As much as it is acknowledged that Anton Chekhov was indeed a key component in world literature, a victim of tuberculosis, and a believer in liberty, the bearded figure in a black hat who was at once an M.D., a master of the short story and a seminal figure in modern theater was also seen to be a creature of his time in czarist Russia. "In his mind, no Jew could ever fully enter into Russian life, and no woman ever equal a male genius."

As Chekhov grew famous he became increasingly obsessed with privacy and "autobiographophobia," deflecting interviewers and keeping his papers from sight.

His stories often concern trivial people, that tend to speak with a catch in their throats, like the title character in "The Darling," a shallow bourgeois who changes her interests with each succeeding lover. As Tolstoy observed, when Chekhov began writing this tale, "he, like Balaam, intended to curse. But the god of poetry forbade him, and commanded him to bless."

In two generations, the Chekhovs worked themselves up from serfdom to the middle class. Anton's father, a merchant, was physically brutal but intellectually ambitious who made certain his son received the best education rubles could buy. Twin forces shaped Anton's life and art: early on he felt a call to practice medicine, and he was drawn to literature -- particularly to an essay by Turgenev, "Don Quixote and Hamlet." This indulgence of the antihero was to shape Chekhov's protagonists: agitators who do not think, and intellectuals who dare not act.

As a physician, Chekhov reportedly showed great sympathy to female patients; but as a lover had difficulties with women. Chekhov was troubled until he was too ill to be aroused at all." The short-story writer earned the contempt of the left by working for the editor and publisher Alexei Suvorin, a cynical nationalist. Yet the same writer journeyed to a Siberian penal colony, and the trip made him a favorite of some radicals. He wrote almost exclusively about Russians, yet traveled perpetually throughout Europe.

Human factors that had a debilitating effect on Chekhov's life reportedly were the disputes with his director, the legendary Konstantin Stanislavsky, with his older brothers, and eventually with his wife, the actress Olga Knipper. Their marriage was reportedly fraught with conflict. Anton never let Olga read his manuscripts, for example, and they quarreled over everything from the interpretations of roles to the way he treated his illness.

Chekhov lived for only 44 years, and reportedly his last words were, "I haven't had champagne for a long time." 


Source: The Wall Street Journal Bookshelf, March 9, 1998 pg. A16