Tongues Wagged

Donald Rayfield

  • Dear Writer, Dear Actress: The Love Letters of Anton Chekhov and Olga Knipper selected, translated and edited by Jean Benedetti
    Methuen, 202 pp, £16.99, November 1996, ISBN 0 413 70580 3

When The News seeped out that Anton Chekhov, the most sought after of Russia’s eligible bachelors, had, in Moscow on 25 May 1901, married a Lutheran actress, Olga Knipper, at least a dozen women exclaimed: ‘Why not me?’ There were the painters: Maria Drozdova dropped her brushes and her palette when she heard the news, exclaiming that she thought God had reserved Chekhov as a reward for her modesty and that she hated Knipper; Aleksandra Khotiaintseva, who had entertained him when they were staying in Nice in 1898 and whom Chekhov’s youngest brother wanted him to marry, kept her disappointment to herself. There were actresses – Lidia Iavorskaia, Vera Komissarzhevskaia, and the recently widowed Daria Musina-Pushkina – who had had their sights on him for years, even decades. There were writers: Elena Shavrova, who would have been prepared to divorce her civil servant husband; Tatiana Shchepkina-Kupernik, despite her lesbian preferences. There were women of no definite profession, above all Lika Mizinova – the original Seagull – to whom Chekhov had proposed at least twice, only to retract.

Anton Chekhov’s family and friends wondered why he had married at all. A careful observer of his parents’ marriage for nearly forty years and of his elder brother’s marriages for twenty, not to speak of the dramatic unhappiness of his married friends and acolytes – Bunin, Potapenko, Ezhov – or the tragedy of his closest friend, the press baron and publisher Aleksei Suvorin, whose first wife had died in a suicide pact with her lover and whose second was squandering his fortune, Chekhov had made the miseries of marriage one of the main subjects of his fiction and drama. For twenty years he had been notorious, as his women friends put it, for being ‘as elusive as a meteor’. Even when the grand old men whom he worshipped – Suvorin and the poet Aleksei Pleshcheev – had offered him their daughters, Chekhov had made a joke of it. He treated Suvorin’s daughter (who was II when Suvorin suggested the match) with the same risqué flirtatiousness as he did Suvorin’s wife, governess and, later, granddaughters, but firmly rejected the idea, despite the enormous dowry offered. Any congratulations Chekhov received from friends as he set out for his honeymoon and a diet of fermented mare’s milk at a sanatorium in the foot-hills of the Urals were lukewarm: Suvorin called it a ‘lottery’; other friends talked of Rubicons.

The family was appalled. The only potential bride that Chekhov’s mother, Evgenia, had found acceptable was Nadia Ternovskaia, the daughter of an archpriest in Yalta. Evgenia swooned and took to her bed when she had the telegram telling her that her son was to marry an actress and a heretic. Chekhov’s younger brothers, Vania and Misha, ostentatiously continued to treat Lika Mizinova as a de facto sister-in-law. In St Petersburg Chekhov’s surviving elder brother, the alcoholic journalist Aleksandr, made it his business never to meet Olga Knipper. He did once intervene in the marriage, pleading with his brother to stop Olga from dismissing the maid, Maria Shakina, at the Moscow flat Olga and their sister Masha shared – Maria Shakina had a baby every year, a weakness which Olga, unlike Masha and Chekhov, was not prepared to tolerate. (Aleksandr was married to the insortable Natalia Golden, Anton’s first serious mistress, who remained in love with him to her dying day.) More than anybody else, Masha suffered. She had fulfilled nearly all the duties of a wife to her brother, and she knew his most intimate secrets. Most of his mistresses were her friends, and it was widely known that any woman who wanted one of these roles had to accept the other.

Olga Knipper, like dozens of women before her, had been Masha’s friend and correspondent as much as Chekhov’s. Once news of the marriage was out, however, despite the rumours and hints that had been flying about for a year, Masha broke down. She expressed her distress to the writer Ivan Bunin, with whom she was romantically involved: ‘Dear Ivan, My mood is suicidal, I sense the pointlessness of my existence. The reason is my brother’s marriage ... why did Olga need all this disturbance for a sick man?’ She reserved her fury for her new sister-in-law, her erstwhile friend: ‘You managed to trap my brother! Suppose you’re like Natasha in Three Sisters! I’ll strangle you with my own hands. I shan’t bite your throat, just strangle you. You know I love you and must have got strongly attached to you in the last two years. How odd that you’re a Chekhov.’

