In recent years an unappealing fashion has emerged in the writing of biographies for referring to subjects by their first names. Often these are biographies of women: Valerie Grosvenor Myer refers to Austen throughout as "Jane"; Jessica Douglas-Home describes the life and loves of "Violet" (her great-aunt, Violet Gordon Woodhouse), but at least she has blood ties as a justification; D. M. Thomas once made a programme on Russian poets for television in which he airily alluded to the presumed feelings of "Osip" and of "Anna", who must have been cringing in the grave. Lyle Leverich refers to Tennessee Williams as "Tom", but his is an authorised biography by an old friend, and therefore belongs more to the category of a memoir.
But we may wonder what justifies Victoria Glendinning in writing about "Anthony" (Trollope), when Richard Ellmann confines himself to a more distant "Wilde" for Oscar Wilde. Hermione Lee puts her finger on the problem when she comments in her study of Virginia Woolf that "All readers of Virginia Woolf's diaries ... will feel an extraordinary sense of intimacy with the voice that is talking there. They will want to call her Virginia, speak proprietorially about her life". But clearly this must be a false impulse.
The Russian system of name patterns makes for particular difficulties in alluding to a well-known figure by his or her first name. In adult life Anton Pavlovich Chekhov, for example, would usually have been referred to by a third party as Chekhov. Courtesy dictated that almost all those who addressed him directly, whether strangers, close friends or even potential mistresses, would have called him "Anton Pavlovich". His family and a tiny number of intimates would opt for the typical Russian diminutive form, in this case "Antosha". Even his two brothers in their memoirs generally opted for the form "Anton Pavlovich".
What, then, has prompted Donald Rayfield in his new biography to refer to his subject as "Anton" (he does not explain why, although he apologises for referring to Chekhov's siblings as Masha, Vania, Kolia etc)? It is a form which would have been used extremely rarely, perhaps by a scolding parent, and occasionally by the one or two women (Liza Mizinova, Olga Knipper) whom Chekhov allowed to come really close to him. The answer is, of course, that having combed through some 12,000 documents, many of them unpublished, from the archives of Chekhov and of his family, Rayfield is claiming an intimacy akin to that of one of the family circle. Approaching his subject in this way he reveals Chekhov the man rather than the literary guru and public figure. Indeed, he almost justifies calling him "Anton", for rarely can there have been such a close and well-documented picture of a well-known figure as in this marvellous biography.
What emerges from Rayfield's account is an entirely persuasive portrait of a man fascinated by sex - promiscuous, flirtatious, often impatient and irascible, occasionally hard-hearted. Chekhov also comes through as a man of prodigious energies, engaging in relationships, usually physical, with over 30 women during his 25 years or so of adult life (not to mention dozens of encounters with prostitutes); sustaining a huge correspondence with them and with friends which amounts to about 15 volumes in his collected works; battling against severe ill-health, especially in the last decade of his life; supporting his extended family not just financially, but also in making arrangements for their welfare; working professionally not just as a doctor in general practice, but also as a cholera officer, a census taker, a school inspector, an organiser of famine relief, a founder of at least three schools, and an indefatigable supporter of educational, medical and children's charities. All this, of course, at the same time as creating some 20 volumes of the most exquisitely written short stories and drama in Russian literature.
Rayfield sketches a devastating portrait of Chekhov's family. His father, Pavel, was an unbending, sanctimonious figure who beat his children mercilessly and lapsed into self-important whingeing in later life. Anton Chekhov became the effective head of the family from the age of about 20 when his father's commercial misjudgements left the family destitute. He had not only to scrape together money (which set him on the path of literature, writing initially for newspapers), but also to mediate in the explosive rows between parents and siblings which characterised domestic life among the Chekhovs. His mother, Evgenia, was pious and ineffectual; she apparently never read any of Chekhov's plays or stories because she thought them somehow improper, and proved incapable when Chekhov became gravely ill even of providing the nourishing and easily digestible food he desperately needed. His brothers, some alcoholic and delinquent, made continual claims on his funds and his affection, and it was only with his sister Masha that a warmer relationship really survived. It was she who was left to execute all Chekhov's decisions in relation to his family: she ran the household, organised the purchase, upkeep and eventual sale of the country estate at Melikhovo. She also served as his literary assistant, maintaining his archive and assembling and copying his works for publication. In return, she was forbidden to give up teaching, paid a tiny allowance, and firmly discouraged from marrying, despite receiving several proposals. In Chekhov's fictional works the family is viewed as a stifling force and marriage as an irrelevant, probably pernicious institution. In the real world, Chekhov lived to the end of his days in sprawling households together with his parents and his sister as well as countless visitors and relations - the prototype of the dysfunctional families which inhabit the country estates of his drama.
