FEBRUARY 15, 2022
CHEKHOV IS EASIER to know and read than the other Russian giants. He doesn’t look big or talk big. He’s funny on purpose. He shows us how to read him; he quietly attunes us to place and situation. We observe more than judge his characters’ actions; we detect their mental and emotional states through their physical symptoms. Chekhov began his professional career as a writer while in medical school. Even as he imagined the agitations and disruptions and occasional explosions of his characters, he was always also a doctor. He describes what it feels like to fall in love, to be pregnant and to miscarry, to bully one’s children, to flutter about helplessly while seeking someone to love, to have typhus, to cringe with embarrassment over a bespattering sneeze, to blather like a professor, to be struck dumb by love, to beg for sympathy, to grieve, to menace the innocent, to be conscious of but prey to one’s weaknesses, to be overworked to the point of hallucinating, to be ruthless.
He himself didn’t do most of that; his fiction was where he streamed into other consciousnesses and cut loose, fell apart, ambled like a shepherd, or strode like a wife on her way to or from an assignation. His imagination and professional knowledge allowed him to depict passions he did not act upon. “So many hereditary negatives were turned into positives,” Michael C. Finke writes in his new biography:
Whereas the abusive patriarchal behaviour that characterized grandfather Yegor and father Pavel was replicated in his eldest brother, and at times also in his younger brother Ivan, Chekhov deliberately struggled to discipline this trait out of himself, developing an ethical stance that programmatically respected the integrity and autonomy of other human beings.
It’s easy to forget how explosive staid Dr. Chekhov’s characters can be. Consider this scene from “Difficult People,” translated by Constance Garnett:
[A] storm-signal showed itself, at the sight of which all the family trembled.
Shiryaev’s short, fat neck turned suddenly red as a beetroot. The colour mounted slowly to his ears, from his ears to his temples, and by degrees suffused his whole face. [He] shifted in his chair and unbuttoned his shirt-collar to save himself from choking. He was evidently struggling with the feeling that was mastering him. A deathlike silence followed. The children held their breath. Fedosya Semyonovna, as though she did not grasp what was happening to her husband, went on:
“He is not a little boy now, you know; he is ashamed to go about without clothes.”
Shiryaev suddenly jumped up, and with all his might flung down his fat pocketbook in the middle of the table, so that a hunk of bread flew off a plate. A revolting expression of anger, resentment, avarice — all mixed together — flamed on his face.
“Take everything!” he shouted in an unnatural voice; “plunder me! Take it all! Strangle me!”
He jumped up from the table, clutched at his head, and ran staggering about the room.
“Strip me to the last thread!” he shouted in a shrill voice. “Squeeze out the last drop! Rob me! Wring my neck!”
“Late in life,” writes Donald Rayfield in the revised and expanded version of his exhaustive Anton Chekhov: A Life, “Chekhov admitted: ‘I am short-tempered etc., etc., but I have become accustomed to holding back, for it ill behoves a decent person to let himself go. … After all, my grandfather was an unrepentant slave-driver.’”
Born in the south of Russia in the last year of serfdom (1860), the grandson of a serf who had bought his and his family’s liberty, Chekhov strove to purge himself of slavery’s legacy and achieve “freedom from violence and lies,” the apt title of Finke’s good short new book: “My holy of holies is the human body, health, intelligence, talent, inspiration, love and the most absolute freedom imaginable, freedom from violence and lies, no matter what form the latter two take. Such is the program I would adhere to if I were a major artist.” The major artist that Chekhov was was too modest to accept that he was much more than temporarily very popular.
Chekhov’s letters, where he could be private and intimate, contrast quite a lot with the fiction (he wrote several hundred short stories, only — comparatively only — a half-dozen full-length plays). In correspondence, he tried to break down any formality; he almost always joked with people from the first letter to the last. He frustrated girlfriends by his reluctance to get serious (Must you always tease and kid?). When he saw death from his tuberculosis closing in, he finally married Olga Knipper, who was deeply engaged in her acting career in Moscow and thus not always available to him, as he resided half the year in Yalta, where the warm weather provided a better defense against his disease.
Finke writes — as did Rosamund Bartlett in her geographically focused Chekhov: Scenes from a Life — with the renowned biographer Donald Rayfield looming off-stage. In the early 1990s, Rayfield, gaining access to sources long locked up by the conservative Soviet literary gatekeepers, read thousands of letters to Chekhov and peered through excised or blackened passages of Chekhov’s own letters, revealing the dirty words and expressions that were natural to the man and his brothers and friends. Rayfield opened the bank to all comers. His 1997 Life was — and now is, in its new version — the only Chekhov book originally written in English that is often cited by Russian scholars. He notes proudly: “This biography has been updated several times, in its Russian editions, and most recently in the second French edition.” It is not, however, the comprehensive overview of Chekhov’s life and work that a newcomer or curious reader would most benefit from, as Rayfield’s largest purpose, it seems to me, has been the worthy one of getting into print the source material that was previously hidden or inaccessible.
Finke explains the difference that Rayfield’s biography has made in regard to our perception of Chekhov’s love life:
Chekhov was very discreet; so much so that for almost a century after his death, his dominant image was quite ascetic. When glasnost and the fall of the Soviet Union opened archives in the late 1980s and 1990s and Russian scholars were freed of worry about censorship, his image took a Don Juanish pendulum swing.
Finke is slightly critical of Rayfield’s approach, “where every ambiguous remark in letters to or from Chekhov is interpreted as evidence of a liaison.” But even if treated as a supplemental rather than an elemental biography, Anton Chekhov: A Life is for me and for every recent writer on Chekhov an essential reference. From it we learn an awful lot about the subject’s awful father and rather much about the romantic frustrations of a longtime girlfriend, Lika Mizinova. We learn how Chekhov’s five siblings, whom he supported financially and emotionally, occasionally felt neglected by him (Why won’t he drop everything and make a house-call on his drunken brother’s family 400 miles away? What’s the idea of trying to reform the Russian prison system by traveling across Siberia to survey and interview inmates on Sakhalin Island! How dare he, at 41, terminally ill, and hopeful of having a child, sneak off and get married!). There is no other single book, not even Vladimir Kataev’s dandy Russian-language A. P. Chekhov: Entsiklopedia (2011), that provides as many details about and by Chekhov’s parents, siblings, and friends as Rayfield’s. Yet striding along with the wide-ranging Rayfield the casual reader may lose the tree of Anton in the forest of Chekhovs and hangers-on.
The most compelling and appreciative presentation in English of Chekhov’s life and work remains Michael Henry Heim and Simon Karlinsky’s Anton Chekhov’s Life and Thought: Selected Letters and Commentary (1973), but the best comprehensive biography in English since Ernest Simmons’s Chekhov: A Biography (1970) is now Michael C. Finke’s:
[A]nyone familiar with Chekhov’s biography marvels at his evident drive to make an impact, whether through mentoring others with literary aspirations, building schools and a church belltower, stocking public libraries on Sakhalin and in his hometown of Taganrog, providing healthcare to the poor, or landscaping. Chekhov was always planting trees, even when in very temporary locations, and for memoirists and biographers this activity reflects his unselfish wish to make better a future he was unlikely to inhabit.
Through Finke’s well-paced, well-illustrated biography, we understand how attractive and distinctive Chekhov was among his acquaintances, friends, and family, how extraordinary his energy and focus were as he practiced medicine while writing at the pace of a journalist, how delighted Tolstoy was by his younger admirer, how generously and quietly Chekhov supported philanthropic causes, how he treated almost all of his patients for free, and finally how determinedly he spared his family the agonies of worrying about his illness.
Chekhov died at 44.