Anton Chekhov: Such is Fame!

ANTON CHEKHOV – The passenger of the first class, who had just finished dinner, in the railway station, was a trifle drowsy; he lay down upon the velvet sofa, stretched himself out with a grunt of contentment and was soon dozing.
He lay thus, however, for but five minutes; then he awoke, looked with buttery eyes at his neighbor, who sat directly opposite him, smiled and said, “My late father, blessed be his memory,
was fond of having women scratch his heels after dinner. I take after him, with this one difference, that after dinner I like to scratch my tongue and my head. I, sinner that I am, like to prattle on a full stomach. Will you allow me to prattle a bit with you?”

“With pleasure,” answered his neighbor.
“After a good dinner, at the slightest opportunity the deepest thoughts begin to flood my mind. For instance, just now we saw with you, at the lunch-counter, two young men, and you heard one of them congratulating the other because of his popularity. ‘I congratulate you,’ he said, ‘you are already a popular personage, you beginning to acquire fame.’
“They must be actors or journalists. But it is not they who interest me. What interests me is the question: What should we really understand by the word fame or popularity? What is your opinion? According to Pushkin fame is a bright patch upon a worn-out garment. We all look upon it the same way Pushkin does,—that is, more or less subjectively, but up to the present no one has given a clear, logical definition of the word. I would give much for a concise explanation of the word fame.”

“Why does it concern you so deeply?”
“Well, if we knew precisely what fame was, you understand, then perhaps we should know also how to attain it,” answered the passenger of the first class after brief meditation. “I must tell you, sir, that when I was younger, I strained every string of my soul in the quest of fame. In the first place, I am an engineer by profession. I’ve built a score of wonderful bridges in various parts of Russia, installed water systems in three cities, have worked in Russia, England, Belgium. . . In the second place, I’ve written a large number of special treatises on matters connected with my profession. Thirdly, my good sir, from earliest childhood I’ve had a weakness for Chemistry; devoting my leisure time to that science I discovered means of extracting many organic acids, for which reason you can meet my name in all foreign study books on Chemistry. I’ll not burden you with an account of all my services and accomplishments,:—I shall merely tell you that I accomplished far more than many celebrities. And the result? As you see, I am already old and ready to die, and I’m just as much known as that black dog running across the tracks over there.”
“How do you know ? Perhaps you are famous ?”
“H’m! We’ll soon see. . . Tell me, did you ever hear of the Krikunov family?”

The other man raised his eyes to the ceiling, thought a while and began to laugh.
“No. Can’t say that I have. . . ” he replied.
“That’s my family. You are an elderly, educated person, and you never heard of me.—Isn’t that sufficient proof? I guess, in my chase after fame, striving to become known, popular, I didn’t
do as I should have done. I didn’t employ the proper means and, wishing to catch fame by the tail, I didn’t approach it from the right direction …”
“What proper means do you refer to?”
“Devil knows! You will say. . . Talent? Genius? Uncommon gifts? That’s a mistake, my friend. . . In my own time people have lived and made reputations who, in comparison with me, are incapable, good-for-nothing and altogether worthless. They did not strive, did not dazzle with their talents, did not pursue fame, yet behold them now! Their names are often mentioned in the papers and in conversation! If you’re not already wearied of listening, I’ll illustrate my point with an example.
“A few years ago I was constructing a bridge in the city of K. . . I must tell you that there isn’t a deader place in the whole world. If it weren’t for the women and cards, I’d have gone out of my mind. “Well, that’s an old story. Just to kill time I made friends there with a singer. Devil knows, they all used to go wild over her, and in my own opinion—how shall I express it?—she was a most commonplace, average young lady, of a type that is altogether too common. An empty-headed thing, capricious, envious and a silly goose to boot. She ate a good deal, drank a good deal, slept until five in the afternoon and even later. A mediocre specimen, as you see. She was looked upon as a wanton woman —that was her profession— but when folks wanted to speak of her in literary language they would refer to her as ‘the actress,’ or ‘the singer.’ In those days I was a passionate theatre-goer, and I would fly into a rage when I heard her called an actress. She had absolutely no right to the name actress or singer. She was a creature without a spark of talent, without an atom of feeling,—one might say, in sum, a poor little good-fornothing.

