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I had late lunch yesterday with my friend Maxim Osipov. I have no interest whatsoever in putting Max on the spot, but he is sort of the modern-day Anton Chekhov. Max is a practicing doctor as well as an excellent writer who started out writing short stories, and later began writing plays. Just to make the connection even a bit more fun, Max began publishing when he was 44 years old, the age that Mr. Chekhov had his last glass of champagne, rolled over in his bed in Badenweiler, Germany, and expired, leaving bereft his wife Olga Knipper-Chekhova, his contemporaries and every lover of literature and theater since. Anyway, as Max and I left the restaurant in the late afternoon and we walked out into the bright, sparkling, spring sunlight that was flooding Moscow so generously, Max began to expound upon his theory that Chekhov never quite loved Melikhovo. “All those women who work there, do!” he laughed. “But I don’t think Chekhov loved it very much. Do you?”
I was a bit taken aback by the question. I’d never considered what Chekhov might have thought about his home. I guess I just always assumed he lived there because he liked it, and he liked it because he lived there. Rather like most of us do wherever we live. That’s why you get musicians coming into Topeka or Poughkeepsie and getting huge cheers from the crowd when they shout out, “Great to be here in Poughkeepsie tonight!” Because everybody in Poughkeepsie loves Poughkeepsie insofar as they live in Poughkeepsie. That kind of thing. And so when Max blindsided me with that question, I did what I often do when caught off-guard – I hemmed and hawed as intelligently as I could and wriggled out of answering it. Now, the truth is that I don’t know what Chekhov loved or didn’t love. It is certainly true that all those times I have visited Melikhovo, the women who run the roost there harangue me and other visitors with lovely tales of Chekhov’s love for every lovable object, every plant, every nook and every cranny of the grounds and buildings that make up the small estate where Chekhov lived with his family for much of the 1890s. If I have always taken their exuberant affection for everything Chekhovian with a certain grain of salt, I have never doubted the love.
Be that as it may, Max’s tossed-off comment got me thinking about Melikhovo and Chekhov again. It wasn’t long ago that I wrote about visiting the estate in March with the Cuban-born, American playwright Nilo Cruz. On that occasion I posted some photos of a bust of Chekhov that stands hidden behind a small grove of trees, way off the beaten path. But actually, upon arriving on the museum grounds, everyone these days is greeted by another likeness of the writer that stands just on the other side of the entrance booth. This full-length sculpture of Chekhov, created and erected in 2002 by Yury Chernov, kind of has dual purposes. On one hand, it is one of those typical, ceremonial kinds of monuments. The right hand grabs the right lapel in a way that declares, “This is a solemn moment!” And yet, Chekhov stands jauntily on one leg, the other folded underneath him for purposes of balance alone. And the left hand is partially slipped into the pants pocket, maintaining a folksiness that offsets the lofty mission of the right hand. There’s something about the face here that I like, even though it leans toward the generic. Maybe it’s the flecks of blue that have begun to seep out of the bronze. As you can see in the top two photos, they, at least, match the gorgeous blue March sky well. But there is something strong about the expressionless visage that suits the writer and his purpose as a museum greeter. And, anyway, maybe there’s more life in this hunk of bronze than I give it credit for. In the last of the three photos immediately above, you can see Nilo whipping around, as if he just heard Chekhov whispering something to him. As though he is saying, “What did you say to me? Did you just say something?”
I guess Max Osipov would say he was saying, “I really don’t like this place, you know!” but I myself didn’t hear anything. So I can’t weigh in on the subject.