Masha’s rage was understandable. On at least three occasions she had received a proposal of marriage that she was inclined to accept: first, a Lieutenant Egorov, then the painter Isaak Levitan (who made hundreds of successful propositions, but only one proposal), and in 1892 a landowner, Aleksandr Smagin (who pined for forty years). Each time Masha had referred the proposal to Chekhov, who either took the man aside and dissuaded him (with arguments that the intimidated victims never revealed), or, with a meaningful silence, told Masha to refuse. The tacit understanding was that Chekhov might have girlfriends to stay, but Masha was to remain the lady of the house. Those that accepted these rules could retain the friendship of both brother and sister: Olga Kundasova, the radical feminist ‘astronomer’, lasted, first as mistress, then as psychiatric patient, finally as friend, for twenty years. Even ex-fiancées, such as Dunia Efros, would be welcomed into the family circle.

How did Olga Knipper manage it? Certainly when Chekhov first saw her, playing a regal role in a historical drama in autumn 1898, he was more overwhelmed than he had been by any woman for the past two years. But Olga, with her occasional obtuseness, was a less impressive actress and, with her small eyes and heavy jowls, a far less beautiful woman than, say, Vera Komissarzhevskaia, the first Seagull, or Maria Andreeva – whom observers noted Chekhov courting more assiduously in Yalta than he did Knipper. Olga was, however, the first woman Chekhov encountered who seemed to satisfy two mutually exclusive requirements: decency and sensuality. She was spontaneous and sexual; she was deliberate and rational. She had all the qualities the puritan in Chekhov respected: she was a tidy, hard-working, financially independent woman, perfectly bilingual in German and Russian, with excellent English and French. Yet she had all the uninhibited vivacity that made him love the company of actresses. Knowing that he had at most five years left to live probably enabled Chekhov to face the prospect of marriage. In fact, he had little over three years, and for most of that time Olga and he were 800 miles apart, and of their periods together only a few months were sufficiently free of illness for them to attend more to each other than to their ailments.

Olga Knipper, though, was the only woman for whom Chekhov pined when she was not there. Only Aleksei Suvorin had penetrated as deeply beneath Chekhov’s defences as she had, and the friendship of 13 years with Suvorin had begun to founder when Knipper appeared. Nevertheless it is doubtful whether Chekhov would have married had Knipper not manipulated the situation with Machiavellian skill. From 1898 onwards his tubercular lungs and gut forced him to live in isolation in Yalta from September to May, and he could no longer play the field as he had for the previous 19 years in Moscow and at his estate in Melikhovo. Few actresses came to Yalta, and then only on tour. Nor was Yalta so tolerant of the bohemian ways Chekhov favoured – the ménages à trois, for example, that he had enjoyed with Tania Shchepkina-Kupernik and Lidia Iavorskaia, or with Lika Mizinova and Elena Shavrova. Masha insisted on staying at her job as a geography teacher in Moscow: the Yalta household was run, rather badly, by Chekhov’s mother, who did not like to hear the stairs creak when his women guests were staying.

The way Olga Knipper made herself a Chekhov emerges from the letters between her and Anton which have been chosen, translated and edited by Jean Benedetti, but can be even better inferred from the notes to the Collected Letters in Russian. It is beyond doubt that a benevolent conspiracy arose between Nemirovich-Danchenko and Stanislavsky to marry Knipper off to Chekhov and so secure his plays as the exclusive property of the Moscow Arts Theatre. Without this link, Three Sisters might not have become their property. As for The Cherry Orchard, it would not have been written had Knipper, Nemirovich-Danchenko and Stanislavsky not harassed a very tired, dying man. For that much we have to be grateful. Perhaps Chekhov had thought of the advantages of having Knipper as his agent in the theatre to ensure he had his way with interpretation and casting (if so, it was probably his greatest miscalculation).

Nothing like the full story, however, emerges from Knipper’s letters to Chekhov, because first of all, compared with Chekhov’s other women friends, she was a discreet and calculating letter-writer, secondly because the letters that are published were chosen by her, and thirdly because she cut some of the most interesting passages from the published versions.

