An Excellent Man


by Henri Troyat, translated by Michael Henry Heim
Dutton, 364 pp., $22.50

Chekhov is not a good subject for a biographer. He is too nice, too evasive, too lacking in the kind of temperament usually associated with writers and artists. He was in fact the kind of subdued heroic figure who in life is usually ignored by and depended on by everybody: an excellent man, in the sense of one of Barbara Pym’s “excellent women.” Transpose his sex, and he could well be the leading character in one of her novels, the kind of person whose virtue is taken for granted, and about whose emotional needs and private life no one is in the least interested. Ironically, he would never appear as a character in one of his own plays or stories. He was that rare thing, a literary genius who had no need or impulse to live what he wrote.

Nonetheless Henri Troyat has succeeded in doing an absorbing study of Chekhov, for whom he seems to feel more genuine affection than for the colorful characters of Russian literature—Pushkin, Gogol, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy—who are the subjects of his previous biographies. He finds the key to his hero’s character in a remark made by Chekhov’s deplorable friend Potapenko: “He resisted leading a private existence.” With his usual subdued humor Chekhov himself was not far off the mark when he claimed that “if monasteries accepted the irreligious and permitted abstention from prayer, I’d become a monk.” Potapenko, whose character is clearly visible in that of Trigorin in The Seagull, was in real life the playwright’s rival for the favors of a lady called Lika Mizinova, who seems to have loved Chekhov but allowed herself to be seduced by his friend, the rake.

Did Chekhov love her himself? Possibly he did so in his own fashion, writing her tender letters, which left her, as Troyat says, “not knowing where she stood.” When it came to the point he preferred to stand aside and leave her to Potapenko, seeing the pair of them, with his customary understanding and charity, as resembling the characters in his play. If Chekhov were a writer responding emotionally in the situation he would surely have pilloried Potapenko in The Seagull, had his revenge on him. As it is, he understands him, as he understands the girl whom he seduces. Not much reward for her perhaps, but in Chekhov that was the kind of lover she had to deal with—a baffling one for a warmhearted and impulsive Russian girl, the sort of girl who is the heroine of The Darling, the gently humorous tale about a woman who throws herself with passion into the lives and interests of her successive husbands or lovers, forgetting it all totally as each one dies or disappears. “That’s what life is all about,” Chekhov might have said; and an artist and consumptive cannot afford to get too involved with life in that sense.

D.H. Lawrence, fellow artist and consumptive, would have acrimoniously disagreed with him. Malice and revenge were a natural tonic and inspiration to Lawrence, although some of his best stories, particularly the early ones, have a remarkable affinity with Chekhov’s. Tolstoy got Chekhov wrong too, observing of The Darling, which he much admired, that the author had intended to satirize his enthusiastic heroine for her giddy commitment to each lover in turn, but, by writing about her with so much sympathy, had in fact exalted her. Chekhov must have deprecated that. Exaltation of the life principle, devotion to the channels in which life flows, as Lawrence’s disciple F.R. Leavis put it, would have seemed to him cant, like all the other kinds of cant—political, social, and moral—that his friends and contemporaries were talking in Russia, as elsewhere. Life had no special charms for Chekhov. It was neither as good nor as bad as people made out, and it had to be got through somehow.

Psychiatrists today might call Chekhov a typical case of emotional disablement through parental tyranny. His father, the old patriarch of Taganrog, was despotic even by Russian standards, complacent, self-righteous, and cruel, a kind of quasi-Oriental Micawber, who in addition to being a drunkard and bankrupt, whose natural state was complete idleness, ruled his family with a rod of iron, drawing up detailed schedules for their hours of working, eating, and sleeping, and beating them ferociously for the smallest infraction of the rules. One of Chekhov’s younger brothers, Troyat tells us, was mercilessly chastised for waking up a few minutes late, and another one, Ivan, howled so loudly under punishment that even in Moscow, where such manifestations of paternal zeal were tolerated and approved, there were strong complaints from all the neighbors.

