Chekhov: A Life in Letters – edited by Gordon McVay

Rather than produce a standard biography, Gordon McVay has translated and edited a selection of letters from Anton Chekhov which give a wide view of his interests and career development from starting medical school in Moscow in 1879 through to his final letter in June 1904 written the day of his heart attack which would ultimately prove fatal four days later. There are extensive notes that put the letters into context and this has proved to be an excellent use of the material as Chekhov is a lively letter writer and travelled extensively so his correspondence is full of detailed descriptions of his experiences both good and bad. My copy is the Folio Society 1994 edition bound in black buckram and embossed with Chekhov’s signature across both covers. The book is currently available as a Penguin Classics edition. To give a feel for the letters I’ll selected a few extracts and will add them between paragraphs in this blog.

23 December 1888

That this represents just a tiny fraction of Chekhov’s letters is proven by the regular mention in the notes of a thirty volume Soviet edition and even that is not complete because it can only include those letters that were kept by the recipients. The Soviet edition is also censored to remove things they didn’t feel appropriate, such as his dalliance with a Japanese woman on his trip to Sakhalin, and anything judged not politically sound. The edition I have has 365 pages dedicated to the letters along with a useful 22 page introduction and an excellent index which made going back to find things I wanted to refer to very easy. That the Soviet edition is censored is actually quite appropriate as Chekhov complains many times about what the censors in his own time had done to his stories and plays, some of which he regarded as particularly badly damaged so that the sense of the play is lost.

In Siberia on his way to the island of Sakhalin 1890

In 1890 Chekhov travelled to the penal colony of Sakhalin to survey the conditions and interview prisoners for what he explains in various letters is a payback to medicine. It eventually took him three years to write up his findings to appear in ten parts in one of the serious journals and then more work to produce a somewhat longer book. Presumably he wrote letters from his months on Sakhalin but none of them are included in this collection however there are quite a few describing his massive journey by horse drawn carriages and river boats right across Russia as Sakhalin is as far east as it is possible to go and he started in Moscow. The extract above highlights that even then Siberia was a place of exile for people that had offended the state in someway but his observation that now they can say what they like as where else would they be sent is to the point. On Sakhalin he was only allowed to interview a small number of the political prisoners but he still produced a comprehensive report and oddly his health, which was never very good appeared to improve during his time away from Moscow and St Petersburg. Although he was a doctor he seemed to have a blind spot regarding his own tuberculosis which he suffered from for decades, describing many occasions of ‘blood spitting’ although he was never formally diagnosed until 1897.

4 July 1888

The letters are also often quite humorous which lightens the tone overall against some of the more serious pieces or times when things are just plain going wrong like his descriptions of the disastrous first performance of The Seagull in 1896 or when his health issues cause significant problems which was quite often. One of the more interesting features is the continuation of his career as a doctor even as his fame as a playwright and story writer grew dramatically. As can be seen below this devotion to medicine had serious implications in his ability to write of travel to oversee productions of plays and talk to his various publishers. By the early 1890’s he had purchased an estate in Melikhovo and become the local doctor in preference to renting a home in Moscow which he had done since arriving there to study as a doctor.

16 July 1892

By the mid 1890’s however he had started travelling extensively in Europe and correspondence from various Italian, French and German cities amongst other countries he passed through bring a different outlook to the letters, some places he loved others he was glad to see the back of. There is also a lot of letters to women throughout the book some of which he probably came close to marrying but in fact he was a confirmed bachelor until just three years before he died when he finally married an actress he had come to know from her performances in his plays. Oddly his letters to women, even the ones he was particularly close to, are rarely romantic and quite often have some slight barb to them. The ones to his future wife, Olga, are mainly about her performances rather than anything else even though they actually lived almost 1000 miles apart most of their married lives as she was in Moscow and he was in Yalta to get a better climate for his tuberculosis. Chekhov was much happier on his own, hence his long time avoidance of marriage and indeed living apart suited him well.

13 June 1890

The letters are great fun to read and show much more of Chekhov’s character than would be found in a biography. I don’t think I could cope with the full thirty volumes, even assuming they were available in English, but this selection made an excellent way to pass a few evenings this week.

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