on April 18, 2005
Janet Malcolm's "Reading Chekhov: A Critical Journey" (2001) - a brilliant little book undeservedly maligned by some reviewers - sent me straight back to the book store for a biography of Anton Chekhov. I can report from this trip that the largest bookstore in South East Asia does not carry one single biography of Chekhov!
Instead, I found "Anton Chekhov: A Life in Letters" (2004). And I did not regret it one bit. The book is the fullest collection of Chekhov's letters in English translation to date and contains 370 selected letters reproduced in full. It comes with a chronology of Chekhov's life, a very readable, splendid short introduction, suggestions for further reading, a helpful list of correspondents and four very useful maps. An index at the end of the volume assists in, among other things, finding references to stories and plays in Chekhov's letters.
According to the editors, this book is also the first uncensored edition of Chekhov's correspondence in any language. Chekhov, a physician by training, called the facts of life by their name and took life's mishaps with a sense of humor. Later editors, more prudish and therefore considerably more boring, simply cut out what they called "rude language." Only after Glasnost, in the 1990s, the official portrait of Chekhov as a "decorous and refined gentleman with a stick, who never permitted himself to use racy language and who was rather pious and sickly, with little interest in women" (xv) was beginning to be revised.
The editors point out that Chekhov "may have hidden himself in his literary works, leaving it up to his readers to puzzle out his point of view, and he may have had an aversion to talking about himself in public, but in his letters he could be surprisingly outspoken at times," (xxxv) and so it happens that his correspondence reads almost like the autobiography he always declined to write.
Chekhov's letters illustrate why he is perhaps Russia's best-loved writer: "The qualities which first endeared him to Russian readers back in the 1880s are the same ones which explain his appeal today. He wrote no vast novels in which he attempted to solve the problems of existence [that would be Dostoevsky] or fathom the forces of world history [Tolstoy in "War and Peace"]. He had no particular axe to grind about how people should live their lives, but, like the good doctor that he was, he had a superb ability to diagnose what it was that prevented people from finding happiness and fulfillment and a unique talent for pinpointing it in a clear-sighted way that was a the same time immensely gentle and compassionate. He also had an infectious sense of humour and an unerring sense of life's ironies, which prevented his writing from ever becoming too portentous or sentimental." (xxxvii)
The photo used for the cover shows a pensive Chekhov with a slightly mischievous smile playing around the corner of his mouth. Almost as if just then one of his famous quips had crossed his mind: "Medicine is my lawful wedded wife, and literature is my mistress. When I've had enough of the one, I can go and spend the night with the other."
on December 31, 2011
There is nothing like letters to open up the thoughts and beliefs of historical people. Such is the case with "A Life in Letters". Anton Chekhov is such a talented writer and it comes out in his letters as surely as it does in his other works. I completely enjoyed reading Chekhov's insights and anyone interested in Chekhov will like this book. The letters span his entire life and you can see how he changes and matures over time. Buy this book, you will not regret it!
on July 20, 2013
Chekhov found the idea of autobiography "real torture," but here, in his voluminous letters to family, friends, patrons, lovers, and others, you find all you really need to know to enhance the charm of an exceptionally ordinary, kind, gentle, and talented artist and human being. If you've at all realized the exceptional skill and insight of his creations, read these letters! To do so is great pleasure.
on June 30, 2008
While the current review is lovely, it's quite wordy for my attention span--I am sure some share my sentiments. Simply put: buy this publication if you like Anton Chekhov. The editor's autobiography and narrative is comprehensive, readable and not at all boring--the included maps are a nice touch and the composition as a whole is a stunning one. You will likely find it easy to relate to his writings or at least enjoy his prose, candor and humor. You will find many moments or evenings of enjoyment from taking a trip down Chekhov lane.