... Yesterday was the wedding—a real Cossack wedding with music, feminine bleating, and revolting drunkenness.... The bride is sixteen. They were married in the cathedral. I acted as best man, and was dressed in somebody else's evening suit with fearfully wide trousers, and not a single stud on my shirt. In Moscow such a best man would have been kicked out, but here I looked smarter than anyone.
I saw many rich and eligible young ladies. The choice is enormous, but I was so drunk all the time that I took bottles for young ladies and young ladies for bottles. Probably owing to my drunken condition the local ladies found me witty and satirical! The young ladies here are regular sheep, if one gets up from her place and walks out of the room all the others follow her. One of them, the boldest and the most brainy, wishing to show that she is not a stranger to social polish and subtlety, kept slapping me on the hand and saying, "Oh, you wretch!" though her face still retained its scared expression. I taught her to say to her partners, "How naive you are!"
The bride and bridegroom, probably because of the local custom of kissing every minute, kissed with such gusto that their lips made a loud smack, and it gave me a taste of sugary raisins in my mouth and a spasm in my left calf. The inflammation of the vein in my left leg got worse through their kisses.
... At Zvyerevo I shall have to wait from nine in the evening till five in the morning. Last time I spent the night there in a second-class railway-carriage on the siding. I went out of the carriage in the night and outside I found veritable marvels: the moon, the limitless steppe, the barrows, the wilderness; deathly stillness, and the carriages and the railway lines sharply standing out from the dusk. It seemed as though the world were dead.... It was a picture one would not forget for ages and ages.
RAGOZINA BALKA, April 30, 1887.
It is April 30. The evening is warm. There are storm-clouds about, and so one cannot see a thing. The air is close and there is a smell of grass.
I am staying in the Ragozina Balka at K.'s. There is a small house with a thatched roof, and barns made of flat stone. There are three rooms, with earthen floors, crooked ceilings, and windows that lift up and down instead of opening outwards.... The walls are covered with rifles, pistols, sabres and whips. The chest of drawers and the window-sills are littered with cartridges, instruments for mending rifles, tins of gunpowder, and bags of shot. The furniture is lame and the veneer is coming off it. I have to sleep on a consumptive sofa, very hard, and not upholstered ... Ash-trays and all such luxuries are not to be found within a radius of ten versts.... The first necessaries are conspicuous by their absence, and one has in all weathers to slip out to the ravine, and one is warned to make sure there is not a viper or some other creature under the bushes.
The population consists of old K., his wife, Pyotr, a Cossack officer with broad red stripes on his trousers, Alyosha, Hahko (that is, Alexandr), Zoika, Ninka, the shepherd Nikita and the cook Akulina. There are immense numbers of dogs who are furiously spiteful and don't let anyone pass them by day or by night. I have to go about under escort, or there will be one writer less in Russia.... The most cursed of the dogs is Muhtar, an old cur on whose face dirty tow hangs instead of wool. He hates me and rushes at me with a roar every time I go out of the house.
Now about food. In the morning there is tea, eggs, ham and bacon fat. At midday, soup with goose, roast goose with pickled sloes, or a turkey, roast chicken, milk pudding, and sour milk. No vodka or pepper allowed. At five o'clock they make on a camp fire in the wood a porridge of millet and bacon fat. In the evening there is tea, ham, and all that has been left over from dinner.
The entertainments are: shooting bustards, making bonfires, going to Ivanovka, shooting at a mark, setting the dogs at one another, preparing gunpowder paste for fireworks, talking politics, building turrets of stone, etc.
The chief occupation is scientific farming, introduced by the youthful Cossack, who bought five roubles' worth of works on agriculture. The most important part of this farming consists of wholesale slaughter, which does not cease for a single moment in the day. They kill sparrows, swallows, bumblebees, ants, magpies, crows—to prevent them eating bees; to prevent the bees from spoiling the blossom on the fruit-trees they kill bees, and to prevent the fruit-trees from exhausting the ground they cut down the fruit-trees. One gets thus a regular circle which, though somewhat original, is based on the latest data of science.
We retire at nine in the evening. Sleep is disturbed, for Belonozhkas and Muhtars howl in the yard and Tseter furiously barks in answer to them from under my sofa. I am awakened by shooting: my hosts shoot with rifles from the windows at some animal which does damage to their crops. To leave the house at night one has to call the Cossack, for otherwise the dogs would tear one to bits.
The weather is fine. The grass is tall and in blossom. I watch bees and men among whom I feel myself something like a Mikluha-Maklay. Last night there was a beautiful thunderstorm.
... The coal mines are not far off. To-morrow morning early I am going on a one-horse droshky to Ivanovka (twenty-three versts) to fetch my letters from the post.
... We eat turkeys' eggs. Turkeys lay eggs in the wood on last year's leaves. They kill hens, geese, pigs, etc., by shooting here. The shooting is incessant.
TAGANROG, May 11.
... From K.'s I went to the Holy Mountains.... I came to Slavyansk on a dark evening. The cabmen refuse to take me to the Holy Mountains at night, and advise me to spend the night at Slavyansk, which I did very willingly, for I felt broken and lame with pain.... The town is something like Gogol's Mirgorod; there is a hairdresser and a watchmaker, so that one may hope that in another thousand years there will be a telephone. The walls and fences are pasted with the advertisements of a menagerie.... On green and dusty streets walk pigs, cows, and other domestic creatures. The houses look cordial and friendly, rather like kindly grandmothers; the pavements are soft, the streets are wide, there is a smell of lilac and acacia in the air; from the distance come the singing of a nightingale, the croaking of frogs, barking, and sounds of a harmonium, of a woman screeching.... I stopped in Kulikov's hotel, where I took a room for seventy-five kopecks. After sleeping on wooden sofas and washtubs it was a voluptuous sight to see a bed with a mattress, a washstand.... Fragrant breezes came in at the wide-open window and green branches thrust themselves in. It was a glorious morning. It was a holiday (May 6th) and the bells were ringing in the cathedral. People were coming out from mass. I saw police officers, justices of the peace, military superintendents, and other principalities and powers come out of the church. I bought two kopecks' worth of sunflower seeds, and hired for six roubles a carriage on springs to take me to the Holy Mountains and back (in two days' time). I drove out of the town through little streets literally drowned in the green of cherry, apricot, and apple trees. The birds sang unceasingly. Little Russians whom I met took off their caps, taking me probably for Turgenev; my driver jumped every minute off the box to put the harness to rights, or to crack his whip at the boys who ran after the carriage.... There were strings of pilgrims along the road. On all sides there were white hills, big and small. The horizon was bluish-white, the rye was tall, oak copses were met with here and there—the only things lacking were crocodiles and rattlesnakes.
I came to the Holy Mountains at twelve o'clock. It is a remarkably beautiful and unique place. The monastery stands on the bank of the river Donets at the foot of a huge white rock covered with gardens, oaks, and ancient pines crowded together and over-hanging, one above another. It seems as if the trees had not enough room on the rock, and as if some force were driving them upwards.... The pines literally hang in the air and look as though they might fall any minute. Cuckoos and nightingales sing night and day.
The monks, very pleasant people, gave me a very unpleasant room with a pancake-like mattress. I spent two nights at the monastery and gathered a mass of impressions. While I was there some fifteen thousand pilgrims assembled because of St. Nicolas' Day; eight-ninths of them were old women. I did not know before that there were so many old women in the world; had I known, I would have shot myself long ago. About the monks, my acquaintance with them and how I gave medical advice to the monks and the old women, I will write to the Novoye Vremya and tell you when we meet. The services are endless: at midnight they ring for matins, at five for early mass, at nine for late mass, at three for the song of praise, at five for vespers, at six for the special prayers. Before every service one hears in the corridors the weeping sound of a bell, and a monk runs along crying in the voice of a creditor who implores his debtor to pay him at least five kopecks for a rouble:
"Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon us! Please come to matins!"
It is awkward to stay in one's room, and so one gets up and goes out. I have chosen a spot on the bank of the Donets, where I sit during all the services.
I have bought an ikon for Auntie. [Translator's Note: His mother's sister.] The food is provided gratis by the monastery for all the fifteen thousand: cabbage soup with dried fresh-water fish and porridge. Both are good, and so is the rye bread.
The church bells are wonderful. The choir is not up to much. I took part in a religious procession on boats.
TO V. G. KOROLENKO.
MOSCOW, October 17, 1887.
... I am extremely glad to have met you. I say it sincerely and with all my heart. In the first place, I deeply value and love your talent; it is dear to me for many reasons. In the second, it seems to me that if you and I live in this world another ten or twenty years we shall be bound to find points of contact. Of all the Russians now successfully writing I am the lightest and most frivolous; I am looked upon doubtfully; to speak the language of the poets, I have loved my pure Muse but I have not respected her; I have been unfaithful to her and often took her to places that were not fit for her to go to. But you are serious, strong, and faithful. The difference between us is great, as you see, but nevertheless when I read you, and now when I have met you, I think that we have something in common. I don't know if I am right, but I like to think it.
