhov said he fell under Tolstoy’s sway for “six or seven years,” and Karlinsky, in his notes to the letter, identifies 1887 as the height of the Tolstoyan influence on the younger writer. The start of Chekhov’s maturation as a writer -- roughly, 1889 – coincides with his incremental rejection of Tolstoy’s philosophy (not his finest fiction). Now, Chekhov tells Suvorin, “something in me protests.” He explains:

“. . . it’s not a matter of the pros and cons, the point is that in one way or another Tolstoy has departed from my life, he’s no longer in my heart and he’s left me, say, `Behold, I leave your house empty’ [a “slightly incorrect quotation,” Karlinsky notes, of Matthew 23:38].”

The writers met for the first time the following year, in August 1895, when Chekhov visited Yasnaya Polyana. At one of their subsequent meetings, Tolstoy told his younger contemporary: “You know, I hate your plays. Shakespeare was a bad writer, and I consider your plays even worse than his.” Chekhov died in 1904, age forty-four; Tolstoy, in 1910, age eighty-two.

Chekhov had little patience with ideology, political, artistic or otherwise. He was a “man of action” in the truest sense, a doctor who treated thousands without payment. There is a peculiar unity to his life as doctor and writer. Compassion and a desire for justice are never mere words or empty, self-gratifying gestures. Virtue, he knew, is often mundane and unrewarded. 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.”

No comments: