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A Boring Story: Chekhov and Germany.

"When someone has been sick for a long time, everybody in his household, deep inside, wishes him to be dead," Anton Chekhov recorded in one of his last notebooks (Polnoe, Sochineniia 17.38). Chekhov's short life span (1860-1904) coincided with what Philippe Aries describes as a transition from one cultural view of death to another. (2) Chekhov died at a time when death was becoming increasingly "medicalized" by being relocated from private homes to hospitals and various hospices, thus being treated as "invisible" and "denied." This concept of death (as something that "turns [one's] stomach [...] like the biological acts of man") has been prevalent ever since the end of the nineteenth century and defines our relationship with death nowadays (Aries 563 and 569). Aries's analysis might throw light on the allegedly ruthless scene from Chekhov's last play, The Cherry Orchard (1903). In this play, the owners hear their beloved orchard being destroyed and are made aware of its end. Why didn't the new owner, Lopakhin, have enough tact to wait until they were all gone? Because being tactful was not an issue: the resolution of the play was not as cruel as many critics seem to imply today. The orchard, like a typical nineteenth-century man, was dying in a familiar setting, surrounded by friends and family. That is also why all attempts to send the old servant Firs to the hospital fail: he is left to die in his masters' house, in full view of the sympathetic theatregoers who have come to know and love him in the course of a three-hour-long performance.

A ceremony reminiscent of final farewells in The Cherry Orchard was organized for Chekhov on January 17, 1904, at the Moscow Art Theatre to celebrate his forty-fourth birthday and, more important, the twenty-fifth anniversary of his writing career. Despite Chekhov's protestations (he repeatedly pointed out that the anniversary of his literary career was not due until March 1905), the organizers of the event dragged him onstage during the intermission between acts 3 and 4 of the very first production of The Cherry Orchard. As much as they wanted to shower Chekhov with love and affection, they were equally worried that he was not going to live another year. The sight of a "hunched, pale and emaciated" writer, who was noticeably having difficulty standing during the long speeches in his honor, made some theatregoers beg him to sit down, for they feared that he was going to collapse onstage before the ceremony was over (Rayfield 587).

Given the effect that these celebrations had on Chekhov and even the impartial onlookers, it is now generally believed that Chekhov chose to spare his siblings and his mother the sight of his passing away when he agreed to be taken abroad to seek the advice of German specialists in June 1904, one month prior to his death. Chekhov was a doctor and his understandable consideration for his relatives fits Aries's theories beautifully. I suggest, however, going one step beyond this satisfying explanation and taking a look at Chekhov's trip to Germany not only in the context of his last months, but in the broader context of his life and literary career. In his semiautobiographi-cal "A Boring Story" ("Skuchnaia istoriia," 1889), Chekhov sends his dying character on a mission to the town of Kharkov. Nikolai Stepanovich has been expecting to die for the last six months and fears that he might die "alone in a strange town [and] on a strange bed" ("A Boring Story" 103). This does not happen, however: after what turns out to be an unexpectedly peaceful night, Nikolai Stepanovich is summoned back to Moscow by the news of his daughter's secret wedding. "Like in life, there is nothing accidental in art," Chekhov advised a budding poet, Boris Sadovskoi, shortly before his departure for Germany (Polnoe, Pis'ma 12.108). But what about death? Is there anything accidental in death? I submit that Chekhov's ultimate trip to Badenweiler was, in fact, not very different from his many other trips under taken in order to change the scenery and to fight mundane boredom to which he was particularly susceptible.

It was in 1890, after his brother's sudden death from tuberculosis, that Chekhov had seriously faced up to his own mortality for the first time and embarked on his longest journey to the island of Sakhalin. In 1904, he went to another extreme, in the opposite direction--first crossing a sizable portion of Russia and then the whole of Germany to reach his final destination--in all senses of the term--Badenweiler, near the Swiss border. Once Chekhov arrived there in the second half of June 1904, the little-known Badenweiler was instantly put on the map of Europe thanks to the journalists who provided regular reports on Chekhov's deteriorating health to their compatriots back home. Consequently, the attention of the Russian intellectuals was divided between Manchuria and the German-Swiss border. While the Russian fleet was fighting the Japanese in the Far East, Chekhov was battling his terminal illness in the Schwarzwald. Both campaigns ended in fiasco.

