Accidental Writer

Anton Chekhov’s remarkable career.

Anton Chekhov: A Life
By Donald Rayfield
Henry Holt; 704 pages; $35

No author’s name, not even Shakespeare’s, has the talismanic effect of Chekhov’s. Speak that name to any intelligent reader or theatergoer and his eye turns inward, though not away, and his mouth drifts into a soft, private smile. Chekhov belongs to everyone who knows him.

Thus a new serious biography has a commanding, basic importance. And Anton Chekhov: A Life does more than fulfill basics. The author, Donald Rayfield, who teaches Russian literature at the University of London and has previously written two critical books on Chekhov, spent three years in Russian archives (going through, among other items, 5,000 letters written by Chekhov, 7,000 letters addressed to him). These materials had not been thoroughly examined even by Russian scholars, because the Soviet authorities had wanted to keep Chekhov quasicanonized. The result of Rayfield’s research is a book that amplifies much that we have known and adds much in color and facet that has been omitted or only sketched up to now.

R ayfield’s prose is of the packhorse variety, bearing along its load of information sturdily but not with much grace. Like many biographers of our day, empowered by new research technologies, he is reluctant to discard any of what he has been able to harvest. He includes minor stuff merely because he has culled it. (Do we really need to know the eventual fate of a shopboy who once worked for Chekhov’s father?) But Rayfield gives us a more rounded portrait of Chekhov than we have ever had, less sanitized, and he deepens the flow of paradoxes that runs throughout.

The first paradox rests in the first facts: Chekhov’s origins. His grandfather, Egor, was a slave. (The usual term “serf” gilds it slightly.) In 1841, Egor managed to buy freedom for himself and his family. Egor’s son Pavel became a shopkeeper in Taganrog, struggling but free; and there Pavel’s son Anton was born in 1860. Anton certainly never forgot his origins. He once described himself as a “young man squeezing drop by drop the slave out of himself and waking one morning feeling that real human blood, not a slave’s, is flowing through his veins.”

This grim self-knowledge begets contradiction. The origins of some writers explain to a degree their subjects and styles. Turgenev, the scion of elegance, reflected it in his work. Gorky, the child of difficulties, wrote much about the wretched. But Chekhov, out of a childhood that one of his brothers called “crushing anguish,” ranged the full field of society, and always with a delicacy that still makes the world gasp.

Writing, the art of writing, entered Chekhov’s life tangentially. In 1879, aided by a grant from the Taganrog city council, Chekhov went to Moscow, where most of his family had already moved, to study medicine. To help pay his way through medical school, he began to write–sketches and stories for newspapers and magazines. Within a very few years, he was established as a writer. In 1884 he qualified as a physician, and he never completely gave up medicine as his short life raced to a close. (He died in 1904 at 44.) But, paradoxically, what had started as an adjunct to his medical education became his chief support–fairly handsome support, too.

The stories ascended breathtakingly in quality and varied greatly in length, though he never wrote anything in grand “Russian novel” proportions. Rayfield says in his preface, “Biography is not criticism,” and he assuredly keeps his word. Each of the major stories gets only a small identification tag from him, of not much critical value. Possibly he deals more helpfully with them in his critical books, unread by me. But this critical tagging becomes even less helpful when he deals with the kind of writing that Chekhov came to in his last years: drama.

Chekhov’s major plays–Uncle Vanya, The Seagull, Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard–have links with his antecedent stories, as well as with events in his life. Rayfield clarifies these connections. But he does not come near conveying that, in the whole of Western drama, there is no precedent for the style and texture of these quietly towering plays. (For an exquisite illumination of these matters, see Richard Gilman’s recent study, Chekhov’s Plays: An Opening Into Eternity.)

But, vividly, Rayfield presents the man: tall, energetic, socially scintillating. The famous sought him out. The venerable Tolstoy, a secular saint in his time, called on him more than once; Tchaikovsky contemplated writing an opera with him at one time. Women pursued him feverishly. (Yet–another paradox?–he was a frequent patron of brothels.) Involved though he was with a literary life, he never abandoned medicine as long as his health permitted. He worked heroically when a cholera epidemic struck the area of his country home. In 1890, he spent 81 days crossing Siberia to the penal colony of Sakhalin so he could spend three months there studying the health conditions, about which he wrote a very full report.

A nother paradox, contradicting his broad humanism and also contradictory within itself, is his attitude toward Jews, a subject that Rayfield traces throughout this book. On the one hand Chekhov believed that Russian Jews could never be truly Russian; he categorized every new acquaintance as Jew or non-Jew; in his letters, he frequently used a slurring term for Jews. Yet one of his dearest friends was a Jewish painter who greatly influenced him aesthetically. When the Dreyfus case was raging, clearly the result of anti-Semitism in the French army, Chekhov, then in France, was a fiery Dreyfusard. He was even engaged for a time to a Jewish woman. Rayfield assists us with these contradictions by saying that, “by the standards of his time,” Chekhov was a “judophile.”

The overarching paradox of his life, lucidly detailed by Rayfield, is the state of Chekhov’s health and his attitude toward it. By his middle 20s, he knew that he suffered from tuberculosis, and he coughed blood increasingly as the years went on. When he married in 1901, he and his wife (Olga Knipper of the Moscow Art Theater) went directly from the ceremony to a honeymoon in a sanitarium. Why did this man, himself a physician, pay so relatively little attention to his disease? The only comprehensible explanation is that the vocation that had burrowed in next to medicine had taken control, had insisted. In 1894 he said in a letter to a friend: “Not for a minute am I free of the thought that I must, am obliged to write. Write, write, and write.”

Chekhov was an ingenious phrase maker, with many of the phrases scattered in his letters. (“All gynaecologists are idealists.”) One line, unintended as an epigram, stings unforgettably. In 1897 he was in Moscow, staying at the Great Moscow Hotel, when he began to cough blood profusely. He sent a note to a doctor he knew: “Bleeding, Great Moscow No. 5, Chekhov.” The terseness, the immense taciturn gravity, makes the note truly Chekhovian. In those circumstances, Dr. Astrov in Uncle Vanya might have written it.