Once he invited me to the village Koutchouk-Koy where he had
a tiny strip of land and a white, two-storied house. There while
showing me his "estate", he began to speak with animation:
"If I had plenty of money, I should build a sanatorium here
for invalid village teachers. You know, I would put up a large,
bright building--very bright, with large windows and lofty rooms.
I would have a fine library, different musical instruments, bees,
a vegetable garden, an orchard. ... There would be lectures on
agriculture, mythology. ... Teachers ought to know everything,
everything, my dear fellow."
He was suddenly silent, coughed, looked at me out of the corners
of his eyes, and smiled that tender, charming smile of his which
attracted one so irresistibly to him and made one listen so attentively
to his words.
"Does it bore you to listen to my fantasies? I do love
to talk of it. ... If you knew how badly the Russian village
needs a nice, sensible, educated teacher! We ought in Russia
to give the teacher particularly good conditions, and it ought
to be done as quickly as possible. We ought to realize that without
a wide education of the people, Russia will collapse, like a
house built of badly baked bricks. A teacher must be an artist,
in love with his calling; but with us he is a journeyman, ill
educated, who goes to the village to teach children as though
he were going into exile. He is starved, crushed, terrorized
by the fear of losing his daily bread. But he ought to be the
first man in the village; the peasants ought to recognize him
as a power, worthy of attention and respect; no one should dare
to shout at him or humiliate him personally, as with us every
one does--the village constable, the rich shop-keeper, the priest,
the rural police commissioner, the school guardian, the councilor,
and that official who has the title of school-inspector, but
who cares nothing for the improvement of education and only sees
that the circulars of his chiefs are carried out. ... It is ridiculous
to pay in farthings the man who has to educate the people. It
is intolerable that he should walk in rags, shiver with cold
in damp and draughty schools, catch cold, and about the age of
thirty get laryngitis, rheumatism, or tuberculosis. We ought
to be ashamed of it. Our teacher, for eight or nine months in
the year, lives like a hermit: he has no one to speak a word
to; without company, books or amusements, he is growing stupid,
and, if he invites his colleagues to visit him, then he becomes
politically suspect--a stupid word with which crafty men frighten
fools. All this is disgusting; it is the mockery of a man who
is doing a great and tremendously important work. ... Do you
know, whenever I see a teacher, I feel ashamed for him, for his
timidity, and because he is badly dressed ... it seems to me
that for the teachers wretchedness I am myself to blame--I
He was silent, thinking; and then, waving his hand, he said
gently: "This Russia of ours is such an absurd, clumsy country."
A shadow of sadness crossed his beautiful eyes; little rays
of wrinkles surrounded them and made them look still more meditative.
Then, looking round, he said jestingly: "You see, I have
fired off at you a complete leading article from a radical paper.
Come, I'll give you tea to reward your patience."
That was characteristic of him, to speak so earnestly, with
such warmth and sincerity, and then suddenly to laugh at himself
and his speech. In that sad and gentle smile one felt the subtle
skepticism of the man who knows the value of words and dreams;
and there also flashed in the smile a lovable modesty and delicate
We walked back slowly in silence to the house. It was a clear,
hot day; the waves sparkled under the bright rays of the sun;
down below one heard a dog barking joyfully. Chekhov took my
arm, coughed, and said slowly: "It is shameful and sad,
but true: there are many men who envy the dogs."
And he added immediately with a laugh: "To-day I can
only make feeble speeches. ... It means that I'm getting old."
I often heard him say: "You know, a teacher has just
come here--he's ill, married ... couldn't you do something for
him? I have made arrangements for him for the time being."
Or again: "Listen, Gorky, there is a teacher here who would
like to meet you. He can't go out, he's ill. Won't you come and
see him? Do." Or: "Look here, the women teachers want
books to be sent to them."
Sometimes I would find that "teacher" at his house;
usually he would be sitting on the edge of his chair, blushing
at the consciousness of his own awkwardness, in the sweat of
his brow picking and choosing his words, trying to speak smoothly
and "educatedly"; or, with the ease of manner of a
person who is morbidly shy, he would concentrate himself upon
the effort not to appear stupid in the eyes of an author, and
he would simply belabor Anton Chekhov with a hail of questions
which had never entered his head until that moment. Anton Chekhov
would listen attentively to the dreary, incoherent speech; now
and again a smile came into his sad eyes, a little wrinkle appeared
on his forehead, and then, in his soft, lusterless voice, he
began to speak simple, clear, homely words, words which somehow
or other immediately made his questioner simple: the teacher
stopped trying to be clever, and therefore immediately became
more clever and interesting.