The centennial of Chekhov's death in 2004 prompted Russian critics to contextualize and conceptualize his death within the already known wider context of Russian history. According to some critics, Chekhov, in a way, willed his own death because he knew that he was not going to survive the major social and cultural upheavals that were to befall the Russian people in the twentieth century. (3) For my part, I will focus on the actual place and circumstances of Chekhov's death, over which, I believe, he did have some control.

Unlike other cultural celebrities who happened to die in desired and desirable cities like Venice (Wagner) or Paris (Oscar Wilde), Chekhov died in the less than spectacular German resort for convalescing tubercular patients. A trip to Germany was never high on Chekhov's travel agenda (which in the 1900s gave priority to France, Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland) even though he was married to a Russified German, Olga Knipper, who valued German doctors with their emphasis on strict diet and hygiene. Badenweiler, as his letters attest, was a source of continuous bewilderment and disappointment for Chekhov. "Badenweiler is the most unusual spa town, but I have yet to understand exactly what is so unusual about it" (Chekhov wrote in his letter to Vasilii Sobolevskii on June 12,1904 (Life in Letters 528). And a few lines later: "The food is good and plentiful, extremely so. But I can just imagine how crushingly dull life here must be most of the time!" "Have I already bored you with my prattling?" Chekhov inquired cautiously in his concluding paragraph (528). "Everything is fine, except that it is very monotonous and boring," Chekhov reassured his sister on June 26 (529). "There is no such thing as a well-dressed German woman. Their lack of taste induces deep despondency," he complained to her two days later, which happened to be his last letter ever (531). Did Chekhov die of boredom in the direct sense of the word?

"Boredom," "tedium," "dull," "boring," and their derivatives are some of the most frequently used words in Chekhov's lexicon. In his short novel, The Steppe (1888), for example, the word "boredom" (skuka) and its derivatives (skuchishcha, skuchno, skuchat', soskuchit'sia, skuchnyi, skucha-iushchii) are used eighteen times. In "A Nervous Breakdown" ("Pripadok," 1889), the student Vasil'ev, finding himself in a brothel, feels uneasy and tells his friends that he "feels bored and disgusted" (219). When faced with a prostitute, he finds nothing better to do than to ask her if she is equally bored: "Don't you find it boring here at times? ... Then why don't you leave if you're bored?" he keeps pressing her (221-22). Later at home, when he tries to figure out what makes women prostitute themselves, Vasil'ev concludes that an important part in turning women into prostitutes is played by boredom. This is particularly true of those women who left their families and are already living with their free-spirited male companions. "As long as it [was] interesting and novel for the woman, she ... stayed with the man and got on with her sewing [the occupation encouraged by her male companion]. But later, growing bored, she ... started entertaining men behind the moral tutor's back" (227). Likewise, in The Duel (1891), Nadezhda Fedorovna describes her lover, Laevsky, as "an honest man with ideas, but monotonous, eternally shuffling in his slippers, biting his nails, and boring her with his caprices" (146). Nadezhda actively seeks the company of other men, an indulgence she readily justifies in view of her being "the most beautiful young woman" in a small seaside town: "The long, unbearably hot, boring days, the beautiful, languorous evenings, the stifling nights, and this whole life, when one did not know from morning to evening how to spend the useless time ..." (146). Not surprisingly, it takes her two meetings to feel bored with her new lover. All along, Laevsky knows that Nadezhda expects him to have a heart-to-heart conversation with her, but he decides against it, since "talking would be boring, useless, and wearisome ..." (164). Their relationship goes from bad to worse, but is saved by a miracle. At the end of the novel, a completely reborn Laevsky thinks to himself that life is like that too: "In search of the truth, people make two steps forward and one step back. Suffering, mistakes, and the tedium of life (skuka zhizni) throw them back, but the thirst for truth and [their] stubborn will drive them on and on. And who knows? Maybe they'll row their way to the real truth ..." (237).