“As far as I understand singing, she sang frightfully,—badly enough to make you faint. Her whole ‘art’ consisted in her wiggling with her foot, when it was needed, and in letting men into her dressing-room.
“She preferred, naturally, foreign vaudevilles,—spicy ones, with singing and such, in which she could appear in masculine attire. In a word, one of the ‘real things!’ But just listen to this. I remember it as clearly as if it happend this very day. The bridge was ready to be thrown open to the public. It was opened with solemnity,—prayers, speeches, telegrams and so on. I myself ran about all flustered, with my child, the work of my brain, and was afraid that my heart would burst with excitement. It was my work ! It’s an old story, and I may permit myself a bit of pride, so let me inform you that the bridge turned out to be a masterpiece! Not a bridge, but a picture, an inspiration! How could I help being excited, when the whole city turned out for the grand opening?
” ‘Well, I thought, ‘now the whole public will look at me, —all eyes will seek me. Where can I hide?’
“But, my good sir, my agitation was all in vain. Outside of the official personages nobody even gave me a glance. They gathered at the river bank, staring at the bridge like so many wax figures, without giving so much as a passing thought to him who had created the bridge. And since then, devil take them, I’ve begun to hate our worthy public. But just listen. Suddenly a commotion arose among the assembled crowd. Faces beamed, people began to elbow their way forward . . .
” ‘Ah! They’ve noticed me at last!’ I thought. But far from it! I see my friend the singer squeezing through the crowd, and at her heels a whole army of loafers. And all eyes were centered upon her, and thousands of lips whispered, ‘That’s so and so. . .isn’t she charming! Divinely beautiful!’
“At this point I, too, was noticed by a couple of bums, most likely local lovers of the dramatic art. Seeing me, they scrutinized me and began to murmur, ‘That’s her paramour.’
“How do you like that ? A man in a silk hat, and with a jaw that for a long time had not been scraped by a razor, stood near me for quite a while, raising now one foot and now the other,
and finally accosted me.
” ‘Do you know who that lady is, walking there at the river’s edge? That’s so and so. . . Her voice is beneath all criticism, but she certainly knows how to use it!’
” ‘Can you tell me?’ I asked the man in the silk hat, ‘who constructed this bridge?’
” ‘Upon my word, I don’t know!’ replied the silk hat. ‘Some engineer or other!’
” ‘And who,’ I asked, ‘built this church for your city?’
” ‘I can’t tell you that, either.’
“I further asked the silk hat who was considered the leading professor of the city,—the foremost architect,—and to all these queries I received from the silk hat a single reply:
” ‘I don’t know. Can’t tell you.’
” ‘Tell me, pray,’ I asked at last, ‘with whom does this noted singer live?’
” ‘With a certain engineer by the name of Krikunov,’ replied the silk hat without hesitation.
“Well, how do you like that, my friend?. . . But listen to the rest of the story. . . On the day following the christening of the bridge I seized the daily paper to discover something—about myself, about the builder of the bridge. For a long time I scanned all four pages of the paper and finally—found! Hurrah! I begin to read:

Yesterday, under a smiling sky, in the presence of His Excellency the governor and other government officials, a vast municipal gathering celebrated the opening of the new bridge, etc.

“The news report concluded in this fashion:

Among others there was also present at the opening our beloved and gifted artist, Miss So and So. As is easily understood, her appearance created a furore. The noted actress was dressed in . . . etc.

“About me,—not a single word, not a syllable! As insignificant as the matter was, in that moment it grieved me so keenly that I burst into tears.
“I soothed myself with the consolation that the province was of mediocre intelligence, incapable of appreciating such a work, and that it was foolish to expect recognition from such people; that it was possible to acquire fame only in intellectual centers, in the metropolitan cities.
“Well, there was at Petersburg at that time one of my works that I had submitted in a competition. The day of the award was drawing nigh.’
‘ I bade farewell to the city of K— I took the train for Petersburg. It’s a long distance from K— to Petersburg. In order to drive away lonesomeness I took a separate coupe and also. . .the singer. We rode along and on the whole way did nothing but eat, guzzle champagne and tra-la-la ! Had a great old time ! . . . And at last there we were in Petersburg, in the great intellectual center. I arrived on the very day of the award, and had the pleasure, my dear friend, of celebrating a victory : my work was honored with the first prize. Hurrah!
“The next day I go to Nevski Prospekt and squander all of seventy kopeks on newspapers. I return to my hotel, sink back into the sofa and bury myself in the newspapers, all the while quivering with excitement.
“I look through one paper:—nothing ! A second—not a word! At length, in the fourth journal I come upon an announcement like this:

Yesterday there arrived in Petersburg by express the noted artiste of the provinces, Miss So and So. We are delighted to state that the Southern climate has had a very beneficial effect upon our well-known friend. Her splendid artistic appearance… 

“I can’t recall the rest! At the bottom of the page, under the same news item, printed in the smallest size type, was the following:

Yesterday, at the award of prizes in the such-andsuch competition, the engineer So-and-So received first prize.

