Monday, 27 October 2014

Sofiya Tolstoy’s Defense

In Tolstoy’s 1889 novella “The Kreutzer Sonata,” an aristocrat named Pozdnyshev tells a stranger on a train the story of his unhappy family. He married a much younger woman, provoked by her youthful beauty and sexy sweater; they had five children, but Pozdnyshev was disgusted by family life. The marriage curdled, and he became jealous of his wife’s relationship with a musician who kept coming over to play duets. In a rage, he stabbed his wife to death. Though there was no evidence that his wife was unfaithful, and although he feels guilty for his crime, Pozdnyshev argues that he and his wife were equal partners in their submission to lust, and equal victims of corrupt sexual standards that turn all women into prostitutes. He concludes that “sexual passion, no matter how it’s arranged is evil, a terrible evil against which one must struggle.… The words of the Gospel that whosoever looks at a woman to lust after her has already committed adultery relates not only to other men’s wives, but precisely—and above all—to one’s own wife.” The only righteous path is abstinence; if it leads to the end of the human race, so be it. In an afterword written in response to many letters asking him to explain the meaning of the novella, Tolstoy confirmed that he shared Pozdnyshev’s opinions. He added that he didn’t mean that no one should ever have sex—only that everyone should try never to have sex, because it is noblest to strive for an impossible ideal.

 “The Kreutzer Sonata” caused an international scandal at a time when sexuality and gender roles were the subject of widespread debate. Banned both in Russia (where Tolstoy had long struggled with the censors) and in the United States, the novella led many men and women to embrace celibacy and modesty, in keeping with Tolstoy’s Christian asceticism, which also emphasized nonviolence, vegetarianism, physical labor, and poverty. One particularly enthusiastic young Romanian castrated himself. Other readers were appalled. In 1890, Zola told the New York Herald that the novella was a “nightmare, born of a diseased imagination.” Tolstoy himself had his doubts. In an 1891 letter, he wrote, “There was something nasty in The Kreutzer Sonata … something bad about the motives that guided me in writing it.”.

The novella had an especially powerful effect on the author’s wife, Sofiya. Friends sent their condolences, and she knew they weren’t the only readers who understood “The Kreutzer Sonata” as a personal attack on her. She decided to shake off the shame by petitioning the tsar (who loved Tolstoy’s fiction but felt very sorry for his wife) to lift the publication ban on the novella: by defending it, she hoped to persuade the world that it wasn’t really about her. When the tsar granted her request, she wrote in her diary, “I cannot help secretly exulting in my success in overcoming all the obstacles, that I managed to obtain an interview with the Tsar, and that I, a woman, have achieved something that nobody else could have done!”.

“The Kreutzer Sonata Variations,” a new volume edited and translated by Michael Katz, places “The Kreutzer Sonata” and its afterword alongside what Katz calls “counterstories” by Sofiya and by the Tolstoys’ son Lev, as well as excerpts from the diaries and memoirs of various members of the Tolstoy family. There are two novellas by Sofiya: “Whose Fault?,” the story of a jealous husband who murders his innocent wife, and “Song Without Words,” about a depressed married woman who becomes obsessed with a composer and his music, and eventually checks herself into a “nerve clinic.” “Song Without Words” is a response to “The Kreutzer Sonata;” “Whose Fault?” is a systematic rebuttal. .

The most well written of the counterstories and the most forceful rejection of Tolstoy’s thesis, “Whose Fault?” is the most intriguing part of “The Kreutzer Sonata Variations.” The heroine, Anna, is an idealistic young woman who is fond of writing, philosophy, and painting. The child of a happy family, she marries, in her late teens, Prince Prozorsky, a family friend in his mid-thirties. She hopes that, as a kind, well-educated older man, he will be her guide to artistic and intellectual pursuits. But just before the wedding, she learns of his premarital sexual adventures, and on their wedding night she is disgusted by his advances. The peasants on Prozorsky’s estate mock her, and she learns that one of them had a long affair with her husband. Of Anna’s response to this news, Sofiya writes, “Despair and horror couldn’t fail to leave their mark on a very young soul for her entire life; they were the sort of wounds that a young child experiences the first time it sees a decomposing corpse.” Anna is overwhelmed by jealousy, shame, and sexual repulsion. Her husband is disappointed by her sexual incompetence (an unfortunate side effect of innocence) and lack of enthusiasm. (All of this corresponds to Sofiya’s own experience.)