A regime of this type might well have produced in those subjected to it an attitude similar to that summed up in Philip Larkin’s poem: “Get out as early as you can / And don’t have any kids yourself.” But although he was a late starter, and possibly sterile through the effects of tuberculosis, Chekhov in middle age might well have become a devoted husband and father. When he at last took the plunge, late in his short life, he was deeply attached to his young wife, the actress Olga Knipper, but because of his health, which kept him in the south, and her work as a popular actress in Moscow, they were unable to live together for more than brief periods. Whatever the visible deficiencies of family life, which he had known from earliest childhood, Chekhov always remained a family man. He never seems to have resented the behavior of his father, who admittedly treated his eldest son better than the others, and quite early in life he took over as the counselor, comforter, and breadwinner for all the family.

Nothing is quite what it seems of course, and behavior is notoriously ambiguous where siblings and parents are concerned. Chekhov might well have been enacting his father’s role, but enacting it in a spirit of proprietary benevolence. That an autocrat lurked somewhere in his nature is shown by his attitude toward the projected marriage of his beloved sister, Maria. After he achieved a measure of fame and financial success he bought a small estate near Moscow called Melikhovo. Himself the grandson of a serf, and a man who entertained no sentimental Tolstoyan nonsense about the sanctity and virtue of peasant life, Chekhov was immensely proud of becoming a landowner, even on such a modest scale. He rejoiced in his ability to entertain family and friends in the hospitable Russian manner, attracting a host of hangers-on who arrived for a few days, as in The Cherry Orchard, and were still there in the next year.

His sister was a pillar of this community and played a cardinal role in maintaining the equilibrium of his day-to-day existence. The time came when she received a proposal from one of his guests.

His name was Alexander Smagin. After a bit of innocuous courting Smagin suddenly made an impassioned declaration of love and asked for Maria’s hand. At loose ends or, rather, panic-stricken, Maria needed someone to turn to. Her father? No, of course not. Her mother? No, not even her. Anton. Wasn’t he the sage of the family? And so, mustering all her courage, she confronted him in his study with the statement, “You know, Anton, I’ve decided to marry.” Since Chekhov knew who the prospective groom was, he did not ask, but his features seemed to harden. Maria was frightened by his silence. “When he failed to respond,” she wrote in her Memoirs, “I sensed he found the news unpleasant. He held his tongue, though, and what could he say? I saw he couldn’t admit that it would be hard for him if I went off to another home, a new family.” She returned to her room in tears, having failed to coax a word out of her brother. Nor did he broach the subject with her in the next few days. “I gave it a great deal of thought…. I could consent to nothing that could cause him pain, upset his way of life, deprive him of the creative atmosphere I always tried to make for him. I informed Smagin of my decision, which caused him much suffering as well.”

Chekhov heaved a sigh of relief. He had been very much alarmed. A not untypical Victorian situation. But it is surprising to find so gentle and humane a man as Chekhov acting in this way. In The Unquiet Grave Cyril Connolly wrote that when we see a man surrounded like a deep-rooted oak tree by friends and happy families, dispensing love and benevolence to all, “be sure that he is an ogre, and that human bones lie scattered round his roots.” A sweeping generalization, but there is something in it. Even Chekhov was not entirely an exception.

The quotation above is a fair example of Troyat’s style, which is relaxed, possibly rather too relaxed, and inherently difficult to translate, since it is suited to the biographical idiom of the French language rather than to that of the English, in which it sounds too loose and confiding, even arch. It is in fact the manner in which André Maurois used to write his popular biographies. But Michael Heim has done the best he could, and produced a very readable English version, which if it lacks the scope and detail of Troyat’s big Tolstoy biography makes up for it in sympathy and insight. Although he does not attempt much in the way of a critical survey of Chekhov’s writings, Troyat is good on the background of magazines and other such publications in which Chekhov’s stories first appeared, and equally good on the situation and outlook of the Moscow theater companies by whom the plays were first produced.

