When Levitan sought out Maria Chekhova’s sympathy for the messy affair of having both Anna Turchaninova and her daughter Varvara fall in love with him in the summer of 1896, she shot back angrily that perhaps he had been reading too much Maupassant. The novel she had in mind was Fort comme la mort (Strong as Death, 1889), the plot of which uncannily parallels the melodrama of Levitan’s life. Maupassant was very popular in Russia. Dr. Dorn and Madame Arkadina read Maupassant out loud to each other at the beginning of Act II of The Seagull. Olga Knipper was probably not the first person to tell her husband: “You are the Russian Maupassant!”
In Fort comme la mort, Olivier Bertain is a well-established Parisian painter who has been carrying on a long affair with the Countess Antoinette de Guilleroy while maintaining a friendly relationship with her husband (not unlike Levitan’s ménage à trois with Sophia Kuvshinnikova and her husband Dmitri). Now middle aged, the Countess despairs as she notices Bertain’s growing infatuation with her daughter, whose beauty matches hers at the time when Bertain first fell in love with her. The painter is tormented by his love for both mother and daughter, and while roaming the streets in a daze, he falls under an omnibus, most likely intentionally. While Levitan’s friends considered his failed suicide attempt at the Turchaninova estate mostly a melodramatic gesture, Bertain’s wounds are fatal. On his deathbed, Bertain asks the Countess to take all their love letters out of a drawer and burn them in the fireplace in his presence. Tearfully she complies, in a scene to be repeated three years later when Levitan, near death, watched as his brother Adolf carried out his request to burn all his correspondence.
In April 1897, when Levitan was being treated in Italy for his heart disease, Elena Karzinkina wrote to him that she was rereading Fort comme la mort. At the time, Karzinkina and Levitan were engaged in a delicate dance about their relationship and feelings for each other, which were far from clear. He told her Maupassant’s novel was “a wonderful piece.” She told him that she felt the novel made it clear that in love a woman is more affectionate than a man. The Countess is more constant in her love for Bertain, while he, with a painter’s eye for ideal beauty, cannot resist transferring his affections from the mother to the daughter. Levitan felt that it was unfair to generalize from the exceptional case of the Countess:
Maupassant depicted a woman in a long novel who knows and feels that her love is a last love (she is not very young!), and that’s why she hangs on to it with all her being. You recall, she looks for signs of growing old–she doesn’t want to appear that way more than her beloved…she’s terrified and indeed it is terrifying! When the meaning of life is based on love, then the approach of old age is like death! Old age and fading beauty are unwanted. It’s tragic, but it’s true.