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Some thoughts on ‘Chekhov’ by Henri Troyat

Troyat on Chekhov, how does he differ from Pritchett? Anyway, there he is again, Anton Chekhov. You sit down and read about this educated Russian doctor who kept his peace, who saved all of his family (even Sonia?) in turn, who wrote all those remarkable stories and plays with seeming facility, who went down with consumption, and all the time made so little of his own trials. One reads thinking, why this Chekhov and not one of his brothers? Why was it Anton who lived like that and wrote that way? Why were there no other Russians who said it so exactly? He stands out, so rare, but how come it was him? All the time it must have seemed miraculous. No wonder the first night crowds went mad and the speechifiers went on for hours, causing Chekhov himself so much chagrin. When something speaks so directly of the social condition, criticism is forgotten.

His relationships with women are given defiant shape. Troyat dismisses Aliuva as a romantic with delusions, one who could not see Chekhov’s teasing remarks for what they were. Reading her original account of the relationship it is hard to believe that she could so innocently record Chekhov’s playful talk about living together in another life. But like so many conversations with women that are known about, his words to Aliuva raise questions about the man. He doesn’t commit himself or ever precisely define his position. He seems to be one who did leave them hanging, even when he forgot them himself for a time. To tamper with his own phrase, perhaps his mistress was his writing, and no one else. The explanation that his illnesses kept him from commitment cannot be accepted so easily.

Upbringing in the Orthodox faith must be the subject for a thesis. It is a surprise to hear of Anton being the Chekhov who tried to get the family to go to church more often and keep religious observance. Morality informs everything he wrote, yet it is rarely overtly Christian: people always do what they must do or else just what they feel like doing. One guesses enjoyably what he may have said to Tolstoy about religion. And the fact that church never again appears in the biography after his twenties makes the subject all the more tantalising. He never lost faith, but what else happened?

Entry in Notebooks, 12-13th March 1990 


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