Responsive as they were to the current Zeitgeist, with its emphasis on plangency, pathos, and nostalgic sentiment, the directors of the time saw in Chekhov’s plays the perfect vehicle for this type of approach. Chekhov himself was much more old-fashioned, a devotee of traditional comedy, and he resisted to the end their attempts to sentimentalize his plays and make them broodingly symbolic. The farcical element in life was what appealed to his sense of theater, and he saw Madame Ranevsky in The Cherry Orchard as essentially a character from farce. He might have echoed Nietzsche’s remark that the individual, closely looked at, is unavoidably comic, and his plays are always about individuals, never dramatic types. Deeply apolitical as he was, he could give neither his plays nor his stories a “moral” in the accepted sense, although his admirers never had any trouble in finding one. In this respect he is unique among Russian writers, and the older Russian critics were never able to accept or understand the admiring reverence with which, in the early 1900s, his work came to be regarded in the West.

When he was writing The Cherry Orchard in a dacha near Moscow his window blew open one night and scattered some pages of manuscript in the snow outside. When retrieved they were completely illegible. His friends said not to worry: he must remember more or less what he had written, but Chekhov protested that he could remember absolutely nothing at all. The story has a ring of truth in it. The secret of his work is its complete immediacy, its lack of anything deliberately considered or planned, even memorable in the utterance. The memorableness, like the meaning, had to be supplied by the actors, which is why reading one of his plays is an experience of remarkable vacancy, as well as of a kind of purity. That purity is most marked in his best stories, like “The Steppe,” an early one, which relates in the simplest manner what happens to a young boy on a journey across the Don plain. The story ends with the boy’s arrival at the place where he will go to school and his future life will begin. Since it was so successful, and earned him a lot of rubles per page, Chekhov toyed with the idea of writing a sequel to it, but he had only to begin the sequel to see it wouldn’t do: the picture was artistically complete just because it was unfinished.

No one has ever been more levelheaded than Chekhov about those two giants of the previous literary age, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Tolstoy he admired immensely, but pointed out that much of his lesser work is marred by simple, willful ignorance. He will not look at the facts, whether they are about the way peasants live or women’s attitude to sexual intercourse. Tolstoy was the supreme creator from his own experience, but his own experience, compared to Chekhov’s, was remarkably limited; he did not know enough different sorts of people. Dostoevsky Chekhov also greatly appreciated, but unerringly drops in the mot juste. His works, in spite of their wonders, suffer from length and overemphasis. “Pretentious too.” Yet it may have been The House of the Dead that gave Chekhov the idea of his journey, all the way across Siberia, to see and report at firsthand on conditions in the penal colony island of Sakhalin.

This was a feat of astonishing bravery for a man in such poor health. Envious fellow writers said it was a publicity stunt, but nothing could have been further from the truth. Chekhov undertook it in the same spirit in which he had become a doctor and writer; he was moved by curiosity and compassion and the desire to see for himself. Sober and factual, his detailed report aroused no enthusiasm in revolutionaries and critics of the regime back home, who were less interested in convict conditions than in what could be made out of such matters politically. But the report was taken very seriously indeed by the government and civil service; and things in Sakhalin got better as a result.

It is hard to say how happy Chekhov’s last time with Olga Knipper really was. Like everyone else, even his great friend and benefactor the self-made newspaper owner Suvorin, she seems to have regarded him rather absently, preoccupied as she was with other, more important things. He was never one to draw attention to himself. At the end, in a German spa, he could find nothing to say to a German specialist except to summon up what he could remember of the language and whisper the words, “Ich sterbe”—“I am dying.” After his death the plaudits and the admiration really got going. Gorky, who led them, was deeply shocked that the corpse of the great Russian writer had inadvertently been shipped back to his native land in a railway wagon labeled “Fresh Oysters.” Chekhov would have enjoyed the joke—in fact would barely have considered it to be one. It was not black humor: it was just the way life went.