Benedetti is quite misled when he states in his Introduction that ‘neither could ever have imagined that their private correspondence would be made public’ For one thing, Chekhov and his sister Masha carefully sorted all his letters into an archive which, despite his proclaimed ‘autobiographobia’, he must have known would give a full view of his life within a few years of his death and within the lifetime of his widow and surviving siblings. More important, in 1924 Knipper herself published the letters that Chekhov wrote to her, and then in 1934 and 1936 published hers as well, as part of their correspondence from their first letters until the autumn of 1902. (It is only Olga’s letters of 1903 and 1904 that were withheld until after her death, when her acolyte Vilenkin printed an even more heavily censored selection in 1972.) Chekhov’s letters to Olga could not so easily be cut: they were in the public domain; Masha Chekhova had the originals and the right to protest at any misrepresentation. Olga, however, felt quite entitled to rewrite her own role in her own letters by using a liberal scattering of [...]s, a Soviet typographical mark which indicates that anything from three letters to a hundred pages may be missing.

All Knipper’s letters to Chekhov, and to his sister and mother, are available in the Manuscript Department of the Russian State Library. Despite the dilapidation of the building and the demoralisation of the staff, foreign scholars with reasonable determination can gain access to them. Knipper had beautiful handwriting (it is her most attractive asset, and Chekhov was not wholly joking when he repeatedly said that good handwriting was everything). Jean Benedetti’s crime of omission is that he did not go to the archive, or send anybody else, to look at the cuts and restore those that seriously alter the picture of a love affair and a marriage between a great writer and a powerful actress. This is a strange omission for a man who has worked on the history of the Moscow Arts Theatre, for which Knipper’s letters, in their uncut form, are a primary source. It is true that in the late Seventies and early Eighties a few cuts were restored in the notes to the last volumes of Chekhov’s correspondence, but they only include those that are relevant to Chekhov’s own letters and which fall within decree No 02030 (1968) of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, which bans the publication of any letter that might ‘trivialise or discredit’ Anton Chekhov.

Some of the cuts that Knipper made are perfectly understandable: endearments and intimacies, her menstrual records, a stream of derogatory remarks about Chekhov’s sister and youngest brother and others who were still alive, especially if Olga had to work with them. In matters of religion, too, she had, in Soviet times, to be careful. Thus she cut all mention of the row she had with the Oberpastor of the Lutheran church in Moscow, who threatened to expel her for marrying the Orthodox Chekhov; she (or Vilenkin) also cut the passage from a letter of 14 March 1903, where she tells of her visit to a monk, Father Iulii, for marriage guidance. The cuts, however, also conceal far more sensitive matters.

FIRST, they stress how much Knipper was bound up, not so much with the Moscow Arts Theatre, as with its co-director Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, her teacher and her lover, and not only before her marriage with Chekhov. Knipper’s mother allowed Nemirovich-Danchenko into her house only after her daughter was safely married to Chekhov. (In the Thirties, a fearless grande dame, Olga was heard to turn to Nemirovich-Danchenko and say in a penetrating sotto voce: ‘Volodia, do you remember when you used to call me your vaulting horse?’) Knipper constantly worried about Nemirovich-Danchenko’s position as a dramatist and teacher; she consoled him in his struggles against Stanislavsky’s ‘vulgarities’, left-wing leanings and literary obtuseness. At the same time, she sniped at Stanislavsky and those actors who took Stanislavsky’s side. She also warred mercilessly (but without avail) against Nemirovich-Danchenko’s wife, ‘Kitten’, Baroness Korf, especially when she learnt that Chekhov had once flirted with ‘Kitten’. Thus the excised correspondence gives us a far more turbulent picture of Olga’s relationship with the theatre:

   What a night poor Stanislavsky is going to have tonight. His mistake is that audiences don’t like him as an actor ... All of us are outraged by his acting. [29 September 1899]

   He senses that I do not bow down before him and won’t surrender to his hands as an actress and that upsets him. [11 January 1901]

   Nemirovich’s spouse is receiving high-ranking visitors. [16 March 1901]

   Kitten ... is licking her lips and whistling through her teeth and is always sated. [18 December 1901]

   I’m sorry for Nemirovich-Danchenko with all my soul. He is being plucked and gnawed at from all sides. [2 January 1902]

   I understand him, he is, as he says, one literary man among three businessmen (Morozov, Stanislavsky and Luzhsky), and of course it’s hard for him to struggle with them, they are businessmen after all and often fail completely to understand him and he is a sensitive tactful man.