TO HIS BROTHER ALEXANDR.
MOSCOW, November 20, 1887.
Well, the first performance [Translator's Note: "Ivanov."] is over. I will tell you all about it in detail. To begin with, Korsh promised me ten rehearsals, but gave me only four, of which only two could be called rehearsals, for the other two were tournaments in which messieurs les artistes exercised themselves in altercation and abuse. Davydov and Glama were the only two who knew their parts; the others trusted to the prompter and their own inner conviction.
Act One.—I am behind the stage in a small box that looks like a prison cell. My family is in a box of the benoire and is trembling. Contrary to my expectations, I am cool and am conscious of no agitation. The actors are nervous and excited, and cross themselves. The curtain goes up ... the actor whose benefit night it is comes on. His uncertainty, the way that he forgets his part, and the wreath that is presented to him make the play unrecognizable to me from the first sentences. Kiselevsky, of whom I had great hopes, did not deliver a single phrase correctly—literally not a single one. He said things of his own composition. In spite of this and of the stage manager's blunders, the first act was a great success. There were many calls.
Act Two.—A lot of people on the stage. Visitors. They don't know their parts, make mistakes, talk nonsense. Every word cuts me like a knife in my back. But—o Muse!—this act, too, was a success. There were calls for all the actors, and I was called before the curtain twice. Congratulations and success.
Act Three.—The acting is not bad. Enormous success. I had to come before the curtain three times, and as I did so Davydov was shaking my hand, and Glama, like Manilov, was pressing my other hand to her heart. The triumph of talent and virtue.
Act Four, Scene One.—It does not go badly. Calls before the curtain again. Then a long, wearisome interval. The audience, not used to leaving their seats and going to the refreshment bar between two scenes, murmur. The curtain goes up. Fine: through the arch one can see the supper table (the wedding). The band plays flourishes. The groomsmen come out: they are drunk, and so you see they think they must behave like clowns and cut capers. The horseplay and pot-house atmosphere reduce me to despair. Then Kiselevsky comes out: it is a poetical, moving passage, but my Kiselevsky does not know his part, is drunk as a cobbler, and a short poetical dialogue is transformed into something tedious and disgusting: the public is perplexed. At the end of the play the hero dies because he cannot get over the insult he has received. The audience, grown cold and tired, does not understand this death (the actors insisted on it; I have another version). There are calls for the actors and for me. During one of the calls I hear sounds of open hissing, drowned by the clapping and stamping.
On the whole I feel tired and annoyed. It was sickening though the play had considerable success....
Theatre-goers say that they had never seen such a ferment in a theatre, such universal clapping and hissing, nor heard such discussions among the audience as they saw and heard at my play. And it has never happened before at Korsh's that the author has been called after the second act.
... It has all subsided at last, and I sit as before at my writing-table and compose stories with untroubled spirit. You can't think what it was like! ... I have already told you that at the first performance there was such excitement in the audience and on the stage as the prompter, who has served at the theatre for thirty-two years, had never seen. They made an uproar, shouted, clapped and hissed; at the refreshment bar it almost came to fighting, and in the gallery the students wanted to throw someone out and two persons were removed by the police. The excitement was general....
... The actors were in a state of nervous tension. All that I wrote to you and Maslov about their acting and attitude to their work must not, of course, go any further. There is much one has to excuse and understand.... It turned out that the actress who was doing the chief part in my play had a daughter lying dangerously ill—how could she feel like acting? Kurepin did well to praise the actors.
The next day after the performance there was a review by Pyotr Kitcheyev in the Moskovsky Listok. He calls my play impudently cynical and immoral rubbish. The Moskovskiya Vyedomosti praised it.
... If you read the play you will not understand the excitement I have described to you; you will find nothing special in it. Nikolay, Shehtel, and Levitan—all of them painters—assure me that on the stage it is so original that it is quite strange to look at. In reading one does not notice it.
TO D. V. GRIGOROVITCH.
I have just read "Karelin's Dream," and I am very much interested to know how far the dream you describe really is a dream. I think your description of the workings of the brain and of the general feeling of a person who is asleep is physiologically correct and remarkably artistic. I remember I read two or three years ago a French story, in which the author described the daughter of a minister., and probably without himself suspecting it, gave a correct medical description of hysteria. I thought at the time that an artist's instinct may sometimes be worth the brains of a scientist, that both have the same purpose, the same nature, and that perhaps in time, as their methods become perfect, they are destined to become one vast prodigious force which now it is difficult even to imagine.... "Karelin's Dream" has suggested to me similar thoughts, and to-day I willingly believe Buckle, who saw in Hamlet's musings on the dust of Alexander the Great, Shakespeare's knowledge of the law of the transmutation of substance— i.e., the power of the artist to run ahead of the men of science.... Sleep is a subjective phenomenon, and the inner aspect of it one can only observe in oneself. But since the process of dreaming is the same in all men, every reader can, I think, judge Karelin by his own standards, and every critic is bound to be subjective. From my own personal experience this is how I can formulate my impression.
In the first place the sensation of cold is given by you with remarkable subtlety. When at night the quilt falls off I begin to dream of huge slippery stones, of cold autumnal water, naked banks—and all this dim, misty, without a patch of blue sky; sad and dejected like one who has lost his way, I look at the stones and feel that for some reason I cannot avoid crossing a deep river; I see then small tugs that drag huge barges, floating beams.... All this is infinitely grey, damp, and dismal. When I run from the river I come across the fallen cemetery gates, funerals, my school-teachers.... And all the time I am cold through and through with that oppressive nightmare-like cold which is impossible in waking life, and which is only felt by those who are asleep. The first pages of "Karelin's Dream" vividly brought it to my memory—especially the first half of page five, where you speak of the cold and loneliness of the grave.
I think that had I been born in Petersburg and constantly lived there, I should always dream of the banks of the Neva, the Senate Square, the massive monuments.
When I feel cold in my sleep I dream of people.... I happened to have read a criticism in which the reviewer blames you for introducing a man who is "almost a minister," and thus spoiling the generally dignified tone of the story. I don't agree with him. What spoils the tone is not the people but your characterization of them, which in some places interrupts the picture of the dream. One does dream of people, and always of unpleasant ones.... I, for instance, when I feel cold, always dream of my teacher of scripture, a learned priest of imposing appearance, who insulted my mother when I was a little boy; I dream of vindictive, implacable, intriguing people, smiling with spiteful glee—such as one can never see in waking life. The laughter at the carriage window is a characteristic symptom of Karelin's nightmare. When in dreams one feels the presence of some evil will, the inevitable ruin brought about by some outside force, one always hears something like such laughter.... One dreams of people one loves, too, but they generally appear to suffer together with the dreamer.
But when my body gets accustomed to the cold, or one of my family covers me up, the sensation of cold, of loneliness, and of an oppressive evil will, gradually disappears.... With the returning warmth I begin to feel that I walk on soft carpets or on grass, I see sunshine, women, children.... The pictures change gradually, but more rapidly than they do in waking life, so that on awaking it is difficult to remember the transitions from one scene to another.... This abruptness is well brought out in your story, and increases the impression of the dream.
Another natural fact you have noticed is also extremely striking: dreamers express their moods in outbursts of an acute kind, with childish genuineness, like Karelin. Everyone knows that people weep and cry out in their sleep much more often than they do in waking life. This is probably due to the lack of inhibition in sleep and of the impulses which make us conceal things.
Forgive me, I so like your story that I am ready to write you a dozen sheets, though I know I can tell you nothing new or good.... I restrain myself and am silent, fearing to bore you and to say something silly.
I will say once more that your story is magnificent. The public finds it "vague," but to a writer who gloats over every line such vagueness is more transparent than holy water.... Hard as I tried I could detect only two small blots, even those are rather farfetched!
(1) I think that at the beginning of the story the feeling of cold is soon blunted in the reader and becomes habitual, owing to the frequent repetition of the word "cold," and (2), the word "glossy" is repeated too often.
There is nothing else I could find, and I feel that as one is always feeling the need of refreshing models, "Karelin's Dream" is a splendid event in my existence as an author. This is why I could not contain myself and ventured to put before you some of my thoughts and impressions.
There is little good I can say about myself. I write not what I want to be writing, and I have not enough energy or solitude to write as you advised me.... There are many good subjects jostling in my head—and that is all. I am sustained by hopes of the future, and watch the present slip fruitlessly away.
Forgive this long letter, and accept the sincere good wishes of your devoted
TO V. G. KOROLENKO.
