Thursday, March 26, 2020

'I Abandoned Literature Long Ago'

By the summer of 1892 the world was already in the tenth year of the fifth international cholera pandemic. It had started in 1881 and would last fifteen years. The disease had spread through the Middle East, India and Europe (8,600 would die in Hamburg). In Russia alone cholera had claimed an estimated 300,000 lives. On July 8, 1892, Dr. Anton Chekhov volunteered to run a clinic near his estate, Melikhovo, forty miles south of Moscow. In Chekhov: A Life (1997), Donald Rayfield writes that at Chekov’s request

“[T]he authorities ordered the latest anticholera equipment: thermometers, large Cantani syringes for injecting fluids under the skin, tannin enemas to disinfect the gut, carbolic acid, castor oil, calomel, coffee and brandy. All summer Anton rode around twenty-five villages, over dusty or muddy tracks, checking sanitation, treating the dysentery, worms, syphilis and tuberculosis endemic among the peasantry, falling into bed exhausted every night, rising with the sun. Grateful patients gave him a pedigree pig, and three pairs of suede gloves for Masha [Chekhov’s younger sister].”

Chekhov was already sick with the tuberculosis that would kill him twelve years later. He drew upon his experience on Sakhalin two years earlier, his account of which he was already writing and would publish in book form in 1895.  He published “Ward No. 6” in 1892 and would write his finest stories in the subsequent decade. In a letter dated Aug. 1 of that year, he wrote to his friend and editor Alexi Suvorin:

“There is no time to write. I abandoned literature long ago, and I’m poor and broke because I thought it desirable to refuse the renumeration cholera doctors receive. I’m bored, although from a detached point of view cholera has its interesting sides.”

The competing demands of literature and medicine are seldom far from Chekhov’s thoughts. He is guardedly optimistic about the epidemic in Russia. In Moscow, the number of new cases is down to roughly fifty each week, while in the Don region, he writes, “it’s polishing off a thousand people a day.” Despite that the disease is being “held at bay.” The politicizing of the pandemic, however, proceeds apace:

“There’s been no word about cholera uprisings, but there is talk of arrests, proclamations and so on. . . If our socialists do in fact exploit the epidemic for their own ends, I will feel utter contempt for them. Repulsive means for good ends make the ends themselves repulsive.”

[Quotations from the letter to Suvorin are from Letters of Anton Chekhov (1973), translated by Michael Henry Heim and Simon Karlinsky.]

1 comment:

slr in tx said...

The faces tend to change, but the stories stubbornly stay the same.