All his life Chekhov was running away or "rowing away" from boredom only to get back to it when life threatened to become too interesting. Boredom explains many events in Chekhov's life. He makes sudden plans to move from one place to another and the only reason he cares to provide is that he is bored and needs an instantaneous change of scenery. In May-June 1889, Chekhov attended to his dying brother, Nikolai, on a country estate in Ukraine. In his letters from that period, Chekhov complained about being bored, letting his correspondents know that his brother's days were numbered and that his assistance was crucial. (4) And yet, with the full understanding that his brother's illness was terminal, on June 16 (one day prior to his brother's death), Chekhov, nevertheless, decided to make a trip to the Smagin family. The Smagins lived far away, so the trip was meant to last five days. On June 26, Chekhov recorded the outcome of this bizarre journey in his letter to Aleksei Pleshcheev:
  I will remember as long as I live the muddy road, the gray sky, and
  the trees weeping with rain; I say I'll always remember that because
  in the morning a pathetic-looking peasant brought a soaked telegram
  from Mirgorod that said: "Kolia has passed away." You can imagine my
  mood. I had to ride back to the station, then go by train and wait at
  the stations for 8 hours ... In the town of Romny I had to wait from
  7 P.M. to 2 A.M. Out of sheer boredom, I went wandering around the
  city. I remember sitting in a garden: it's dark and freezing, I'm
  beset by the darkest melancholy [skuka aspidskaia], and behind the
  brown wall I'm sitting by, I can hear some actors rehearsing some
  melodrama. (Polnoe, Pis'ma 3.227)

A month later he gave a detailed account to the very same Pleshcheev of his "unexpected" trip to the Crimea and of "feeling [ashamed] to be living sybaritically when things [were] awry at home. [...] There are many young ladies in Yalta, but not one of them is pretty. [...] As a result of the heat and my wretched, melancholy mood, the story ["A Boring Story"] is turning out rather boring" (Life in Letters 189-90).

Chekhov, as is well known, was notoriously reluctant to talk about his tuberculosis and the effects of the disease on his body. Yet he made no secret of his other disease--his tendency to become easily bored. I would say that Chekhov was more afraid of dying from boredom than from tuberculosis. Boredom, the philosopher Lars Svendsen states, "defines the entire content of life in a negative way, because it is that which has to be avoided at any price" (27). However, Chekhov's repeated references to his being bored have been traditionally interpreted not as his commentary on himself, but as a social commentary of a general nature, as if the writer were saying that Russian life was far from being perfect and made whoever was observing it bored. Chekhov's readers for years have been refusing to read his "A Boring Story" for what it is--a clinical study of a man suffering from acute boredom--despite the story's unambiguous title and a revealing range of symptoms, such as Nikolai Stepanovich's restlessness, lack of appetite, painful insomnia, (5) and repeated complaints about his life having no meaning. (6) In fact, Chekhov's obsession with meaningfulness in general, as can be seen from his ardent desire to make people better, points to his very personal fear of meaninglessness, which is closely related to boredom. "Boredom," Svendsen insists, "is not a question of idleness but of meaning" (Svendsen 34).
  Human beings are addicted to meaning. We all have a great problem:
  Our lives must have some sort of content. We cannot bear to live our
  lives without some sort of content that we can see as constituting a
  meaning. Meaninglessness is boring. And boredom can be described
  metaphorically as a meaning withdrawal. Boredom can be understood
  as a discomfort, which communicates that the need for meaning is not
  being satisfied. In order to remove this discomfort, we attack the
  symptoms rather than the disease itself, and search for all sorts
  of meaning surrogates. (30)

Svendsen further distinguishes between "situative" boredom and "existential boredom," which correspond to Flaubert's "common" boredom and "modern" boredom (42). Although it is often difficult to differentiate between the two, Chekhov would have probably described his boredom as situative, rather than existential, which might explain his insatiable desire to move from one place to another. "To Moscow, to Moscow! That's not The Three Sisters talking, it's One Husband," Chekhov wrote Knipper from Yalta in November 1903 (Polnoe, Pis'ma 11.311).

