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,…

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