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Anton Chekhov: You can’t remember a single year without war

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Anti-war essays, poems, short stories and literary excerpts

Russian writers on war

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Anton Chekhov
The Rook
Translator unknown

The rooks had arrived and swarmed in great circles around the Russian cornfields. I singled out the most important-looking I could find, and began to talk to him. Unfortunately I hit upon a rook who was a moralist and a great reasoner; consequently our conversation was a dull one.

This is what we talked about:

I. “It’s said that you rooks live to a great age. The naturalists cite you and the pike as great examples of longevity. How old are you?”

The Rook. “I am three hundred and seventy-six years old.”

I. “Well, I never! You’ve lived precious long! In your place, old bird, the devil only knows how many articles I could have written for the Russian Antiquarian and the Historical Journal. If I had lived three hundred and seventy-six years I can’t imagine how many novels, stories, plays, scenes and other trifles I should have written. What numbers of fees I should have pocketed! Now, what have you, old rook, done during all those years?”

The Rook. “Nothing, Mr. Man. I have only eaten, drunk, slept and multiplied.”

I. “Shame! I really feel shame for you, silly old bird. You have lived in the world three hundred and seventy-six years, and you are as stupid today as you were three hundred years ago. Not a ha’p’orth of progress.”

The Rook. “Wisdom, Mr. Man, comes not from age, but from education and learning. Look at China – she has existed much longer than I have, and she is till as great a simpleton to-day as she was a thousand years ago.”

I (with astonishment). “Three hundred and seventy-six years! What do you call that? An eternity! During that time I should have been able to attend lectures in every faculty; I could have been married twenty times; tried every profession and employment; attained the devil only knows what high rank and, no doubt, have died a Rothschild. Just think of it, you fool, one rouble placed in the bank at five per cent compound interest becomes in two hundred and eighty-three years a million. Just calculate. That means, if you had placed one rouble on interest two hundred and eighty-three years ago, you would have had a million roubles today. Ah, you fool, you fool! Are you not ashamed, don’t you feel a fool to be so stupid?”

The Rook. “Not at all. We are stupid; but we can comfort ourselves with the thought that during the four hundred years of our life we do fewer foolish things than a man does during his forty years. Yes, Mr. Man, I have lived three hundred and seventy-six years, and I have never once seen rooks make war on one another, or kill one another, and you can’t remember a single year without war. We do not rob one another, or open savings banks or schools for modern languages; we do not bear false witness or blackmail; we do not write bad novels and bad verse, or edit blasphemous newspapers…I have lived three hundred and seventy-six years and I have never seen that our mates have been unfaithful to, or have injured their husbands…and with you, Mr. Man, how is it? We have no lackeys, no back-biters, no sycophants, no swindlers, no panderers, no hypocrites…”

At that moment this talker was called by his companions, and flew away over the fields before he had time to finish his sentence.

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From Miss N. N.’s Story

There is never a wall that cannot be broken through; but the heroes of present-day fiction, as far as I know them, are too timid, too slow, too lazy and fearsome, and they are too apt to be satisfied with the thought that they are failures, and that their own life has duped them; instead of struggling, they only criticize and call the world mean, and they forget that their own criticism gradually degenerates into meanness.

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From At Home

Such appears to be the law of life; the more intangible the evil the more fiercely and mercilessly is it combated.

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From Two Tragedies

The general stupefaction, the mother’s pose, the father’s indifferent face, exhaled something attractive and touching; exhaled that subtle, intangible beauty of human sorrow which cannot be analysed or described, and which music alone can express.

In general, phrases, however beautiful and profound, act only on those who are indifferent, and seldom satisfy the happy or unhappy; it is for this reason that the most touching expression of joy or sorrow is always silence; sweethearts understand one another best when they are silent; and a burning passionate eulogy spoken above a grave touches only the strangers present, and seems to widow and child inexpressive and cold.

In each was expressed the egoism of the unfortunate. And men who are unfortunate, egotistical, angry, unjust, and heartless are even less than stupid men capable of understanding one another. For misfortune does not unite, but sever; and those who should be bound by community of sorrow are much more unjust and heartless than the happy and contented.

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