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Friday, 24 October 2014

Louise Bryant: Leon Trotsky - Soviet War Lord

MINISTER OF WAR, Leon Trotsky, has no prototype in history. Therefore, he cannot be compared, he can only be contrasted. He is without question the most dramatic character produced during the whole sweep of the Russian revolution and its only great organizer. No man will overshadow his eminence in the history of the revolution except Lenin. They will remain the two most distinguished personalities. They are complementary figures. Lenin represents thought; Trotsky represents action. Trotsky's genius might have burned itself out in some wild enthusiasm or some consuming rage if it had not been for the cooling influence of Lenin. On the other hand, Lenin's plans, no matter how carefully thought out, could not have materialized withouts a Labor Army better than a fighting army because it makes him happier to build than to destroy.

But all his organizing genius goes for nothing if he cannot have order and discipline. About three years ago Lenin appointed Trotsky Minister of Railways in addition to his post as War Minister. Trotsky took a trip over the country and found transportation generally smashed and the railway employees as lacking in morale as he had once found the Russian soldiers. He immediately began to re-build transportation with every atom of his strength. If a train was not on time, there had to be a reason given, which had ceased to be done in those days. In fact, no one was ever deeply concerned about exact arrivals and departures of trains under any regime. The Trans-Siberian Railway was the only efficient road which ever operated in Russia. But Trotsky began to make such an everlasting row about these matters that the railway men were aghast. There had always been graft and laziness and indifference, they had no doubt that there always would be, even under government control. Trotsky hauled them up, threatened them with imprisonment and even with death. The result was that the unions were so roused that they threatened a general strike. The situation grew worse and worse. Finally Lenin, to avert a national crisis, dismissed Trotsky and wrote an open letter to the unions about it and Trotsky showed his real fineness of character by accepting his defeat in silence. And yet if he had been in charge of the roads they would certainly not be in the condition that they now are and many thousands of lives in the famine area would have been saved.

Trotsky cannot bear Russian slothfulness and he is constantly irritated by Russian indifference to sanitation. He insists on the utmost fastidiousness and neatness for all who work with him. An amusing scandal took place in Moscow at the time of one of the International Conventions. Trotsky had instructed a Red Army physician to inspect the hotel in which the foreign delegates were to stay and report if it was in order. The physician merely went down to the building and finding a fine grand piano there, whiled his time away playing and let the inspection go. In due course of time the delegates arrived and the first night they were all routed out of bed by insects. This came to the ears of Trotsky and he was so furiously angry that he had the doctor arrested and announced that he would have him shot. The delegates flew around in a fine state of excitement with a petition which they all signed begging Trotsky to spare the physician's life. As a matter of fact Trotsky would not have shot him, but his threats are reminiscent of the day of Tsar Peter who found it necessary to shoot a number of nobles before the others would shorten their long coats as he had ordered by royal decree.

Trotsky is a student of the French Revolution. He lived a long time in France and he loves France, in spite of its hostility to Soviet Russia. Some of his closest friends are Frenchmen who knew him in Paris and who followed him to Russia and work with him there. He never forgets his friends and has a real capacity for permanent friendships. Russians are, as a rule, very changeable in their personal relationships but one can depend on Trotsky.

As an orator he reminds one much more of the French revolutionary orators. Russians speak more slowly and more logically and with less fire. Trotsky Stirs his audiences by his own force and by striking phrases. There were times when these splendid literary phrases infuriated Lenin; from the public platform he once called Trotsky a “phrase-maker.” But this was way back in the Smolny days when Trotsky was more untamed than he is now, and before Lenin realized that Trotsky would be his most able assistant. While Trotsky was in America he was the editor of a Russian newspaper and apparently caught the American feeling for on-the-minute news. He is the easiest official to interview in Moscow and entirely the most satisfactory, because he is free from the general reticence and distrust of the press which most of the Commissars have. I once wrote him a note saying that I was writing a story about the Red Army and would like some material. The very same day he sent me down a great sack of copy. There were many Red Army magazines and newspapers that I had never heard of. There were handbooks and statistics and maps and, besides all that, there was a permission to go to. any of the fronts and to attend any of the lectures at the various schools.

