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17 August 2005

Writing in the Distance

The Selected Letters of Anton Chekhov and Thoughts About Letters

The last week or so I had been reading in "The Selected Letters of Anton Chekhov"[1]f. I'm not usually into reading this kind of stuff, literary letters etc., I even get bored by collections of short stories pretty fast. I need a story that develops, has depth and moves on, in short: a novel. But Chekhov's letters had something that held my interest. Most of them are alive, they tell a story and keep me wanting to read the next one to find out what happened afterwards. But apart from being a good read, these letters catalyzed my thinking about letters, about keeping contact with friends and family far away...

What was pretty fast in touching me were a lot of postscripts and remarks in the line of these:

Please write, I implore you.
(Postscript to letter to Alexei Suvorin, April 1, 1897, Moscow)
Not a sight or sound of you--where are you? What are you doing? Where are you off to?
(Letter to Maxim Gorki, April 25, 1899, Moscow)

Especially in the last years of his life, when Chekhov was sick and had to live "in exile" in Yalta, he felt lonely and had only letters to communicate with his family and friends.

All this had me thinking about letters: I grew up before the Internet. I wrote letters even before I knew how to write, I distinctly remember myself sitting someone's study and dictating a letter to a grown up. Later I learned "proper" letterwriting in school. But even though part of my closest family lived a thousand kilometers far away, I don't remember much letterwriting during that time. We had telephone, which was easier, though it does not go as deep sometimes and it does not last.

Getting letters flowing

When I went for the first time "to exile", I started letterwriting in earnest. This was still before the Internet (I had heard of the Internet, I had some limited recognition of BBS's and Modem's, but as I did not even have a telephone at home, this was all useless). Not to forget that I was young and romantic. Letterwriting was just the thing. And there is nothing like the joy of having a letter in the mail. No beeping, shouting inbox full of e-mail can surpass that (though I immensely enjoy e-mail, don't confuse me with that simple of a luddite).

I kept all incoming correspondence and since I used to draft many of my outgoing letters and then sent them off written "clean", I have approximate records of what I wrote. These papers are still in my possession, though stored away. Rereading them is an experience of tumulting feelings. They are intense.

A daily routine and no letters

When I returned to Switzerland after my travels, my letter writing dwindled down, came to a standstill (with only really one exception). For one thing this was the shock of that country on me. But even more I was developing a personal centre of life around me, had relations with family and friends living close by and seeing them days or weeks apart, not years. This possibly led me into the same trap that I had experienced "from the other side": When a friendship (no matter how strong or casual) takes a penalty of distance, after some time the contact reduces itself. Letters (as well as e-mails) arrive less and less frequent. The life around you keeps you occupied, the far off world where your pen-pal lives is not understood. And the own daily routine seems not interesting enough to write about.

Misha sent some herrings... There is absolutely nothing else to write about, or at least it doesn't seem so, life goes on obscurely and rather emptily. I am coughing. I sleep well, but dream all night long, as is fitting for an idle fellow.
(Letter to Olga Knipper, December 20, 1902, Yalta)

The arrival of the electron

Then came first the arrival of the fax (which kept at least one of my friends in closer contact) and then e-mail. E-mail changed a lot. It has some of the strong points of the letter, mainly the written word that forces a bit of thought before words. It has almost the speed of a phone call, but will wait patiently until it has time to be digested. And it can be kept, I've got mail archives dating back to 1996 or 1997. I have kept most faxes I sent out, though the incoming on thermal paper have been destroyed by time.

Now I get mails every day, even in August, the vacation month. (Some of them are more business communication than personal correspondence, but no matter.) And those e-mails are much more timely, I can read and write about things that happened yesterday and today. Back in Chekhov's days, even in my before-Internet time of letter writing, there was often the crossover of events days, maybe weeks back, e.g. questions being asked while the answer was already under way. Sometimes you get that with e-mail too, but it is only too easy to fire off another e-mail "oh, I see you already answered that".

What stays the same

What stays the same is that some people don't write, some slowly stop writing, some write only rarely and some don't know how to express themselves, but after all there is a joy in receiving a good mail, a kind word and an interesting thought. So, please keep on writing, I implore you!

A few more points I have to mention reading Chekhov's letters: I would like to be able to write as funny, heartwarming, noble, in short: as good as the old Russian. I find it a bit irritating to read another man's letters, even long after his death. It seems to be an accepted literary thing, but it has a strange feeling to me. As for e-mail, especially my own, I prefer wrapping them in PGP, to be readable only by the true recipients. Unencrypted e-mail is like writing your personal matters on a postcard. You can find my PGP-key via the contact page on this site.

[1] The Selected Letters of Anton Chekhov, edited and with an introduction by Lillian Hellman, translated by Sidonie K. Lederer. Picador 1984

Posted by betabug at 13:20 | Comments (1) | Trackbacks (0)
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Re: Writing in the Distance


I stumbled across a website
and found it very interesting. Apparenty you and I have some things in common.

Love of intellectual writings seems to be one of them. I prefer discussions on matters involving genetics or the quantum sciences, but other issues are welcome.

I have also travelled a lot. Apparently you wander in and around Europe. My travels are pretty much limited to Asia. Right now I reside in the Philippines, but I have lived in Thailand, Laos, Burma, Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia and several other smaller states.

And I write. I write essays and novels. The novels have not been published but a few of the essays have. In short, I am not a famous writer.

As I stumbled across the internet I found evidence that you may use PGP in your communications. So do I. In fact I have entered my public key below. Please use it if you prefer and if you write back


[ed.: pgp public key block removed, I don't think this makes sense in a weblog comment]

Posted by: Robert Earl Hazelett at March 27,2007 20:02
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