My little sperm-whale

DEAR WRITER, DEAR ACTRESS: The Love Letters of Anton Chekhov and Olga Knipper ed & trs Jean Benedetti Methuen pounds 16.99
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The Independent Culture
Anton Chekhov met Olga Knipper in 1898 at the newly formed Moscow Art Theatre during rehearsals for The Seagull, his first major work for the stage. Chekhov was already dying of tuberculosis and was condemned to live hundreds of miles south in the Crimea; Knipper was unknown and 30 years old, far too young for her role of Arkadina. But he was struck by the passionate spontaneity she brought to the play, and it was the beginning of a relationship which endured until his death six years later.

Knipper went on to become one of the Moscow Art's leading actresses. Tied to the theatre and separated from Chekhov, she wrote to him every day, and correspondence became the currency of their relationship, a letter- drama of tangled love and the living material for the dark dramatic roles he went on to create for her.

Since most of his letters are already published, the translator has slanted this book to hers, supplementing them with her memoirs. Writing late at night after returning from the theatre, she pours out her heart to "My Writer", "My dear and distant friend", often adopting the tone of whatever character she is playing as she struggles with the roles of Elena in Uncle Vanya, Masha in The Three Sisters, and Ranevskaya in The Cherry Orchard.

He writes to "My Actress" about his passions for fishing and gardening, and his visits to Tolstoy and Gorky. The weather is a regular topic, warmth and sunshine or dry frost being essential to his survival in his "hot Siberia". "Centipedes climb up the walls, and frogs and baby crocodiles play in the garden. An operetta is in town. Trained fleas serve sacred art. I have no money."

Lofty poetry is constantly subverted by prosaic remarks, and expressions of frustration, humour or undying devotion by chronicles of ailments and remedies for baldness. Although much of the richness of these contradictions is lost in Benedetti's inelegant translation, with its anachronisms, misprints and misspellings, the letters give us a moving insight into Chekhov's symbolic emotional language, with its romance of wasted lives and insurmountable isolation.

In July 1900 Knipper visited him in Yalta, and they became lovers. Returning north in the train, she writes: "Next year we'll try and live in the north, won't we? And if that doesn't work? Well, we can dream." But although they implored each other to come, their visits to Yalta or Moscow were always brief. There was talk of making a new life together abroad. "When I marry you, I'll make you give up the theatre and we'll live together like planters," he writes. Yet both knew this was impossible. "I love you that is all. It's not my fault but the devil's, who put a bug in me and the love of art in you."

Chekhov had previously considered marriage on condition only that his sister Masha remained the fixed centre of his household, and that his wife lived in Moscow. "Find me the kind of wife who, like the moon, doesn't appear in the sky every day," he writes.

In his letters to Olga he almost never addresses her by her proper name, often calling her instead "Doggie", "Baboon", "Granny", "Cricket", "Sperm- whale" or "Little German", and signing himself "Ant", "Antoine", "Antonino" or "Antonius".

Despite her sensitivity to his subtle shifts of mood, which allowed him to laugh at the absurdity of so much hopelessness, she was nonetheless often maddened by his ironic banter, his emotional reserve and his vagueness. "You write `I will come later'. What does that mean?"

In May 1901 they married secretly, and after a honeymoon at a sanatorium on the Volga, Knipper returned to Moscow. As she hurried around finding a place there for them to live together, he was sitting in Yalta in deteriorating health, surrounded by pills and poultices. When he responded without enthusiasm to news of her domestic arrangements, and her excitement at finding rooms with electric light, she complained of the brevity of his letters. "Soon you'll be writing me postcards saying `I'm alive'."

Although they promised to write every day, and generally kept their promises, letters often crossed or were late or lost. These misunderstandings, delayed meetings and flurries of worried telegrams make up a Chekhovian drama of nostalgia, melancholy and bad timing. Unable to attend opening nights, possibly never seeing The Cherry Orchard or Knipper in Uncle Vanya, Chekhov failed even to receive her telegram informing him of the success of The Three Sisters when it opened in January 1901, so assumed that it had flopped. Her high-spirited letter about parties and dancing is followed by his begging her not to be gloomy without him. His news of declining health is followed by hers from the theatre. Lying in bed unable to work after a miscarriage the next February, she receives his letter anxiously enquiring about the progress of The Three Sisters.

Only in the last months of his life were they together, but his bad health made him irritable with her, and as his death drew closer her remorse grew at not being a "proper wife" for him. This emerges in her later diary, along with her tensions with his sister Masha.

Olga Knipper outlived Chekhov by over 55 years, during which the roles he had created for her became an inseparable part of her life. "Sometimes I hate the theatre and sometimes I love it to distraction," she wrote to him four years before his death. "It has given me life, much sorrow, much joy, it gave me you and it has made me a real person."