December 3, 1898.
Shall I speak now of defects? But that is not so easy. To speak of the defects of a talent is like speaking of the defects of a great tree growing in the garden; what is chiefly in question, you see, is not the tree itself but the tastes of the man who is looking at it. Is not that so?
I will begin by saying that to my mind you have not enough restraint. You are like a spectator at the theatre who expresses his transports with so little restraint that he prevents himself and other people from listening. This lack of restraint is particularly felt in the descriptions of nature with which you interrupt your dialogues; when one reads those descriptions one wishes they were more compact, shorter, put into two or three lines. The frequent mention of tenderness, whispering, velvetiness, and so on, give those descriptions a rhetorical and monotonous character—and they make one feel cold and almost exhaust one. The lack of restraint is felt also in the descriptions of women (“Malva,” “On the Raft”) and love scenes. It is not vigour, not breadth of touch, but just lack of restraint. Then there is the frequent use of words quite unsuitable in stories of your type. “Accompaniment,” “disc,” “harmony,” such words spoil the effect. You often talk of waves. There is a strained feeling and a sort of circumspection in your descriptions of educated people; that is not because you have not observed educated people sufficiently, you know them, but you don’t seem to know from what side to approach them.
January 3, 1899.
Nothing is less characteristic of you than coarseness, you are clever and subtle and delicate in your feelings. Your best things are “In the Steppe,” and “On the Raft,”—did I write to you about that? They are splendid things, masterpieces, they show the artist who has passed through a very good school. I don’t think that I am mistaken. The only defect is the lack of restraint, the lack of grace. When a man spends the least possible number of movements over some definite action, that is grace. One is conscious of superfluity in your expenditure.
The descriptions of nature are the work of an artist; you are a real landscape painter. Only the frequent personification (anthropomorphism) when the sea breathes, the sky gazes, the steppe barks, nature whispers, speaks, mourns, and so on—such metaphors make your descriptions somewhat monotonous, sometimes sweetish, sometimes not clear; beauty and expressiveness in nature are attained only by simplicity, by such simple phrases as “The sun set,” “It was dark,” “It began to rain,” and so on—and that simplicity is characteristic of you in the highest degree, more so perhaps than of any other writer.
Quotes taken from Letters of Anton Chekhov by Anton Pavlovich Chekhov. Translation by Constance Garnett.