Anton Chekhov: A Life (1998)
by Donald Rayfield 

A 600+ page biography. This is a mammoth undertaking of scholarship, one of those biographies where the subject becomes a decade-long, de facto-idolatrous study for the biographer until every nook and cranny of a life is exposed. The book is quite dense, and honestly not easy to read—the amount of characters and the numerous plotlines (and subplot-lines) are a challenge even for a Chekhov aficionado. This is not to say it’s not good. Rayfield is insightful and provides all manner of complication in reflecting Chekhov’s character and life.

As mentioned in the preface, the biographer’s main focus is Chekhov’s relationships, inside and outside the family. Rayfield’s access to correspondence was unprecedented. The complexity of all relationships is evident, even if they are not entirely transparent. The amount of living context he provides for Chekhov’s fictional output is voluminous. You see so many of the stories and characters developing as you read details of his life. With this biography, Rayfield presented the world with incontrovertible evidence of Chekhov as a sexual being, dispelling the prevailing hagiography propounded even by such an insightful scholar as Richard Gilman in his masterful Chekhov’s Plays (1995). Through it all, we see that friend and publisher Aleksei Suvorin was probably the most important male figure in Chekhov’s adult life and his sister Masha, the most important female. We get a strong sense of his dedication to communal engagement, his overwhelming number of dependents (financial and otherwise), his generosity and the resulting ever-proximity to insolvency. One thing we may lose in the day-to-day ephemera, the unending correspondence, and detailed accounts of spontaneous trips to cities near and far is the sense of a life of concentrated exertion on medicine, literature, family and community.

Upon finishing, I was left with a strong sense of Chekhov’s life cut short by disease. The last five to seven years were grueling, bearing down on him—a relatively young man with sometimes severe, always nagging, ailments—problems like hemorrhoids and diarrhea, as well as the persistent, wracking cough and then tubercular hemorrhaging. His marriage never fully landed; it was more of a last lap attempt at comfort and normalcy that carried with it an equal portion of heartbreak and encumbrance. Olga loved him and he loved her, but they were separated much of the time—she performing in Moscow, he convalescing in Yalta. He was an old man for all practical considerations. Their honeymoon was a 1200 mile sail to a remote sanatorium. The fact that he wrote his dramatic masterpiece “The Cherry Orchard” in his final difficult year is astounding, herculean—only Firs mirrors his decline, and the estate, of course.

There’s something I feel like I’m missing in this biography, and I don’t know if it’s this biography or this exhaustive style of biography-making. When I read Chekhov’s plays, I get a holistic sense of the soul that channeled them. Despite his infamous “authorial absence,” we can intuit a fundamental sense of the person that created these vivid humanscapes, not in any single character or in the scattered characters as an aggregate, but in a kind of gravitational center among them all. Consider this intimate glance at Chekhov the author offered by a friend:

When writing he suddenly smiled. This smile was special, without the usual proportion of irony, not humorous, but tender and soft, a smile of authorial happiness.” [156]

It’s that caring and funny man we have come to love—the one who was his best self when he was writing, which is of course the place we have always met him. That man gets a little lost in all the flurry here. The man we meet with Rayfield is certainly reconcilable with the man we love, and we love him still, but we can’t pin him down any more or contain him in the mind portrait we once had. He’s become too complex. Perhaps Rayfield has rescued him from our idolatry.