- Accidental Writer: Anton Chekhov’s remarkable career
No author’s name, not even Shakespeare’s, has the talismanic effect of Chekhov’s. Speak that name to any intelligent reader or theatregoer 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, five thousand letters written by Chekhov, seven thousand letters addressed to him). These materials had not been thoroughly examined even by Russian scholars, because the Soviet authorities had wanted to keep Chekhov quasi-canonized. 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.
Rayfield’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, [End Page 119] 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 forty-four.) 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...