Chekhov: Scenes from a Life by Rosamund Bartlett

I found the writing in this biography fairly dull and academic in spite of the excellent reviews it received. It's only worth reading if you are extremely interested in Chekhov or in Russian history. This book does does fulfill the author's intentions, i.e. it shows how landscapes affected Chekhov's writing and it provides an excellent background to his plays and short stories. However, I almost gave it up a couple of times. The eloquent and luminous extracts from Chekhov's own writing were, of course, wonderful but it would be unfair to compare those with an academic biography.

Chekhov led a very interesting life even though he sadly contracted TB at the young age of 24. He came from a relatively wealthy merchant family in the southern town of Taganrog, but the family fell on hard times when he was quite young. This didn't deter the clever young man from winning a scholarship to study medicine in Moscow and writing in his spare time to help finance his studies and his family. Later, Chekhov became a successful writer when he was fairly young and had to support the family with his writing and his medicine. Success wasn't easy, however. The first time The Seagull was staged, it was a flop and the actors were laughed off the stage. A kind-hearted man, he helped the peasants with his medical practice, and travelled to Siberia where he wrote a book about the cruel plight of the exiled prisoners.

The main flaw in Chekhov's character was his misogynism. He womanised, visited brothels, and led quite a few women on. Late in life, however, he fell in love with a beautiful actress. This romance is probably the most enjoyable and tenderly written part of this book.

Chekhov was often advised to travel south for the sake of his health and this biography describes his travels to the Mediterranean and his residence in Yalta. Even though he had TB he missed the snow, the troikas and the sleighs of winter in Moscow and his literary life there.

I am presently reading Margot Fonteyn by Meredith Daneman which is my idea of what a biography should be and I'll write more about that when I've finished.


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