Wednesday, June 12, 2019

'My Humble Regards to Charming Masha'

One learns to appreciate Chekhov as a writer at home in his world. He gives the impression of being a competent, practical man, handy with workaday tasks, one who can do more than write. He defies the romantic image of the oh-so-sensitive artist too good for humdrum chores. Along with treating patients, building clinics, and writing stories and plays, he served as a financial adviser to Olga Vasilyeva, writing her on this date, June 12, in 1901:

“Don’t sell for a hundred twenty-five thousand rubles; after all, there’s no hurry. If something is evaluated at five rubles at first sight, that means it can be sold for seven and a half. Wait a while, for at least a year, or even six months, and in the meantime have someone reliable go to Odessa and see how much your house is actually worth and whether you can’t sell it at a higher price.”

This is Chekhov the hard-nosed real-estate broker. The translators are Michael Henry Heim and Simon Karlinsky in Letters of Anton Chekhov (1973), and Karlinsky supplies context in a footnote. Olga Vasilyeva was an early translator of Chekhov’s stories into English. She was an orphan who had been adopted by a wealthy woman in Odessa and sent to schools in England and France. Chekhov was skeptical that English readers would be interested in reading his work but gave his consent. “Chekhov met the young woman personally,” Karlinsky writes, “and found her quite charming and Westernized to the point where she was forgetting her Russian.”

Her benefactress died in 1901 and left Olga Vasilyeva her real-estate holdings in Odessa. Chekhov encouraged her to sell some of the property she inherited and use the proceeds to endow a hospital. He suggested a doctor she should consult and urged to get the zemstvo involved. “A contribution of ten to fifteen thousand, in my opinion,” Chekhov writes, “should more than suffice for the early stages; it’s better to increase the amount later when the project is firmly on its feet and under way and when you can see everything clearly.” Here is the letter’s final sentence: “My humble regards to charming Masha.”

Karlinsky explains that Masha was a five-year-old girl whom Olga Vasilyeva was raising as a foster child. He writes: “A rather touching friendship developed between Chekhov and Masha, and Chekhov’s correspondence with Olga Vasilyeva contains a number of adult-sounding messages between Chekhov and Masha.”

These are some of the reasons Chekhov is the patron saint of writers.

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