It was August 8, 1895. On August 7, Chekhov had been at his estate, Melikhovo, about 40 miles south of Moscow, where a friend of Tolstoy’s, Ivan Gorbunov-Posadov, had encouraged him to finally go see Tolstoy. Chekhov knew that Tolstoy admired his stories, and had for several years suggested to mutual acquaintances such a meeting.
Chekhov took a train to Tolstoy’s estate, Yasnaya Polyana. He then spent a day and half there.
At thirty-five, Chekhov had been reading Tolstoy forever, and Tolstoy, sixty-seven, had great admiration for the younger man’s art, feeling, and perhaps most of all his humor, which Tolstoy believed was one of the rarest of gifts a writer could have.
A few weeks ago, rereading Ernest J. Simmons’ Chekhov: A Biography (1962), I became curious to learn more about Chekhov and Tolstoy’s first meeting. In the stacks of Butler Library at Columbia, I stood and poked around in the Russian and English biographies. I had never read Philip Callow’s Chekhov: The Hidden Ground (1998), so I opened it; it didn’t take a minute to find this account:
“The encounter was simplicity itself. The craggy white-bearded sage of seventy-seven [sic: Tolstoy was born in 1828] was walking from the house along an avenue of beeches [sic: not beeches but birches], wearing a peasant’s smock, a towel slung over his shoulder. He was on his way to bathe in the river [there’s a photograph of Tolstoy returning from bathing, probably taken ten years later, in just such garb]. Would Chekhov like to join him? The two men stripped and climbed in; they splashed about under the warm sun and talked as if they had known each other intimately for years… Tolstoy took the visitor along the Tula road to look at people cycling.” (242)
Imagine that! I was so charmed that I didn’t immediately notice Callow’s errors or have any skepticism about the cinematic point of view; I wrote about this passage to my friend and mentor, the writer Max Schott, who had introduced me to Chekhov’s stories. I tried to figure out where exactly my heroes would have “climbed in.” I had spent several weeks at Yasnaya Polyana, and had swum in that very river! From the house to the river was about a ten-minute walk. I was happy and could picture myself there, with them, smiling, sharing a soak in the slow-flowing water of the Voronka. I would be listening to two of my favorite people in the world having their first-ever conversation. My best Russian comprehension would kick in and become sharper than it’s ever been. And, just as my tutor Dina Kupchanka had trained me, I repeated words they said that I didn’t quite catch, and both Chekhov and Tolstoy would smile and for some reason not mind being interrupted and having to explain vocabulary to the slow but admiring American. Tolstoy, in fact, sometimes even translated phrases into English for me. It would be one of the happiest days of my life.
I woke up from my daydream and started researching.
Oddly, the biographer and translator Rosamund Bartlett, to whom I defer almost absolutely on all matters Tolstoy and Chekhov, didn’t mention that scene in Chekhov: Scenes from a Life (2004) or in her Tolstoy: A Russian Life (2010), and neither did Ronald Hingley in his very assured A Life of Chekhov (1989). Simmons mentioned the bicycle-viewing but not the bathing.
I checked Callow’s biography again; his list of references are not tied to specific details or episodes or even to chapters, so I couldn’t look up where he got that information and in accounts that echoed his, the writers didn’t bother citing the source either. They seemed to take Callow’s description for fact and added their own touches. For example, Nancy Caldwell Sorel, in 1995 in The Independent: “He arrived just as the master, in his linen peasant blouse, was on his way to bathe in the stream. Chekhov must come along. Tolstoy undressed at the bathhouse and plunged into the water. Immersed up to his neck, his white beard floating on the surface, he conversed with his guest.”
Elif Batuman in 2009: “… Chekhov arrived at the exact moment when Tolstoy was headed to the stream for his daily ablutions. Tolstoy insisted that Chekhov join him; Chekhov later recalled that, as he and Tolstoy sat naked in the chin-deep water, Tolstoy’s beard floated majestically before him.” Oh, sure, of course it did.
While we’re at it, why don’t we imagine their conversation?
APC: Did I just see a frog?
LNT: I left the dog back at the house.
APC: I said frog.
LNT: This was once a bog, yes.
And so on.
So, can I really blame anyone for conjuring up details about this first meeting?