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Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Vengerov - Tchaikovsky - Violin Concerto

 Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky - Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 35
I. Allegro moderato (00:00)
II. Canzonetta: Andante (19:21)
III. Finale: Allegro vivacissimo (25:50)
Maxim Vengerov, violin
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Mstislav Rostropovich, conductor

Alexander Blok: Night...

Night, street and streetlight, drugstore,
The purposeless, half-dim, drab light.
For all the use live on a quarter century –
Nothing will change.  There's no way out.

You'll die – and start all over, live twice,
Everything repeats itself, just as it was:
Night, the canal's rippled icy surface,
The drugstore, the street, and streetlight.
                                             10 October 1912

Translated by Alex Cigale

Stalin: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928

It’s hard to write about the great evildoers of history. “Absolute evil” is not a useful concept, at least from the standpoint of a biographer. You can only make the portrait work, as John Milton did in Paradise Lost, by showing the cracks and contradictions that make the monster (his Satan) human. The demonic versions of Stalin and Hitler that most of us have internalised are not helpful in working out what made them tick. The assumption that the man who kills (or causes to be killed) a million people is a million times more evil than the man who kills one is another stumbling block. We can’t imagine a person a million times worse than a cold-blooded axe murderer, so the whole thing becomes unreal. Moral philosophers may be needed to straighten this out, but my own feeling is that the premise is wrong: evil, as a quality of a person, is not quantifiable, and we can’t obtain an index through multiplication. Perhaps the only reasonable way to handle the problem analytically is to postulate what has been called a Power Amplification Factor – if you’re Joe Blow, your actions, however murderous, tend to be relatively local and quantitatively limited in their impact, but if you’re Stalin or Hitler, you get the global impact and multiples in the millions.
Added complications arise when the evil in question is related to a state leader’s responsibility for mass deaths. A general tacit assumption is that wars fall into a special category, in which mass deaths can occur without automatically bringing moral odium on the leaders who gave the orders. But revolutionaries, or leaders who still have revolutionary transformation on their mind, think they fall into that category of exemption, too. They see the deaths they cause in the same “necessary” light as those caused in war. It’s a dilemma for historians, who are likely to have an aversion to letting revolutionaries claim the exemption, especially once the revolution is won and they are in power.
Stephen Kotkin, whose first book, Magnetic Mountain (1995), had the bold subtitle “Stalinism as a Civilisation”, is not one to shrink before challenges. His expansive study is just the first of a projected three volumes. The title gives nothing away: you can’t get much blander than “Paradoxes of Power” as a subtitle, and the brief preface is almost anodyne. He tells us, however, that “accident in history is rife”, dropping a clue that this is not going to be a story of historical inevitability or psychological determinism. “The story emanates from Stalin’s office,” he writes, rather puzzlingly, “but not from his point of view.” Who, if not Stalin, is looking out from his office? Is it Kotkin, an invisible watcher, who has quietly drawn up a chair next to Stalin at his desk? At any rate, the message seems to be that in the intimate relationship between biographer and subject, this biographer is keeping the upper hand.
Stalin makes only cameo appearances in the first 300 pages, which range over the Russian empire, Russian absolutism, the European state system, modernity and geopolitics before getting to the revolution. It’s an expansive interpretation of context, and one of the effects is to make the young Stalin, born in obscurity on the periphery of the Russian empire, look pretty small. Whenever Stalin does make an appearance, however, his aspirations and determination to make something of himself are evident, and quite sympathetically described. Kotkin’s Stalin is a striver and an autodidact of talent and determination. There were setbacks and difficulties as he was growing up, but Kotkin dismisses the idea of childhood trauma: lots of people, including many fellow revolutionaries, had it worse. As happened with many bright young men in late imperial Russia, Stalin’s aspirations for betterment got deflected into the revolutionary movement.
His revolutionary activity doesn’t amount to much. The figure that catches the eye in these early chapters is Pyotr Durnovo, Nicholas II’s interior minister, who saved the empire after the 1905 revolution by savage repression. Kotkin drops another clue here, remarking that this was a moment “in the play of large-scale historical structures when personality proved decisive: a lesser interior minister could not have managed”. As for Stalin, he was out in Siberian exile “battling mosquitos and boredom” for much of the last imperial decade, and thus missed the first world war. The life of a once-promising young man seemed on the road to nowhere. Then came the miracle: the collapse of the Tsarist autocracy in February 1917. Revolutionaries like Stalin could claim little credit, but they were beneficiaries. Still a relatively obscure figure from the underground, “wearing Siberian valenki” – felt boots – “and carrying little more than a typewriter”, he arrived on 12 March 1917 in the capital, St Petersburg, to join the revolution.
From his civil war leadership at the battle of Tsaritsyn in 1918 and the notorious clashes with Trotsky, Stalin starts to claim more of the author’s attention, and what kind of biography Kotkin is writing becomes clearer. Unlike a number of Stalin studies, this is not an etiology of evil. The author does not appear to be watching his subject narrowly for early signs of the monstrous deformations that will later emerge. He tries to look at him at various stages of his career without the benefit of too much hindsight. In contrast to many who have written on Soviet politics of the 1920s, he is not a partisan of Stalin’s opponents, either collectively or in the person of Trotsky or Bukharin; nor does he proceed from the common assumptions that Stalin must be measured against Lenin, and that to a greater or lesser degree he will fall short.
The theme of Stalin’s departure from or betrayal of Leninism has had a long innings, particularly on the non-communist left. But from Kotkin’s standpoint, Lenin is scarcely an exemplary figure. A man with an idée fixe, Lenin is as often wildly wrong as he is right: “deranged fanatic” is one characterisation that the author seems to endorse. Kotkin is not interested in the old argument about continuity or discontinuity between Lenin and Stalin: like Richard Pipes, whose work is often cited in the early Soviet chapters, he thinks continuity is self-evident and wants us to see that much of what is thought of as the worst of Stalin’s rule is present or latent in Lenin. Indeed, when it comes to comparison between Lenin and Stalin, Lenin generally comes off worse in this study. With regard to empire, for example, which is always important to Kotkin, Lenin, who had “never set foot in Georgia, or even Ukraine, for that matter”, compares poorly to Stalin, with his “first-hand experience of the varied realm” and understanding that there was more to inter-ethnic relations within the empire than just Russian oppression.
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Sunday, 19 October 2014

