Authors: Anton Chekhov
First Vintage Classics Edition, March 1991
Copyright © 1963 by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto. Originally published under the title
The Image of Chekhov
in hardcover by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York, in 1963.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Chekhov, Anton Pavlovich, 1860–1904.
[Short stories. English. Selections]
Forty stories / by Anton Chekhov; translated and with an
introduction by Robert Payne.—1st Vintage classics ed.
p. cm.—(Vintage classics)
Originally published: The image of Chekhov, New York:
1. Chekhov, Anton Pavlovich. 1860–1904—
1. Payne, Robert, 1911– . II. Title. III. Series.
WE KNOW this image well, for it is usually reproduced as a frontispiece to his works or stamped on the bindings—the image of a solemn, elderly man with lines of weariness deeply etched on his thin face, which is very pale. The accusing eyes are nearly hidden by pince-nez, the beard is limp, the lips pursed in pain. It is the image of an old scholar or the forbidding family doctor who has brought too many children into the world.
We know him well, but what we know bears little resemblance to the real Chekhov. This portrait of Chekhov is based on a painting made by an obscure artist called Joseph Braz in 1898, when Chekhov was already suffering from consumption. He was restless while sitting for his portrait, and had little confidence in the artist’s gifts, and the best he could say of the portrait was that the tie and the general configuration of the features were perhaps accurate, but the whole was deadly wrong. “It smells of horse-radish,” he said. Five years later, when the portrait was solemnly hung on the walls of the Moscow Art Theater, he wrote to his wife that he would have done everything in his power to prevent the painting from being hung there. He would have preferred to have a photograph hanging in the Moscow Art Theater—anything but that abomination. “There is something in it which is not me, and something that is me is missing,” he wrote, but that was one of his milder criticisms. His rage against the portrait increased
as time went on. It became “that ghastly picture,” and he would lie awake thinking about the harm it would do. The painting has a fairly academic quality: he may have guessed that posterity would take it to its heart.
Chekhov had good reason to hate the picture, for he knew himself well and possessed a perfectly normal vanity. In his youth and middle age he was quite astonishingly handsome. The writer Vladimir Korolenko, who met Chekhov in 1887, speaks of his clean-cut regular features which had not lost their characteristically youthful contours. His eyes were brilliant and deep-set, thoughtful and artless by turns, and his whole expression suggested a man filled with the joy of life. His face was never still, and he was always joking. Even in his later years, when he was afflicted with blindness and hemorrhoids and consumption, and perhaps half a dozen other diseases, he continued to crack jokes like a schoolboy. There are still a few people living who can remember the sound of his infectious laughter.
Let us imagine Chekhov entering a room about the year 1889, when he was nearly thirty and had already written most of the stories he would ever write. “A Dead Body,” “Heartache,” “Anyuta,” “Vanka,” “Sleepyhead,” and countless others are already behind him, and he is at the height of his fame. He has received the Pushkin Prize from the Imperial Academy of Sciences, and he has been elected a member of the Society of Lovers of Russian Literature. He is already aware that he is a great writer with a certain place in Russian literature, and he is dressed accordingly in a silk shirt with a necktie made of colored strings and a fawn-colored coat which offsets the ruddy color of his face. He is over six feet tall, but the narrow shoulders make him seem even taller. He wears a thin beard pointed in the Elizabethan manner, and there is something of the Elizabethan in his calm assumption of power, in his elegance and the nervous quickness of his movements. His thick brown hair is brushed straight back from a clear forehead. He has thick brown eyebrows, and his eyes too are brown, though they grow darker or
brighter according to his mood, and the iris of one eye is always a little lighter than the other, giving him sometimes an expression of absent-mindedness when he is in fact all attention. His eyelids are a little too heavy, and sometimes they droop in a fashionable artistocratic manner, but the real explanation is that he works through the night and sleeps little. He is nearly always smiling or breaking out into huge peals of laughter. Only his hands trouble him: they are the hands of a peasant, large, dry and hot, and he does not always know what to do with them. Excessively handsome, slender and elegant, he knew his power over people and drew them to him like a magnet.