When Dmitrii Merezhkovskii (like many others before and after him) asserted in 1906 that Chekhov together with his characters wallowed in his boredom, getting high on the tediousness of his life like an alcoholic who gulps glasses of wine to make himself happy, he could not be farther from the truth. (7) A son of a hardworking but unsuccessful shopkeeper, Chekhov feared and loathed to be bored, the state, which in his mind most certainly was associated with idleness. When he had only months to live and was feeling truly miserable, Chekhov repeatedly requested Viktor Goltsev, the editor of the periodical Russkaia mysl', to send him other people's manuscripts for his detailed commentary and revisions. Even in one of his letters from Badenweiler Chekhov musingly reproached himself for his allegedly "incurable laziness" (Polnoe, Pis'ma 12.126). According to Svendsen, "[t]he most hyperactive of us are precisely those who have the lowest boredom thresholds" (39). Had Chekhov chosen to make an exhibition of his boredom or, conversely, had he chosen to join the ranks of other boredom fighters (such as the so-called Russian decadents, symbolists, and modernists), he might have shared some of their extremist political agenda. One will never know how much of the revolutionary activity in Russia was initially inspired by profound boredom and by the need to do something out of the ordinary. "And all as a result of boredom, gentlemen, sheer boredom," the underground man exposes the main motivation for his often bizarre actions (Dostoevsky 12). According to Robert Nisbet, "Boredom may become Western man's greatest source of unhappiness. [...] Catastrophe alone would appear to be the surest and [...] the most likely of liberations from boredom" (qtd. in Svendsen 39).

Whether Chekhov realized it or not, his well-documented passionate interest in the Russo-Japanese war during his last months may well have stemmed from his desire to make his life more "interesting." In Badenweiler, Chekhov voraciously read the few Russian newspapers that were available to him and made his wife translate all German reports from the front. Although Knipper later blamed the war for shortening Chekhov's life, because he tended to take the news about the Russian defeats so close to heart, in fact, the war might have prolonged his life by making life "exciting" and by keeping boredom at bay. Likewise, Chekhov's exaggerated concern for Tolstoy's health in the 1900s can be seen in the light of Chekhov's subconscious desire for some major catastrophe to engulf the Russian literary world. Chekhov's recurring remark, "Once Tolstoy dies, everything will go to the dogs (Vot umret Tolstoy, vse poidet k chertu)!" sounds, perversely, more like wishful thinking, a fearful hope for something really drastic to happen (qtd. in Bunin 207).

Chekhov did not live to see any major historical upheavals: he was born one year before the abolition of serfdom and died half a year prior to the first Russian revolution. His usual strategy for dealing with boredom was to embark on some expedition, as he did when he went to the island of Sakhalin in 1890, or to focus on uncovering the boredom of other people.
  All I wanted was to tell people honestly, "Look at yourselves. Look at
  what bad, boring lives you lead." That's the most important thing for
  people to understand. And when they do understand it, they will
  certainly create a new and better life. I won't see it, but I know
  that everything will be different, that nothing will be like the lives
  we now lead. (Qtd. in Troyat 296)

In his determination to unmask boredom in his compatriots, Chekhov followed in the wake of Ivan Goncharov (1812-91), whose literary character, Il'ia Il'ich Oblomov, from the eponymous novel, is the proverbial case study of an able man consumed with boredom. Interestingly, to justify his inexplicable inertia, the otherwise charitable Oblomov resorted to accusing his educated contemporaries of having "no center round which" the genuine interest and feelings for other people revolved. "All the society people are dead men, men fast asleep, they are worse than I am! [...] And our best young people, what do they do? Don't they sleep walking or dancing or driving along the Nevsky? Empty reshuffling of days! [...] Just look: not a single person here looks fresh and healthy," Oblomov mused with self-righteousness (195-97). In response, his childhood friend Stolz, called Oblomov "a philosopher," "everyone is worrying, you alone don't need anything" (197). Chekhov, however, needed time to fully appreciate the ingenuity of Oblomov's strategy. In early May 1889, in his letter to Aleksei Suvorin, Chekhov criticized both Oblomov and his creator: "I'm reading Goncharov by the way, and am surprised: why did I ever think him a first-class writer? His Oblomov is really not good at all. [...] He is just a flabby layabout like hundreds of others, he's not a complex character, but a commonplace and trivial one [...]. the question I ask myself is: without his laziness, what would Oblomov have been? And my answer is: nothing" (Life in Letters 180). By contrast, in his "A Boring Story," which he wrote shortly after his brother's death and the above-quoted assessment of Goncharov, Chekhov made his character, the famous scholar Nikolai Stepanovich, direct his dissatisfaction with life solely toward himself. "[S]omething general is lacking that would unite it all into a single whole. Each feeling and thought lives separately in me, and in all my opinions about science, the theater, literature, students, and in all pictures drawn by my imagination, even the most skillful analyst would be unable to find what is known as a general idea or the god of the living man," Nikolai Stepanovich willingly admitted at one point ("Boring Story" 104-5). Such a self-poisoning strategy proved highly ineffectual and disabling. (8) As the first-person narrator, Nikolai Stepanovich failed to finish his own story, which slowly disintegrated into a scornful obituary, while its actual author hastily left for the island of Sakhalin after the story's publication.