MOSCOW, January 9, 1888.
Following your friendly advice I began writing a story [Footnote: "The Steppe"] for the Syeverny Vyestnik. To begin with I have attempted to describe the steppe, the people who live there, and what I have experienced in the steppe. It is a good subject, and I enjoy writing about it, but unfortunately from lack of practice in writing long things, and from fear of making it too rambling, I fall into the opposite extreme: each page turns out a compact whole like a short story, the pictures accumulate, are crowded, and, getting in each other's way, spoil the impression as a whole. As a result one gets, not a picture in which all the details are merged into one whole like stars in the heavens, but a mere diagram, a dry record of impressions. A writer—you, for instance—will understand me, but the reader will be bored and curse.
... Your "Sokolinets" is, I think, the most remarkable novel that has appeared of late. It is written like a good musical composition, in accordance with all the rules which an artist instinctively divines. Altogether in the whole of your book you are such a great artist, such a force, that even your worst failings, which would have been the ruin of any other writer, pass unnoticed. For instance, in the whole of your book there is an obstinate exclusion of women, and I have only just noticed it.
TO A. N. PLESHTCHEYEV.
MOSCOW, February 5, 1888.
... I am longing to read Korolenko's story. He is my favourite of contemporary writers. His colours are rich and vivid, his style is irreproachable, though in places rather elaborate, his images are noble. Leontyev [Footnote: I. L. Shtcheglov.] is good too. He is not so mature and picturesque, but he is warmer than Korolenko, more peaceful and feminine.... But, Allah kerim, why do they both specialize? The first will not part with his convicts, and the second feeds his readers with nothing but officers.... I understand specialization in art such as genre, landscape, history, but I cannot admit of such specialties as convicts, officers, priests.... This is not specialization but partiality. In Petersburg you do not care for Korolenko, and here in Moscow we do not read Shtcheglov, but I fully believe in the future of both of them. Ah, if only we had decent critics!
... You say you liked Dymov [Translator's Note: One of the characters in "The Steppe."] as a subject. Life creates such characters as the dare-devil Dymov not to be dissenters nor tramps, but downright revolutionaries.... There never will be a revolution in Russia, and Dymov will end by taking to drink or getting into prison. He is a superfluous man.
It is devilishly cold, but the poor birds are already flying to Russia! They are driven by homesickness and love for their native land. If poets knew how many millions of birds fall victims to their longing and love for their homes, how many of them freeze on the way, what agonies they endure on getting home in March and at the beginning of April, they would have sung their praises long ago! ... Put yourself in the place of a corncrake who does not fly but walks all the way, or of a wild goose who gives himself up to man to escape being frozen.... Life is hard in this world!
TO I. L. SHTCHEGLOV.
MOSCOW, April 18, 1888.
... In any case I am more often merry than sad, though if one comes to think of it I am bound hand and foot.... You, my dear man, have a flat, but I have a whole house which, though a poor specimen, is still a house, and one of two storeys, too! You have a wife who will forgive your having no money, and I have a whole organization which will collapse if I don't earn a sufficient number of roubles a month—collapse and fall on my shoulders like a heavy stone.
... I have just sent a story [Footnote: "The Lights."] to the Syeverny Vyestnik. I feel a little ashamed of it. It is frightfully dull, and there is so much discussion and preaching in it that it is mawkish. I didn't like to send it, but had to, for I need money as I do air....
I have had a letter from Leman. He tells me that "we" (that is all of you Petersburg people) "have agreed to print advertisements about each other's work on our books," invites me to join, and warns me that among the elect may be included only such persons as have a "certain degree of solidarity with us." I wrote to say that I agreed, and asked him how does he know with whom I have solidarity and with whom I have not? How fond of stuffiness you are in Petersburg! Don't you feel stifled with such words as "solidarity," "unity of young writers," "common interests," and so on? Solidarity and all the rest of it I admit on the stock-exchange, in politics, in religious affairs, etc., but solidarity among young writers is impossible and unnecessary.... We cannot feel and think in the same way, our aims are different, or we have no aims whatever, we know each other little or not at all, and so there is nothing on to which this solidarity could be securely hooked.... And is there any need for it? No, in order to help a colleague, to respect his personality and his work, to refrain from gossiping about him, envying him, telling him lies and being hypocritical, one does not need so much to be a young writer as simply a man.... Let us be ordinary people, let us treat everybody alike, and then we shall not need any artificially worked up solidarity. Insistent desire for particular, professional, clique solidarity such as you want, will give rise to unconscious spying on one another, suspiciousness, control, and, without wishing to do so, we shall become something like Jesuits in relation to one another.... I, dear Jean, have no solidarity with you, but I promise you as a literary man perfect freedom so long as you live; that is, you may write where and how you wish, you may think like Koreisha [Footnote: A well-known religious fanatic in Moscow.] if you like, betray your convictions and tendencies a thousand times, etc., etc., and my human relations with you will not alter one jot, and I will always publish advertisements of your books on the wrappers of mine.
TO A. S. SUVORIN.
SUMY, MADAME LINTVARYOV'S ESTATE, May 30, 1888.
... I am staying on the bank of the Psyol, in the lodge of an old signorial estate. I took the place without seeing it, trusting to luck, and have not regretted it so far. The river is wide and deep, with plenty of islands, of fish and of crayfish. The banks are beautiful, well-covered with grass and trees. And best of all, there is so much space that I feel as if for my one hundred roubles I have obtained a right to live on an expanse of which one can see no end. Nature and life here is built on the pattern now so old-fashioned and rejected by magazine editors. Nightingales sing night and day, dogs bark in the distance, there are old neglected gardens, sad and poetical estates shut up and deserted where live the souls of beautiful women; old footmen, relics of serfdom, on the brink of the grave; young ladies longing for the most conventional love. In addition to all these things, not far from me there is even such a hackneyed cliche as a water-mill (with sixteen wheels), with a miller, and his daughter who always sits at the window, apparently waiting for someone. All that I see and hear now seems familiar to me from old novels and fairy-tales. The only thing that has something new about it is a mysterious bird, which sits somewhere far away in the reeds, and night and day makes a noise that sounds partly like a blow on an empty barrel and partly like the mooing of a cow shut up in a barn. Every Little Russian has seen this bird in the course of his life, but everyone describes it differently, which means that no one has seen it.... Every day I row to the mill, and in the evening I go to the islands to fish with fishing maniacs from the Haritovenko factory. Our conversations are sometimes interesting. On the eve of Whit Sunday all the maniacs will spend the night on the islands and fish all night; I, too. There are some splendid types.
My hosts have turned out to be very nice and hospitable people. It is a family worth studying. It consists of six members. The old mother, a very kind, rather flabby woman who has had suffering enough in her life; she reads Schopenhauer and goes to church to hear the Song of Praise; she conscientiously studies every number of the Vyestnik Evropi and Syeverny Vyestnik, and knows writers I have not dreamed of; attaches much importance to the fact that once the painter Makovsky stayed in her lodge and now a young writer is staying there; talking to Pleshtcheyev she feels a holy thrill all over and rejoices every minute that it has been "vouchsafed" to her to see the great poet.
Her eldest daughter, a woman doctor—the pride of the whole family and "a saint" as the peasants call her—really is remarkable. She has a tumour on the brain, and in consequence of it she is totally blind, has epileptic fits and constant headaches. She knows what awaits her, and stoically with amazing coolness speaks of her approaching death. In the course of my medical practice I have grown used to seeing people who were soon going to die, and I have always felt strange when people whose death was at hand talked, smiled, or wept in my presence; but here, when I see on the verandah this blind woman who laughs, jokes, or hears my stories read to her, what begins to seem strange to me is not that she is dying, but that we do not feel our own death, and write stories as though we were never going to die.
The second daughter, also a woman doctor, is a gentle, shy, infinitely kind creature, loving to everyone. Patients are a regular torture to her, and she is scrupulous to morbidity with them. At consultations we always disagree: I bring good tidings where she sees death, and I double the doses which she prescribes. But where death is obvious and inevitable my lady doctor feels quite in an unprofessional way. I was receiving patients with her one day at a medical centre; a young Little Russian woman came with a malignant tumour of the glands in her neck and at the back of her head. The tumour had spread so far that no treatment could be thought of. And because the woman was at present feeling no pain, but would in another six months die in terrible agony, the doctor looked at her in such a guilty way as though she were asking forgiveness for being well, and ashamed that medical science was helpless. She takes a zealous part in managing the house and estate, and understands every detail of it. She knows all about horses even. When the side horse does not pull or gets restless, she knows how to help matters and instructs the coachman. I believe she has never hurt anyone, and it seems to me that she has not been happy for a single instant and never will be.