“And that was all! And to add insult to injury, they twisted my name about. Instead of Krikunov, they printed Kirkunov. There ‘s your intellectual center ! But that was not all. . .
“A month later, when I had left Petersburg, all the papers were screaming without cease about ‘our divine, highly-gifted,’ and my lady love was lauded by the public press as if she reaUy
amounted to something. . .
“Several years later I happened to be in Moscow. The head of the Moscow Duma had invited me thither, by personal letter, in regard to a subject in which the entire press of Moscow has been interested for more than a century.
“Among other things I delivered at one of the Museums five public lectures for a public cause. That, I imagine, was sufficient to make a fellow talked about in the city, for three days at least? But, nothing doing ! Not a single paper in Moscow had even a word in reference to me! They were full of fires, cheap musical comedies, druken merchants—of everything under the sun except my affair, my project, my lectures. About these, not a syllable!
“I ride in the electric cars. . .packed, ladies with officers, students of both sexes—each paired after its own kind.
” ‘They say that the Duma invited a certain engineer in regard to such and such a project. ‘ I say to my neighbor in a loud voice, so that all may hear. ‘Do you know the engineer’s name?’ “The fellow shook his head. No. The rest of the people in the car looked at me, and in all their faces I read, ‘I don’t know.’
” ‘They say that somebody’s giving lectures in the so and so Museums,’ I continue, addressing another, wishing to start a conversation. ‘ They say that the lectures are very interesting.’
“Nobody stirred. Evidently not one of them had heard of these lectures, and the woman did not even know that such a museum was in existence. But that is not all. Just imagine, my dear friend. All of a sudden the whole crowd in the car sprang from their places and rushed to the window. What was the matter? What had happened?
” ‘Look! Look!’ my neighbor cried, jobbing me in the ribs. ‘Do you see that dark fellow sitting there in that droshke? That’s the famous king of the yeggs !’
“And the whole crowd began to talk with great animation about the thugs who at that time interested the brains of Moscow.
“I could adduce numerous examples of the same kind. But I believe these are sufficient.
“Now let me, for the sake of argument, admit that I am mistaken in regard to myself,—that I myself am only a conceited ass without a spark of talent. But I could point out to you a multitude of men, in my own time, who were remarkably gifted as concerns talent and love of their work and yet who died unrecognized. All the Russian sailors, chemists, physicists, mechanics, farmers—who among us knows them? Are our Russian painters, sculptors and authors known to the intellectual masses? Many an old literary dog with genuine talent wears out the thresholds of editorial offices for thirty-three years, writing reams and reams of material, is twenty times sued for libel and yet cannot go a step further than his ant-hill ! Tell me the name of a single genius in Russian literature that was known in his own land before he had been recognized all over the world, or had been killed in a duel, or had gone insane, or else had been condemned for life to hard-labor in Siberia,—or else, had acquired a reputation for cheating at cards.”
The passenger of the first class had grown so excited that he took his cigar out of his mouth and arose.
“Yes,” he continued, still roused to a high pitch, “and in contrast to such persons I’ll show you hundreds of insignificant singers, acrobats and other clowns who have been heard of even by infants in the cradle! Yes, sir!
The door creaked and a gust of wind blew in, and there entered a third person with an angry countenance, wearing a cape, a silk hat and blue spectacles. The newcomer looked at the vacant places, frowned and continued on his way.
“Do you know who that is?” came a timid voice from a distant corner of the car. “That is N. N., the famous teller, who is being sued by the A . . . Bank.”
“There you have it!” laughed the passenger of the first class. “He knows the teller, all right, yet ask him whether he knows Semiradski, Chikovski, or the philosopher Solovyov, and he’ll shake his thick head! . . . Rabble!”
A brief silence.
“Allow me to ask you a question,” coughed the neighbor opposite him, diffidently. “Is the name Pushkov familiar to you?”
“Pushkov? H’m! . . . Pushkov . . . No. I never heard of such a name”
“That’s my name. . . ” continued the neighbor, embarrassed.
“So you never heard of me? And for thirty-five years I have been professor in one of Russia’s leading universities. . . a member of the Academy of Science. . . More than once my treatises
have been printed. . .”
The passenger of the first class and his neighbor looked at each other and burst into long and loud laughter.

*Anton Chekhov (Russia; 1860-1904), Nine Humorous Tales. Boston: Stratford Co., 1918 [Translated by Isaak Goldberg – Henry T. Schnittkind]

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply