A New Life of Anton Chekhov

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

Ronald Hingley is a distinguished, Oxford-based scholar of Russian history and literature, with a special fondness for Chekhov. In 1950 he published a biographical and critical study of the Russian author, and he is editor and translator of The Oxford Chekhov, of which nine volumes have so far been issued. He thus comes equipped with enormous authority for writing this comprehensive, fully detailed but largely noncritical biography of one of Russia’s most complex major writers. The result is an impressive achievement in literary scholarship: erudite, industrious, sensible, and gracefully written. It fails, however, to illuminate the nature of Chekhov’s literary genius: partly because Hingley confines himself to a sparse number of literary judgments, but largely because Chekhov, in his life as in his art, insists upon remaining elusive.

Hingley has based his biography on the twenty-volume Russian edition of Chekhov’s Complete Works and Letters (1944-1951), but serves his readers notice that an even more ambitious thirty-volume Russian publication is now in progress, to be published in Moscow from 1974 to the early 1980’s. Whether this expanded Works and Letters will contain significant new material, one can only speculate; Hingley managed to read only its first two volumes as he polished his own study, discovering them in the University of North Carolina’s library after having been denied them in the Soviet Union. The only certainty in Russian-generated Chekhov scholarship is the censor’s continuing intervention. Chekhov’s correspondence has been markedly mutilated, for reasons of prudery as much as politics; and Hingley, having discovered more deletions in the Soviet 1944-1951 edition than in the Tsarist 1912-16 edition, can only hope that the censors of the 1974-1982 edition will be more enlightened. Muscovite control of the Chekhovian archives is totally impregnable to Western researchers.

Anton Pavlovich Chekhov was born into a family of tradesmen on January 16, 1860, in the southern Russian port town of Taganrog, a stiflingly provincial place where he spent his first nineteen years. Chekhov often complained that Taganrog offered him and his siblings “nothing, absolutely nothing, new,” and used the adjective “Taganrogish” for behavior he regarded as dull, boorish, squalid, or vulgar. Anton’s father was a despotic grocer who terrorized his wife, five sons, and one daughter, overworked them, eventually went bankrupt, and had to flee town to escape his creditors. His mother was the soul of kindness, but too timid and deferential to protect her children against an abusive father who birched and clouted his offspring, ordered them to attend church services daily, but forbade them the luxury of play. “We felt like little convicts at hard labor,” Chekhov wrote in an 1892 letter about his childhood—though he did manage to fish and swim, and to become a great practical joker and jester.

It is nonetheless crucial to note that Anton was deprived of an adequate portion of familial love in his formative years. He later recalled that, “So little affection came my way as a child that I treat caresses as something unfamiliar, and almost beyond my ken, now that I’m grown up. That’s why I just can’t show fondness for others, much as I’d like to.” Hingley regards this self-analysis as “not entirely convincing,” but offers no other competent explanation for what may be the central flaw in Chekhov’s character: his marked tendency to avoid emotional (and with women, physical) intimacy with family, friends, and lovers.

Anton’s Taganrog schooling stressed Greek and Latin syntax, encouraged spying to curb nonconformity, and enforced harsh discipline. Though his years as a pupil coincided with tremendous socioeconomic revolutionary ferment fomented by the writings of Bakunin, Herzen, Pisarev, and others, and culminating in the assassination of the Tsar in 1881, he was sheltered from these winds of modernity and showed no particular inclination, either in his youth or manhood, to espouse or oppose radical causes. Chekhov as a schoolboy preferred to inscribe comic anecdotes in his exercise-book, and read them to his classmates during the teacher’s absence. He showed early signs of the poor health that would cost him his life at the age of forty-four: attacks of peritonitis, catarrh, malaria, hemorrhoids, migraine, and scotoma. His symptoms may well have indicated an early tubercular infection, with the bacillus aided in its assault on Chekhov’s body by his hard boyhood regimen of schooling, church-going and shop-minding.

In July, 1876, the elder Chekhovs and all the children but Anton fled Taganrog for Moscow, leaving Anton to finish grammar-school and giving him a theme—dispossession—he was to feature in both Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard. For three years the lad supported himself alone in his home town, burdened with economic worries but relieved of his tyrannical father. Astonishingly, Anton not only took care of his own needs but was able to send small sums to his family. He seems to have been born mature; even his occasional bouts of drinking, mimicry, play-acting, and dancing were subsumed to fastidious senses of order and responsibility that never deserted him.

In August, 1879, Anton joined his family in Moscow, to live there for the next twenty years. He set about a demanding five-year grind to become a physician, began his literary career in 1880 with comic sketches published in periodicals, and soon established himself/as the de facto head of the Chekhov household. Chekhov later held his apprentice work in low esteem:...

(The entire section is 2323 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

Book World. June 27, 1976, p. G 1.

Economist. CCLIX, May 22, 1976, p. 124.

National Observer. XV, July 24, 1976, p. 19.

National Review. XXVIII, August 20, 1976. p. 910.

New York Review of Books. June 10, 1976. p. 40.

Spectator. CCXXXVI, May 15, 1976, p. 21.

Times Literary Supplement. August 6, 1976, p. 988.