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Chekhov Was Not a Jerk (Mostly)

Rafi Zabor

During lockdown in my present Brooklyn cave, Chekhov’s letters, even though none of them were sent to me, provided the friendliest reading.

It’s always good to encounter a great writer who is not only not a jerk but actually some kind of paragon. I don’t mean just inventing the modern short story and, in a different, more musical mode of invention, the plupart of modern drama. I do mean a guy who lived only to the age of 44, published over 4,500 pages of sketches, stories, plays, and his extraordinary survey of the Russian penal colony on Sakhalin Island—the letters chronicle his eye-widening journey across Russia in late winter—and found time, when a cholera epidemic hit his region, to get on the road with horse and cart, a good country doctor—never mind that he was in increasingly tubercular health—looking after his neighbors and also raising funds so that the local landsmen wouldn’t sell their livestock and seed-grain, and they’d have the means of surviving once the epidemic passed. Timely, huh?

And he wrote in fairly simple sentences, one after another, without exaggeration, so that we see the truth. Okay, he was opportunistic and elusive with the women who fell in love with him, and only let one tie him down when he was on his last legs, so, absolutely perfect he was not. But if you don’t know his letters and if, as I assume by your presence here, you’re into writers and writing, you’ll find him more upbeat among his friends—you’ll soon be one of them—than in most of his published work.

I had two collections to work with. One, edited by Simon Karlinsky, frames an acute selection of letters with biographical and personal commentary, and is a smooth, authoritative read. The other is a sprawling compendium chocked by Avrahm Yarmolinsky with wonderful Chekhovian ramble and flow.

All of it will cheer you up about writing, if you need cheering up about writing, and although we can’t all be Chekhov, or for that matter Shakespeare, Tolstoy, or PG Wodehouse, getting to know one of the finest, pleasantest authors in the club will not only improve the prospect ahead but teach you tons.

Let me know if you get in touch with him, and drop by at this address to tell me how he, and you, are doing. I’ll roast a haunch of something for you, if there’s anything left in the cave.

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To Alexei Suvorin


April 1, 1897

The doctors have diagnosed pulmonary apical lesions and have ordered me to change my way of life. I can understand the former but not the latter, because it is almost impossible. They order me to live in the country, but living permanently in the country presupposed constant fussing about with peasants, animals and the elements in all their forms, and it is as difficult to avoid cares and anxieties in the country as it is to avoid burns in hell. But I will still try to change my way of life as much as possible, and I have already sent word with Masha that I will no longer practice medicine in the country. It will be both a relief and a great disappointment for me. I am giving up all my district duties and buying a dressing gown, and I will bask in the sun and eat and eat. My doctors have ordered me to eat about six times daily, and they are indignant at finding that I eat so little. I am forbidden to do much talking, to go swimming and so on and so forth.


All my organs aside from the lungs were found to be healthy. Until now I felt I had been drinking exactly as much as I could without doing any harm to myself, but it turns out I wasn’t drinking as much as I was entitled to. What a shame!


The author of “Ward Number Six” has been transferred from ward number sixteen to ward number fourteen. It is spacious and has two windows, Potapenko-style lighting, and three tables. I am not losing much blood. After Tolstoy came to see me one evening (we talked at great length), I hemorrhaged violently at four in the morning.


Melikhovo is a healthful spot. It’s right on a watershed and at a good altitude, so it’s free from fever and diphtheria. After taking counsel, we decided that I should continue at Melikhovo and not go off anywhere. All I have to do is make the house more comfortable. When I get tired of Melikhovo, I’ll go to the neighboring estate I’ve rented for my brothers when they come to visit.

I have a constant stream of visitors. They bring me flowers and candy and things to eat. Heaven, in a word.

I read about the performance at Pavlova Hall in the Petersburg Gazette. Tell Nastya that if I had been there I would have definitely presented her with a basket of flowers. My most humble respects and greetings to Anna Ivanova.


By now I can write sitting up instead of lying on my back, but as soon as I finish writing, I go back to reclining on my sickbed.



