During his lifetime Anton Pavlovich Chekhov won renown as Russia’s most accomplished playwright; his short stories were widely read and discussed for their evocation of the human tragedies and social problems of his time. Chekhov insisted that his literary calling was artistic: He worked to convey certain qualities of human nature that were exemplified in the settings and dramatic situations he created. In contrast to other Russian masters of his period, his works betrayed little didactic intent; social criticism was leavened by wry humor and a bemused tolerance for the various human failings of his characters. Above all his productions were distinguished by a technique where atmosphere and description transcended the limitations of plot and action. Readers and audiences debated whether Chekhov was an optimist or a pessimist as they responded to a literature that bore its own particular hallmarks of modernism.
Literary histories and surveys of the genres where Chekhov was active are wont to depict the author as reticent and reserved; his life had few of the momentous and extraordinary occurrences that figure in the biographies of other great Russian writers. To be sure, there has been enough to arouse the interest of researchers. Chekhov was the grandson of a serf; his father was a merchant who ultimately fled imprisonment for debt. The author’s years as a student, his training as a physician, and the difficult early years of his medical practice have been recounted in studies of his life. The prolific efforts of his early literary career, the difficult road to acceptance as a major prose writer and dramatist, and his travels and mingling in literary circles took place during a relatively brief life span. Chekhov, who lived in the Ukraine, Moscow, and the Crimea, also left a description of his visit to the eastern penal outpost on Sakhalin Island; during his later years he also spent some time in Italy, France, and Germany. His collected letters, which in one recent edition were published in twelve volumes, attest his concerns with the business of authorship and wavering loyalties between medicine and literature; they also bear testimony to the tragically parlous state of his health during much of his adult life. Nevertheless, he has often been considered an elusive figure, rather guarded in mentions of his personal life, who at times seems imperceptibly to blend with the settings and situations he created.
In his own right Henri Troyat is a literary figure of consequence; prior to his work on Chekhov he published about forty novels as well as short stories and other works of fiction. Of Russian birth, he has lived in France since the age of nine; in some of his works he has undertaken to render the history and culture of his original homeland comprehensible to the French reading public. Some of his fictional works deal with themes taken from Russian history, such as episodes from the reigns of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great. Other novels have historical settings, such as Napoléon’s invasion of Russia in 1812 or the Russian Revolution and civil war. Troyat’s use of Russian publications for original source materials has been turned to advantage in works of nonfiction, mainly biographical studies. Before undertaking the present work, he produced five major studies of classical Russian writers, of which his biography of Leo Tolstoy (first published in 1965; an English translation appeared in 1967) in particular was widely acclaimed. Other efforts include four biographies of Russian rulers, from Ivan the Terrible to Alexander I; he is also the author of a broader historical survey of Russian politics and society under the last czar. His study of Chekhov marks his return to concerns with literary men, after a hiatus since the French publication of his biography of Nikolai Gogol in 1971.
Troyat does not claim to have uncovered new or unusual information about his subject; nor does he engage in prolonged analysis or interpretation of Chekhov’s works. His biographical schema is straightforward and sequential. At the same time, by a judicious selection from the author’s published statements and the works of his contemporaries, Troyat on the whole succeeds in calling back Chekhov’s circumstances and surroundings. Born in 1860 in Taganrog, a Ukrainian city on the Sea of Azov, the boy underwent a difficult childhood. His father, Pavel Egorovich Chekhov, administered disciplinary beatings on a regular basis; young Anton also derived little from an education that was heavily dependent upon the rote learning of classical languages. Neither the grimy routines of his father’s business, as a merchant of liquor and foodstuffs, nor the pious incantations dispensed by local religious functionaries had positive effects on him.
A major transition took place in 1876; the family business failed, and Chekhov’s father, who had seemed so formidable on the domestic front, ignominiously and furtively sought relief from his creditors by moving to Moscow. Chekhov’s first literary productions, short stories, and humorous sketches were composed shortly thereafter, and subsequently he began to write frequently as a means of support for his studies at the University of Moscow. Only a tepid response was elicited when his work was first reviewed for publication, and indeed some of his early writing has not survived at all. Encouraged by a doctor friend of the family, Chekhov became a medical student; all the while he continued to produce a stream of short efforts for satirical journals in Moscow. Although he had his share of tribulations with unresponsive editors, or those who paid him only after a struggle, by the early 1880’s a literary career of sorts was under way; during a period of four years he produced some three hundred prose pieces under various pseudonyms. It remained for Chekhov to refine his technique while drawing ever more upon his experiences and his powers of observation.
Chekhov’s medical practice never quite assumed comparable importance, though for some time he considered it his primary calling. He did treat patients in Moscow, in Saint Petersburg during a typhus epidemic, and while he lived in the Ukraine. He was conscientious and indeed may have limited his opportunities for financial gain by taking a number of cases where he knew that there was no real chance for payment. His work as a physician brought before him an odd assortment of individuals from high and low stations in society and, thus, also furnished material for his writing. All the while his literary production continued. Of major importance was his relationship with Aleksei Sergeevich Suvorin, one of Russia’s leading publishers, whom Chekhov met during a visit to Saint Petersburg in 1885. Many of his thoughts about life and literature were revealed in the numerous letters he sent this literary sponsor. Chekhov won critical plaudits with his novella-length story “The Steppe,” and in 1888 a collection of his short fiction, V...
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