I remember one teacher, a tall, thin man with a yellow, hungry
face and a long-hooked nose which drooped gloomily towards his
chin. He sat opposite Anton Chekhov and, looking fixedly into
Chekhov's face with his black eyes, said in a melancholy bass
voice: "From such impressions of existence within the space
of the tutorial session there comes a psychical conglomeration
which crushes every possibility of an objective attitude towards
the surrounding universe. Of course, the universe is nothing
but one presentation of it. ... " And he rushed headlong
into philosophy, and he moved over its surface like a drunkard
skating on ice.
"Tell me," Chekhov put in quietly and kindly, "who
is that teacher in your district who beats the children?"
The teacher sprang from his chair and waved his arms indignantly:
"Whom do you mean? Me? Never! Beating?" He snorted
with indignation. "Don't get excited," Anton Chekhov
went on, smiling reassuringly: "I'm not speaking of you.
But I remember--I read it in the newspapers--there is some one
in your district who beats the children."
The teacher sat down, wiped his perspiring face, and, with
a sigh of relief, said in his deep bass: "It's true ...
there was such a case ... it was Makarov. You know, it's not
surprising. It's cruel, but explicable. He's married ... has
four children ... his wife is ill ... himself consumptive ...
his salary is 20 roubles, the school like a cellar, and the teacher
has but a single room--under such circumstances you will give
a thrashing to an angel of God for no fault ... and the children--they're
far from angels, believe me."
And the man, who had just been mercilessly belaboring Chekhov
with his store of clever words, suddenly, ominously wagging his
hooked nose, began to speak simple, weighty, clear-cut words,
which illuminated, like a fire, the terrible, accursed truth
about the life of the Russian village. When he said good-bye
to his host, the teacher took Chekhov's small, dry hand with
its thin fingers in both his own, and, shaking it, said:
"I came to you as though I were going to the authorities,
in fear and trembling ... I puffed myself out like a turkey-cock
... I wanted to show you that I was no ordinary mortal. ... And
now I'm leaving you as a nice, close friend who understands everything.
... It's a great thing--to understand everything! Thank you!
I'm taking away with me a pleasant thought: big men are simpler
and more understandable ... and nearer in soul to us fellow men
than all those wretches among whom we live. ... Good-bye; I will
never forget you."
His nose quivered, his lips twisted into a good-natured smile,
and he added suddenly: "To tell the truth, scoundrels too
are unhappy--the devil take them."
When he went out, Chekhov followed him with a glance, smiled,
and said: "He's a nice fellow. ... He won't be a teacher
"They will run him down--whip him off."
He thought for bit, and added quietly: "In Russia an
honest man is rather like the chimney-sweep with whom nurses
I think that in Anton Chekhov's presence every one involuntarily
felt in himself a desire to be simpler, more truthful, more one's
self; and I often saw how people cast off the motley finery of
bookish phrases, smart words, and all the other cheap tricks
with which a Russian, wishing to figure as a European, adorns
himself, like a savage with shells and fish's teeth. Anton Chekhov
disliked fish's teeth and cocks' feathers; anything "brilliant"
or foreign, assumed by a man to make himself look bigger, disturbed
him; I noticed that whenever he saw any one dressed up in this
way, he had a desire to free him from all that oppressive, useless
tinsel and to find underneath the genuine face and living soul
of the person. All his life Chekhov lived on his own soul; he
was always himself, inwardly free, and he never troubles about
what some people expected and others --coarser people--demanded
of Anton Chekhov. He did not like conversations with which our
dear Russians so assiduously comfort themselves, forgetting that
it is ridiculous to argue about velvet costumes in the future
when in the present one has not even a decent pair of trousers.
Beautifully simple himself, he loved everything simple, genuine,
sincere, and he had a peculiar way of making other people simple.
Once, I remember, three luxuriously dressed ladies came to see
him; they filled his room with the rustle of silk skirts and
the smell of strong scent; they sat down politely opposite their
host, pretended that they were very much interested in politics,
and began "putting questions":
"Anton Pavlovitch, what do you think? How will the war
Anton Pavlovitch coughed, thought for a while, and then gently,
in a serious and kindly voice, replied:
"Probably in peace."
"Well, yes ... certainly! But who will win? The Greeks
or the Turks?"
"It seems to me that those will win who are the stronger."
"And who, do you think, are the stronger?" all the
ladies asked together.
