An Artist’s Artist

Chekhov: A Spirit Set Free

by V.S. Pritchett
Random House, 235 pp., $17.95

The quality of V.S. Pritchett’s new book is plain from its opening pages. He tells there the story of Chekhov’s wretched childhood, by now almost as familiar as that of the boy Dickens and the blacking factory (which indeed Pritchett glances at). Here is his portrait of Chekhov’s father, the shrewd (but unluckily not shrewd enough) keeper of a general store in the dreary seaside town of Taganrog:

Pavel had much in common with the classic self-made Victorian puritan. He was a fierce believer in Self-Help and the work ethic, a despot in the family, shouting his wife down, ruling his sons by beating them, saying—when his wife protested—that the same had been done to him and that it had made a man of him. Pavel, the slave turned master, was a tall, almost handsome figure with a grizzled beard and a glare in his eyes, a man not to be argued with. All heads were lowered at mealtimes as he hectored the family on their duties.

The story, as I have said, is becoming a little well worn. Two years ago we could read it in the new English translation of Henri Troyat’s Chekhov, in a somewhat bravura rendering. But the current account is in all respects the finest, and only a man of letters like Pritchett could have written it. He is steeped in the literature of England, Russia, and France, and his insights as a critic are sustained by the power of his own performance in the short story and novel.

The character of Pavel Yegorovich fascinates Pritchett, who delights in him as if he were his own invention. And (one guesses with Ernest Pontifex somewhere at the back of his mind) he reports on the tyrant’s religious life, in which, “if not quite a sign of grace, a more affecting aspect of his character appears.” He liked, to fill any idle moment, “the common peasant hobby or craft of painting ikons” (so one of his sons became a talented painter, only to waste that talent), and he had a “fanatical addiction to choir singing.” The children were drilled for hours on end practicing their canticles, after which they “appeared like a band of frightened little saints before the congregation.” Pavel had a belief in education, which like his piety was not free from self-interest, and miscalculated by sending the boys to a school for the children of Greek merchants where not surprisingly, dealing with a strange language, they made no headway.

Pritchett does not let this character run away with him. Most literary biographers tend to be surrogate novelists, but here a skilled writer of fiction is working over the material, and Chekhov: A Spirit Set Free is not one more biography of the man. Pritchett refuses to follow into the psychological maze that teases Chekhov’s biographers no less than Tolstoy’s. He defines his purpose in the introduction: it was to concentrate on the stories (where he considers Chekhov’s creative gifts to lie…

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