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Chekhov's letters reveal a disadvantaged boy who conquered adversity to realise the full potential of his genius. His early years were filled with long hours serving in the grocery store of a fanatically religious father, who beat him, forced him to sing in the church choir, as well as expecting him to study hard. It was this latter ability that would be his salvation; he gained a scholarship for a medical course at Moscow University. But the hard lesson of work on many fronts was not lost - he wrote humorous stories that helped to support the rest of his family, who had also moved to Moscow (his father being bankrupt). Here was the start of a double career: medicine as a "wife" and literature a "mistress".
Relatively few letters from this earlier period have survived, but Chekhov later writes to Alexei Suvorin of playing the hypocrite before God and fellow men, and that drop by drop he wrung the slave out of himself. There is, however, something else to note here: the autobiographical detail is expressed as relating to a third person who could be the subject for a story. The Chekhov of the letters is an elusive person. To his brother Nikolai he writes: "True talent always sits in the shade", and to his brother Alexander: "Subjectivity is a terrible thing. It's bad enough that it completely exposes feeble writers."
One only really arrives at Chekhov's views on art through his advice to others. He criticises Maxim Gorky for lack of restraint and writes to another correspondent: "The justification for calling literature an art form is that it depicts life as it really is." To Suvorin, he asserts: "The artist should not be a judge of his characters or what they say, but an impartial witness." But impartiality in art was not fashionable. Chekhov corresponded with figures both on the right and left of the political spectrum, but many looked askance at his close association with the right-wing editor Suvorin. One of his most heartfelt letters is to the editor of Russian Thought , rebutting the charge that he was a writer without principles. Chekhov expressed his principles in action - giving free service as a doctor in time of famine and cholera; building three schools for peasants; and furthering the cause of penal reform through his report on conditions on the island of Sakhalin.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, many Russian scholars have sought to fill the vacuum of Marxist principles with Christian exegesis. Chekhov's early life was totally immersed in religious observances, but although as an adult he preserved a cultural respect for the values of his youth, his letters make his position clear. Towards the end of his life, he wrote to Sergei Diaghilev that this own belief had dissipated long ago to such an extent that now he could "only regard with bewilderment an educated man who is also religious".
Suvorin was, undoubtedly, Chekhov's closest confidant, but when, counter to Suvorin's views, he championed Emile Zola's defence of Dreyfus, "principle" came between them and relations were broken off for a time. The actress Olga Knipper then became his main correspondent. Chekhov held out a long time against marriage. He had been spoilt for female admirers, whom he managed to keep at arm's length by the jokey, often cruel nature of his correspondence. At the same time he was sexually very active as we can see from these letters - their bowderlisation at the hand of his sister and later by Soviet editors has been reversed by recent scholarship. Chekhov's late-flowering love for Knipper shows him in a different light - emotionally dependent and vulnerable.
Where A Life in Letters treats Chekhov's biography chronologically, Scenes from a Life arranges it spatially in "geographical" layers. The letters are well translated and the two approaches are complementary; both should appeal to the general reader, as well as to the serious student of Chekhov.
In Scenes from a Life we begin with Chekhov's birthplace, Taganrog. As a trading port with a cosmopolitan population, it had a theatre and a good school; Chekhov benefited from both. Its merchant milieu, Rosamund Bartlett argues, gave Chekhov insights for later writing.
Two instances of the sadly serious linked to the bizarrely comic anticipate a strand of Chekhov's humour. On one occasion, cooking oil was contaminated by a rat, and his father had a priest say prayers over it to "purify" it for sale. On another, Chekhov put a skeleton in his sister's bed, saying that her friend was resting there.
When, as a student, Chekhov joined the family in Moscow, they were living in a dark basement flat, and his scholarship money, plus what he earned writing for comic magazines, kept them all financially afloat. In effect, he assumed headship of the family. In 1884, Chekhov graduated as a doctor, but it was also the year that the first symptoms of tuberculosis appeared.
