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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