Hearing from Chekhov

The Letters of Anton Chekhov

edited and translated by Avrahm Yarmolinsky, with the assistance of Babette Deutsch
Viking, 512 pp., $15.00

The Letters of Anton Chekhov

selected and edited by Simon Karlinsky, translated by Michael Henry Heim, in collaboration with Simon Karlinsky
Harper & Row, 494 pp., $17.50

Anton Chekhov
Anton Chekhov; drawing by David Levine

The mark of genius is an incessant activity of mind. Genius is a greed for more. By the time of his death from tuberculosis when he was in his early forties, Chekhov had spent himself in every breathless minute, not only in the writing of his hundreds of stories, his plays, and his research on the convict island of Sakhalin—where he even took a census—but in exhausting work as a doctor, a founder of clinics and hospitals, schools and libraries, as the practical manager for many years of a small estate, as an indefatigable traveler in Russia, Europe, and Asia.

From the age of nineteen he supported his family—a bankrupt despotic father, his fretful mother, a string of bickering relatives and hangers-on—mainly by his writing, under knock-about domestic conditions which were farcically at variance with what a serious artist is supposed to need. He appointed himself—even at nineteen—head of this tribe, who were “depressed by the abnormality of living together” and who were people (he said in one of his letters) “pasted together artificially.” They were touchy, lazy, talkative, noisy, pretentious, and incurably hard up. Simply to listen to the noise they made drove him to despair and made him dizzy. (He could lose his temper too.) They hung on to the precocious son like leeches—and by mixing his pride with his comic sense, he hectored and coughed them into order. Although he was broad and strong as a young man, he was soon in bad health; he is the classic case of the doctor and consumptive who refuses to admit his case and neglects it.

On top of all this, Chekhov found time to write over 4,000 vivid letters, many of them merry, many of great literary importance, to critics, editors, novelists, friends, and to women who were in love with him and whom he was evading. The notion of the melancholy, passive, defeated Chekhov vanishes when one considers these letters alone, and especially when one meets the candor, spontaneity, the humor sharp as horse radish, and the intimacy of his correspondence. The man is alive to the tips of his fingernails and has the knack all good letter writers have of springing in person before the reader’s eyes. In letters a writer projects a large number of impromptu disguises, and, since he was often secretive in a self-preserving way, we do not get the whole of Chekhov—whatever that was—but we always see him in the hour he is living through.

A few of Chekhov’s letters were published soon after his death. They were followed by a six-volume edition edited by his sister, who adored him though she did make decorous cuts. There followed some of his letters to his wife, the actress Olga Knipper, whom he married in the last years of his life. In 1948-1951 an official Soviet collection appeared and was revised and expanded in 1963-1964 to…

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