Short Reviews

A New Life of Anton Chekhov

by Ronald Hingley
Knopf, 352 pp., $12.50

The Lives of Roger Casement

by B. L. Reid
Yale University Press, 516 pp., $25.00

Penguins: Past and Present, Here and There

by George Gaylord Simpson
Yale University Press, 176 pp., $10.00

The Year the Big Apple Went Bust

by Fred Ferretti
Putnam's, 416 pp., $10.00

The Search for J.F.K.

by Joan Blair and Clay Blair Jr.
Putnam's, 608 pp., $12.95

This is a disappointing book, particularly since it has been so long awaited. But it tells us more about the great playwright’s life—in details, at least—than any previous attempt. Here we learn the last word on a number of matters: that Chekhov effectively used “nerve-warfare” to prevent his beloved sister from marrying a particular suitor; that literature was his “mistress” and the practice of medicine his “legal wife”—an arrangement that kept him tantalizingly industrious but also fretful and morose; that he had no great interest in women and may even have been, as Hingley gingerly puts it, “somewhat undersexed”; that his marriage to a spiritedly neurotic actress in the last years of his life—he died at forty-four—was frequently interrupted, either by his illness or her career; that he mysteriously kept refusing to acknowledge his own tuberculosis; that he was “unreliable” in meeting literary deadlines; that he was kind, wise, and endlessly elusive, indeed at times “evasive to the point of causing unnecessary suffering.” And so on.

Hingley minutely covers the genesis and flowering of all the plays and many of the short stories and letters. But the style of his writing—both flaccid and jaunty—is tiresome. The critical judgments are venturesomely banal (“In countless variations, both fictional and dramatic, he studies illusions destined sooner or later to be shattered against the trivialities of everyday life”), and the psychological probings, full of self-congratulatory assumptions about Chekhov’s motivations, unconsciously resemble, at times, Nabokov’s parody of the “scholar” who writes the bogus preface to Lolita. Still, this is an exhaustive appraisal by a renowned Chekhov specialist, and every nook and cranny of Chekhov’s existence are in its pages.

In 1911 Roger Casement, a Protestant Irishman in the British Consular Service, was knighted by the Crown for his work in exposing racist atrocities in the Belgian Congo and the Amazon. Five years later he was hanged as a traitor for a quixotic attempt to land German arms in Ireland in conjunction with the 1916 Rising. It has taken sixty years for a biographer to rescue him from English calumnies and Irish canonization. Brian Inglis’s Roger Casement (1974) was the first serious effort to that end; Inglis achieved clinical objectivity in his account, but the inner mystery of the man eluded him. Reid has done something more: he has made sympathetic sense out of a life which was fragmented to the point of “disastrous incoherence.”

Reid thinks that Joseph Conrad, who knew Casement in Africa, understood him when he wrote: “I judged that he was a man, properly speaking, of no mind at all. I don’t mean stupid. I mean he was all emotion.” But Conrad missed Casement’s “Pauline conversion” to Irish nationalism and his increasingly “ritual or somnambular” allegiance to Britain. When Casement left Germany for the abortive arms landing, he said, “I am already a dead man.” He wanted desperately to stop the Rising, which he was convinced would fail. It was the final irony in a life filled with ironies and poised on…

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