The third daughter, who has finished her studies at Bezstuzhevka, is a vigorous, sunburnt young girl with a loud voice. Her laugh can be heard a mile away. She is a passionate Little Russian patriot. She has built a school on the estate at her own expense, and teaches the children Krylov's fables translated into Little Russian. She goes to Shevtchenko's grave as a Turk goes to Mecca. She does not cut her hair, wears stays and a bustle, looks after the housekeeping, is fond of laughing and singing.
The eldest son is a quiet, modest, intelligent, hardworking young man with no talents; he has no pretensions, and is apparently content with what life has given him. He has been dismissed from the University [Translator's Note: On political grounds, of course, is understood.] just before taking his degree, but he does not boast of it. He speaks little. He loves farming and the land and lives in harmony with the peasants.
The second son is a young man mad over Tchaikovsky's being a genius. He dreams of living according to Tolstoy.
* * * * *
Pleshtcheyev is staying with us. They all look upon him as a demi-god, consider themselves happy if he bestows attention on somebody's junket, bring him flowers, invite him everywhere, and so on.... And he "listens and eats," and smokes his cigars which give his admirers a headache. He is slow to move, with the indolence of old age, but this does not prevent the fair sex from taking him about in boats, driving with him to the neighbouring estates, and singing songs to him. Here he is by way of being the same thing as in Petersburg—i.e., an ikon which is prayed to for being old and for having once hung by the side of the miracle-working ikons. So far as I am concerned I regard him—not to speak of his being a very good, warm-hearted and sincere man—as a vessel full of traditions, interesting memories, and good platitudes.
... What you say about "The Lights" is quite just. You say that neither the conversation about pessimism nor Kisotcha's story in any way help to solve the question of pessimism. It seems to me it is not for writers of fiction to solve such questions as that of God, of pessimism, etc. The writer's business is simply to describe who has been speaking about God or about pessimism, how, and in what circumstances. The artist must be not the judge of his characters and of their conversations, but merely an impartial witness. I have heard a desultory conversation of two Russians about pessimism—a conversation which settles nothing—and I must report that conversation as I heard it; it is for the jury, that is, for the readers, to decide on the value of it. My business is merely to be talented—i.e., to know how to distinguish important statements from unimportant, how to throw light on the characters, and to speak their language. Shtcheglov-Leontyev blames me for finishing the story with the words, "There's no making out anything in this world." He thinks a writer who is a good psychologist ought to be able to make it out—that is what he is a psychologist for. But I don't agree with him. It is time that writers, especially those who are artists, recognized that there is no making out anything in this world, as once Socrates recognized it, and Voltaire, too. The mob thinks it knows and understands everything; and the more stupid it is the wider it imagines its outlook to be. And if a writer whom the mob believes in has the courage to say that he does not understand anything of what he sees, that alone will be something gained in the realm of thought and a great step in advance.
TO A. N. PLESHTCHEYEV.
SUMY, June 28, 1888.
... We have been to the province of Poltava. We went to the Smagins', and to Sorotchintsi. We drove with a four-in-hand, in an ancestral, very comfortable carriage. We had no end of laughter, adventures, misunderstandings, halts, and meetings on the way.... If you had only seen the places where we stayed the night and the villages stretching eight or ten versts through which we drove! ... What weddings we met on the road, what lovely music we heard in the evening stillness, and what a heavy smell of fresh hay there was! Really one might sell one's soul to the devil for the pleasure of looking at the warm evening sky, the pools and the rivulets reflecting the sad, languid sunset....
... The Smagins' estate is "great and fertile," but old, neglected, and dead as last year's cobwebs. The house has sunk, the doors won't shut, the tiles in the stove squeeze one another out and form angles, young suckers of cherries and plums peep up between the cracks of the floors. In the room where I slept a nightingale had made herself a nest between the window and the shutter, and while I was there little naked nightingales, looking like undressed Jew babies, hatched out from the eggs. Sedate storks live on the barn. At the beehouse there is an old grandsire who remembers the King Goroh [Translator's Note: The equivalent of Old King Cole.] and Cleopatra of Egypt.
Everything is crumbling and decrepit, but poetical, sad, and beautiful in the extreme.
* * * * *
TO HIS SISTER.
FEODOSIA, July, 1888.
... The journey from Sumy to Harkov is frightfully dull. Going from Harkov to Simferopol one might well die of boredom. The Crimean steppe is depressing, monotonous, with no horizon, colourless like Ivanenko's stories, and on the whole rather like the tundra.... From Simferopol mountains begin and, with them, beauty. Ravines, mountains, ravines, mountains, poplars stick out from the ravines, vineyards loom dark on the mountains—all this is bathed in moonlight, is new and wild, and sets one's imagination working in harmony with Gogol's "Terrible Vengeance." Particularly fantastic are the alternating precipices and tunnels when you see now depths full of moonlight and now complete sinister darkness. It is rather uncanny and delightful. One feels it is something not Russian, something alien. I reached Sevastopol at night. The town is beautiful in itself and beautiful because it stands by a marvellous sea. The best in the sea is its colour, and that one cannot describe. It is like blue copperas. As to steamers and sailing vessels, piers and harbours, what strikes one most of all is the poverty of the Russians. Except the "popovkas," which look like Moscow merchants' wives, and two or three decent steamers, there is nothing to speak of in the bay.
... In the morning it was deadly dull. Heat, dust, thirst.... In the harbour there was a stench of ropes, and one caught glimpses of faces burnt brick-red, sounds of a pulley, of the splashing of dirty water, knocking, Tatar words, and all sorts of uninteresting nonsense. You go up to a steamer: men in rags, bathed in sweat and almost baked by the sun, dizzy, with tatters on their backs and shoulders, unload Portland cement; you stand and look at them and the whole scene becomes so remote, so alien, that one feels insufferably dull and uninterested. It is entertaining to get on board and set off, but it is rather a bore to sail and talk to a crowd of passengers consisting of elements all of which one knows by heart and is weary of already.... Yalta is a mixture of something European that reminds one of the views of Nice, with something cheap and shoddy. The box-like hotels in which unhappy consumptives are pining, the impudent Tatar faces, the ladies' bustles with their very undisguised expression of something very abominable, the faces of the idle rich, longing for cheap adventures, the smell of perfumery instead of the scent of the cedars and the sea, the miserable dirty pier, the melancholy lights far out at sea, the prattle of young ladies and gentlemen who have crowded here in order to admire nature of which they have no idea—all this taken together produces such a depressing effect and is so overwhelming that one begins to blame oneself for being biassed and unfair.... At five o'clock in the morning I arrived at Feodosia—a greyish-brown, dismal, and dull-looking little town. There is no grass, the trees are wretched, the soil is coarse and hopelessly poor. Everything is burnt up by the sun, and only the sea smiles—the sea which has nothing to do with wretched little towns or tourists. Sea bathing is so nice that when I got into the water I began to laugh for no reason at all....
* * * * *
... Yesterday we went to Shah-Mamai Aivazovsky's estate, twenty-five versts from Feodosia. It is a magnificent estate, rather like fairyland; such estates may probably be seen in Persia. Aivazovsky [Translator's Note: The famous marine painter.] himself, a vigorous old man of seventy-five, is a mixture of a good-natured Armenian and an overfed bishop; he is full of dignity, has soft hands, and offers them like a general. He is not very intelligent, but is a complex nature worthy of attention. He combines in himself a general, a bishop, an artist, an Armenian, a naive old peasant, and an Othello. He is married to a young and very beautiful woman whom he rules with a rod of iron. He is friendly with Sultans, Shahs, and Amirs. He collaborated with Glinka in writing "Ruslan and Liudmila." He was a friend of Pushkin, but has never read him. He has not read a single book in his life. When it is suggested to him that he should read something he answers, "Why should I read when I have opinions of my own?" I spent a whole day in his house and had dinner there. The dinner was fearfully long, with endless toasts. By the way, at that dinner I was introduced to the lady doctor, wife of the well-known professor. She is a fat, bulky piece of flesh. If she were undressed and painted green she would look just like a frog. After talking to her I mentally scratched her off the list of women doctors....
* * * * *
TO HIS BROTHER MIHAIL.
July 28, 1888.
On the Seas Black, Caspian, and of Life.
