Why Sakhalin?

Joseph Frank

  • Chekhov: Scenes from a Life by Rosamund Bartlett
    Free Press, 395 pp, £20.00, July 2004, ISBN 0 7432 3074 4
  • Anton Chekhov: A Life in Letters translated by Rosamund Bartlett and Anthony Phillips
    Penguin, 552 pp, £12.99, June 2004, ISBN 0 14 044922 1

Chekhov biographers are lucky: they don’t have to face the problem of spending a good deal of time studying the life of someone they are liable to end up disliking intensely. Lawrence Thompson was selected by Robert Frost to be his official biographer: after literally living with his subject, the biographer found the poet to be very far from admirable; and the work he produced bore clear evidence of this shift in sentiment.

I spent more years than I like to recall with Dostoevsky. On the one hand, I admired his literary genius and capacity to portray guilt-ridden figures unable to stifle their moral conscience – a conscience I assumed to be identical with his own. On the other hand, there was my hostile reaction to many of the social-political ideas he accepted and propagated in the later phase of his life. Moreover, although he was not the monster portrayed by some biographers, at least implicitly guilty of the crimes depicted in his novels (there were rumours to this effect during his lifetime), he was notoriously prickly. Indeed, his attitude towards foreigners who questioned him about his work, as we know from the account left by the Vicomte de Vogüe (whose book on the Russian novel brought Dostoevsky to the attention of the European literary world), was anything but friendly. No such problems bother students of Chekhov, Russian or otherwise. On the contrary, it is difficult to think of a writer of equal fame and importance who, on close inspection, proves to be such an admirable and sympathetic human being.

Rosamund Bartlett’s work is not a conventional biography, unrolling the familiar facts of Chekhov’s life once again, but rather a study of the world in which he lived and wrote. ‘It is difficult for us,’ she writes, ‘to penetrate Chekhov’s character through his relationships with people because of his inscrutability and reserve’: as a way round this she has chosen to shift her emphasis ‘to his relationship with the places in which he lived’. As a result we get a plethora of lively and quite interesting information about all sorts of ancillary aspects of Chekhov’s life, ranging from the ancient Greek past of his birthplace, Taganrog, to the Chekhov Museum opened in Sri Lanka in 1999. The chapters proceed geographically according to the succession of places in which Chekhov lived, or to which he travelled; and the events of his career, as they relate to these locations, are filled in regardless of when they occurred. The selection of letters edited and translated by Bartlett, in collaboration with Anthony Phillips, provides a valuable supplement to what she herself calls ‘an impressionistic approach’ (as well as being marvellous in their own right).

The history of Taganrog, a southern city on the Sea of Azov, goes back to the Scythians and the ancient Greeks, not to mention the Mongol and Ottoman Empires, and Bartlett explores it at length in a first chapter ranging from Herodotus to the Crimean War. The city was heavily bombarded by the British fleet, and Chekhov’s father and mother (he was not yet born) moved inland to escape the danger. At this time Tolstoy was writing his Sevastopol Sketches, and Bartlett suggests (no reference is given) that many years later, when Tolstoy had become ‘something of a paternal figure’ for the younger writer, ‘the war would be a favourite topic of conversation for Chekhov and Tolstoy when they were both living in the Crimea for health reasons.’ It was also the war that impelled Chekhov’s mother to press his father, whose own father was a freed serf, to raise the funds necessary to join the merchant class so as to be exempt from military service.

Pavel Egorovich Chekhov thus became a meshchanin, a member of the merchant class and proprietor of a small grocery which ‘sold everything from rhubarb to castor oil and was open at all hours’. Merchants as a group were looked down on in educated Russian society, and had been satirised as ruthlessly grasping and backward in outlook in Ostrovsky’s plays. One of Ostrovsky’s main themes was the pitiless domestic tyranny that prevailed in such households, and in his childhood Chekhov experienced this. Bartlett follows other biographers in assuming that, despite Chekhov’s denials, a character in the novella ‘Three Years’ is really a portrait of his father. ‘I remember my father starting to teach me, or to put it more simply beat me, before I was five years old,’ the narrator recalls. ‘He flogged me with a birch rod, boxed my ears, and hit me round the head, and every morning when I woke up the first thing I would think about would be: was I going to get beaten?’ Much later, in a letter reproaching his older brother Alexander for his behaviour to his wife and their cook, he wrote: ‘Despotism and lies also destroyed our own childhood, so much so that we become sick and fearful when we remember it.’

Despite such memories, Chekhov’s behaviour towards his father and mother (whom he supported first in part and then entirely) was exemplary; and he helped other family members as well in time of need. With time, too, he came to value aspects of his upbringing and of his father. Typical of the merchant milieu was an intense religiosity, which Chekhov deplored. In ‘Three Years’, he wrote that the children ‘had to go to matins and early mass, kiss the hands of priest and monks and read akathists’ – a series of prayers praising God. He and his brothers also sang in the choirs that his father, who learned to play the violin and paint icons, loved to direct – to the exhaustion of the participants. These activities provided Chekhov with a detailed knowledge of Russian Orthodoxy that surfaces again and again in his works and that perhaps only Nikolai Leskov could match. Chekhov called Leskov ‘my favourite writer’ in a letter after the two had first met, and quotes the half-drunken Leskov as having said: ‘Thee I anoint with oil, even as Samuel anointed David … You must write.’

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