FIRST ENCOUNTERS : When Anton Chekhov met Leo Tolstoy

It took three years for Chekhov to call on his neighbour Tolstoy. The fifth in a series of memorable meetings drawn by the distinguished American illustrator Edward Sorel and written by Nancy Caldwell Sorel. Last week, Jean-Paul Marat and Charlotte Corday; next week, Fats Waller and Al Capone
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Chekhov had been living at Melikhovo, in Moscow province, for three years, and still he resisted suggestions that he call at nearby Yasnaya Polyana. He said he was busy. As a fledgling landowner, he was putting his farm in order; as a doctor, he treated the peasants. He repaired the church, built schools. His stories supported all these activities and brought wide critical acclaim. They were the credentials he would take with him when he went to meet Count Tolstoy - he, Anton Pavlovich, son of a failed grocer, grandson of a serf.

It was August 1895 when Chekhov at last set off for Yasnaya Polyana. He arrived just as the master, in his linen peasant blouse, was on his way to bathe in the stream. Chekhov must come along. Tolstoy undressed at the bathhouse and plunged into the water. Immersed up to his neck, his white beard floating on the surface, he conversed with his guest. That evening passages from the first draft of Resurrection were read aloud. Chekhov spent the night; he felt comfortable at Yasnaya Polyana.

Tolstoy admitted he liked Chekhov, but thought he lacked a point of view. Clearly, Chekhov had suppressed his own opinions, which were antipodal to those of his host. Tolstoy held that the salvation of Russia lay in discarding the accoutrements of civilisation and returning to the life of the soil. He was opposed to higher education, to holding property, even to the practice of medicine.

Later, Chekhov would satirise this dubious ideology in his own stories, and at subsequent meetings the two men would argue their disparate philosophies. Chekhov hated the moralising in Tolstoy's novels; Tolstoy condemned Chekhov's plays as worse than Shakespeare's. But something elemental had happened by the stream at Yasnaya Polyana. Engulfed in his own last illness, Chekhov worried about Tolstoy's health. He referred to him as that "crafty old man" but acknowledged that he never loved another as well. "While there is a Tolstoy in literature," Chekhov said, "it is pleasant and agreeable to be a writer."

Taken from 'First Encounters', published by Knopf, New York

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