(Morozov was the patron of the Moscow Arts Theatre; Luzhsky a shareholder as well as an actor.)

Secondly, the cuts show even more graphically than the published letters how systematically Knipper persecuted Chekhov’s former girlfriends. A very few – those who posed no threat – she took under her wing. For instance, the infatuated, rich, orphaned teenager Olga Vasilieva, who had followed Chekhov from Nice to Yalta and thence to Moscow, with two little girls she had apparently taken from an orphanage, was given singing lessons by Olga Knipper’s mother. Lika Mizinova was publicly humiliated by Knipper and Nemirovich-Danchenko, and portrayed by Knipper as a drunken manmad harridan, though she was loved by almost every man and woman she met. Lidia Iavorskaia, the flamboyant bisexual actress who in 1893 had seduced Chekhov, and then tried for three years to extract both a play and a proposal from him, was called ‘brazen’ and ‘coarse’. But Mizinova and Iavorskaia had both gone abroad – Iavorskaia died in Hove in 1921. About those who were alive in the Soviet Union, Olga had to be more careful. She cut her denunciations of the Sapphic poet and translator Tania Shchepkina-Kupernik, who had conducted a stormy affair with Iavorskaia (both in the Hotel Louvre in Moscow and, appropriately, at the Vesuvio in Naples), which in 1893-4 became part of a complex ménage à trois with Chekhov: ‘Anton, what is life? Yesterday I had breakfast with Krestovskaia. She confessed to me, telling all about her love and disillusion with Kupernik ... an infinitely malevolent creature, that Tanechka’ (15 April 1904).

Aleksandra Khotiaintseva, the painter who followed Chekhov to Nice in 1898, she described as looking ‘pretty awful’. Of Vera Komissarzhevskaia, the temperamental first Seagull who had competed for Anton’s attention in the Crimea in 1899, and who later began to ask for rights to The Cherry Orchard, Olga wrote, and cut: ‘If the actress starts bothering you, I shall wallop her, I warn you. I think she is mentally ill’ (3 February 1903). The only woman from Anton’s past that Olga failed to cow or to tame was the ‘astronomer’ Kundasova: she alone managed to break through the cordon that Knipper erected in May 1904 around Chekhov’s sickbed in Moscow.

The worst of the rows that raged between Olga Knipper-Chekhova and Masha are also excised from the published letters. Some of them, to judge by Chekhov’s mother’s hysterical letters, were so bad that mother, sister and wife were all asked by him to seek separate living quarters. True, their common interest in Chekhov forced them to overcome their mutual detestation, and their extant correspondence, which lasted nearly sixty years, is an enthralling record both of the period and of a network of personal relationships. The rows were not all sparked off by the fact of Olga’s marriage: Masha’s resentment of Olga’s carefree behaviour in Moscow and her refusal, as Masha thought, to refrain from endangering Chekhov’s lift-by dragging him to the dangerous cold of Moscow, and to death in Germany, played their part. Olga’s pregnancy and miscarriage, however, caused the most serious breach between her, on the one hand, and Chekhov and Masha, on the other. Chekhov’s behaviour-abandoning her sickbed for a trip to the Urals in summer 1902 – is not comprehensible unless we restore the cuts in the letters and guess at the true nature of Olga’s illness.

After many pleas from Chekhov’s friends, Nemirovich-Danchenko finally released Olga from her duties on 22 February 1902. She arrived in Yalta, not having seen Chekhov since the end of their honeymoon, six months previously. She stayed with him for five days and then left to act, first in Moscow, then in St Petersburg. On 30 March 1902, she collapsed offstage and was rushed to hospital, where she was chloroformed and operated on at midnight by two distinguished surgeons, Ott and Jakobson – desperate measures in 1902, when abdominal surgery was no light matter. The miscarriage seemed a horrible fulfilment of a bad omen at a wild party held in the theatre at the end of January: the actors slid down waxed boards; the actor Kachalov fought a boxing match in drag – pink tricot and high heels; Chaliapin sent for beer and sang Gypsy songs; Masha laughed hysterically; everyone exchanged joke presents. ‘I had a baby in nappies: Dr Grinevsky broke its head off,’ Olga reported. (This episode is cut by Benedetti, not Knipper.) The published versions of the letters (and all the biographies) assert that this was a miscarriage and the operation a dilatation and curettage – which makes the extreme haste and seriousness of the medical intervention and the long complicated convalescence very puzzling.

If we read Olga’s letters uncut, and the letters of Chekhov’s siblings, another story emerges.

   When on 26 February I had some bleeding and I was firmly convinced I was not pregnant ... Ott and the other decided to do a curettage and confirmed that it was a one-and-a half-week-old embryo (Olga to Chekhov, April 1902).

   I passed by O.’s lodgings, knocked. ‘Come in!’ I did. And, it seemed, at a bad time. Nemirovich-Danchenko was with her, they were having tea and jam. I had interrupted a conversation. I didn’t know what to do with myself. O. apparently did not know what to do with me (Misha to Masha, 30 March 1902).

Chekhov himself was suspicious enough to write to the surgeon, who sent a cryptic telegram back: ‘Perimetritis [sic], no suspicions, all traces of egg removed.’ All in all, the evidence Olga suppressed points to an ectopic pregnancy bursting a Fallopian tube, followed by an emergency laparotomy and then post-operative infection. A burst Fallopian tube was an event likely to happen after the eighth week of an ectopic pregnancy, and points to Nemirovich-Danchenko as the father.

Chekhov certainly had his own sexual difficulties. The passages from his earlier letters that were cut by the censor and are not restored, even in such fine editions as Gordon McVay’s The Letterrs of Anton Chekhov (1994), show that he was happy with women only in a brothel (most graphically in a Japanese brothel in Blagoveshchensk in summer 1890) and that he had great difficulty being aroused by women he liked or liking women who aroused him. To his brother Aleksandr he once confessed: ‘There’s no way I can tie myself to one woman, though there are a lot of opportunities ... You screw her once, but the next time you can’t get it in. I have all the equipment, but I don’t function – my talent is buried in the ground’ (13 May 1883, published in Kurantry, 8 September 1993).

There is no doubt that Olga Knipper was the first woman who satisfied Chekhov on all counts, which must have been sufficient reason for him to marry her. But they were not to have children, and although they pretended for the following year that cohabitation might result in ‘the little otter cub that will spill ink all over your desk’, could either have believed it likely? Olga had a damaged ovary, and there is some reason to doubt Chekhov’s fertility. For one thing, he had once rashly promised the gods, on contemplating the awfulness of his eldest brother’s marital life, with one dead baby and two retarded sons, never to have children himself (the fate of most of Chekhov’s nieces and nephews is horrible). The examination he underwent a week before his wedding, at the hands of Dr Shchurovsky, whose almost illegible notes, now in the Russian State Archives of Literature and Art, have never been published, makes grim reading. Not only were Chekhov’s lungs and colon severely damaged by tuberculosis, a childhood hernia appears to have left him with a ‘floating’ testicle, and there was a history of gonorrhoea, which he had treated himself. True, there were suspicions in Russia that he had begotten illegitimate daughters: in February 1894, Lika Mizinova conceived a child, Christina, but all concerned were convinced it was fathered by Ignati Potapenko, even though Lika was still seeing Chekhov at the time. (Christina died a few weeks after the first performance of The Seagull, life imitating, not just inspiring, the play’s plot.) Nina Korsh, the daughter of the entrepreneur who commissioned Ivanov, conceived a daughter around 1899, when she met Chekhov, and in the Thirties, it is reported, the scholar Iuri Avdeev was approached by a woman who claimed to be Nina Korsh’s daughter by Chekhov. Chekhov also jokingly referred to himself as the ‘daddy’ of the little girls that Olga Vasilieva had adopted, agreed to be the executor of her will, and was seen to fondle one of the children in public – something he never did with his brother’s children. Tongues wagged, but in Chekhov’s circle illegitimate children were usually acknowledged, and he almost certainly died childless.

There was a curse on the Chekhov line. Both Masha Chekhova and Olga Knipper, in editing their letters and memoirs, tried to present a happier picture. They can be forgiven, but can Benedetti? Methuen have produced a sloppy work, not just because there is no use of archive resources – not even of Olga’s letters to her female friends and to Nemirovich-Danchenko, which are easily retrieved from the archives of the Moscow Arts Theatre – and no index, or because the translation contains a few minor mistakes (such as calling the little port of Piany Bor where the Chekhovs shivered waiting for a boat on their way to their honeymoon, Drunken Man rather than Drunken Grove), but because Benedetti carries on Olga’s work of misrepresentation.