Tolstoy behaving badly
Chekhov told me once, “You know, I recently visited Tolstoy in Gaspra. He was bedridden due to illness. Among other things, he spoke about me and my works. Finally, when I was about to say goodbye he took my hand and said, ‘Kiss me goodbye.’ While I bent over him and he was kissing me, he whispered in my ear in a still energetic, old man’s voice, ‘You know, I hate your plays. Shakespeare was a bad writer, and I consider your plays even worse than his.’
I first learned of this quote when my mother insisted—and I mean insisted—on reading it to me in Russian from her book of Chekhov reminiscences. In the book, the quote is published alongside Ivan Bunin’s account from The Russian Word (1904). It’s a great exchange—you can just picture the scene unfolding. She also read to us extensively about Chekhov’s last wife, the actress Olga Leonardovna Knipper and her illustrious mustache. The much younger Knipper was apparently quite pleasing to the eye but had a rather unfortunate facial hair situation going on. At the end of his life, when Chekhov himself was bedridden with tuberculosis, Knipper would dress for the theater and parade her escort, a dashing young colleague, before his bedside. Although the actor was widely rumored to be gay, in theater circles it was common knowledge that the pair were having an affair. Knipper outlived her husband by more than half a century, dying in 1959 at the age of 90.
She, like many in Chekhov’s circle of associates, contributed to the growing body of reminiscences that emerged following his death. In Russia, reminiscences (vospominanie, lit. “memories”) are a hybrid nonfiction literary genre that compiles biographic anecdotes and sketches from a notable person’s life as told by his family, friends and contemporaries. Reminiscences are either issued in consecutive volumes or as a single tome, and are always posthumous. Oftentimes, they go hand-in-hand with letters, a genre that is much more widespread in the West. And it is not uncommon to encounter the same stories told in altogether different publications of a reminiscence, kind of like the hadith. Essentially memoiristic in nature, they are a combination of biography and anthology. But because they are not written by any single person, they are a more dynamic format that allows readers to glimpse multiple angles of the subject’s life and personality.
Reminiscences are particularly interesting from an anthropological standpoint. A native Russian genre, they harbor a distinctly Russian mode of expression. Every culture, it seems, has its version of reminiscence, but typically this is confined either to oral tradition (the third world) or to one-sided narrative (the West). In postmodern America, for example, memoir reigns supreme. Like all things American, memoir pushes the mandate of individualism to the fringes of narcissism (and fiction). Notice memoirs are never called autobiography—no memoirist thinks he has enough material/acclaim to be worthy of such a rite. Time for a new sales pitch. Even biography is an essentially individualistic pursuit, as it not only glorifies the myth of the subject, but that of the writer-researcher, who has presumably undertaken this humongous reconnaissance mission all by his lonesome.
On the other hand, reminiscence is an egalitarian genre, inasmuch as it privileges multiple readings in a single work. Perhaps this has something to do with the Russian tradition of bending to a distant authority under the pretense of the common good, which in my opinion, existed way before the advent of socialism. (It’s worth noting that every culture has its measure of slavishness—it’s the way the culture manifests the slavishness that tells it apart from other cultures.) Still, in spite of this, reminiscences remain a brutally honest, even cynical, medium, owing in no small part to the agendas and agency of multiple contributors. It in Chekhov’s reminiscences, for example, that we find out how Tolstoy hated his plays, which made both men laugh.