He was now contributing to better-paid publications in St Petersburg and in 1886 moved with his family to a semi-detached house, which is now a Chekhov museum. In 1887, his first play, Ivanov , was premiered in Moscow, but had a mixed reception (Bartlett sees Chekhov's plays as emulating "the synthetic aesthetic structure of the Russian Orthodox liturgy"). It would be another five years before he turned to the theatre again.
Another geographical layer was the summer dacha outside Moscow. Here he could indulge his passion for fishing (an attribute he would give his fictional writer Trigorin in The Seagull ), but he also ordered his week for writing (Thursday, Friday and Saturday were devoted to the writing of a "mythical" novel).
In her chapter on St Petersburg, Bartlett shows that Chekhov's relationship to the capital city was more fragmentary and not always rewarding. Although it was the St Petersburg luminaries Dmitry Grigorovich and Suvorin who in 1886 had first acclaimed his talent, it was also St Petersburg that humiliated him with its reception of The Seagull .
Chekhov's journey across Siberia was, undoubtedly, the great geographical challenge for the nomad within him. It was often gruelling and on Sakhalin he worked tirelessly, rising at 5am, questioning convicts and meticulously collecting material for his filing cards. This was an era of "small deeds" ,and in literature, as he himself said, "when the skirts of our muse are lifted up, nothing is to be seen there but an empty space". From Sakhalin, he would bring back a carefully researched sociological study that might influence penal reform and, moreover, provide rich material for the "mythical" novel he was never destined to write.
In 1892, another "geographical" phase began with the purchase of Melikhovo, a small estate south of Moscow. Here he came into contact with peasants and local landowners, and inherited cherry trees, later to be chopped down by a new owner. Melikhovo was full of potential for Chekhov's own art, and it was here that he wrote the bulk of his greatest short stories, as well as The Seagull and Uncle Vanya . At the same time, he gave his services as a doctor free to the peasants and built them schools.
Further deterioration in his health forced him abroad in 1897. He spent seven months in Nice at La Pension Russe, a refuge for Russians abroad. In December 1900, he would return for a month, working on the final drafts of The Three Sisters .
There was, however, a Riviera closer to home - the Crimea - where Chekhov settled in 1898. In all, he had three Crimean properties, but chief is the house he built in Yalta (now a museum). He was now such a celebrity that he was often followed by young female admirers "like dolphins behind a ship".
Yet Moscow exerted a strong pull. His plays were being staged there and he had a growing interest in an actress in the troupe - Knipper. In 1901, he married her in Moscow, but continued to reside principally in Yalta.
Chekhov's final geographical displacement was to the small spa town of Badenweiler in southern Germany. He was by this time gravely ill and died on July 15, 1904. Badenweiler has done much to honour his name, with monuments, international conferences and a museum. Bartlett concludes her study by commenting on the state of the various Chekhov museums within Russia itself.
A feature of her well-produced book is its wealth of contemporary photographs that convey not only a sense of place, but also of time. Vera Gottlieb presents us with even more Chekhovian images. In the preface to Anton Chekhov at the Moscow Art Theatre she describes how, in the basement of family friends she found Nikolai Efros's 1914 collection of illustrations of the Moscow Art Theatre's premieres of Chekhov's five major plays. After regrettable publishing vicissitudes, she has been able to reproduce this remarkable document, not quite in facsimile (Viktor Simov's stage sets figure in colour only on the dust jacket). The plates of earlier productions are studio photographs since only after 1902 was photography undertaken in the theatre. Individual photographs have been published before but the overall impact of this as a collection is stunning.
Efros was the company's literary manager. Chekhov did not get on with him, but, as Gottlieb points out, while his introduction to the collection may be repetitive and effusive, it is percipient, and he did for the plays critically what Konstantin Stanislavsky and Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko did practically. The photographs are outstanding. Individual moments are pinpointed by captions, translated (with some editorial licence) by Gottlieb herself and, as she says, the collection gives a clear sense of ensemble playing. This is an important contribution to theatre studies, with obvious appeal for the scholar and amateur alike.
Richard Peace is emeritus professor of Russian studies, Bristol University.
Anton Chekhov: A Life in Letters
Editor - Rosamund Bartlett
Publisher - Penguin
Pages - 552
Price - £12.99
ISBN - 0 14 044922 1