Aleksandr Kuprin - Biography

Aleksandr Kuprin was born on 26 August 1870 in the provincial town of Narovchat, in Penza Province in southern Russia. The only son to survive in a family otherwise made up of girls, he became his mother’s favorite. His mother, Liubov' Kuprina, a strong-willed and somewhat authoritarian woman, was undividedly honored with the title of “supreme creature” by her son. Even at the age of sixty, Kuprin still spoke of his mother with awe and piety. A descendant of a princely Tatar family, the Kulunchakovs, she was proud of her ancestry and instilled like-minded feelings in her son; not surprisingly, one of the persisting themes in his art was the fate of the Tatars. He also very much appreciated his mother’s sense of expression. “How many times would I steal from her, weaving her words and expressions into my own stories,” he wrote. His father, Ivan Kuprin, a clerk for the arbitrator in Narovchat, died of cholera n 1871, at the age of thirty-seven when Aleksandr was barely a year old, and the impoverished Kuprin family was forced to move to the Widows' Home in Moscow in 1874.

In 1876, at the age of six, young Kuprin entered the Razumovsky Pension for orphans of the gentry. He then resumed his education in the Second Moscow Military High School (known as Cadet Corps), which he entered in 1881, and completed his studies seven years later at the Alexander Military Academy.

Reflecting on his cadet childhood, Kuprin saw the general environment of military schools as dreadful. Taught to perceive themselves as superior to civilians, the boys at military schools were however denied any chance for a creative outlet. At the age of ten, the boy was confronted with the raging injustice, encouraged at military schools. Notions of nobility and justice, introduced by his mother, conflicted with the triumph of mindless power over weakness, propelled by the military disciplinarians. The teachers were rigid and physical punishment was common; the most serious crimes were grounds for suspension in the isolation room.

Still, the harsh conditions of the cadet corps developed in Kuprin a craving for writing poetry. When he started writing at the age of ten, he was lucky to secure the backing of an unusually sympathetic and intelligent teacher, Tsukhanov, who helped young Kuprin enhance his literary skills. During his years at school Kuprin wrote approximately thirty poems – of patriotic, satirical, and lyrical character. In 1889, at the age of nineteen, Kuprin published his first serious literary work, a short story entitled "The Final Premiere" in the Moscow “Russian Satirical Paper.” Kuprin based the story on a real incident involving an actress whose unrequited love forced her to commit suicide during a performance. "The Final Premiere" caused a scandal when school officials learned about it as cadets were not permitted to publish unapproved pieces. Kuprin's unauthorized publication cost him several days in the guardroom for unsuitable behavior. The memory of this furor stayed with him and inspired later works, including his long, autobiographical novel “Junkers,” written in 1928-1932 and published in 1933.