Rayfield's work draws so extensively on hitherto unused documentary materials that it supersedes earlier studies of Chekhov's life by Virginia Llewellyn-Smith (1973), Ronald Hingley (1976) and Carolina de Maegd-So p (1987). The volume starts slowly, plunging us into sometimes confusing detail about Chekhov's family during his childhood. But as the book develops along its rigidly chronological course, shaped into over 80 brief sections, the narrative of Chekhov's adult life as a writer and of the significance of various biographical experiences for his art becomes increasingly enthralling. Rayfield alludes to specific works only inasmuch as they relate to Chekhov's life, but even his briefest comments reflect his assured understanding of Chekhov's oeuvre. What emerges from this book above all, however, is what a miracle it was that so many apparently considered and finely wrought works flowed spontaneously from Chekhov's pen even at times when his love life was in turmoil, his family in crisis, and his health in ruins - The Cherry Orchard, for example, was composed when most ordinary mortals would have been thinking about making their final dispositions.
The paradox of Rayfield's biography is that it affirms intimacy with a man who in reality rarely permitted it. Chekhov was a man to whom both men and women declared their fervent love. Chekhov's friends and close acquaintances included most of the leading cultural figures of the day, including Levitan, Leskov, Grigorovich, Gorky, Bunin, Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky, Chaliapin, Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko. The newspaper magnate Suvorin remained Chekhov's closest confidant despite their increasingly divergent views on the Jewish question. The roll-call of Chekhov's mistresses probably outdoes Pushkin's notorious "Don Juan's list", and he sustained many of these relationships both intermittently and simultaneously. Almost all of Chekhov's women seem to have tolerated and forgiven his frequent slights and betrayals. Knipper only prevailed upon him to marry her at the very end of his life, in 1901, and his relationship with her then focused almost entirely on a late desire he discovered in himself to father a child. Here Rayfield produces new evidence to suggest that the tragic miscarriage suffered by Knipper in 1902 was most probably an ectopic pregnancy, and therefore almost certainly related to a child she had conceived while living several hundred miles away from her husband.
Evasiveness in love was perhaps another dimension of the inconclusiveness Chekhov seemed to display over social issues in his fiction. Chekhov avoided final confrontations: when faced with excessive pressures at home; his instinct, like Gogol's, was always to run away and seek relief in travel, whether to Western Europe or to the island of Sakhalin, where he compiled an unique sociological survey of the convicts held there. Failing that, Chekhov would find respite in gardening and in nature, which so often in his works is portrayed largely in order to set human distress in perspective.
Rayfield's biography strips Chekhov of the sanctified aura promoted after his death in Russian and Soviet scholarship, and shows instead what a frank and earthy man he was. But the result is to persuade us of the authenticity of Chekhov's understanding, which lends even his most surreal writings the authority of realism. Here is a study which, as an outstanding example of western scholarship, deserves to be translated into Russian. Rayfield's tribute to Chekhov is as dignified as the unflinching gesture described as he closes his narrative of Chekhov's life - the account of the German and Russian medical etiquette which dictated that when a doctor treating a colleague realised that the latter was about to die, he would offer the patient a bottle of champagne.
Julie Curtis is lecturer in Russian, University of Oxford.
Anton Chekhov: A Life
Author - Donald Rayfield
ISBN - 0 00 255503 4
Publisher - HarperCollins
Price - £25.00
Pages - 674