By the time Chekhov reached Badenweiler he could no longer resort to his proven tactics, i.e., writing about other people's boredom or seeking immediate distraction and diversion. "[T]he problem was not so much that his imagination had run dry as that he found putting words on paper physically exhaustive," Troyat writes in his biography of Chekhov (300). In the 1900s, the quality of Chekhov's life was such that he was increasingly turning into an observer and was becoming less of an active player, thus becoming even more prone to boredom than ever before. Chekhov's recorded impressions of Germany are invariably negative. "Either the Germans have entirely lost whatever taste they once had, or they never had any," he remarked in his letter to Sobolevskii. "German women dress in the vilest possible taste, and the men also. I did not see a single good-looking woman in Berlin, nor one who had not made herself hideous by the clothes she arrayed herself in," Chekhov concluded (Life in Letters 528). According to Svendsen, an observer tends to differentiate "interesting" from "boring" "from a purely aesthetic perspective." "The aesthetic gaze registers only surface, and this surface is judged by whether it is interesting or boring." "The aesthetic gaze has to be titillated by increased intensity or preferably by something new, and the ideology of the aesthetic gaze is superlativism," Svendsen continues (27). Thus, it is not surprising that Chekhov found German women and Germans in general tasteless. He criticized their clothes because that was all he could see from his balcony at the Sommer Hotel.

The trip to Germany turned out to be meaningless on all accounts. It brought Chekhov a lot of humiliating experiences and unnecessary discomfort, as was the case when the Chekhovs were asked to leave the posh Romersbad Hotel in Badenweiler, because the manager was afraid that the sight of Chekhov coughing incessantly might upset other guests. Having been trained as a doctor, Chekhov should have known that Germany was not the best place for him to go to in 1904, when his sickness could have been easily identified by ordinary Germans as something potentially lethal to their health, thanks to Robert Koch's well-publicized discovery of Mycobacterium tuberculosis in 1882 and, more importantly, due to Koch's subsequent failure to cure TB patients with his "tuberculin" in the 1890s. Given Chekhov's rapidly deteriorating physical state--tuberculosis from his lungs had spread to his bones and spine--all doctors, including the German ones, were powerless to avert his imminent death and could only ease his pain and insomnia by increasing the dose of heroin and opiates. The meaninglessness of the trip by far exceeded Chekhov's worst expectations. He made frenetic attempts to give it some meaning by buying several vests in Berlin, ordering himself a flannel suit in Freiburg, making plans to visit a dentist in Basel, and, finally, trying to leave Germany by going first to Italy and then returning to Yalta by sea. Nietzsche defined boredom as "that disagreeable 'windless calm' of the soul that precedes a happy voyage and cheerful winds" (108). In Badenweiler Chekhov was literally gasping for a sea breeze to relieve him from boredom and self-consuming restfulness. "Dear Grigorii Ivanovich," Chekhov wrote to his friend Rossolimo on June 28 from Badenweiler,
  I want to ask you a favor. One evening a while ago you were telling
  me about your travels to Mount Athos with L. L. Tolstoy ... Did you
  go from Marseilles to Odessa? With Austrian Lloyd? If so, please for
  the love of God seize your pen at once and write and tell me on which
  day and at what hour the steamer sails from Marseilles, how many days
  is the voyage to Odessa, what time of day or night the steamer gets to
  Odessa, is it comfortable on board, that is could there be separate
  cabin for me and my wife, is there a decent restaurant, is it clean
  ... were you generally happy with everything? What I require above all
  is peace and quiet, and everything necessary for a man who is very
  short of breath. I beg you to write! Let me know also how much the
  tickets cost. [...] How desperately boring this German spa town of
  Badenweiler is! (Life in Letters 529-30)