... A wretched little cargo steamer, Dir, is racing full steam from Suhum to Poti. It is about midnight. The little cabin—the only one in the steamer—is insufferably hot and stuffy. There is a smell of burning, of rope, of fish and of the sea. One hears the engine going "Boom-boom-boom." ... There are devils creaking up aloft and under the floor. The darkness is swaying in the cabin and the bed rocks up and down.... One's stomach's whole attention is concentrated on the bed, and, as though to find its level, it rolls the Seltzer water I had drunk right up to my throat and then lets it down to my heels. Not to be sick over my clothes in the dark I hastily put on my things and go out.... It is dark. My feet stumble against some invisible iron bars, a rope; wherever you step there are barrels, sacks, rags. There is coal dust under foot. In the dark I knock against a kind of grating: it is a cage with wild goats which I saw in the daytime. They are awake and anxiously listening to the rocking of the boat. By the cage sit two Turks who are not asleep either.... I grope my way up the stairs to the captain's bridge.... A warm but violent and unpleasant wind tries to blow away my cap.... The steamer rocks. The mast in front of the captain's bridge sways regularly and leisurely like a metronome; I try to look away from it, but my eyes will not obey me and, just like my stomach, insist on following moving objects.... The sky and the sea are dark, the shore is not in sight, the deck looks a dark blur ... there is not a single light.
Behind me is a window ... I look into it and see a man who looks attentively at something and turns a wheel with an expression as though he were playing the ninth symphony.... Next to me stands the little stout captain in tan shoes.... He talks to me of Caucasian emigrants, of the heat, of winter storms, and at the same time looks intently into the dark distance in the direction of the shore.
"You seem to be going too much to the left again," he says to someone; or, "There ought to be lights here.... Do you see them?"
"No, sir," someone answers from the dark.
"Climb up and look."
A dark figure appears on the bridge and leisurely climbs up. In a minute we hear:
I look to the left where the lights of the lighthouse are supposed to be, borrow the captain's glasses, but see nothing.... Half an hour passes, then an hour. The mast sways regularly, the devils creak, the wind makes dashes at my cap.... It is not pitch dark, but one feels uneasy.
Suddenly the captain dashes off somewhere to the rear of the ship, crying, "You devil's doll!"
"To the left," he shouts anxiously at the top of his voice. "To the left! ... To the right! A-va-va-a!"
Incomprehensible words of command are heard. The steamer starts, the devils give a creak.... "A-va-va!" shouts the captain; at the bows a bell is rung, on the black deck there are sounds of running, knocking, cries of anxiety.... The Dir starts once more, puffs painfully, and apparently tries to move backwards.
"What is it?" I ask, and feel something like a faint terror. There is no answer.
"He'd like a collision, the devil's doll!" I hear the captain's harsh shout. "To the left!"
Red lights appear in front, and suddenly among the uproar is heard the whistling, not of the Dir, but of some other steamer.... Now I understand it: there is going to be a collision! The Dir puffs, trembles, and does not move, as though waiting for a signal to go down.... But just when I think all is lost, the red lights appear on the left of us, and the dark silhouette of a steamer can be discerned.... A long black body sails past us, guiltily blinks its red eyes, and gives a guilty whistle....
"Oof! What steamer is it?" I ask the captain.
The captain looks at the silhouette through his glasses and replies:
"It is the Tweedie."
After a pause we begin to talk of the Vesta, which collided with two steamers and went down. Under the influence of this conversation the sea, the night and the wind begin to seem hideous, created on purpose for man's undoing, and I feel sorry as I look at the fat little captain.... Something whispers to me that this poor man, too, will sooner or later sink to the bottom and be choked with salt water. [Footnote: Chekhov's presentiment about the captain was partly fulfilled: that very autumn the Dir was wrecked on the shores of Alupka.]
I go back to my cabin.... It is stuffy, and there is a smell of cooking. My travelling companion, Suvorin-fils, is asleep already.... I take off all my clothes and go to bed.... The darkness sways to and fro, the bed seems to breathe.... Boom-boom-boom! Bathed in perspiration, breathless, and feeling an oppression all over with the rocking, I ask myself, "What am I here for?"
I wake up. It is no longer dark. Wet all over, with a nasty taste in my mouth, I dress and go out. Everything is covered with dew.... The wild goats look with human eyes through the grating of their cage and seem to be asking "Why are we here?" The captain stands still as before and looks intently into the distance....
A mountainous shore stretches on the left.... Elborus is seen from behind the mountains.
A blurred sun rises in the sky.... One can see the green valley of Rion and the Bay of Poti by the side of it.
TO N. A. LEIKIN.
SUMY, August 12.
... I have been to the Crimea. I spent twelve days at Suvorin's in Feodosia, bathed, idled about; I have been to Aivazovsky's estate. From Feodosia I went by steamer to Batum. On the way I spent half a day at Suhum—a charming little town buried in luxuriant, un-Russian greenery, and one day at the Monastery, at New Athos. It is so lovely there at New Athos that there is no describing it: waterfalls, eucalyptuses, tea-plants, cypresses, olive-trees, and, above all, sea and mountains, mountains, mountains. From Athos and Suhum I went to Poti; the River Rion, renowned for its valley and its sturgeons, is close by. The vegetation is luxuriant. All the streets are planted with poplars. Batum is a big commercial and military, foreign-looking, cafe'-chantant sort of town; you feel in it at every step that we have conquered the Turks. There is nothing special about it (except a great number of brothels), but the surrounding country is charming. Particularly fine is the road to Kars and the swift river Tchoraksu.
The road from Batum to Tiflis is poetical and original; you look all the time out of window and exclaim: there are mountains, tunnels, rocks, rivers, waterfalls, big and little. But the road from Tiflis to Baku is the abomination of desolation, a bald plain, covered with sand and created for Persians, tarantulas, and phalangas to live in. There is not a single tree, there is no grass ... dreary as hell.... Baku and the Caspian Sea are such rotten places that I would not agree to live there for a million. There are no roofs, there are no trees either; Persian faces everywhere, fifty degrees Reaumur of heat, a smell of kerosine, the naphtha-soaked mud squelches under one's feet, the drinking water is salt.
... You have seen the Caucasus. I believe you have seen the Georgian Military Road, too. If you have not been there yet, pawn your wives and children and the Oskolki [Translator's Note: Oskolki, (i.e., "Chips," "Bits") the paper of which Leikin was editor.] and go. I have never in my life seen anything like it. It is not a road, but unbroken poetry, a wonderful, fantastic story written by the Demon in love with Tamara.
TO A. S. SUVORIN.
SUMY, August 29, 1888.
... When as a boy I used to stay at my grandfather's on Count Platov's estate, I had to sit from sunrise to sunset by the thrashing machine and write down the number of poods and pounds of corn that had been thrashed; the whistling, the hissing, and the bass note, like the sound of a whirling top, that the machine makes at full speed, the creaking of the wheels, the lazy tread of the oxen, the clouds of dust, the grimy, perspiring faces of some three score of men—all this has stamped itself upon my memory like the Lord's Prayer. And now, too, I have been spending hours at the thrashing and felt intensely happy. When the thrashing engine is at work it looks as though alive; it has a cunning, playful expression, while the men and oxen look like machines. In the district of Mirgorod few have thrashing machines of their own, but everyone can hire one. The engine goes about the whole province drawn by six oxen and offers itself to all who can pay for it.
* * * * *
MOSCOW, September 11.
... You advise me not to hunt after two hares, and not to think of medical work. I do not know why one should not hunt two hares even in the literal sense.... I feel more confident and more satisfied with myself when I reflect that I have two professions and not one. Medicine is my lawful wife and literature is my mistress. When I get tired of one I spend the night with the other. Though it's disorderly, it's not so dull, and besides neither of them loses anything from my infidelity. If I did not have my medical work I doubt if I could have given my leisure and my spare thoughts to literature. There is no discipline in me.
* * * * *
MOSCOW, October 27, 1888.
... In conversation with my literary colleagues I always insist that it is not the artist's business to solve problems that require a specialist's knowledge. It is a bad thing if a writer tackles a subject he does not understand. We have specialists for dealing with special questions: it is their business to judge of the commune, of the future of capitalism, of the evils of drunkenness, of boots, of the diseases of women. An artist must only judge of what he understands, his field is just as limited as that of any other specialist—I repeat this and insist on it always. That in his sphere there are no questions, but only answers, can only be maintained by those who have never written and have had no experience of thinking in images. An artist observes, selects, guesses, combines—and this in itself presupposes a problem: unless he had set himself a problem from the very first there would be nothing to conjecture and nothing to select. To put it briefly, I will end by using the language of psychiatry: if one denies that creative work involves problems and purposes, one must admit that an artist creates without premeditation or intention, in a state of aberration; therefore, if an author boasted to me of having written a novel without a preconceived design, under a sudden inspiration, I should call him mad.
You are right in demanding that an artist should take an intelligent attitude to his work, but you confuse two things: solving a problem and stating a problem correctly. It is only the second that is obligatory for the artist. In "Anna Karenin" and "Evgeny Onyegin" not a single problem is solved, but they satisfy you completely because all the problems are correctly stated in them. It is the business of the judge to put the right questions, but the answers must be given by the jury according to their own lights.
