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.

Uncle Vania – Anton Chehov

Or is it Uncle Vanya by Anton Chekhov, that appears to be the more usual spelling at least currently but I have spelt it the way I have in the title to this essay as that is how the Penguin Classics edition of 1959 which I have been reading has it so I will stick with it throughout.

20181113 Uncle Vania 1

The first thing that strikes you reading the play is that for the first two acts Ivan Petrovich Voinitsky, whom his niece Sonia calls Uncle Vania, is largely an ensemble character and it is only in acts three and four that he comes to the front. The first act sets the dynamic tensions between the protagonists. There had clearly been a quiet routine in the house for many years with Sonia and Vania running the estate which had been her mothers dowry when she married professor Serebriakov. Sonia’s mother died some years ago and the professor has now retired to the estate from his home in the city and brought with him his second wife Yeliena who is just 27 years old, between them they have seriously upset the normal running of the household. To make things more complicated Astrov, the doctor who looks after the professor’s gout is attracted to Yeliena as is Vania, whilst Sonia is in love with Astrov. You just know it’s going to get messy and Vania is gloomy about the future as only a Russian can be…

Yeliena – What a lovely day … not too hot either

Voinitsky/Vania  – It would even be pleasant to hang oneself on a day like this…

There are four other characters in the play, all of which play minor roles so beyond the list below I won’t cover their actions.

  • Maryia Voinitskaia is Sonia’s grandmother/ Vania’s mother
  • Ilyia Ilyich Telyeghin was a local landowner but has lost all his money and now lives on the estate.
  • Marina an old children’s nurse
  • A workman – just needed to fill in such as fetching horses etc. when the main characters wouldn’t do such things.

Act two sees the complicated relationships become more strained. The doctor has been summoned but the professor won’t let him see him this means that he is yet again at the house and wants to spend time with Yeliena to convince her to leave the professor. Vania muses to himself that he missed his chance with Yeliena ten years ago

Voinitsky – [Alone] She’s gone! ten years ago I used to meet her at my sister’s house. She was seventeen then and I was thirty-seven. Why didn’t I fall in love with her then and ask her to marry me? It could have been done so easily! She would have been my wife now.

The professor meanwhile is in pain with the gout and frustrated with his existence at the estate where he feels he is wasting his time and doesn’t get on with anyone there.

Serebriakov – After devoting all my life to learning, after growing used to my study, to my lecture room, to esteemed colleagues – to find myself suddenly, for no reason at all in this crypt, to have to meet stupid people every day, to have to listen to their trivial conversation. I want to live; I love success, I like being a well known figure, I like creating a stir of the world, but here I feel an exile. To spend every minute regretting the past, watching others succeed, fearing death. I can’t! It’s more than I can bear.

Meanwhile Yeliena decides to at least try to make up with Sonia and during their talk admits that although she loved the professor when they married she soon realised her mistake but will remain true to him come what may. At the same time Sonia confesses her love for the doctor and asks Sonia to see if she can find out if he loves her.

Things come to a head in act three, Yeliena talks to the doctor about Sonia and he says he doesn’t love her but interprets the conversation as Yeliena using that as an excuse to talk to  him about love. he makes a clumsy pass at her during which he kisses her as she is pushing him away and this is seen by Vania who is just coming into the room at that point. Straight after this before anyone can settle the professor calls everyone together to say that he has decided to sell the estate and buy a villa in Finland for himself and Yeliena. At this Vania explodes with fury, the estate doesn’t belong to the professor but to Sonia and he has given no thought as to where the people who have always lived there might go and it is his family that should decide what to do with the estate as they paid for it

Voinitsky – The estate was originally bought for ninety-five thousand roubles. My father only paid seventy thousand and twenty-five thousand remained on mortgage. Now please do listen! This estate would never have been bought if I hadn’t given up my share of the inheritance in favour of my sister, whom I loved deeply. What’s more, I worked like an ox for ten years, and paid off the whole mortgage.

Serebriakov – I regret that I started this conversation.

Voinitsky – The estate is free from debt and in good condition simply because of my own efforts, and now that I’ve grown old, I’m to be kicked out!

Serebriakov – I don’t understand what you are driving at!

Voinitsky – For twenty-five years I’ve been managing this estate, I’ve been working and sending you money like the most conscientious bailiff you could have, and all this time you’ve never once thanked me for it. All this time – when I was young and now just the same –  I’ve been getting a salary of five hundred roubles a year from you, a pittance! and never once have you thought of adding a single rouble to it!

Serebriakov – Ivan Petrovich, how was I to know? I am not a practical man and I don’t understand anything about these matters. You could have added as much as you liked.

Voinitsky – Yes indeed, why didn’t I steal? Why don’t you all laugh at me now because I didn’t steal. It would have been fair enough and I shouldn’t now have been a pauper now!

The professor leaves the room shortly after this, soon followed by Vania and a shot is heard off stage then both men run into the room and Vania fires again, both shots miss, Vania drops the pistol and collapses into a chair as the act ends.

To be honest act four which is set the next day feels like a bit of a let down after the excitement of act three. It has been decided that the professor and Yeliena will leave straight away. With them going the doctor has no reason to still be there and he also leaves. Vania and Sonia sit down to work on the books of the estate which have been neglected whilst the professor has been there and all returns to how it was before.

I’ve seen the play performed, although that was many years ago, and thoroughly enjoyed it but this was the first time I had read the script. The book contains eight plays in all so I will be reading those later.