"Those who are the better fed and the better educated."
"Ah, how clever!" one of them exclaimed.
"And whom do you like the best?" another asked.
Anton Pavlovitch looked at her kindly, and answered with a
"I like candied fruits ... don't you?"
"Very much," the lady exclaimed gayly.
"Especially Abrikossov's," the second agreed solidly.
And the third, half closing her eyes, added with relish: "It
smells so good." And all three began to talk with vivacity,
revealing, on the subject of candied fruit, great erudition and
subtle knowledge. It was obvious that they were happy at not
having to strain their minds and pretend to be seriously interested
in Turks and Greeks, to whom up to that moment they had not given
a thought. When they left, they merrily promised Anton Pavlovitch:
"We will send you some candied fruit."
"You managed that nicely," I observed when they
Anton Pavlovitch laughed quietly and said: "Every one
should speak his own language."
On another occasion I found at his house a young and prettyish
crown prosecutor. He was standing in front of Chekhov, shaking
his curly head, and speaking briskly: "In your story, 'The
Conspirator,' you, Anton Pavlovitch, put before me a very complex
case. If I admit in Denis Grigoriev a criminal and conscious
intention, then I must, without any reservation, bundle him into
prison, in the interests in the community. But he is a savage;
he did not realize the criminality of his act. ... I feel pity
for him. But suppose I regard him as a man who acted without
understanding, and suppose I yield to my feeling of pity, how
can I guarantee the community that Denis will not again unscrew
the nut in the sleepers and wreck a train? That's the question.
What's to be done?"
He stopped, threw himself back, and fixed an inquiring look
on Anton Pavlovitch's face. His uniform was quite new, and the
buttons shone as self-confidently and dully on his chest as did
the little eyes in the pretty, clean, little face of the youthful
enthusiast of justice.
"If I were judge," Anton Pavlovitch said gravely,
"I would acquit Denis."
"On what ground?"
"I would say to him: you, Denis, have not yet ripened
into the type of the deliberate criminal; go--and ripen."
The lawyer began to laugh, but instantly again became pompously
serious and said: "No, sir, the question put by you must
be answered only in the interests of the community whose life
and property I am called upon to protect. Denis is a savage,
but he is also a criminal--this is the truth."
"Do you like gramophones?" suddenly asked Anton
Pavlovitch in his soft voice.
"O yes, very much. An amazing invention!" the youth
"And I can't stand gramophones," Anton Pavlovitch
"They speak and sing without feeling anything. Everything
seems like a caricature ... dead. Do you like photography?"
It appeared that the lawyer was a passionate lover of photography;
he began at once to speak of it with enthusiasm, completely uninterested,
as Chekhov had subtly and truly noticed, in the gramophone, despite
his admiration for that "amazing invention." And again
I observed how there looked out of that uniform a living and
rather amusing little man, whose feelings towards life were still
those of a young puppy hunting.
When Anton Pavlovitch had seen him out, he said sternly: "They
are like pimples on the seat of justice--disposing of the fate
of people." And after a short silence: "Crown prosecutors
must be very fond of fishing ... especially for little fish."
He had the art of revealing everywhere and driving away banality,
an art which is only possible to a man who demands much from
life and which comes from a keen desire to see men simple, beautiful,
harmonious. Banality always found in him a discerning and merciless
Some one told in his presence how the editor of a popular
magazine, who was always talking of the necessity of love and
pity, had, for no reason at all, insulted a railway guard, and
how he usually acted with extreme rudeness towards his inferiors.
"Well," said Anton Pavlovitch with a gloomy smile,
"but isn't he an aristocrat, an educated gentleman? He studied
at the seminary. His father wore bast shoes, and he wears patent
leather boots?" And in his tone there was something which
at once made the "aristocrat" trivial and ridiculous.
"He's a very gifted man," he said of a certain journalist.
"He always writes so nobly, humanely, ... lemonadely. Calls
his wife a fool in public ... the servants' rooms are damp and
the maids constantly get rheumatics."
"Don't you like N. N., Anton Pavlovitch?"
"Yes, I do--very much. He's a pleasant fellow,"
Anton Pavlovitch agrees, coughing. "He knows everything
... reads a lot ... he hasn't returned three of my books ...
he's absent-minded. To-day he will tell you that you're a wonderful
fellow, and to-morrow he will tell somebody else that you cheat
your servants, and that you have stolen from your mistress's
husband his silk socks ... the black ones with the blue stripes."
Some one in his presence complained of the heaviness and tediousness
of the "serious" sections in thick monthly magazines.
