ANTON CHEKHOV 1860 – 1904
in my sky
A fascinating collection of a few of literature’s most memorable farewells, from Lord Byron’s heroic “Come, come, no weakness; let’s be a man to the last!” to James Joyce’s woeful lament, “Does nobody understand?” was recently featured in The Guardian’s Literary Last Words.
One of my personal favorites was that of Anton Chekhov, the beloved Russian short-story writer, playwright and physician. In reading Chekhov’s biography, a fascinating narrative, I learned what is rarely taught in classes on literature: that he had been called “Russia’s most elusive literary bachelor,” preferring passing liaisons and visits to brothels over commitment.
It appears that the physician who practiced his trade throughout most of his literary career, once declared medicine as “my lawful wife,” and literature as “my mistress.” So emphatic on the subject of matrimony, was this noted man of letters, he once penned his feelings to a friend:
By all means I will be married if you wish it. But on these conditions: everything must be as it has been hitherto—that is, she must live in Moscow while I live in the country, and I will come and see her… give me a wife who, like the moon, won’t appear in my sky every day.
To his delight, he found such a creature, Olga Knipper, a former protegée and sometime lover of Nemirovich-Danchenko whom he had first met at rehearsals for The Seagull. On the 25th of May in 1901 the couple married quietly, some might say covertly, owing to the bridegroom’s horror of weddings. But, alas, though love came late, mortality arrived early. The couple’s brief union ended in the summer of 1904, by most estimates, a span far too short, yet by Chekhov’s lunar preferences, one might conclude, a perfectly reasonable duration.
As one of the greatest short-story writers in the history of world literature (in the year of his death, he was second in literary celebrity only to Tolstoy), it seems only fitting that Chekhov’s death has become one of “the great set pieces of literary history”, retold, embroidered, and fictionalised many times since, notably in the short story Errand by Raymond Carver.
Terminally ill with tuberculosis, he traveled with Olga to Badenweiler in 1904, although by all accounts “the nearer Chekhov was to the end, the less he seemed to realize it.” Several years later, Olga wrote this account of her husband’s last moments:
“Anton sat up unusually straight and said loudly and clearly (although he knew almost no German): “Ich sterbe” (I’m dying). The doctor calmed him, took a syringe, gave him an injection of camphor, and ordered champagne. Anton took a full glass, examined it, smiled at me and said: “It’s a long time since I drank champagne”. He drained it, lay quietly on his left side, and I just had time to run to him and lean across the bed and call to him, but he had stopped breathing and was sleeping peacefully as a child … “
For more Literary Last Words
BEFORE PLANNING YOUR OWN LAST WORDS
You might want to consider how to go about penning the words you are living now. Right now. I can think of no finer inspiration and at no fairer price ($5.95) than Literary Genius: 25 Classic Writers Who Define English & American Literature. From Daedalus Books Online, it is described thus:
“Genius is one of those words upon which the world has agreed to form no clear consensus,” Joseph Epstein notes in his introduction. How then shall we define “literary genius?”
In this collection, 25 contemporary authors endeavor to answer that question by considering 25 classic writers and their enduring works. We learn that, more important than mere originality or creativity, it is the ability to make us experience the world in new ways that sets these writers apart.
“My task,” Joseph Conrad wrote, “is by the power of the written word to make you hear, to make you feel—it’s above all to make you see. That—and no more, and it is everything.”