The letter, like so many others he wrote—apart from the antic jottings of his youth; the ones, written in the same period, in which he pontificated to his brother about how to get his act together and become a mensch already; and the short exhausted notes he managed in the runup to his death at forty-four—is remarkably even in tone, considering the extraordinary volume of the hemorrhage he had suffered in the middle of dinner at one of Moscow’s most fashionable restaurants on March 21. The only peevish note sounded in the letter is the ironic “Heaven, in a word,” because all these visitors kept asking him questions he felt obliged to answer even though he was under orders not to talk; which explains what happened a few hours after Tolstoy left.

Some data are in order. The letter, hardly an April Fool’s flourish, is dated 1897, when the author, enjoying life on the summit of his creativity, was thirty-seven years old and now had seven years left. He had known that he was tubercular since he was twenty-four, after seeing one of his brothers through to his tubercular death, and although Chekhov spat blood frequently in the years between, and was a doctor besides, he seems to have used extraordinary powers of denial not to know that there was a shadow hanging over his numbered days, and that the crisis would eventually descend full-force. In 1890, with his tuberculosis already well advanced, he undertook a hazardous cross-Russian journey in late winter, much of it by sledge, in order to do his academic duty and spend months in the prisons of Sakhalin Island in the far east, documenting the lives and conditions of those criminally exiled there.

In his letters, Chekhov is as different from the author of his literary work as his stories are different from his plays. He is documentary, affectionate, humorous, and in the main upbeat. His correspondence only takes the familiar downward turn under the force majeure of a new hemmorhage, or the tedium of Yalta, where he was condemned to live for his health. In his stories and plays everyone is some degree of decline, prosaically in the all-seeing tales, more musically when onstage.

At the Moscow Art Theatre they called him “The Inspector of Actresses,” and no wonder. In his short life he engaged in at least twenty-four prolonged love-affairs, many of them running polyphonically, and he stopped evading marriage—he was six foot one in the nineteenth century, handsome, a genius, successful, with a great sense of humor and always easing himself with a catlike smile out the door and back to his freedom: in other words, Russian catnip—only when he was weakened by the latter phases of illness, the actress Olga Knipper just wouldn’t let go until she landed this most slippery of fish. They lived mostly apart, he in Yalta, frequenting its brothels when he was well enough, and she conducting her own affairs in Moscow, and not in secret: Chekhov consoled her after a miscarriage. But she was with him when he died, in Germany, finally admitting it, asking for a bottle of champagne, downing a few glasses before turning to the wall and speaking his last words, “It’s a long time since I’ve had champagne.”

He is usually considered a paragon, perhaps even a saint, among major writers; considering the high and low foolishness of the competition we might as well by the scale of the contrast proclaim him a god. But there is yet a third Chekhov, only fleetingly, fugitively on view: the man who said aloud that he had spent years squeezing the last drop of serf’s blood from his veins, by an extraordinary effort of will transforming himself into a free man without rancor toward the mess and squalor of his upbringing, including no ill-will towards its author, his alcoholic and hysterically religious father. He succeeded in becoming a doctor, and when that did not provide sufficient rubles to support the family, he took to scribbling little jokes and short tales in the privy, and selling them to the newspapers. After a while, influenced by his closest friend and patron, the Suvorin to whom he addressed his April letter, he began to take his writing more seriously, as it had come to deserve.

This same Suvorin characterized him as “a man of flint,” with “enormous amour-propre,” and not in person the unassuming, all-compassionate medico who wrote his collected works, which a couple of years after his Moscow hemorrhage numbered 4,500 pages, and not yet done: “The Cherry Orchard” and several major stories were still to come. What kind of man do you think it took to accomplish that? Is it possible that this inventor of the modern short story and the plupart of modern drama resembled others in the trade in confiding the best of himself to his scribbling and left the hind parts and leftover scraps to those who knew him in life? Russian readers seem to know this third, less palatable Chekhov; in general we in the West do not.

A rat with women, a teaser of their souls and exploiter of their flesh. A Dreyfusard but also an occasional anti-semite. A man all self-will, bubble-wrap protected in the world he ceaselessly authored in himself and on page and stage. Indisputably right about everything, as most successful writers discover themselves to be, and so on.

I don’t entirely believe it.

Only yesterday a Russian friend maintained that the good doctor was a misogynist. The author of “Three Sisters,” “The House With a Mansard” and the lesser-known gem about a provincial schoolteacher whose life flashes past as she helplessly watches “In the Cart”?

No, I don’t entirely believe it. But that “man of flint” line. A telling spark can be struck from that. It’s not so easy to say, but our author’s ease with the hard facts of human decline, so clear-eyed while essentially untroubled by such unmerciful clarity of view . . . and his first mature masterpiece, “A Boring Story” of 1889, about a professor who is coming lucidly to the end of his life and the wearing-out of his heart and mind in view of the fact that nothing has lasted, and all is lost. Or the man in “Ward Six” who lucidly gives way to persecution mania and remains clearsighted while fixed in a paranoia which the prison world around him is only too ready to confirm and enforce. Even Tolstoy might have blanched, seeing with such an eye and the truth set down in such supple, untroubled prose.

From the beginning of the Covid epoch I was so immersed in the hellbound rollercoaster ride of the virus and the Administration that it was hard to drag my eyes away from the screen and apply them to a book. I did enjoy one new novel, Kevin Barry’s Night Boat To Tangier, or at least the first two-thirds of it, but found Marylinne Robinson’s Jack, so fine in the slim pre-pub filet the New Yorker served up, at length a repetitious bore.

Chekhov in his letters provided the most nourishing and congenial company. His quietist happiness in the valley of the shadow, his apparent contentment when terribly weakened, his remaining ability to prune one rose a day. His calm equanimity and lack of rancor. If I could only be more like him.

A muted but insistent pleading note creeps in only in his last difficult years, in letters from Yalta to Olga Knipper in Moscow. He has moved from trying to keep her up there—don’t come to Yalta, there are too many flies and nothing to do—to actually missing her, needing her, but even there his sense of and affection for the details of mundane life forestall the oncome of the maudlin. I’m not a Russian who knows the bad stuff in his bones. Anton Chekhov remains always my welcome, truthtelling, faithful friend.

To Olga Knipper


April 26, 1901

Dog Olga! I shall come early in May. As soon as you get my telegram, go immediately to the Dresden Hotel and inquire if Room 45 is free, in other words, reserve a cheap room.

I often see Nemirovich, he is very nice, does not put on airs; I haven’t yet seen his spouse. I am coming to Moscow chiefly to gallivant and gorge myself. We’ll go to Petrovskoe-Razumovskoe, to Zvenigorod—we’ll go everywhere, provided the weather is good. If you consent to go down the Volga with me, we’ll eat sturgeon.

Kuprin is apparently in love—under an enchantment. He fell in love with a huge, husky woman whom you know and whom you advised me to marry.

If you give me your word that not a soul in Moscow will know about our wedding until it has taken place, I am ready to marry you on the very day of my arrival. For some reason, I am terribly afraid of the wedding ceremony and congratulations and champagne you must hold in your hand while you smile vaguely. I wish we could go straight from church to Zvenigorod. Think, think, darling! You are clever, they say.

The weather in Yalta is rather wretched. A fierce wind. The roses are blooming, but not fully; they will, though. The irises are magnificent.

Everything is all right with me, except for one trifle: my health.

Gorky has not been deported, but arrested, he is held in Nizhny. Posse, too, has been arrested.

I embrace you, Olka.

Your Antoine

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The actress Olga Knipper and Chekhov after their marriage

Rafi Zabor has been a musician, jazz critic, and magazine editor. His novel The Bear Comes Home won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.

Books by Rafi Zabor and all Journal of the Plague Year contributors can be found on our bookshelf on, the anti-Amazon, aimed at keeping independent bookstores alive.

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