Up until today the well-known Russian author and playwright Anton Chekhov has remained an enigma, even for his countless biographers. Some consider him a saint, and see him as the new Savior. In other versions of his biography the "real" Chekhov is sometimes shown as an erotomaniac and misogynist, sometimes as an emaciated sick person who was tortured by his family. The problem with these differences is not one of the facts. The facts are already known, and no new ones will be added. The differences stem rather from the interpretation of the facts and the assumptions of the biographers.
Igor Sukhikh holds the chair for Russian Literary History at Saint Petersburg University, and is the publisher of the collected works of Isaak Babel and Michail Zoshchenko. Sukhikh's book is a biographic montage, a genre in which only the documents are allowed to speak, thereby letting the author's position make itself apparent solely in the way that the biography is composed, through short, impartial comments.
Chekhov died so young that not only the numerous statements by his close relatives (his brothers Alexander and Mikhail, later his sister Mariya Pavlovna), by his contemporaries (Korolenko, Gilyarovskij), and his literary successors (Bunin, Gorki, Kuprin) have been preserved, but also those by representatives of the preceding generation (Lev Tolstoi, the publisher Alexej Suvorin, the painter Ilya Repin). At the same time, he died late enough that Russian society was able to comprehend what it had lost. Therefore everyone from students to journalists hurried to commit their one or two chance encounters with Chekhov to paper. The montage of these documents with their contrasting perspectives is continually corrected by Chekhov's diary entries and letters, thereby allowing this biography to achieve an impressive sense of authenticity.
Placing the contradictory facts side by side shows that Chekhov was the victim of a number of circumstances. He was so repelled by his father's fanatical religiosity that even Tolstoi's religious discourse only elicited a yawn from Chekhov. His beloved sister who apparently had dedicated herself to the family's well-being, in reality was suffering from her one unlucky love, and could not bring herself to forgive her brother for his marriage. Chekhov had no interest in politics, believing it better to work than to have a big mouth. He was unhappy with his work as a country doctor with its constant cholera epidemics and autopsies for the court. Chekhov was always short of money, even though he continued to practice medicine and write daily almost up to the end. The premiere of his play "The Seagull," that today graces many stages worldwide, was a flop. Consumption took its toll on his strength, and he suffered from inconsolable boredom in Yalta. Even his last joy, his marriage to the gifted actress Olga Knipper, was troubled by the conflict with his family and the jealousy of his friends and admirers. Olga Knipper was hammered by many of his biographers. Even Michail Bulgakov, who was not well enough acquainted with either Chekhov nor Knipper, used her as the basis for the caricature of the "Lady in the Sable Wrap" in his "A Theatrical Novel." And all because the gifted actress did not want to leave the theater and become his nurse? Or could they not forgive him for having turned a cold shoulder to the affection of Tatyana Tolstoi, Lev Tolstoi's daughter, as well as that of Komissarzhevskaya, the actress?
Excerpts from Chekhov's correspondence, the remembrances of his closest friends (the writers Bunin, Gorki, Tolstoi, Korolenko, and Kuprin, the painters Repin and Korovin, the philosopher Rozanov, and the directors Stanislavskij and Nemirovich-Danchenko), as well as those of his relatives are used to reconstruct every facet of Chekhov's life, and to provide answers about his views on such important topics as God, his relationship to his work as a writer, power, money and love. Putting these documents together often leads to unforeseen results, thereby opening up a new perspective on Chekhov. He was never in a duel, nor in conflict with the powers that be. He was successful with the ladies, but he never boasted of his conquests. He always remained true to the path he himself chose: "The Code of a Decent Human Being."
Igor Sukhikh has not only reconstructed Chekhov's life as objectively as possible, he has also managed to present it in such an exciting way that it reads like a novel.