V. S. Pritchett begins his biographical and critical study with an emphasis—fortunately, free from the jargon of psychoanalysis—upon the influence on Anton Chekhov of his father, Pavel, an intolerant and sometimes violent patriarch about whom Pritchett has this insight: He “had much in common with the classic self-made Victorian puritan . . . a fierce believer in Self-Help and the work ethic, a despot in the family.” The miracle of Chekhov’s life, and the reference of Pritchett’s subtitle, A Spirit Set Free, is that Pavel’s violence—engendered and justified, he said, by the fact that he had grown up the son of a serf and had himself been treated harshly—fixed in his youngest son, Anton, not a similar callousness but rather a sensitivity to human suffering. Chekhov always sided with his mother’s cause and later in life was drawn by this instinct to the causes of peasants and others displaced or neglected by the bureaucratic indifference and the new industrialism that transformed Russia during his lifetime. It is remarkable that Chekhov’s accomplishments as a doctor, civic volunteer, traveler, and writer could have been done by a consumptive who died at age forty-four.
Chekhov’s sensitivity to human needs and his sharp eye for the subtle and sometimes unflattering structures of human interaction interest Pritchett most of all, because they are the foundation of Chekhov’s art. In Pritchett’s view, Chekhov’s genius, the product of his sympathy and his cool, scientific observation, shows itself best of all in the short stories, from which the plays are only derivative. Tracing the growth of the artist in his stories is Pritchett’s central concern: “Chekhov’s stories are, in this sense, his life, tunes that his Russia has put into his head.”
Accordingly, this volume is as much a study of the art as it is of the life. Its strengths are excellent, detailed analyses of particular works and masterful character sketches of Chekhov and those around him. Pritchett acknowledges in his introduction that though he has for decades been an enthusiastic reader of Russian writers and has written an admirable volume on Ivan Turgenev (The Gentle Barbarian: The Life and Work of Turgenev, 1977), he speaks no Russian and has never traveled to the Soviet Union. Chekhov: A Spirit Set Free reveals nothing quantitatively new about its human subject, but is rather an interpretation of the life as researched by others and the works as translations: the standard biographical and critical studies of Chekhov he names at the outset, such as D.S. Mirsky’s A History of Russian Literature (1926-1927), Ernest Simmons’ biography, and Donald Ray-field’s Chekhov: The Evolution of His Art (1975), and Chekhov’s own works, especially stories in the Constance Garnett translations. Pritchett’s volume is a homage to Chekhov the writer, and to the idea that writing bridges the gap between the individual and the world, encourages self-knowledge, and expands the soul. Art redeems. Chekhov’s progress from the young medical student who under the pseudonym Antosha Chekhonte published comic formula fiction to the mature artist who acquired an irritating degree of fame but never enough money is the rising arc on which Pritchett rests his thesis: that though the tubercular Chekhov spat blood for almost twenty years before he died, and spent those same years acting as primary supporter of his father’s family and as social conscience in an almost medieval society, his was a magnificent and victorious life.
Pritchett makes his case by showing that beginning in the mid-1880’s with Chekhov’s summer stays on an estate outside Moscow, his art gradually grew, not merely in technical sophistication, but also in visionary scope, away from the self and outward toward nature and humankind. Pritchett’s criteria for good stories, criteria such as “serious moral insight” and a distrust of moral “trade-marks and labels,” imply that the artist must find a domain somewhere between the self and society. He praises the Chekhov who was at once the “gentle skeptic” and “the greedy observer.” He quotes, as many have, the Chekhovian dictum that readers should not “confuse two things: solving a problem and stating a problem correctly. It is only the second that is obligatory for the artist.” Above all, Pritchett shares and practices Chekhov’s belief that detachment must not waver when emotional issues, especially the artist’s own, enter the story. Numerous examples grace his book, none more than on the subject of the prophetic quality of Chekhov’s humanity. Defending Émile Zola on the Dreyfus case, Chekhov wrote to the conservative Aleksey Suvorin thata brew has been gradually concocted on the basis of anti-Semitism, a principle reeking of the slaughterhouse. When something is wrong with us we seek the cause outside ourselves . . . capitalism, the Masons, the Syndicate, the Jesuits—all phantoms, but how they do relieve our anxieties!
For his narrative frame,...
(The entire section is 2073 words.)