* * * * *
... You say that the hero of my "Party" is a character worth developing. Good Lord! I am not a senseless brute, you know, I understand that. I understand that I cut the throats of my characters and spoil them, and that I waste good material.... To tell you the truth, I would gladly have spent six months over the "Party"; I like taking things easy, and see no attraction in publishing at headlong speed. I would willingly, with pleasure, with feeling, in a leisurely way, describe the whole of my hero, describe the state of his mind while his wife was in labour, his trial, the horrid feeling he has after he is acquitted; I would describe the midwife and the doctors having tea in the middle of the night, I would describe the rain.... It would give me nothing but pleasure because I like to rummage about and dawdle. But what am I to do? I begin a story on September 10th with the thought that I must finish it by October 5th at the latest; if I don't I shall fail the editor and be left without money. I let myself go at the beginning and write with an easy mind; but by the time I get to the middle I begin to grow timid and to fear that my story will be too long: I have to remember that the Syeverny Vyestnik has not much money, and that I am one of their expensive contributors. This is why the beginning of my stories is always very promising and looks as though I were starting on a novel, the middle is huddled and timid, and the end is, as in a short sketch, like fireworks. And so in planning a story one is bound to think first about its framework: from a crowd of leading or subordinate characters one selects one person only—wife or husband; one puts him on the canvas and paints him alone, making him prominent, while the others one scatters over the canvas like small coin, and the result is something like the vault of heaven: one big moon and a number of very small stars around it. But the moon is not a success because it can only be understood if the stars too are intelligible, and the stars are not worked out. And so what I produce is not literature, but something like the patching of Trishka's coat. What am I to do? I don't know, I don't know. I must trust to time which heals all things.
To tell the truth again, I have not yet begun my literary work, though I have received a literary prize. Subjects for five stories and two novels are languishing in my head. One of the novels was thought of long ago, and some of the characters have grown old without managing to be written. In my head there is a whole army of people asking to be let out and waiting for the word of command. All that I have written so far is rubbish in comparison with what I should like to write and should write with rapture. It is all the same to me whether I write "The Party" or "The Lights," or a vaudeville or a letter to a friend—it is all dull, spiritless, mechanical, and I get annoyed with critics who attach any importance to "The Lights," for instance. I fancy that I deceive him with my work just as I deceive many people with my face, which looks serious or over-cheerful. I don't like being successful; the subjects which sit in my head are annoyed and jealous of what has already been written. I am vexed that the rubbish has been done and the good things lie about in the lumber-room like old books. Of course, in thus lamenting I rather exaggerate, and much of what I say is only my fancy, but there is a part of the truth in it, a good big part of it. What do I call good? The images which seem best to me, which I love and jealously guard lest I spend and spoil them for the sake of some "Party" written against time.... If my love is mistaken, I am wrong, but then it may not be mistaken! I am either a fool and a conceited fellow or I really am an organism capable of being a good writer. All that I now write displeases and bores me, but what sits in my head interests, excites and moves me—from which I conclude that everybody does the wrong thing and I alone know the secret of doing the right one. Most likely all writers think that. But the devil himself would break his neck in these problems.
Money will not help me to decide what I am to do and how I am to act. An extra thousand roubles will not settle matters, and a hundred thousand is a castle in the air. Besides, when I have money—it may be from lack of habit, I don't know—I become extremely careless and idle; the sea seems only knee-deep to me then.... I need time and solitude.
In the November number of the Syeverny Vyestnik there is an article by the poet Merezhkovsky about your humble servant. It is a long article. I commend to your attention the end of it; it is characteristic. Merezhkovsky is still very young, a student—of science I believe. Those who have assimilated the wisdom of the scientific method and learned to think scientifically experience many alluring temptations. Archimedes wanted to turn the earth round, and the present day hot-heads want by science to conceive the inconceivable, to discover the physical laws of creative art, to detect the laws and the formulae which are instinctively felt by the artist and are followed by him in creating music, novels, pictures, etc. Such formulae probably exist in nature. We know that A, B, C, do, re, mi, fa, sol, are found in nature, and so are curves, straight lines, circles, squares, green, blue, and red.... We know that in certain combinations all this produces a melody, or a poem or a picture, just as simple chemical substances in certain combinations produce a tree, or a stone, or the sea; but all we know is that the combination exists, while the law of it is hidden from us. Those who are masters of the scientific method feel in their souls that a piece of music and a tree have something in common, that both are built up in accordance with equally uniform and simple laws. Hence the question: What are these laws? And hence the temptation to work out a physiology of creative art (like Boborykin), or in the case of younger and more diffident writers, to base their arguments on nature and on the laws of nature (Merezhkovsky). There probably is such a thing as the physiology of creative art, but we must nip in the bud our dreams of discovering it. If the critics take up a scientific attitude no good will come of it: they will waste a dozen years, write a lot of rubbish, make the subject more obscure than ever—and nothing more. It is always a good thing to think scientifically, but the trouble is that scientific thinking about creative art will be bound to degenerate in the end into searching for the "cells" or the "centres" which control the creative faculty. Some stolid German will discover these cells somewhere in the occipital lobes, another German will agree with him, a third will disagree, and a Russian will glance through the article about the cells and reel off an essay about it to the Syeverny Vyestnik. The Vyestnik Evropi will criticize the essay, and for three years there will be in Russia an epidemic of nonsense which will give money and popularity to blockheads and do nothing but irritate intelligent people.
For those who are obsessed with the scientific method and to whom God has given the rare talent of thinking scientifically, there is to my mind only one way out—the philosophy of creative art. One might collect together all the best works of art that have been produced throughout the ages and, with the help of the scientific method, discover the common element in them which makes them like one another and conditions their value. That common element will be the law. There is a great deal that works which are called immortal have in common; if this common element were excluded from each of them, a work would lose its charm and its value. So that this universal something is necessary, and is the conditio sine qua non of every work that claims to be immortal. It is of more use to young people to write critical articles than poetry. Merezhkovsky writes smoothly and youthfully, but at every page he loses heart, makes reservations and concessions, and this means that he is not clear upon the subject. He calls me a poet, he styles my stories "novelli" and my heroes "failures"—that is, he follows the beaten track. It is time to give up these "failures," superfluous people, etc., and to think of something original. Merezhkovsky calls my monk [Translator's Note: "Easter Eve."] who composes the songs of praise a failure. But how is he a failure? God grant us all a life like his: he believed in God, and he had enough to eat and he had the gift of composing poetry.... To divide men into the successful and the unsuccessful is to look at human nature from a narrow, preconceived point of view. Are you a success or not? Am I? Was Napoleon? Is your servant Vassily? What is the criterion? One must be a god to be able to tell successes from failures without making a mistake.
* * * * *
MOSCOW, November 7, 1888.
... It is not the public that is to blame for our theatres being so wretched. The public is always and everywhere the same: intelligent and stupid, sympathetic and pitiless according to mood. It has always been a flock which needs good shepherds and dogs, and it has always gone in the direction in which the shepherds and the dogs drove it. You are indignant that it laughs at flat witticisms and applauds sounding phrases; but then the very same stupid public fills the house to hear "Othello," and, listening to the opera "Evgeny Onyegin," weeps when Tatyana writes her letter.
... The water-carrier has stolen from somewhere a Siberian kitten with long white fur and black eyes, and brought it to us. This kitten takes people for mice: when it sees anyone it lies flat on its stomach, stalks one's feet and rushes at them. This morning as I was pacing up and down the room it several times stalked me, and a la tigre pounced at my boots. I imagine the thought of being more terrible than anyone in the house affords it the greatest delight.
November 11, 1888.
I finished to-day the story [Footnote: "A Nervous Breakdown."] for the Garshin sbornik: it is such a load off my mind. In this story I have told my own opinion—which is of no interest to anyone—of such rare men as Garshin. I have run to almost 2,000 lines. I speak at length about prostitution, but settle nothing. Why do they write nothing about prostitution in your paper? It is the most fearful evil, you know. Our Sobolev street is a regular slave-market.
November 15, 1888.
My "Party" has pleased the ladies. They sing my praises wherever I go. It really isn't bad to be a doctor and to understand what one is writing about. The ladies say the description of the confinement is true. In the story for the Garshin sbornik I have described spiritual agony.
(No date), 1888.
... You say that writers are God's elect. I will not contradict you. Shtcheglov calls me the Potyomkin of literature, and so it is not for me to speak of the thorny path, of disappointments, and so on. I do not know whether I have ever suffered more than shoemakers, mathematicians, or railway guards do; I do not know who speaks through my lips—God or someone worse. I will allow myself to mention only one little drawback which I have experienced and you probably know from experience also. It is this. You and I are fond of ordinary people; but other people are fond of us because they think we are not ordinary. Me, for instance, they invite everywhere and regale me with food and drink like a general at a wedding. My sister is indignant that people on all sides invite her simply because she is a writer's sister. No one wants to love the ordinary people in us. Hence it follows that if in the eyes of our friends we should appear to-morrow as ordinary mortals, they will leave off loving us, and will only pity us. And that is horrid. It is horrid, too, that they like the very things in us which we often dislike and despise in ourselves. It is horrid that I was right when I wrote the story "The First-Class Passenger," in which an engineer and a professor talk about fame.