"But you mustn't read those articles," said Anton Pavlovitch.
"They are friends' literature--written for friends. They
are written by Messrs. Krasnov (red), Bielov (white), and Chernov
(black) [the Russian color names added to this translation --mlp].
One writes an article; the other replies to it; and the third
reconciles the contradictions of the other two. It is like playing
whist with a dummy. Yet none of them asks himself what good it
is to the reader.
Once a plump, healthy, handsome, well-dressed lady came to
him and began to speak à la Chekhov: "Life is so
boring, Anton Pavlovitch. Everything is so gray: people, the
sea, even the flowers seem to me gray. ... And I have no desires
... my soul is in pain ... it is like a disease."
"It is a disease," said Anton Pavlovitch with conviction,
"it is a disease; in Latin it is called morbus imitatis."
Fortunately the lady did not seem to know Latin, or, perhaps,
she pretended not to know it.
"Critics are like horseflies which prevent the horse
from plowing," he said, smiling his wise smile. "The
horse works, all its muscles drawn tight like the strings on
a doublebass; and a fly settles on his flanks and tickles and
buzzes ... he has to twitch his skin and swish his tail. And
what does the fly buzz about? It scarcely knows itself; simply
because it is restless and wants to proclaim: 'Look, I too am
living on the earth. See, I can buzz, too, buzz about anything.'
For twenty-five years I have read criticisms of my stories, and
I don't remember a single remark of any value or one word of
valuable advice. Only once Skabitchevsky wrote something which
made an impression on me ... he said I would die in a ditch,
Nearly always there was an ironical smile in his gray eyes,
but at times they became cold, sharp, hard; at such times a harder
tone sounded in his soft, sincere voice, and then it appeared
that this modest, gentle man, when he found it necessary, could
rouse himself vigorously against a hostile force and would not
yield. But sometimes, I thought, there was in his attitude towards
people a feeling of hopelessness, almost of cold, resigned despair.
"A Russian is a strange creature," he once remarked.
"He is like a sieve; nothing remains in him. In his youth
he fills himself greedily with anything which he comes across,
and after thirty years nothing remains but a kind of gray rubbish.
... In order to live well and humanly one must work--work with
love and with faith. But we, we can't do it. An architect, having
built a couple of decent buildings, sits down to play cards,
plays all his life, or else is to be found somewhere behind the
scenes of some theatre. A doctor, if he has a practice, ceases
to be interested in science, and reads nothing but The Medical
Journal, and at forty seriously believes that all diseases have
their origin in catarrh. I have never met a single civil servant
who had any idea of the meaning of his work: usually he sits
in the metropolis or the chief town of the province, and writes
papers and sends them off to Zmiev or Smargon for attention.
But that those papers will deprive some one in Zmiev or Smargon
of freedom of movement--of that a civil servant thinks as little
as an atheist of the tortures of hell. A lawyer who has made
a name by a successful defense ceases to care about justice,
and defends only the rights of property, gambles on the Turf,
eats oysters figures as a connoisseur of all the arts. An actor,
having taken taken two or three parts tolerably, no longer troubles
to learn his parts, puts on a silk hat, and thinks himself a
genius. Russia is a land of insatiable and lazy people: they
eat enormously of nice things, drink, like to sleep in the day-time,
and snore in their sleep. They marry in order to get their house
looked after and keep mistresses in order to be thought well
of in society. Their psychology is that of a dog: when they are
beaten, they whine shrilly and run into their kennels; when petted,
they lie on their backs with their paws in the air and wag their
Pain and cold and contempt sounded in these words. But, though
contemptuous, he felt pity, and, if in his presence you abused
any one, Anton Pavlovitch would immediately defend him. "Why
do you say that? He is an old man ... he's seventy." Or:
"But he's still so young ... it's only stupidity."
And, when he spoke like that, I never saw a sign of aversion
in his face.
When a man is young, banality seems only amusing and unimportant,
but little by little it possesses a man; it permeates his brain
and blood like poison or asphyxiating fumes; he becomes like
an old, rusty signboard: something is painted on it, but what?--You
can't make out.
Anton Pavlovitch in his early stories was already able to
reveal in the dim sea of banality its tragic humor; one has only
to read his "humorous" stories with attention to see
what a lot of cruel and disgusting things, behind the humorous
words and situations, had been observed by the author with sorrow
and were concealed by him.