The source of the original delightful image was Aleksei Ivanovich Yakovlev, who as an 18-year-old student visited Chekhov with a friend in 1897, two years after Chekhov’s visit to Yasnaya Polyana. Yakovlev did not publish the recalled conversation until 1909, five years after Chekhov’s death. No one cited Yakovlev for fifty years, until the account was published in a collection of reminiscences of Chekhov in his centenary year, 1960.
Here it is in Russian, then in my translation:
Антон Павлович рассказал нам свое посещение Толстого и вспомнил, как Л. Н. тотчас же по их приезде (Чехов был не один, дело было ранним утром) повел их купаться, и первый разговор у них происходил по горло в воде.
“Anton Pavlovich told us about his meeting with Tolstoy and remembered how L. N., on their arrival (Chekhov was not alone, this was early morning), brought him to bathe, and their first conversation happened up to their necks in the water.”
In the excellent Чехов: Жизнь «Отдельного Человека» (or Chekhov: The Life of “a Particular Person,” 2012), the biographer Alevtina Kuzicheva suggests that Chekhov might well have been kidding («Если это не шутка Чехова, именно это купание могло ему выти боком», p. 411).
I’m inclined now to think he was teasing young Yakovlev. Chekhov mentioned his visit a handful of times in letters over the next two months of 1895, and he didn’t recount bathing with Tolstoy then, and he seems never to have mentioned it to anyone else. Neither did Tolstoy or any of his hangers-on mention it. In the dandy Летопись Жизни и Творчества А. П. Чехова (or Chronicle of A. P. Chekhov’s Life and Art, 2016), we learn that, according to V. A. Maklakov, a guest at Yasnaya Polyana, on the morning of Chekhov’s arrival Tolstoy asked him, Maklakov, to show Chekhov the estate while Tolstoy “absented himself” until breakfast. At breakfast, they talked about Sakhalin, the prison island where Chekhov as a scientist more than as a writer had researched the life and conditions of the inhabitants. After breakfast, Chekhov and Tolstoy went to Tolstoy’s room, where Maklakov, in sight of them but out of hearing, observed Chekhov shaking his head. At lunch, now joined by Tolstoy’s right-hand man, Vladimir Chertkov, and S. T. Semenov, Chekhov and Tolstoy sat side by side and carried on a conversation unrecorded by anybody. After that meal, Tolstoy invited his guests to accompany him to the main road “and see how our young people bicycle to Tula,” the city a dozen miles east.
After that excursion, they returned to the house and five of them, excluding Tolstoy, who was feeling poorly and needing to rest, sat while Chertkov and Semenov read aloud the first chapters of Resurrection, the novel Tolstoy was working on. After a couple of hours, Tolstoy rejoined them.
What all the biographers agree on, based on contemporaneous diary entries and letters, is that Chekhov praised what he had heard and gave Tolstoy the only kind of criticism Tolstoy appreciated: correction of a fact. The heroine’s prison-sentence was in error. Chekhov knew all about prison sentences from his research in Sakhalin. Getting facts wrong annoyed Tolstoy; he revised the text.
That night, Tolstoy went early and unwell to bed, but Chekhov sat up with Tolstoy’s wife Sofia Andreyevna and the Tolstoys’ oldest daughter, Tatyana. A couple of months later, recalling this day and a half for his friend Aleksei Suvorin, Chekhov, reflecting on what he had heard from Tatyana and her sisters, wrote:
“They adore their father and believe in him fanatically. This shows for certain that Tolstoy is a mighty moral force, for if he were insincere and not above reproach, his daughters would be the first to regard him skeptically, for daughters are wise birds: you don’t catch them with chaff. You can dupe a fiancée or a mistress as much as you please, and in the eyes of a loving woman even a donkey may pass for a philosopher, but daughters, well, this is another matter”
Sometime during the visit, Tolstoy asked Chekhov if he could intercede for him and see about getting an institutional accommodation for an old soldier who had gone blind. Chekhov got back to Melikhovo on August 9, and on the 11th he wrote about the soldier to his older brother Alexander, who knew the director of an institute for the blind.
Meanwhile, Chekhov had caught a cold while at Yasnaya Polyana; he thought it was probably from Tolstoy. Despite that mishap, Chekhov and Tolstoy’s first meeting led to a fond friendship. They met several more times before Chekhov’s death in 1904 (Tolstoy did not die until 1910). They admired and enjoyed each other personally and fully recognized the other’s stature as a great artist; notwithstanding that, they had had, and would continue to have, occasionally, critical things to say and write about each other’s work.
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