Upon his graduation from the military academy in 1890 with the rank of sub lieutenant, Kuprin joined the infantry in Proskurov, near Zhitomir, in southwest Ukraine.

He deeply loathed serving in the military and was constantly possessed by the idea of resignation. The only thing that shelved his decision to quit was a serious relationship with a girl. As a provincial minor officer, Kuprin wasn’t much of a catch for a husband, but the girl’s father promised to go ahead with the marriage if Kuprin entered the Academy of the General Staff. In the fall of 1893, he traveled to St. Petersburg to pass the entrance exams, but it never happened, as Kuprin was almost immediately summoned back to the regiment. He was punished for a row he’d had with a local policeman on his way to St. Petersburg, which ended when Kuprin tossed the aforementioned policeman in the Dnieper River.

Robust as a boy, Kuprin was also strong as an adult. Very emotional and impulsive, he was normally kind and charming, but could become dangerously reckless when put out of temper. This emotional instability played against him many times and hindered his career. One of the bitterest examples dates back to 1908, when Kuprin was almost elected an honored member of the Academy of Sciences but as Ivan Bunin, Kuprin’s friend and an outstanding writer, recalled: the academy did not accept him because its members were afraid he might abuse his privileges when under the influence of alcohol. During his military service in Ukraine, Kuprin started to publish in local Kiev newspapers both as a journalist and as a writer, gradually developing his style and the scope of his themes. He wrote several stories about the human psyche, among them "Psyche" (1892), “On a Moonlit Night” (1893), and "In the Dark” (1893). His frequent but irregular literary experience soon resulted in two collections entitled “Kiev Types” and “Miniatures.”

His work for the Kiev newspapers, writing for the casualties and humor section was a school of writing for Kuprin and he maintained his love for journalism throughout his life.

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Saturday, 18 October 2014

The Passion of Anton (Chekhov)

Chekhov 1898 by Osip Braz
The academy has not been kind to dead white writers lately. But it's a different story on stage and screen, where everyone from Victor Hugo to Raymond Carver has enjoyed a successful run in recent years. Who will be the next hot literary property? One safe bet, for this year and every year, is Chekhov. 

An old New Yorker cartoon makes a comic case for the Russian writer's ubiquity. Three men are asked for their greatest influences. ''Mainly the short-story writers -- Hemingway, Eudora Welty and, of course, Chekhov,'' an author replies. ''There was a teacher in high school, and the owner of the first garage I worked in. Then, of course, Chekhov,'' an auto mechanic says. Lastly, a ballplayer responds: ''I had a great batting coach in the minors, and I try to emulate the great outfielders, like DiMaggio and Mays. And, of course, there's Chekhov.'' Tennessee Williams answered the same question more succinctly. ''Chekhov! Chekhov! Chekhov!'' was his regular response to queries about favorite authors.

Chekhov's lasting appeal lies not just in his writing. His life -- or at least the version of it available up to now -- is seductive in ways that admirers have found hard to resist. ''The good doctor'' is what Neil Simon calls him in his play of that name. Others have been less moderate. ''St. Anton'' is what the critic Richard Gilman calls the Chekhov of literary legend. The modest, gentle creature we first meet in Maxim Gorky's memoirs becomes a stock figure in later accounts of the life.

The outlines of this saint's life are well known. There is the Dickensian childhood, plagued by poverty, disease and the dictates of a tyrannical father, who is the son of a freed serf. There is the young Chekhov who becomes the de facto head of his extended family, struggling to make ends meet as he pursues his dual vocation of doctor and apprentice author. Then comes the growing fame, early for the fiction and later for the plays, accompanied by the first signs of the tuberculosis that will finally claim his life in 1904.

Thoughtful, unassuming and generous to a fault, Chekhov ministers to the needs of an ever-growing circle of friends and family even as he continues the prodigious output that will change the shape of modern writing. And if this weren't enough, he finds time to visit penal colonies, treat gratis countless plague victims and needy peasants, and establish public libraries and schoolhouses for the underprivileged. In his final years, he finds happiness with the actress Olga Knipper, completes several masterpieces and receives international acclaim before dying at 44.