He was ingenuously shy; he would not say aloud and openly
to people: "Now do be more decent"; he hoped in vain
that they would themselves see how necessary it was that they
should be more decent. He hated everything banal and foul, and
he described the abominations of life in the noble language of
a poet, with the humorist's gentle smile, and behind the beautiful
form of his stories people scarcely noticed the inner meaning,
full of bitter reproach.
The dear public, when it reads his "Daughter of Albion,"
laughs and hardly realizes how abominable is the well-fed squire's
mockery of a person who is lonely and strange to every one and
everything. In each of his humorous stories I hear the quiet,
deep sigh of a pure and human heart, the hopeless sight of sympathy
for men who do not know how to respect human dignity, who submit
without any resistance to mere force, live like fish, believe
in nothing but the necessity of swallowing every day as much
thick soup as possible, and feel nothing but fear that some one,
strong and insolent, will give them a hiding.
No one understood as clearly and finely as Anton Chekhov,
the tragedy of life's trivialities, no one before him showed
men with such merciless truth the terrible and shameful picture
of their life in the dim chaos of bourgeois every-day existence.
His enemy was banality; he fought it all his life long; he ridiculed
it, drawing it with a pointed and unimpassioned pen, finding
the mustiness of banality even where at the first glance everything
seemed to be arranged very nicely, comfortably, and even brilliantly--and
banality revenged itself upon him by a nasty prank, for it saw
that his corpse, the corpse of a poet, was put into a railway
truck "For the Conveyance of Oysters."
That dirty green railway truck seems to me precisely the great,
triumphant laugh of banality over its tired enemy; and all the
"Recollections" in the gutter press are hypocritical
sorrow, behind which I feel the cold and smelly breath of banality,
secretly rejoicing over the death of its enemy.
Reading Anton Chekhov's stories, one feels oneself in a melancholy
day of late autumn, when the air is transparent and the outline
of naked trees, narrow houses, grayish people, is sharp. Everything
is strange, lonely, motionless, helpless. The horizon, blue and
empty, melts into the pale sky and its breath is terribly cold
upon the earth which is covered with frozen mud. The author's
mind, like the autumn sun, shows up in hard outline the monotonous
roads, the crooked streets, the little squalid houses in which
tiny, miserable people are stifled by boredom and laziness and
fill the houses with unintelligible, drowsy bustles. Here anxiously,
like a gray mouse, scurries "The Darling," the dear,
meek woman who loves so slavishly and who can love so much. You
can slap her cheek and she won't even dare to utter a sigh aloud,
the meek slave . ... And by her side is Olga of "The Three
Sisters": she too loves much, and submits with resignation
to the caprices of the dissolute, banal wife of her good-for-nothing
brother; the life of her sisters crumbles before her eyes, she
weeps and cannot help any one in anything, and she has not within
her a single live, strong word of protest against banality.
And here is the lachrymose Ranevskaya and the other owners
of the "The Cherry Orchard," egotistical like children,
with the flabbiness of senility. They missed the right moment
for dying; they whine, seeing nothing of what is going on around
them, understanding nothing, parasites without the power of again
taking root in life. The wretched little student, Trofimov, speaks
eloquently of the necessity of working--and does nothing but
amuse himself, out of sheer boredom, with stupid mockery of Varya
who works ceaselessly for the good of the idlers. Vershinin dreams
of how pleasant life will be in three hundred years, and lives
without perceiving that everything around him is falling into
ruin before his eyes; Solyony, from boredom and stupidity, is
ready to kill the pitiable Baron Tousenbach.
There passes before one a long file of men and women, slaves
of their love, of their stupidity and idleness, of their greed
for the good things of life; there walk the slaves of the dark
fear of life; they straggle anxiously along, filling life with
incoherent words about the future, feeling that in the present
there is no place for them.
At moments out of the gray mass of them one hears the sound
of a shot: Ivanov or Triepliev has guessed what he ought to do,
and has died. Many of them have nice dreams of how pleasant life
will be in two hundred years, but it occurs to none of them to
ask themselves who will make life pleasant if we only dream?
In front of that dreary, gray crowd of helpless people there
passed a great, wise, and observant man; he looked at all these
dreary inhabitants of his country, and, with a sad smile, with
a tone of gentle but deep reproach, with anguish in his face
and in his heart, in a beautiful and sincere voice, he said to
them: "You live badly, my friends. It is shameful to live
Back to Anton
This article by Maxim Gorky was originally
published in Reminiscences of Anton Chekhov translated
by S. S. Koteliansky and Leonard Woolf. B. W. Huebsch: New York: