After they have slept together for the first time, Dmitri Dmitrich Gurov and Anna Sergeyevria von Diderits, the hero and heroine of Anton Chekhov's story "The Lady with the Dog" (1899), drive out at dawn to a village near Yalta called Oreanda, where they sit on a bench near a church and look down on the sea. "Yalta was hardly visible through the morning mist; white clouds stood motionless on the mountain-tops," Chekhov writes at the start of the famous passage that continues:
"The leaves did not stir on the trees, grasshoppers chirruped, and the monotonous hollow sound of the sea rising up from below, spoke of the peace, of the eternal sleep awaiting us. So it must have sounded when there was no Yalta, no Oreanda here; so it sounds now, and it will sound as indifferently and monotonously when we are all no more. And in this constancy, in this complete indifference to the life and death of each of us, there lies hid, perhaps, a pledge of our eternal salvation, of the unceasing movement of life upon earth, of unceasing progress towards perfection. Sitting beside a young woman who in the dawn seemed so lovely, soothed and spellbound in these magical surroundings - the sea, mountains, clouds, the open sky - Gurov thought how in reality everything is beautiful in this world when one reflects: everything except what we think or do ourselves when we forget our human dignity and the higher aims of our existence."
Today, I am sitting on that same bench near the church looking at the same view. Beside me is my English-speaking guide Nina (I know no Russian), and a quarter of a mile away a driver named Yevgeny waits in his car at the entrance to the footpath leading to the lookout point where Gurov and Anna sat, not yet aware of the great love that lay before them. I am a character in a new drama: the absurdist farce of the literary pilgrim who leaves the magical pages of a work of genius and travels to an "original scene" that can only fall short of his expectations.
Chekov's villa in Autka is a two-storey stucco house of distinguished, unornamented, faintly Moorish architecture, with an extensive, well-ordered garden and spacious rooms that look out over Yalta to the sea. Maria Chekhova, his sister, who lived until 1957, preserved the house and garden, fending off Nazi occupiers during the war and enduring the insults of the Stalin and Khrushchev periods.
It remains furnished as in Chekhov's time: handsomely, simply, elegantly. As Chekhov cared about women's dress (it does not go unnoted in the work and is always significant), he cared about the furnishings of his houses. Perhaps his love of order and elegance was innate, but more likely it was a reaction against the disorder and harshness of his early family life. His father, Pavel Yegorovich, was the son of a serf who had managed to buy his freedom and that of his wife and children.
Pavel rose in the world and became the owner of a grocery store in Taganrog, a town on the sea of Azov, in southern Russia. The store, as Chekhov's best biographer, Ernest J Simmons, characterises it in Chekhov (1962), resembled a New England general store - selling things like kerosene, tobacco, yarn, nails, and home remedies - though, unlike a New England store, it also sold vodka, which was consumed on the premises in a separate room.
Chekhov's oldest brother, Alexander, wrote of a freezing winter night on which "the future writer", then a nine-year-old schoolboy, was dragged by his father from the warm room where he was doing his homework and made to mind the unheated store. The reticent Anton himself left no memoir of his childhood sorrows, though there are passages in his stories that are assumed to refer to them. In "Three Years" (1895), for example, the hero, Laptey, says to his wife, "I can remember my father correcting me - or, to speak plainly, beating me - before I was five years old. He used to thrash me with a birch, pull my ears, hit me on the head, and every morning when I woke up my first thought was whether he would beat me that day."
Chekhov had what he described, in a letter to a former classmate in 1899, as "autobiographophobia". Seven years earlier, when VA Tikhonov, the editor of a journal called Seven, asked him for biographical information to accompany a photograph, Chekhov made this reply:
"Do you need my biography? Here it is. In 1860 I was born in Taganrog. In 1879 I finished my studies in the Taganrog school. In 1884 I finished my studies in the medical school of Moscow University. In 1888 I received the Pushkin Prize. In 1891 I made a trip to Sakhalin across Siberia - and back by sea. In 189I I toured Europe, where I drank splendid wine and ate oysters. In 1892 I strolled with VA Tikhonov at [the writer Shcheglov's] name-day party. I began to write in 1879 in Strekosa. My collections of stories are Motley Stories, Twilight, Stories, Gloomy People, and the novella The Duel. I have also sinned in the realm of drama, although moderately. I have been translated into all languages with the exception of the foreign ones. However, I was translated into German quite a while ago. The Czechs and Serbs also approve of me. And the French also relate to me. I grasped the secrets of love at the age of 13. I remain on excellent terms with friends, both physicians and writers. I am a bachelor. I would like a pension. I busy myself with medicine to such an extent that this summer I am going to perform some autopsies, something I have not done for two or three years. Among writers I prefer Tolstoy, among physicians, Zakharin. However, this is all rubbish. Write what you want. If there are no facts, substitute something lyrical."
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