HAPPY BIRTHDAY, ANTON PAVLOVICH!

(29 JANUARY 1860 – 15 JULY 1904)

Michael Gee 

Eloquent toasts and wishes … rhapsodic speeches … lofty congratulations … all well-timed during a birthday and name-day celebration. And no one deserves such contemporary fineries more so than Anton Pavlovich Chekhov. However, what would Anton Pavlovich himself think of such fineries?

In lieu of all the contemporary laurels we would place on his brow, let’s celebrate his birthday without a lot of fuss and formalities. To do so, let’s create a pencil sketch  rather  a grand portrait of the man. Let’s take time on his birthday to see Anton Pavlovich would perhaps  see himself through his letters as well as the recollections of the man from his contemporaries while creating our living portrait.

  • Anton Pavlovich had a very special smile remembered by so many people. His smile quickly appeared and disappeared at any given moment in time. “His smile, wide open, on all face, sincere, but always rather brief. As if a man suddenly realised that, perhaps, there was no reason to smile longer than that.”
  • His favorite pastime was fishing. “What a wonderful thing to do! Kind of a quiet insanity. It’s self-amusing for me and very safe for others,” he once said.
  • During mushroom season, this leisure pursuit Anton Pavlovich embraced always interfered with his work. The writer apologized to his publishers that all his thoughts were focused on “a quiet mushroom hunting”, therefore he was unable to write.
  • He was a gourmet and loved to eat at the best taverns and restaurants; however, he also liked homemade delicacies: “…the cured pork fat is amazing, and the taste and smell of the sausage can be compared only with the dream of a 17-year-young Spanish girl. I was about to be stuffed “.
  • All who meandered through his home were impressed with the man and his surroundings. One friend said: “I’ve never seen his library untidy or his dressing scattered in the bedroom, and he himself was always simply but neatly dressed; neither in the morning nor late in the evening, I never found him dressed for home, without collar or neck tie.”
  • When inviting guests, once he promised to give them five bundles of radishes from his vegetable garden, then he offered guests lots of beer, and even on occasion made the odd threat: “If you do not come, then I will wish that the tie-strings of your underpants got loose in the street in front of everybody.”
  • He had a serious sweet tooth. He was especially fond of marmalade and chocolate and he loved homemade jam as well.
  • He loved to play solitaire and often played  of lotto and croquet.
  • Anton dearly loved his mother, but sometimes this did not prevent him making fun of her religious commitment. On one occasion he suddenly asked her: “Well, Mom, and do monks wear underpants?” He wrote in his diary: “Mom dreamt of a goose wearing a kamelaukion (Orthodox priest’s headgear). It’s a good sign”.
  • Among religious holidays, Easter was his favorite and he especially loved the solemn ringing of a large number of Moscow cathedral bells from the first capital city. Later, after moving to Yalta, sadness overcame his spirit: “It’s boring without Muscovites, and without Moscow newspapers, and without the Moscow bell ringing, which I love so much.”
  • He loved the circus, Geroges Bizet’s opera “Carmen”, and music composed by Glinka and Tchaikovsky.
  • He made much of good perfume; his library was always fragrant. When describing his health problems in a letter to one of his lady friends, Anton Pavlovich wrote: “You see what a cripple I am. But I am carefully hiding this from other people, and thus trying to appear as a cheerful young man of 28, that I manage to do this very often, as I buy expensive neck-ties and wear perfume Vera-Violetta.”
  • Anton Pavlovich possessed the unique skill of persuasion; necessary for any successful writer. When talking to a hardly known (to him) unfledged writer, Chekhov aggressively advised him to go “somewhere very far, one or two or even three thousand miles away”, so, eventually, this young man followed his advice, and a few days later, he himself was already beyond the Ural Mountains.
  • This trip resulted in a series of Siberian stories that opened him a pathway through some of the best Russian magazines of his time.
  • He was rarely angry. One of Russia’s most renowned actors, Vasily Ivanovich Kachalov recalled: “I saw him angry only once, when he even blushed. It happened when we were performing a play in the Hermitage Theatre. At the end of the performance a crowd of students gathered at the exit, and they were about to give him a storm of applause. This made him terribly angry.”
  • He loved animals and did not make any exceptions to this fact, as our “lesser brethren”. It was very surprising that, once when Anton Pavlovich was fighting a serious war against mice in and around his home, he took a mouse caught in a trap gently by its tail and set it free; over the fence and off of his property…
  • Anton Pavlovich despised cut flowers! After guests placed bouquets of flowers in the main visible places around his home, he moved them all to another room. But — when his lady fans asked Anton Pavlovich for a bouquet from his garden, he could not refuse. But … he did so with a trick: he cut only ‘ripe’ flowers; the blooming ones that were about to cast off their pedals and that had to be cut. In many instances, petals from Chekhov’s roses began falling off almost immediately … much to the regret of the local community’s summer lady residents.
  • Anton Pavlovich forgot his early humorous stories. On one occasion, one of his brothers was sorting out some old magazines and read aloud Chekhov stories published in them. Chekov laughed: “Oh, is this my story? I don’t remember it at all! It sounds funny…” On one such occasion, he recalled one of these early stories when the editor of “FRAGMENTS” magazine boasted to Chekhov of a beautiful story that he had received from an unknown budding writer. Chekhov asked him to read the manuscript. It turns out that the manuscript was one of his essays that had been carefully rewritten from a previously published article. The name of the writer was unknown to either Anton Pavlovich or the editor. Some say that plagiarism is the best sign of success…!
  • Anton Pavlovich gave the following advice to aspiring young writers: “You should never listen to anyone’s advice. Once you make a mistake or you lied – let this fault of yours belong to you only. You have to be a man enough in your writing.”
  • One day, Anton Pavlovich spent an agonizing hour deciding which pair of trousers to wear, that would match the rest of his attire for a visit with Leo Tolstoy. Half-joking — as usual — Chekhov was busy changing trousers in his bedroom, one pair after another. He was heard exclaiming: “No, this pair is unseemly tight! He may think of me as I am a sort of a scribbler!” He went on to try another pair of trousers, and again he came out laughing: “Well, and this one is as wide as the Black Sea! He may think of me: What an impudent fellow.”
  • Anton Pavlovich was a prankster! He loved playing practical jokes and awarding striking nicknames to people. Alexander Kuprin, a prominent Russian writer, recalled of Anton Pavlovich: “No one ever suffered a heart attack from his jokes, and this surprisingly gentle man has never wilfully caused even the smallest heartache to a living thing.”
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