It was surprising to hear that 2010 is the hundred and fiftieth anniversary of Chekhov's birth. It seems not that long ago I had tea with him and Leo Tolstoy on the Count's Yasnaya Polyana estate. Maxim Gorky was there, too. Gorky, I knew, was the only one who would live to see the Russian Revolution, his death would be mysterious and Stalin would be among his pallbearers, and all of that made him interesting if not as intriguing as Tolstoy or Chekhov.
Tolstoy was wearing his white peasant shirt, as usual, Gorki the high collar so favored then on men's tunics. Chekhov was impecably dressed in dark suit, spats and a handsome small fedora. His goatee, of course, was neatly trimmed. He had with him a walking stick, which, when he wasn't holding a tea cup, he held in front on himself, both hands on the knob.
I was going to ask Chekhov questions about his plays, first of all, and then about his short stories, because I know my friend Belle Yang loves his stories and I'd have something to report. But, frankly, I was in awe of the company. To a degree, though they were friends, it seemed Chekhov and Gorky were a bit in awe of Tolstoy. None of the three seemed in awe of me, though Gorky did remark on my polo shirt, having never seen one before.
I prepared for this meeting, by the way, by taking Beginning Russian at Los Angeles City College years before. I can't say I was all that successful, but I did learn to say``da'' and learned words like gazetta, okno, stena and pero, which mean, in some order or other, newspaper (or magazine), window, ceiling and pencil or pen.
Anyway, in Yasnaya Polyana we sipped tea a bit and then Tolstoy turned to Chekhov and said, with a smile and in as kindly a manner as you could imagine, considering the criticism, ``Your plays are almost as bad as Shakespeare's, Anton Pavlovich.'' Chekhov simply cleared his throat and smiled. I thought of coming to his defense, but Chekhov gave me a quiet look over his glasses. I had no doubt he knew what I had in mind and felt no need to be defended.
Still, having started to open my mouth I had to say something, so I said, ``Then, Count, what do you think of Tennessee Williams' plays?'' ``The American?'' he replied. ``Promising, I think. Many of his works remind me of our southern Russian writers. However, I hear he was born in Mississippi and spent many years in Missouri, so why isn't he called Mississippi Williams or Missouri Williams?'' ``I have no idea,'' I said. ``Well,'' the Count said gently, ``there you are.''
I wasn't sure where that was but then Gorky, who had just poured some vodka into his tea cup, interjected, ``Is it true, Count, that you were an orphan? Because so was I.'' ``Nothing that can't be overcome, Maxin,'' said the Count, not giving away much.``Why, Anton Pavlovich here is the son of a freed serf, and he writes better stories than the brilliant Maupasssant.'' Chekhov blushed and spooned some sugar into his tea.
Then I turned and said to Gorky, and I have no idea why, maybe because I was thinking of his great play ``The Lower Depths,'' ``When the Revolution comes, be careful. People you think are your friends might very well be dangerous to you.'' ``That's the case now,'' Gorky said. ``I've learned to watch out for myself. Will there be a revolution?'' ``Don't you think so?'' I wondered, pretty sure he did and, frankly, worried for him. ``A revolution of the mind,'' said the Count, ``that's what we need. The heart and the soul. The power of love.''
``And `The Power of Darkness' – what of that?'' Gorky winked, referring to a recent work by Tolstoy. ``Anton Pavlovich,'' the Count said, seemingly to change the subject, ``have you read Boris's new novel, `Dr. Zhivago'? Correct me if I'm wrong, but I think this Dr. Zhivago has hints of yourself. A poet who's also a medical doctor? Sounds like a playwright-story writer we all know who's also a medical doctor. And, as our American friend here just mentioned, it seems Boris has set his story during a revolution. What do you think?'' Chekhov nodded his head, as if to indicate to Tolstoy he was thinking, then clearned his throat and sipped some more tea.
``They made a very fine film of `Dr. Zhivago','' I said. ``It won many awards.'' ``The Pushkin Award?'' said Gorky. ``No, the Academy –, '' I started. ``Ah, the Academy,'' the Count interrupted, ``we know they have been up to no good! They're about to be run out of St. Petersburg. Anyway, what is a film?'' ``Where have you been?'' Gorky laughed. ``You see them grinding away behind their cameras everywhere nowadays. Why, you are one of their favorite subjects.'' ``So, that's what those are! I had thought they were trying out new wheat threshers,'' said the Count. ``Well, I can't fault anyone for grinding away. We want the people busy.''
``There's a fine new film out on you, Count,'' I said. ``It is called `The Last Station.' It is about you and the Countess and much of it is set right here at Yasnaya Polyana.'' ``It is? Oh, dear! I suppose I'll have to trim my beard.'' ``No, not at all, the film is done, and someone else plays you anyway, an actor named Christopher Plummer.'' ``I don't know him, is he from Moscow?'' ``No, he is British.'' ``Oh, dear, an Englishman playing a Russian, '' said the Count with a sly glance at Chekhov, ``I hope he wasn't brought up on Shakespeare.''
``Well, yes, he was brought up on Shakespeare, but he has also performed in many of Mr. Chekhov's plays,'' I said. ``Anton Pavlovich's plays?! Well, that hardly helps matters, does it?' said the Count, grinning and throwing one leg over the other. ``He'll have played me all a dither, saying things like, `I yearn for Moscow!''' Chekhov blushed again and cleared his throat, making both the Count and Gorky laugh aloud . . .
Causes Steve Hauk Supports
City of Pacific Grove Public Library, Pacific Grove, California; Animal Friends Rescue Project, Pacific Grove; Animal Welfare Information and Assistance,...