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Anton Chekhov : Letters on Art and Artists

Dernière mise à jour : 30 janv.

Letters of Anton Chekhov to his family and friends

[Translated By Constance Garnett]


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, September 21, 1886

It is not much fun to be a great writer. To begin with, it’s a dreary life. Work from morning till night and not much to show for it. Money is as scarce as cats’ tears. I don’t know how it is with Zola and Shtchedrin, but in my flat it is cold and smoky....

They give me cigarettes, as before, on holidays only. Impossible cigarettes ! Hard, damp, sausage-like. Before I begin to smoke I light the lamp, dry the cigarette over it, and only then I begin on it; the lamp smokes, the cigarette splutters and turns brown, I burn my fingers ... it is enough to make one shoot oneself ! (...)

But being a writer has its good points. In the first place, my book, I hear, is going rather well; secondly, in October I shall have money; thirdly, I am beginning to reap laurels: at the refreshment bars people point at me with their fingers, they pay me little attentions and treat me to sandwiches. Korsh caught me in his theatre and straight away presented me with a free pass....

My medical colleagues sigh when they meet me, begin to talk of literature and assure me that they are sick of medicine. And so on....


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. (...)

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.


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.


(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 tomorrow 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.


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.



October, 1889

I am afraid of those who look for a tendency between the lines, and who are determined to regard me either as a liberal or as a conservative. I am not a liberal, not a conservative, not a believer in gradual progress, not a monk, not an indifferentist.

I should like to be a free artist and nothing more, and I regret that God has not given me the power to be one. I hate lying and violence in all their forms, and am equally repelled by the secretaries of consistories and by Notovitch and Gradovsky. Pharisaism, stupidity and despotism reign not in merchants’ houses and prisons alone. I see them in science, in literature, in the younger generation... That is why I have no preference either for gendarmes, or for butchers, or for scientists, or for writers, or for the younger generation. I regard trade-marks and labels as a superstition. My holy of holies is the human body, health, intelligence, talent, inspiration, love, and the most absolute freedom - freedom from violence and lying, whatever forms they may take. This is the programme I would follow if I were a great artist."



December 3, 1898.

You ask what is my opinion of your stories. My opinion ? The talent is unmistakable and it is a real, great talent. For instance, in the story ”In the Steppe” it is expressed with extraordinary vigour, and I actually felt a pang of envy that it was not I who had written it. You are an artist, a clever man, you feel superbly, you are plastic – that is, when you describe a thing you see it and you touch it with your hands. That is real art. There is my opinion for you, and I am very glad I can express it to you. I am, I repeat, very glad, and if we could meet and talk for an hour or two you would be convinced of my high appreciation of you and of the hopes I am building on your gifts.

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