Thursday, August 02, 2012

Reading Chekhov's letters

As parallel reading to my project to read as many stories as possible by Anton Chekhov I have also been reading and re-reading his letters. Chekhov belongs to the greatest letter writers in history. An extensive and well edited edition of Anton Chekhov's letters, such as the one edited by Martti Anhava in 1982-1990, is an ideal introduction to the life of the author. The early death of Anton Chekhov seems to have been partly a result of his own gross neglicence of his health and also (judging by his remarks in his letters) due to malpractice. During his last summer in Germany Chekhov was getting proper care, too late.

A favourite proverb of Chekhov's was "Chase two rabbits, catch none". He used it in contradictory ways, even with variations such as "If you chase two rabbits, you need two hound dogs". The personal meaning of the proverb was about his twin calling as a doctor and a writer. I had imagined that Chekhov earned money as a doctor to support his career as a writer, but it was the other way round. Chekhov earned money as a writer, financing his studies with fees from magazines, and later he earned substantial fees from theatres that produced his plays. As a doctor Chekhov often worked free of charge. Another saying of Chekhov's was that "medicine is my legal wife and literature is my mistress". It inspired Ingmar Bergman to say that "the theatre is my legal wife and the cinema is my mistress".

Anton Tshehov / Anton Chekhov: Kirjeitä 2: vuosilta 1891-1898. Melihovon vuodet [Letters 1: from 1891-1898. The Melikhovo Years]. RU. Introduced, edited and translated by Martti Anhava. Helsinki: Otava, 1986. Anton Chekhov supported his parental family and moved to the countryside. He was active in helping his countrymen in the great famine of 1891. He admired Eleonora Duse as Cleopatra. There is a scandal around the story "The Grasshopper" although Chekhov denies that it is une histoire à clef with Isaak Levitan as a model of the painter. The personal friendship with Leo Tolstoy starts. The premiere of The Seagull is a disaster. Chekhov's tuberculosis is diagnozed. He becomes a Dreyfusard while staying at Nice. Back in Russia, Chekhov starts to settle down in Yalta. His mentorship to Maxim Gorky starts. Appendix: Ignati Potapenko's memoirs about Chekhov.

Anton Tshehov / Anton Chekhov: Kirjeitä 3: vuosilta 1899-1904. Taiteellinen teatteri, avioliitto, Jalta [Letters 3: from 1899-1904. Moscow Art Theatre, Marriage, Yalta]. RU. Introduced, edited and translated by Martti Anhava. Helsinki: Otava, 1990. Chekhov faces the cultural trends of the turn of the century, including Mir Iskusstva and Sergei Diaghilev. His own artistic energy is focused on the Moscow Art Theatre; there is correspondence with Stanislavsky and Meyerhold. Chekhov meets the actress Olga Knipper, and they get married. Chekhov is deeply impressed by Tolstoy's final novel, Resurrection. Chekhov writes his final plays, Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard; there are precise comments on how the plays should be performed. Olga sends Anton a letter from Imatra. Olga has a miscarriage, and Anton takes tender care of her. Chekhov keeps supporting Gorky whose great breakthrough is the play Lower Depths. Chekhov also helps Sholem Aleichem who needs help for the victims of the Kishinev pogrom. In the summer of 1904 Chekhov visits the baths of Germany where he dies at the age of 44. Among the appendices there is Alexander Serebrov's upsetting account of his encounter with the severely ill Chekhov in 1902.

Anton Tshehov / Anton Chekhov: Muistikirjasta [From the Notebooks]. [RU 1891-1904]. Selected, edited and translated by Martti Anhava. Helsinki: Otava, 1990. In his notebooks Chekhov wrote down résumés for stories, pieces of dialogue, key sentences, characterizations, gardening advice, addresses, recipes, facts of the great famine, and paradoxes. The remarks do not necessarily reflect his own views but are keys to various characters planned for stories and plays. The notebooks are like soil that is being ploughed and sown. Among the remarks there is a fragment of a monologue for a planned but never realized play about King Solomon. Solomon is suffering from insomnia, and he reflects on the secrets of existence. Chekhov belonged to the authors who have been deeply impressed by the wisdom of Solomon, including the Ecclesiastes (and I would guess: also by the Song of Songs).

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