Truth on a Szolnay Plate

chefSophie had started early on to translate from her first mother tongue, Russian, into English, and her house always seemed to have guests. Serving her guest meat on Szolnay[1] plates, Sophie like to say:

“To each person comes, like his portion of meat, his own part of the truth. But the truth, too, needs to be salted; otherwise it’s tasteless. I only translate writers who can do that.” . . .

Friends came to drink plum brandy on her piano and eat goat cheese with garlic from her Tatar homeland (the Khanate of Astrakhan (where the Volga empties into the Caspian Sea); when they sneezed the expressions on their faces would have made one think that they had at least two international reasons for doing so; and the departed content, and they came back again.

When my thoughts caress the beauteous Tatar Sophie, for some enigmatic reason I think of Chekhov[2] served on a Szolnay porcelain tray.

Chekhov was far from home, with his wife, Olga, in Badenweiler, Germany, when he died of consumption. At the Villa Friederike, on July 2, 1904, his doctor had a bottle of champagne brought to the writer. Chekhov, accepting the glass offered to him, said, “It’s been such a long time since I drank champagne,” and, emptying the glass, lay on his side and took his final breaths. A long journey back to Russia was inevitable.

Before leaving Badenweiler, Olga arranged for the remains to be transported to Moscow, where the burial was to take place on July 9, 1904. That day a group of friends gathered at the station to meet the train carrying the body. They were flabbergasted to learn that his coffin had traveled in a dirty green boxcar[3] with the words ‘FOR OYSTERS’ written in large letters on the door.

Gorky was furious, “I feel like screaming, weeping, brawling with indignation and wrath,” he wrote to his wife[4]. He knew that Chekhov would not have cared whether his body traveled in a basket of dirty laundry.


[1] The Szolnay factory was established by Miklós Szolnay (1800–1880) in Pécs, Hungary, to produce stoneware and other ceramics in 1853. Art Nouveau Szolnay china can be very costly.

[2] Vladimir Nabokov said of Chekhov, “His dictionary is poor, his combination of words almost trivial—the purple patch, the juicy verb, the hot-house adjective, the crème-de-menthe epithet, brought in on a silver tray, these were foreign to him.”

[3] The Palestinian author Soraya Antonius suggests that it must have been a chilled car, and they were taking care of the body, not humiliating the man. I would also add that oysters are ever the perfect accompaniment to champagne., and Chekhov’s final meal was not complete.

[4] Gorky’s reaction must be taken with a grain of salt (from his own tears): Nina Berberova describes in her memoirs how Gorky used to cry copiously over his own fresh pages, smearing the ink as he wrote.


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