On March 25, 1916, Aleksandr Blok recorded in his notebook: "It was Chekhov's letters written shortly before his death that filled me with real nighttime horror the other day. They had more impact than Tolstoy's leaving home. 'Olga has left for Basel to have her teeth fixed,' 'this time round all the molars will have golden crowns to last a lifetime.' First, [Chekhov's] admiration for Germans, then a sense of boredom and bad taste (so familiar at a German health resort). And suddenly, a similar letter, only the last one. Finality [and] inevitability" (292). Blok, who like Chekhov, was particularly susceptible to boredom, which he tended to drown in alcohol or in "ushering" in calamities, such as revolutions, easily agreed with Chekhov's unflattering remarks about the Germans. As his entry suggests, a relatively healthy Blok would have felt just as bored and frustrated in Germany as Chekhov did.

Why Germany then? With his attention span and ability to retain the novelty of impressions significantly impaired by his debilitating sickness, why would Chekhov agree to be taken to a predictably "boring" place, such as Badenweiler? "I am going there to die," Chekhov confessed to a literary colleague, Nikolai Teleshov, shortly before his departure (Teleshov 489). (9) Did Chekhov think he was going to die sooner than he actually did? Before boredom would have a chance to set in? It is remarkable that he did not pack any summer clothes for this trip and, consequently, suffered from an excruciating heat wave that hit Western Europe in the summer of 1904: "The heat here is unbearable, it just makes you want to cry aloud for help, and I have no light clothes here, I'm dressed as though for Sweden" (Life in Letters 530).

Did Chekhov plan to leave Germany alive? Why would, in any case, a bedridden person want such drastic changes as moving from beloved Moscow to an utterly unknown German resort? As James Wood perceptibly suggests, "Perhaps, the gap between yearning for a new life--the most familiar gesture of Chekhov's characters, and one the writer saw firsthand among his own family [and experienced himself, I may add]--and yearning for no life, is small" (89). Chekhov's works and notebooks offer plenty support for Wood's assertion. Life (whether new or lived) is not there simply to be enjoyed. It is there to be lived through and, therefore, always a burden and a challenge. One can recall the unsettling conclusion to Chekhov's Three Years (Tri goda, 1895), where the main character Laptev is filled with despondency at the thought of having to keep on living for another thirteen or even thirty years. When his wife declares her love for him--something he had been eagerly awaiting for three years--he feels as if they had been married not for three years but for ten years and wants nothing but a good lunch. "To live eternally is similar to having no sleep at all" (Polnoe; Pis'ma 4.146). (10) "Death is frightening, but eternal life is even more frightening" (Polnoe, Sochineniia 17.67). These famous dictums from Chekhov's notebooks suggest that by the 1900s, Chekhov may have started to equate any kind of living with boredom. Since life is boring, death is a blessing, if only because it is something new that puts an end to one's boring existence. In that sense Badenweiler might have seemed a perfect place to end one's life. Even before he had a chance to come to know Badenweiler, Chekhov already expected it to be dreadfully boring as if he wanted it to be even more boring than it actually was. Even the proverbial beauty of drinking champagne prior to his death, in Badenweiler was utterly predictable. As has been repeatedly pointed out, there had been a long-standing tradition of serving wine or a glass of champagne to a dying German patient. Beethoven's last words that are rarely recalled were, nevertheless, no less meaningful and beautiful than Chekhov's last remark that every Chekhov scholar knows by heart--"It's been such a long time since I've had champagne." Shortly before his death, Beethoven (who died in Vienna in 1826), according to the eyewitnesses, ordered wine and uttered in Latin, "Plaudite, amici, comoedia finita est." "When the four bottles of wine arrived, Beethoven murmured his last words: 'Pity, pity, too late"' (Hayden 83). From this perspective, it is possible to give an unconventional answer to the question that has been bothering Chekhov scholars ever since his death: why did he say his last words--Ich sterbe (I am dying)--in German, which he didn't know? The answer is he might have done it to conform to the utmost novelty of the final transition.

Chekhov's stay in Badenweiler happened to be longer and, perhaps, more unbearable than he had envisaged. He made his last written commentary on the Badenweiler tedium on June 28 and died in the early hours of July 2. In a situation where no escape was possible (Chekhov was so ill that any travel was ruled out), it is tempting to ponder the possibility of Chekhov actually resigning himself not only to the inevitability of death but also to the inevitability of boredom during this short period. Or, maybe, like Anna Akhmatova later, he discovered that tediousness is just as good a foundation for creativity? (11) On July 1, he made up a story to amuse his exhausted wife, who had spent several sleepless nights by his bedside. The story was about a cook who, for no apparent reason (boredom, perhaps?), ran away from a wealthy health resort, leaving its spoilt guests hungry. Chekhov described the feelings of each guest so vividly that Knipper burst out laughing: "Anton Pavlovich's captivating way of telling the story made me laugh uncontrollably and, it seemed that a heavy load had been lifted off my mind." (12)


(1.) I am grateful to Ralph Lindheim and the anonymous reviewer for their comments on this paper.

(2.) Aries distinguishes between five cultural views of death that were typical of different historical periods: "the tame death," "the death of the self," "remote and imminent death," "the death of the other," and "the invisible death." See Aries, The Hour of Our Death.

(3.) Igor' Klekh's "Chekhov: Ich sterbe" is most notable in this respect. According to Klekh, Chekhov died "like a male salmon that has spent all of its milt on roe [kak otmetavshii moloki na ikru losos']. In doing so he set an example of decency and personal courage in anticipation of a series of unprecedented upheavals, living through which was not part of his literary agenda" (191).

(4.) See his letter to Vladimir Tikhonov of May 31: "I'd be happy to escape to Paris and take a look at the universe from the height of the Eiffel Tower, but, alas, I'm bound hand and foot, and have no right to move even one step away. My brother, who is now living with me, is ill with consumption. The weather is splendid. [...] But because of the above-mentioned circumstance, life is boring and dreary. Thankfully, there are some kind people who visit me and share my boredom, otherwise things would be too bad. [...] At one point, I began writing a comedy, but I wrote two acts and dropped it. It's turning out boring. There's nothing more boring than boring plays, and I'm now capable of writing only in a boring way so I'd better stop doing it" (Polnoe, Pis'ma 3.219-20).

(5.) "To those readers who have possibly never been bored I can say by way of comparison that deep boredom is related, phenomenologically speaking, to insomnia, where the I loses its identity in the dark, caught in an apparently infinite void. One troes to fall asleep, takes perhaps a few faltering steps, ending up in a no-man's land between a waking state and sleep" (Svendsen 13).

(6.) For a good summary of the symptoms associated with boredom, see Healy, Boredom, Self, and Culture.

(7.) See D. S. Merezhkovskii, "Chekhov i Gorky."

(8.) In fact, that is precisely what Nikolai Stepanovich says about his state of mind: "I want to cry out that I've been poisoned; new thoughts such as I have never known before have poisoned the last days of my life and go on stinging my brain like mosquitoes" ("A Boring Story" 66).

(9.) In fact, Chekhov made similar pronouncements before his equally inexplicable trip to the island of Sakhalin some fifteen years prior.

(10.) In May 1904, Chekhov managed to have only one restful night. See Polnoe, Pis'ma 12.106.

(11.) "Did you know that creativity is based on boredom? Many people don't know that. It's when things are going smoothly, without any bumps, and you're comfortably off and don't have to do anything ... So I go now to my 'shack' [Budka] and get ready to be creatively bored working on my 'Pushkin' there" (Akhmatova qtd. in Glekin).

(12.) Knipper's letter to her mother is quoted in Chekhov, Polnoe, Pis'ma 12.379.

Works Cited

Aries, Philippe. The Hour of Our Death. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981.

Blok, Aleksandr. Zapisnye knizhki: 1901-1920. Moscow: Khudozhestvennaia literatura, 1965.

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Galina S. Rylkova

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