This young and handsome giant was without any trace of arrogance. He treated his gifts with a kind of careless disdain. “Do you know how I write my stories?” he said once to Korolenko. “Look!” His eyes moved across the table until they fixed upon an ash tray. “There’s the story,” he said. “Tomorrow shall I bring you a story called ‘The Ash Tray’?” Korolenko had the curious feeling that vague images were already swarming over the ash tray, and already situations and adventures were beginning to shape themselves, while the light of Chekhov’s humor was already playing on the absurdities and ironies of an ash tray’s existence. When the veteran writer Dmitry Grigorovich, the friend and mentor of Dostoyevsky, complimented him on the classical perfection of his short story “The Huntsman,” Chekhov was genuinely surprised, and wrote back that he had written the story to pass away the time in a bathhouse and had thought nothing more of it. He could write under any conditions, but he seems to have written best when he was surrounded by his friends.
He was tireless in his attention to his friends—nothing was too good for them. He had a passion for entertaining them, and his hospitality was princely. The severe, accusing doctor of the Braz portrait vanishes in the actor, the mimic, the clown, who would amuse himself by going to a hotel with a friend, pretending to be a valet, and proclaiming in a loud voice all the secret vices of his master, until the whole hotel was in an uproar. He
adored buffoonery. He liked putting on disguises. He would throw a Bokhara robe round his shoulders and wrap a turban round his head and pretend to be some visiting emir from the mysterious lands of the East. On a train journey he was in his element. If he was traveling with his mother he would pretend she was a countess and himself a very unimportant servant in her employ, and he would watch the behavior of the other passengers toward the bewildered countess with wide-eyed wonder and delight. He had a trick of making a walk in the country an adventure in high drama. Everything excited him. He was fascinated by the shapes of clouds, the colors of the sky, the texture of fields, and it amazed him that each person walking along a country path contained so many improbable miracles in his soul. The world abounded in miracles, and he rejoiced in all of them with an unself-conscious and devouring eagerness.
Even in his last years Chekhov bore very little resemblance to the Braz portrait. No one could guess from looking at that portrait that this was a man who was always laughing and joking, who was gay and carefree and confident of his powers, who was kind and gentle and generous and very human. What distinguished him from other people was precisely what the portrait left out—the flame of eagerness in the eyes, the wild appetite for experience, the sense of sheer enjoyment which accompanied him everywhere. Men felt doubly men in his presence, and women were continually falling in love with him. There was nothing of the puritan in him. He yearned for only one thing—that people should live in the utmost freedom, perhaps because very early in his own life he had acquired all the freedom he wanted.
By the time he was thirty Chekhov had traveled across the whole length of Russia, visited Hong Kong, Singapore, and Ceylon, and half the great cities of Europe. He makes one of his characters say: “I long to embrace, to include in my own short life, all that is accessible to man. I long to speak, to read, to
wield a hammer in a great factory, to keep watch at sea, to plow. I want to be walking along the Nevsky Prospect, or in the open fields, or on the ocean—wherever my imagination ranges …” “I want to go to Spain and Africa,” he wrote at another time. “I have a craving for life.” He imagined himself leading great caravans of his friends across the whole world, and since this was impossible he was always inviting them to come and stay with him, so that his various houses in the country came to resemble circuses with all the visitors assigned to play out their comic roles. He wrote to the vaudeville writer Bilibin: “I tell you what: get married and come down here, wife and all, for a week or two. I assure you it’ll do you all a world of good, and you’ll go away marvelously stupid.” The venerable Grigorovich came to stay with him, and some time later, remembering the strange things that had happened to him, he lifted his arms in mock horror and exclaimed: “If you only knew what went on at the Chekhovs’! A saturnalia, a regular saturnalia, I tell you!”
What went on, of course, was nothing more than an experiment in furious good humor, with Chekhov playing his usual conspiratorial role. The wonder is that he was able to write so many stories in a life given over to so many friendships. He never stinted his friends, and gave money away recklessly. At those famous house parties there would be poets and novelists and musicians, some high officials, an ecclesiastical dignitary or two, a handful of circus folk, but there were also other people who were not so easily categorized, and these would turn out to be horse thieves, ex-convicts, piano tuners, or prostitutes, anyone in fact that he had met in the course of his travels. He had an especial fondness for pretty young women and homely priests, and he loved all animals except cats, which he abominated. What he sought for in people was that eagerness for life and experience which he regarded as man’s birthright, and his hatred of poverty arose from the despairing knowledge that poverty saps unendurably at human vitality. He had no liking for the government,
and he had even less liking for the revolutionaries attempting to overthrow the government. He loved life, and regarded politics as death.