I am going away into the country. Hang them all! You have Feodosia. By the way, about Feodosia and the Tatars. The Tatars have been robbed of their land, but no one thinks of their welfare. There ought to be Tatar schools. Write and suggest that the money which is being spent on the sausage Dorpat University, where useless Germans are studying, should be devoted to schools for Tatars, who are of use to Russia. I would write about it myself, but I don't know how to.
December 23, 1888.
... There are moments when I completely lose heart. For whom and for what do I write? For the public? But I don't see it, and believe in it less than I do in spooks: it is uneducated, badly brought up, and its best elements are unfair and insincere to us. I cannot make out whether this public wants me or not. Burenin says that it does not, and that I waste my time on trifles; the Academy has given me a prize. The devil himself could not make head or tail of it. Write for the sake of money? But I never have any money, and not being used to having it I am almost indifferent to it. For the sake of money I work apathetically. Write for the sake of praise? But praise merely irritates me. Literary society, students, Pleshtcheyev, young ladies, etc., were enthusiastic in their praises of my "Nervous Breakdown," but Grigorovitch is the only one who has noticed the description of the first snow. And so on, and so on. If we had critics I should know that I provide material, whether good or bad does not matter—that to men who devote themselves to the study of life I am as necessary as a star is to an astronomer. And then I would take trouble over my work and should know what I was working for. But as it is you, I, Muravlin, and the rest are like lunatics who write books and plays to please themselves. To please oneself is, of course, an excellent thing; one feels the pleasure while one is writing, but afterwards? But ... I will shut up. In short, I am sorry for Tatyana Repin, [Translator's Note: Suvorin's play.] not because she poisoned herself, but because she lived her life, died in agony, and was described absolutely to no purpose, without any good to anyone. A number of tribes, religions, languages, civilizations, have vanished without a trace—vanished because there were no historians or biologists. In the same way a number of lives and works of art disappear before our very eyes owing to the complete absence of criticism. It may be objected that critics would have nothing to do because all modern works are poor and insignificant. But this is a narrow way of looking at things. Life must be studied not from the pluses alone, but from the minuses too. The conviction that the "eighties" have not produced a single writer may in itself provide material for five volumes.
... I settled down last night to write a story for the Novoye Vremya, but a woman appeared and dragged me to see the poet Palmin who, when he was drunk, had fallen and cut his forehead to the bone. I was busy over the drunken fellow for nearly two hours, was tired out, began to smell of iodoform all over, felt cross, and came home exhausted.... Altogether my life is a dreary one, and I begin to get fits of hating people which used never to happen to me before. Long stupid conversations, visitors, people asking for help, and helping them to the extent of one or two or three roubles, spending money on cabs for the sake of patients who do not pay me a penny—altogether it is such a hotch-potch that I feel like running away from home. People borrow money from me and don't pay it back, they take my books, they waste my time.... Blighted love is the one thing that is missing.
* * * * *
December 26, 1888.
... You say that from compassion women fall in love, from compassion they get married.... And what about men? I don't like realistic writers to slander women, but I don't like it either when people put women on a pedestal and attempt to prove that even if they are worse than men, anyway they are angels and men scoundrels. Neither men nor women are worth a brass farthing, but men are more just and more intelligent.
December 30, 1888.
... This is how I understand my characters. [Translator's Note: In the play "Ivanov."] Ivanov is a gentleman, a University man, and not remarkable in any way. He is excitable, hotheaded, easily carried away, honest and straightforward like most people of his class. He has lived on his estate and served on the Zemstvo. What he has been doing and how he has behaved, what he has been interested in and enthusiastic over, can be seen from the following words of his, addressed to the doctor (Act I., Scene 5): "Don't marry Jewesses or neurotic women or blue-stockings ... don't fight with thousands single-handed, don't wage war on windmills, don't batter your head against the wall ... God preserve you from scientific farming, wonderful schools, enthusiastic speeches...." This is what he has in his past. Sarra, who has seen his scientific farming and other crazes, says about him to the doctor: "He is a remarkable man, doctor, and I am sorry you did not meet him two or three years ago. Now he is depressed and melancholy, he doesn't talk or do anything, but in old days ... how charming he was!" (Act I., Scene 7). His past is beautiful, as is generally the case with educated Russians. There is not, or there hardly is, a single Russian gentleman or University man who does not boast of his past. The present is always worse than the past. Why? Because Russian excitability has one specific characteristic: it is quickly followed by exhaustion. A man has scarcely left the class-room before he rushes to take up a burden beyond his strength; he tackles at once the schools, the peasants, scientific farming, and the Vyestnik Evropi, he makes speeches, writes to the minister, combats evil, applauds good, falls in love, not in an ordinary, simple way, but selects either a blue-stocking or a neurotic or a Jewess, or even a prostitute whom he tries to save, and so on, and so on. But by the time he is thirty or thirty-five he begins to feel tired and bored. He has not got decent moustaches yet, but he already says with authority:
"Don't marry, my dear fellow.... Trust my experience," or, "After all, what does Liberalism come to? Between ourselves Katkov was often right...." He is ready to reject the Zemstvo and scientific farming, and science and love. My Ivanov says to the doctor (Act I., Scene 5): "You took your degree only last year, my dear friend, you are still young and vigorous, while I am thirty-five. I have a right to advise you...." That is how these prematurely exhausted people talk. Further down, sighing authoritatively, he advises: "Don't you marry in this or that way (see above), but choose something commonplace, grey, with no vivid colours or superfluous flourishes. Altogether build your life according to the conventional pattern. The greyer and more monotonous the background the better.... The life that I have led—how tiring it is! Ah, how tiring!"
Conscious of physical exhaustion and boredom, he does not understand what is the matter with him, and what has happened. Horrified, he says to the doctor (Act I., Scene 3): "Here you tell me she is soon going to die and I feel neither love nor pity, but a sort of emptiness and weariness.... If one looks at me from outside it must be horrible. I don't understand what is happening to my soul." Finding themselves in such a position, narrow and unconscientious people generally throw the whole blame on their environment, or write themselves down as Hamlets and superfluous people, and are satisfied with that. But Ivanov, a straightforward man, openly says to the doctor and to the public that he does not understand his own mind. "I don't understand! I don't understand!" That he really doesn't understand can be seen from his long monologue in Act III., where, tete-a-tete with the public, he opens his heart to it and even weeps.
The change that has taken place in him offends his sense of what is fitting. He looks for the causes outside himself and fails to find them; he begins to look for them inside and finds only an indefinite feeling of guilt. It is a Russian feeling. Whether there is a death or illness in his family, whether he owes money or lends it, a Russian always feels guilty. Ivanov talks all the time about being to blame in some way, and the feeling of guilt increases in him at every juncture. In Act I. he says: "Suppose I am terribly to blame, yet my thoughts are in a tangle, my soul is in bondage to a sort of sloth, and I am incapable of understanding myself...." In Act II. he says to Sasha: "My conscience aches day and night, I feel that I am profoundly to blame, but in what exactly I have done wrong I cannot make out."
To exhaustion, boredom, and the feeling of guilt add one more enemy: loneliness. Were Ivanov an official, an actor, a priest, a professor, he would have grown used to his position. But he lives on his estate. He is in the country. His neighbours are either drunkards or fond of cards, or are of the same type as the doctor. None of them care about his feelings or the change that has taken place in him. He is lonely. Long winters, long evenings, an empty garden, empty rooms, the grumbling Count, the ailing wife.... He has nowhere to go. This is why he is every minute tortured by the question: what is he to do with himself?
Now about his fifth enemy. Ivanov is tired and does not understand himself, but life has nothing to do with that! It makes its legitimate demands upon him, and whether he will or no, he must settle problems. His sick wife is a problem, his numerous debts are a problem, Sasha flinging herself on his neck is a problem. The way in which he settles all these problems must be evident from his monologue in Act III., and from the contents of the last two acts. Men like Ivanov do not solve difficulties but collapse under their weight. They lose their heads, gesticulate, become nervous, complain, do silly things, and finally, giving rein to their flabby, undisciplined nerves, lose the ground under their feet and enter the class of the "broken down" and "misunderstood."