Is this Chekhov too good to be true? Until now, memoirists and biographers -- they've been legion -- have had two choices. They could keep the legend intact -- and there seemed to be little objective reason to challenge it. Or, like the critic Ronald Hingley, they could struggle to find cracks in the myth of ''Chekhov the 19th-century messiah.''

But would-be revisionists not only had to contend with the legacy of two zealous literary ''widows'': both Knipper and Chekhov's sister and lifelong companion, Mariya Chekhova, served as self-appointed keepers of the sacred flame for decades after the writer's death. They were also forced to do battle with a Soviet state anxious to preserve the purity of its prized plebeian playwright, the sharp-eyed critic of an aristocracy in decay and prophet of a brighter coming day. It kept potentially compromising parts of the Chekhov archive under lock and key, and even off-color jokes were bowdlerized out of existence in official editions of his correspondence.

Chekhov himself was no help to future chroniclers. He suffered from an acute form of what he called ''autobiographophobia'' and encouraged would-be biographers to disregard the life itself and ''write what you want'': ''If there are no facts, substitute something lyrical.''

Happily, Donald Rayfield, a widely known Chekhov scholar, has chosen not to take his subject at his word. In ''Chekhov: The Evolution of His Art'' (1975), Rayfield judged that ''all the facts we are ever likely to have for a biography of Chekhov are now at hand.'' In ''Anton Chekhov: A Life,'' he conclusively proves himself wrong. He spent five years scouring the newly opened archives of the former Soviet Union and tracking down evidence in every possible location. The result is a Chekhov radically unlike the paragon of decades past.

Revisionary biographies have become commonplace. It is now standard practice to chastise dead writers for sins committed against current norms of behavior. This is not at all the task Rayfield sets himself. His aim is not to unmask the ''real'' Chekhov -- sexist, imperialist, proto-fascist, whatever -- who lurks behind the plaster bust erected by unenlightened partisans (although the material Rayfield unearths on Chekhov's relations with women in particular could easily have been turned to such ends in less judicious hands).
The life Rayfield describes is no less impressive for having a flawed, at times unsympathetic, figure at its center. And his restraint in presenting his controversial new findings -- along with the sheer quantity of fresh material he has amassed -- is finally what makes his portrait so persuasive. His clear-eyed, critical sympathy for his less-than-perfect subject might have been borrowed from Chekhov's own writing.

What precisely is new about Rayfield's Chekhov? The story of the writer's harrowing childhood has been told before -- although never in such gripping detail. The real revelation in this biography lies not so much, as Rayfield himself writes, in the new light it sheds on Chekhov's relations with family and friends. It is Chekhov's sex life that is the major surprise here.

Chekhov's sex life? The phrase is something of an oxymoron, to judge by earlier accounts. Chekhov's American adapters -- Tennessee Williams, Lanford Wilson, David Mamet -- have noted the sexual charge that galvanizes the plays. And certainly no Russian writer has been more sympathetic to the ways that passion can play havoc with even the most humdrum lives. But Chekhov's own life has hitherto seemed to be remarkably passion-free; he apparently had, V. S. Pritchett thought, an unusually low ''sexual temperature.''
This is not the Chekhov of Rayfield's biography. Rayfield documents what he calls the ''hedonistic elements in Chekhov's makeup'' in scrupulous detail. His evidence is largely culled from Chekhov's previously censored correspondence, and much of it is too explicit to be quoted in a family newspaper. Chekhov's guardians had good reason to fear for their ward's reputation when the unexpurgated letters finally came to light. One thing is clear: Chekhov's sexual temperature was anything but low. Tall, good-looking and witty, he was a magnet to women from an early age, and the attraction was mutual -- ''You have two diseases, amorousness and spitting blood,'' one erstwhile lover jokes -- though he resisted lasting attachments until near the end of his life.

One must be wary of reading an artist's biography directly into the work. But Rayfield's Chekhov, with his wide range of physical and emotional experience, simply makes better sense than the artist-monk of earlier accounts as the author of ''Uncle Vanya,'' ''Lady With a Lapdog'' and the other works that deal so sagely with love and sexual passion.

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