Disappointment, apathy, nervous limpness and exhaustion are the inevitable consequence of extreme excitability, and such excitability is extremely characteristic of our young people. Take literature. Take the present time.... Socialism is one of the forms of this excitement. But where is socialism? You see it in Tihomirov's letter to the Tsar. The socialists are married and are criticizing the Zemstvo. Where is Liberalism? Mihailovsky himself says that all the labels have been mixed up now. And what are all the Russian enthusiasms worth? The war has wearied us, Bulgaria has wearied us till we can only be ironical about it. Zucchi has wearied us and so has the comic opera.
Exhaustion (Dr. Bertensen will confirm this) finds expression not only in complaining or the sensation of boredom. The life of an over-tired man cannot be represented like this:
[Transcriber's note: The line graph in the print version depicts a wavy horizontal "line" with minimal variation in the vertical direction. The ASCII diagram below gives a rough approximation.]
It is very unequal. Over-tired people never lose the capacity for becoming extremely excited, but cannot keep it up for long, and each excitement is followed by still greater apathy.... Graphically, it could be represented like this:
[Transcriber's note: The line graph in the print version depicts a series of wavy horizontal segments punctuated by sharp "dips," each horizontal segment a little lower than the one before. The ASCII illustration below gives a rough approximation.]
~~~~~~ ~~~~~~ / ~~~~~~ / / ~~~~~~ / / /
The fall, as you see, is not continuous but broken. Sasha declares her love and Ivanov cries out in ecstasy, "A new life!"—and next morning he believes in this new life as little as he does in spooks (the monologue in Act III.); his wife insults him, and, fearfully worked up and beside himself with anger, he flings a cruel insult at her. He is called a scoundrel. This is either fatal to his tottering brain, or stimulates him to a fresh paroxysm and he pronounces sentence on himself.
Not to tire you out altogether I pass now to Dr. Lvov. He is the type of an honest, straightforward, hotheaded, but narrow and uncompromising man. Clever people say of such men: "He is stupid but his heart is in the right place." Anything like width of outlook or unreflecting feeling is foreign to Lvov. He is the embodiment of a programme, a walking tendency. He looks through a narrow frame at every person and event, he judges everything according to preconceived notions. Those who shout, "Make way for honest labour!" are an object of worship to him; those who do not shout it are scoundrels and exploiters. There is no middle. He has been brought up on Mihailov's [Translator's Note: The author of second-rate works inculcating civic virtue with a revolutionary bias.] novels; at the theatre he has seen on the stage "new men," i.e., the exploiters and sons of our age, painted by the modern playwrights. He has stored it all up, and so much so, that when he reads "Rudin" he is sure to be asking himself, "Is Rudin a scoundrel or not?" Literature and the stage have so educated him that he approaches every character in real life and in fiction with this question.... It is not enough for him that all men are sinners. He wants saints and villains!
He was prejudiced before he came to the district. He at once classed all the rich peasants as exploiters, and Ivanov, whom he could not understand, as a scoundrel. Why, the man has a sick wife and he goes to see a rich lady neighbour—of course he is a scoundrel! It is obvious that he is killing his wife in order to marry an heiress.
Lvov is honest and straightforward, and he blurts out the truth without sparing himself. If necessary, he will throw a bomb at a carriage, give a school inspector a blow in the face, or call a man a scoundrel. He will not stop at anything. He never feels remorse—it is his mission as "an honest worker" to fight "the powers of darkness"!
Such people are useful, and are for the most part attractive. To caricature them, even in the interests of the play, is unfair and, indeed, unnecessary. True, a caricature is more striking, and therefore easier to understand, but it is better to put your colour on too faint than too strong.
Now about the women. What do they love Ivanov for? Sarra loves him because he is a fine man, because he has enthusiasm, because he is brilliant and speaks with as much heat as Lvov does (Act I., Scene 7). She loves him so long as he is excited and interesting; but when he begins to grow misty in her eyes, and to lose definiteness of outline, she ceases to understand him, and at the end of Act III. speaks out plainly and sharply.
Sasha is a young woman of the newest type. She is well-educated, intelligent, honest, and so on. In the realm of the blind a one-eyed man is king, and so she favours Ivanov in spite of his being thirty-five. He is better than anyone else. She knew him when she was a child and saw his work close at hand, at the period before he was exhausted. He is a friend of her father's.
She is a female who is not won by the vivid plumage of the male, not by their courage and dexterity, but by their complaints, whinings and failures. She is the sort of girl who loves a man when he is going downhill. The moment Ivanov loses heart the young lady is on the spot! That's just what she was waiting for. Just think of it, she now has such a holy, such a grateful task before her! She will raise up the fallen one, set him on his feet, make him happy.... It is not Ivanov she loves, but this task. Argenton in Daudet's book says, "Life is not a novel." Sasha does not know this. She does not know that for Ivanov love is only a fresh complication, an extra stab in the back. And what comes of it? She struggles with him for a whole year and, instead of being raised, he sinks lower and lower.
... In my description of Ivanov there often occurs the word "Russian." Don't be cross about it. When I was writing the play I had in mind only the things that really matter—that is, only the typical Russian characteristics. Thus the extreme excitability, the feeling of guilt, the liability to become exhausted are purely Russian. Germans are never excited, and that is why Germany knows nothing of disappointed, superfluous, or over-tired people.... The excitability of the French is always maintained at one and the same level, and makes no sudden bounds or falls, and so a Frenchman is normally excited down to a decrepit old age. In other words, the French do not have to waste their strength in over-excitement; they spend their powers sensibly, and do not go bankrupt.
... Ivanov and Lvov appear to my imagination to be living people. I tell you honestly, in all conscience, these men were born in my head, not by accident, not out of sea foam, or preconceived "intellectual" ideas. They are the result of observing and studying life. They stand in my brain, and I feel that I have not falsified the truth nor exaggerated it a jot. If on paper they have not come out clear and living, the fault is not in them but in me, for not being able to express my thoughts. It shows it is too early for me to begin writing plays.
* * * * *
January 7, 1889.
... I have been cherishing the bold dream of summing up all that has hitherto been written about whining, miserable people, and with my Ivanov saying the last word. It seemed to me that all Russian novelists and playwrights were drawn to depict despondent men, but that they all wrote instinctively, having no definite image or views on the subject. As far as my design goes I was on the right track, but the execution is good for nothing. I ought to have waited! I am glad I did not listen to Grigorovitch two or three years ago, and write a novel! I can just imagine what a lot of good material I should have spoiled. He says: "Talent and freshness overcome everything." It is more true to say that talent and freshness can spoil a great deal. In addition to plenty of material and talent, one wants something else which is no less important. One wants to be mature—that is one thing; and for another the feeling of personal freedom is essential, and that feeling has only recently begun to develop in me. I used not to have it before; its place was successfully filled by my frivolity, carelessness, and lack of respect for my work.
What writers belonging to the upper class have received from nature for nothing, plebeians acquire at the cost of their youth. Write a story of how a young man, the son of a serf, who has served in a shop, sung in a choir, been at a high school and a university, who has been brought up to respect everyone of higher rank and position, to kiss priests' hands, to reverence other people's ideas, to be thankful for every morsel of bread, who has been many times whipped, who has trudged from one pupil to another without goloshes, who has been used to fighting, and tormenting animals, who has liked dining with his rich relations, and been hypocritical before God and men from the mere consciousness of his own insignificance—write how this young man squeezes the slave out of himself, drop by drop, and how waking one beautiful morning he feels that he has no longer a slave's blood in his veins but a real man's....
March 5, 1889.
... Last night I drove out of town and listened to the gypsies. They sing well, the wild creatures. Their singing reminds me of a train falling off a high bank in a violent snow-storm: there is a lot of turmoil, screeching and banging.
... I bought Dostoevsky in your shop and am now reading him. It is fine, but very long and indiscreet. It is over-pretentious.
* * * * *
SUMY, LINTVARYOVS' ESTATE, May, 1889.
... Among other things I am reading Gontcharov and wondering. I wonder how I could have considered Gontcharov a first-rate writer. His "Oblomov" is not really good. Oblomov himself is exaggerated and is not so striking as to make it worth while to write a whole book about him. A flabby sluggard like so many, a commonplace, petty nature without any complexity in it: to raise this person to the rank of a social type is to make too much of him. I ask myself, what would Oblomov be if he had not been a sluggard? And I answer that he would not have been anything. And if so, let him snore in peace. The other characters are trivial, with a flavour of Leikin about them; they are taken at random, and are half unreal. They are not characteristic of the epoch and give one nothing new. Stoltz does not inspire me with any confidence. The author says he is a splendid fellow, but I don't believe him. He is a sly brute, who thinks very well of himself and is very complacent. He is half unreal, and three-quarters on stilts. Olga is unreal and is dragged in by the tail. And the chief trouble is that the whole novel is cold, cold, cold. I scratch out Gontcharov from the list of my demi-gods.